How To Master The Mental Game Of Poker: Before, During And After The Round

In the professional poker space, there’s this idea that poker has a strange ability of

revealing one’s true character.

Specifically, who we really are when the odds are against us and we have to experience the risk of losing something very valuable (our hard-earned money, in this case).

At SA Poker, we have had the privilege of seeing professional and amateur poker players put their mental wits to the test.

There are people who love the pressure and thrive in scenarios where one decision makes the difference between a major win and a big loss.

Others don’t seem to function the same way. The moment that their chances of winning are even slightly unfavorable, they instantly throw in the towel and quit.

Why is that?

We’ve noticed that it has absolutely nothing to do with your knowledge of poker theory, the hand you’ve been dealt at the table, the amount of money you have for playing, years of experience, or even your IQ.

It has everything to do with your mindset and your ability to control your thoughts and emotions during stressful situations.

Ian Taylor and Matthew Hilger, authors of The Poker Mindset,describe mindset in the context of being a successful poker player:

“It is a series of established approaches and behaviors that enables these experts to bring their “A” game to the table session after session, regardless of short-term results…

…core attitudes and concepts that ensure you have the optimal emotional, psychological, and behavioral framework for playing superior poker”

You might be thinking “Yeah, that’s only the ten thousandth time I’ve heard that cheesy, corny cliché.” And you’d be right.

However, that’s exactly why it’s such a secret. It’s a secret because its simplicity can easily fool people. So much so, in fact, that it creates a sharp divide between high-performing poker players and aspiring amateurs.

You can even go one step further and suggest that mindset is directly related to how successful one can become in any endeavor of life. This was demonstrated in a large-scale scientific study published in 2016 that examined academic achievement in students across the United States:

We document for the first time, to our knowledge, on a national scale a robust relationship between students’ mindsets about intelligence and their academic performance.

Our research shows that, at every socioeconomic level, those who hold more of a growth mindset (the belief that intelligence is not fixed and can be developed)consistently outperform those who do not—even after holding constant a panoply of socioeconomic and attitudinal factors.

Think about it for a second. This study looked at students who are learning in a controlled pressure-free environment. They are free to make mistakes and have full access to educated teachers who can guide them at every step of the way.

What do you think happens when you look at poker players who are stressed out and constantly fretting over the fear of losing money?

We’ll tell you: The importance of mindset is multiplied many times over!

There’s no two ways about it: You can’t master the game of poker without first mastering your own mind.


Being home to a San Antonio poker house that’s become a positive and educational environment for players of all levels, our staff have had the privilege of listening to many conversations had between said players.

Without fail, much of the mindset advice offered by higher-level players often falls flat on its face.

  • “Just believe in yourself!”
  • “The less you care about the results, the better you’ll do”
  • “Keep calm and don’t worry”

Yeah…that’s not going to help anybody, anytime soon.

The #1 problem with all poker mindset advice is that it cannot be easily and effectively applied in the context of a live, real-time poker game

Here’s what we mean.

There are generally 3 phases of a poker game.

You have your pre-game phase, which has you dealing with all of the mental chit-chat in your head that leads up to you sitting down at the table.

You have your during-the-game phase, where you’re dealing with the adrenaline being produced by your body to deal with the overwhelm and the anxiety of your current status in the game.

Finally, you have your post-game phase. This is when you start beating yourself up for all the things you should have done (or didn’t do), and you begin to question whether this whole poker ordeal was a big waste of time.


Let’s say, for instance, that you look up some advice online on building and maintaining a rock-solid poker mindset. One recurring suggestion is the practice of meditation.

Does meditation work? Absolutely! There are an overwhelming number of research studies done that suggest it has real mental and physical benefits for your well-being.

But here’s the problem: Meditation only takes care of your jitters and your feelings of uneasiness during the pre-game phase.

What happens when you sit at the table and you start feeling restless after losing a big hand? You’re certainly not going to retreat and enter your Zen cave in the middle of a match.

