Playing Your A-Game

In my last column, I discussed a new book titled Peak Performance Poker: Revolutionizing the Way You View the Game, by Travis Steffen. Essentially, this book is about how to play your A-game, and how to play at that level as frequently as possible. Athletes strive to play in the “zone,” and poker players are no different. We poker players can learn a lot from athletes, in regard to the techniques that they use to try to play in the zone or achieve “flow” — the optimal psychological state that’s characterized by a degree of concentration so focused that you are totally absorbed in the activity you are performing.

Most serious poker players take a simple approach to the game. They study, play, study some more, and play some more, and are able to achieve good results by doing nothing else. These players will never reach their true potential or peak performance. There is a big difference in playing well and playing your best. So, what is “peak performance poker”? In order to play your A-game and achieve your peak performance, you must understand how to:

  • Use nutrition to improve cognition, energy levels, and overall brain and body function
  • Get into peak physical condition to increase your stamina at the table, your ability to focus, your body’s working memory, and your mood
  • Rest and recover at the correct times and in the correct proportions in order to function on all cylinders
  • Get past pesky excuses that limit your success
  • Apply sports psychology techniques to control your state of mind and help you make optimal decisions at all times
  • Set correctly outlined goals for yourself, not only to stay motivated, but also to provide yourself with benchmarks to let you know that you’re on the right track
  • Manage your time correctly, to be sure that you’re using every hour of every day to get to where you want to be
  • Establish a pre-competition routine to get your body and mind ready for peak performance

Peak Performance Poker is about playing the best poker you can possibly play … and playing that way at all times. Playing and studying isn’t enough. You might think that you are playing your A-game, when in reality you haven’t even come close to your potential.

When people talk about the poker lifestyle, they don’t really include going to the spa, going to the gym, eating healthy foods, and maintaining peace of mind. We need to manage that in our lives in order to optimize our performance. In this business, only the top one percent survive, so you have to do everything you can to claw your way to the top and to maintain it. — David “The Maven” Chicotsky

Steffen interviewed a lot of top pros for the book, and this quote from Chicotsky sums up in a few sentences the importance of other things besides just playing and studying in achieving success.

If you are striving to achieve flow, each of these factors is essential. Without a social life, you lack a crucial component of happiness, and without happiness, it is practically impossible to achieve flow. Without non-poker activities, your life will become too focused on one activity and you won’t have an outlet to relieve the inevitable stress that will build up. Without effective time management, you will be inefficient in your pursuit of peak performance. A balanced life is crucial to achieving flow and the peak performance for which you are striving.

You hear players talking all the time about playing their A-game. If this is truly your pursuit, take some time to think really hard about what that entails, and then come up with a plan to get there. I recently returned home after playing in the main event at the World Series. Although my results were not what I wanted, there is no question in my mind that I was better prepared both mentally and physically than ever before. My concentration, energy, and stamina were at a level that I have never experienced before. I was seeing things that I had never seen before. I was more alert after the dinner break than I had ever been before. I attribute this improved focus to my pre-tournament preparation. I was well-rested and eating the right foods, and started each day with the right mental focus. To play your A-game, you need to start preparing long before the first card is ever dealt.