09/07/2013

Mental Game Tips for the November Nine

Jared Tendler

How would you spend the three month break improving your game if you were one of the November Nine?

For some players the November Nine is a blessing. It gives them three months in the limelight, to get sponsorship and to improve tactically ahead of the final. For others it is a curse, they have been playing the poker of their life to get to the final and have that momentum taken away from them.

How they spend the three month break is critical. We have seen in recent years what some players do to prepare for the final table. Some get high profile coaches and others simulate the final table with friends. There is no right or wrong here, no proven battle tested method, because it is such an unprecedented situation.

However if I had one piece of advice for the November Nine, from a mental game perspective, it would be to keep things simple and in particular, work on their C-game. It is very tempting to recruit one of the best players in the world to coach you, but trying to learn in three months what they have spent a career refining is going to be overwhelming.

Battle of the C-games

High pressure situations like the November Nine are often battles of who has the best C-game, rather than who has the best A-game. I heard a lot of people say last year that Greg Merson won because he simply didn’t make any big mistakes at the final table and I think there is a lot we can learn from this.

The brain is organized in a hierarchy and when the emotional system becomes overactive, as it does when under intense pressure, it shuts down higher brain functions. If your emotions are too high, you make poor poker decisions because the brain prevents you from being able to think straight. This is why players choke—their mind goes blank and perform terribly.

Under that intense pressure, not all of your game disappears. You simply fall back into old habits or the parts of your game that you have learned so deeply they’re second nature. For example, even when you are under extreme pressure you likely still know to fold a rag ace under the gun at a full table. This element of hand selection has become instinctual and shows up at all times. However, under that same pressure,applying things you have recently learned is much more difficult because it is nowhere as deeply ingrained.

This is why trying to learn a lot of new things during the three month break might not be the best approach. If you get a coach who is a master at physical tells but your own understanding of them is not great, under pressure a great deal of what you learned about tells can’t be relied upon to show up. This knowledge may seem clear in your mind before sitting down to play the final table, but once the spotlight is on, you’re at risk of forgetting or misapplying a lot if it. There is an old adage in boxing which speaks to this, “You forget everything you’ve learned the moment you step in the ring.”

Eliminate the biggest leaks

If you work on only one thing, I advocate concentrating on your biggest tactical and mental game leaks. This will solidify the worst part of your game, and make it more like for you to play your A-game under intense pressure. If one of your biggest leaks is playing too passively from the blinds, work hard to develop a clear understanding of why you’re passive in those spots and how to be more aggressive. Even with all the work you do in advance to correct your biggest leaks, expect them to show up at the final table. Why? You haven’t yet proven that you can correct them yet. It’s one thing to know the correct, and quite another to be able to apply that knowledge when it matters most.

Instead of trying to come back to the final table a completely new player, focus on making some small improvements to the game that got you there.

Jared Tendler is a mental game coach to hundreds of professional poker players and author of The Mental Game of Poker 1 & 2. You can get more free advice on how sports psychology can help your poker game at www.mentalgamefish.com.