Furthermore, once the game is over, you will find that meditation is only a quick fix for your deeper thought patterns and behaviors. You’ll feel calm for a few minutes, but are you really addressing the root of your mental poker game?

On the off chance that meditation helps you deal with the post-game phase, you’re still stuck with all of the issues that arise when you’re in the middle of an intense game of poker.

For that reason, you need to have strategies prepared for each of the 3 phases that you can execute without a second thought.


Rather than build-up this section, we’ll go straight ahead and tell you secret:

Deep breaths done consciously that focus on longer exhalations

There are 3 reasons why we offer this piece of advice above everything else that you’ll see being discussed in books, blogs and podcasts.

To begin, your state of mind is powerfully and intimately connected to your breathing rhythm. Scientific research has definitively proven the link between how you breathe and how you feel.

Whenever you are feeling sad, stressed or panicked, simply stop for a second and look at how you are breathing in and out.

Your breaths are short in duration and intense in the effort being used for your inhalations and exhalations. However, you are failing to supply your blood with ample amounts of carbon dioxide in doing so.

This is where you start to feel suffocated, or “choked”. And when that happens, you start feeling very scared and start fretting about the possibility of something negative happening (fainting, death, etc.).

It is difficult to say what FIRST causes this erratic breathing episode to happen: Does your breathing lead to the anxiety, or is there something in your body that unexpectedly turns on the anxiety response.

Regardless, the most important thing to do is to catch yourself when this happens. It doesn’t matter what you are fearful of: Your one and only priority is controlling your breathing.

That leads to Reason #2: Your breathing rhythm is the easiest thing to consciously focus on and take control of.

Have you ever tried to “stop feeling less sad” whenever you’ve felt sad? It feels like a never-ending battle that goes nowhere. The harder you force yourself to feel less sad, the greater the emotional rebound. What you resist will persist.

It’s a real challenge to re-correct your thoughts and emotions. Your breathing, however, is far easier to control.

With a solid 1-2 minutes of controlled breathing, you will naturally find that your emotional state will move towards one of calmness and peace. By addressing the problem of nervousness at its physical root, we are able to eliminate the underlying anxiety and return to a neutral state of being.

Control the breathing, and everything else will fall in place.
And finally, Reason #3: Done correctly, deep breathing helps your body and mind to relax.

Most people do not know how to breathe properly when they are stressed out. They inhale in deeply, take in a lot of air and hold it before they rapidly exhale. While this is common, it is also the wrong way to breathe.

When you inhale air, your lungs start to push against the walls of your heart, leading to restricted blood flow and an increased heart rate. This is known as “overbreathing” and will only keep you feeling anxious and worried.

Believe it or not, it’s your exhalations that allow deep breathing to keep you relaxed and lower your heart rate.

Therefore, the trick is to use a breathing rhythm that forces you to exhale for a longer period of time (in relation to inhaling). Expert researchers suggestion a 4:6 ratio between inhalation and exhalation – inhale for a count of 4 seconds, and exhale for a count of 6 seconds.

As you are doing this, pay close attention to the location of the air you’re breathing and feel its movement in your body. Doing so adds a degree of intentionality that allows you to regain focus and maintain composure.

While this will take a fair amount of deliberate practice, you can train yourself to instantly stay grounded with a practiced breathing response. Achieving a state of relaxed focus is a faster and superior method to simply telling yourself to “relax” when you’re feeling stressed out.

You will find that you are feeling more resilient against internal and external distractions, while gaining greater confidence in your ability to make the right decisions at all times.

Notice that we aren’t particularly concerned about reviewing your notes, or going over super-specific betting tactics. All of those things can be learned over time through constant learning and experience.

However, until you get your mental chatter in focus, all of that is irrelevant. There are endless stories of know-it-all poker players who magically crumble when it’s time to play cards and place their bets.

That’s why you see complete amateurs rapidly rise to the ranks. They aren’t smarter than the other players, nor do they possess any hidden knowledge that would make them advantageous. They are simply calmer, which allows them to avoid making careless decisions.

Often times, the avoidance of mistakes will take you farther than

During the Game: No Matter What Happens, Stick to The Planand Don’t “Tilt”!

