You’re not going to the WSOP, or any other tournament series for that matter, with the hope of avoiding pressure.
In fact, your goal should be the exact opposite. If you get to high pressure spots it means you are playing for something important – for a bracelet, life-changing money, against a big-name player you want to test your game against, at a final table, or as the chip leader late in an event. You want to be in these spots because there is a lot to play for. It’s exciting! It’s what you’ve worked for.
Once you are there, the last thing you want is to underperform. The players that I’ve worked with who struggle with pressure often ask two questions:
- Why are some players able to thrive under pressure?
- And, more importantly, can it be learned?
On the first question, the reality is that some players are just naturally more inclined to handle pressure – it’s in their wiring, nature, biology. Or they’ve had experiences, both in poker or elsewhere, that makes it seem like a natural ability when in fact it was honed over years.
Some players actually need pressure to perform well. They thrive on pressure because it activates their brain like nothing else. Don’t be discouraged. They have mental game problems too, but theirs tends to be when the pressure is lower, like in the early to mid-stages of a tournament or in lower buy-ins.
The answer to the second question is a firm yes. There are many great poker players who I’ve worked with over the years that had to train themselves to better handle the pressure to make the right decisions at big moments of their career. So, yes, you can absolutely learn how to thrive under pressure if that is not something you are currently able to do.
In my new video course I outline some general and specific strategies that you can use to handle pressure better. That’s too much to discuss in a single article, so I’m going to trim it down and give you four key takeaways.
Use the code: PokerNews to get $50 off Jared Tendler’s Mental Game Tune Up for Tournament Poker training course.
Understand that Nerves are Not a Problem
At a basic level, if you believe nerves are the problem, they become a distraction. It’s no different than trying to focus on how you feel while you are playing. Try it right now - focus on how your feet feel right now as you continue to read this article. As soon as you split your focus, trying to focus both on your feet while reading the letters on your screen, you’re not able to properly process information quite as well. It’s subtle but distinct.
The same thing happens when you allow the sensation of nervousness to take your focus away from the action and making the right decisions. You underperform simply because your mind is in two places.
Recognize the Rise in Pressure
Can you find the “tells” that you feel when pressure is around the corner? Once you recognize it, you need to actively look to get to the right place. To change your perspective on nerves, for example, tell yourself, “I can feel excited that I feel this way because being in this spot is what I’ve worked for.”
Base this change in perspective off knowledge and experience you gained throughout your poker career. Then, whatever thoughts you come up with, craft a statement or a short phrase and internalize it so when the time comes you are ready to counteract the rise of stress and pressure.
The biggest mistake players make is to assume this change in perspective should be easy to adopt because it’s obvious when they’re not feeling pressure. WRONG. Pressure causes you to revert back to old ways of thinking. You must train this new perspective so it actually becomes easier to think that way automatically under pressure.
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It’s easy to dream, but much harder to fulfil your dream. That makes sense right? But the more you allow yourself to dream – about making a final table in a large field event, winning a bracelet, or dominating the table on a livestream – the more that dream feels like it’s already yours. When you think something is yours you will defend against it being taken away from you. This is a common reason why players will play defensively when under pressure, especially when they’re chip leader. They feel like they have something to lose.
Here’s the right way to frame it: Dreams need to include a sober recognition of what it actually takes to get done – don’t have a delusional sense that it’s already yours. Be offensively minded and do what’s necessary to make it happen.
Handling Final Table Pressure
If you get to this spot, congrats! You’ve come a long way. Playing a final table is a bigger issue for players who don’t have a lot of experience, such as if this is your first final table or the first one you have a big enough stack to not have to play a push/fold strategy.
Sometimes pressure can be alleviated by making a clear decision on what you want. Is your goal to move up in pay scale, follow ICM, or win? Having that kind of clarity can take away some of the pressure.
Of course, if you are going to go for the win, there will still be a lot of tension/pressure. What you are trying to do is hard. Understand that it’s hard. Sometimes there is fear of “what if I don’t win, how will I feel after?” Embrace the potential for pain, don’t shy away from it.
It ought to feel uncomfortable. It ought to be difficult. Only one person gets to hold this title and it’s far rarer for people, in general, to win tourneys vs. those who enter. Poker doesn’t hand out participation awards where if you play in enough events, you will eventually win one. You have to go out and earn it every single time. Yes, it takes a little bit of luck in your favor. But you still have to earn it.
Sometimes the pressure you feel is your mind’s way of trying to escape the pain and make things easier. Don’t fall for it. Unless you win, you’ll feel pain no matter which way you go. But you’ll feel less pain by doing everything you can to win.
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The Mental Game Tune-Up
I’d love to coach each and every one of you to handle WSOP pressure better, but it’s just not practical. With that in mind, I created my first-ever video course to help as many of you be at your best at the WSOP and other big tournaments. In addition to a module on how to thrive under pressure, the course also dives into the following key areas:
These modules are based on my experience with clients preparing for big events and actually include recorded coaching sessions with accomplished professionals Matt Affleck and Diego Ventura.
You’ll get 13 hours of video content for less than a buy-in at the WSOP. You can find more information here on my website. Use the code PokerNews to save $50.
Best of luck at the tables!