This is the part where people usually expect us to throw a lot of complex mathematical calculations your way and have you memorize formulas.

Or maybe we teach you how to read your opponent’s mind by looking at their facial cues and body language – who doesn’t want to know exactly how to crush their opponents and outsmart them at every turn?

But we’re not going to do that.

Truth be told, there are an infinite number of ways that your opponent may express themselves. While frantic fidgeting might be a sign that one player is anxious, it might mean genuine excitement and joy for the next player.

And there are millions of formulas that you can use to calculate your odds of winning a certain hand right down to the fifth decimal point.

Instead, we’re going to focus solely on what you have 100% control over and how you can keep yourself in the best mental state possible, no matter what happens on the table.

This is how you avoid the all-too-common poker phenomenon known as “tilt:

“Tilt is a poker term for a state of mental or emotional confusion or frustration in which a player adopts a less than optimal strategy, usually resulting in the player becoming over-aggressive.”

In other words, it can be described as a lack of discipline and emotional stability. We make wrong decisions that further hurt our chances of winning even more, and this self-destructive cycle continues until our pockets are completely empty.

It’s the way your brain works. Negative emotions and feelings are much better remembered by your brain in greater detail. Not only do they impact you greater and take less time to form, they are also more difficult to get rid of.

With that being said, here’s no need to get into a psychological analysis of your entire life to figure out the root cause of why you tilt. This is all you need:

An optimal psychological strategy for eliminating tilt involves (1) being able to prevent it from happening in the first place and (2) getting out of it when you are aware that you’re doing it

 So…what strategy will allow you to maintain the extreme focus and high level of self-awareness needed to make the best possible decisions at all times?

And can it allow you to maintain composure, regardless of the external or internal factors that are affecting you?

The answer is yes, and it’s as follows: STICK TO THE PLAN

Matt Bodnar, a professional poker player who was a former venture capital firm partner, was quick to notice that the most successful players adopt a results-oriented, long-term mindset:

“There’s a huge amount of variance between making a great decision and actually seeing that as a positive result. You can make a great decision and still lose, or make an awful decision and still win. It’s about focusing on the process and making the right decisions as opposed to being obsessed with results.”

This is better known in the psychology word as “systems-based” thinking. Unlike goal setting, where you have your eyes set on the achievement of a definite outcome, you instead focus on the successful execution of a system.

Let’s expand more on this…

Suppose you have a set system that gives you positive expected value (i.e. that makes you profitable over a long period of time) whenever you make a decision.You have a good idea of when to raise, or when to fold. You know when you can be more aggressive with your bets, or when to play more conservatively. On top of all that, you can roughly estimate what your odds are at any given time.

If you use systems-based thinking, your only objective is to follow your system to the letter for every decision you make at the table. No matter what.

First, doing so builds the mental discipline you need to succeed during extremely stressful situations where one simple decision can change the entire flow of the game. How can you expect to play at a professional level if you can’t even stick to a simple decision-making framework?

Secondly, following your system allows you have a crystal-clear perception of the bigger picture. Even with a positive expected value from a decision, you may possibly lose the round. However, the trick lies in preventing that single outcome from defining the rest of the game.

Likewise, a single win due to deviating from the system should not convince you that it’s a good idea to drop your game plan and “wing it”.

In other words, if you stick with your system over thousands of games (assuming your math was done correctly), you should be able to make money in the long-term. You will know how to maximize your gains and minimize your losses.

Additionally, your long-term wins will be far greater than any losses due to bad luck.

Every poker player wins and loses in the short-term, but it’s the professionals who end up playing this game for life! These same pros are not afraid to lose because they are able to prevent the fear of losing money from interfering with their decision-making process.

AFTER THE GAME: Optimize Your Decision Making with An Ancient Technique

Amateurs throw in the towel, re-play a few bad scenarios in their head over and over again, go to sleep, and tell themselves that next time they’ll end up doing better…

…only to make the SAME mistakes that they made the previous day!

Professional poker players who have their act together will actively engage in taking a hard look at the decisions they have made, according to a 2013 study published by Finnish scientists:

The researchers found that of the players who performed the best on the poker tasks, those who were more experienced players participated in “self-reflection” while less experienced players participated in “self-rumination.”

 In psychological terms, self-rumination involves dwelling on negative experiences and their consequences. Self-reflection, however, is defined by a distanced, often emotionally neutral, perspective taking. It involves a genuine curiosity in understanding one’s emotions and behaviors.

 Take-away point: as you mature as a player you should find yourself beating yourself up less after your losses while analyzing those losses more effectively.

 Analyzing your decisions and self-correcting is what allows you to make a lot of progress in a seemingly short amount of time.

Failing to do this is how many people spend up years playing poker with nothing to show of it. As the common saying goes, “He doesn’t have 20 years of experience. He has 1 year of experience repeated 20 times.”

Without question, the best way to continually self-reflect and improve on your poker game is to keep a daily journal.

The act of journaling is nothing new, as it has been done for thousands of years across a wide variety of disciplines.

Yet, it has numerous benefits for the poker player who wants to improve their technical knowledge and their mental fortitude.

First of all, writing down what happened forces you to crystallize your thoughts into plain writing. Instead of keeping multiple thoughts stuck in your head, you use the mere act of writing to describe exactly what happened (not what you THINK happened).

Secondly, it helps you relieve any emotional tension that you may still be holding onto. Many poker players will openly tell you that being able to record your progress is a useful tool for becoming at peace with the past and moving on for good.

Thirdly, you have the opportunity to improve your decision-making abilities under pressure. By doing some extra work outside of play time, you will hone your sixth sense for playing poker (known as your intuition).

Without being able to explain or use hard numbers, you will naturally “know” what the right moves and the wrong moves are at any given time. This is something that comes with extensive experience from seeing and living out multiple situations at the table.

Like the old military saying goes: “You don’t rise to the challenge during periods of high pressure and stress: Rather, you fall back to your training and your natural habits”.

Finally, it gives you a timeline that allows you to see just how much you have evolved. You may not feel like you’re making progress after a profit-losing day, but your 6 months of journal entries reveal that you’ve significantly improved!

You can choose to type out your journal entries on a computer, or do it the old-school way and write everything out by hand using pen and paper. At the end of the day, it’s up to you and your personal preferences.

Here are a sample of questions you can ask yourself, but the few provided below should be enough to get you started:

  • How much sleep did you get the previous night?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how energetic did you feel before you starting playing?
  • Did you react negatively to any loss, emotionally or physically? If so, what was the specific reason why you think that you reacted the way you did?
  • For any hands you won, why do you think the outcome favored you? Could you have made better decisions to increase the odds in your favor?
  • Based on your opponents’ bluffs (or lack thereof), are you noticing any particular patterns that dictate how they make decisions?
  • What were the exact odds of success or failure with your hand, following the turn?

In Conclusion

When it comes to mastering the game of poker, there is arguably nothing more important that mindset.

Every other technical factor of poker can be learned and improved upon over time. There is an unbelievable amount of information, both paid and free, that will teach you everything you need to know.

The mental game is a different story. YOU have to be the one who does the inner work every day to overcome the issues that are sabotaging your success at the table and preventing you from making the right choices.

That means preventing both positive and negative emotions from affecting how you react to what is happening. It means you stick to your strategy, no matter how good or bad things get for you.

Remember: it only takes one really stupid hand to lose a lot of money, and several hours (if not days) just to make back the money you lost. Think about that financial consequence when you feel like going wild.

We’ll leave you with one last tip: Where possible, try to play poker in a positive atmosphere where people are there to have to fun and learn the game as best as they can.

For that, we strongly recommend SA Poker as the perfect solution. Inexpensive hourly seat rentals at $10, TVs showcasing your favorite sports, high-quality dealers and more await you at our in-state location.

We offer numerous cash games and tournaments for a wide variety of poker games, so we’re sure you’ll find something you love.

Visit SA Poker today and put your fortitude to the test!