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Poker Stress and How To Deal With It

Stress isn't necessarily bad. It's just another emotion.

Just about everyone appreciates that continuous high levels of stress are bad for you. However, things are more complex than that. In many situations, stress can be an important motivator. If you put us humans under enough pressure, we will do things we could never have been able to do otherwise. People have ripped open the door of a flaming car to rescue their trapped children, and realized only later that they did it on a broken leg. The astonishingly high levels of emotion brought about by seeing our child in such a situation can spur us on to do the most remarkable and wonderful things.

However, ask yourself: Do you want the same person who dragged his kid out of a burning car to perform a triple-bypass operation on your heart while in this state of extreme emotional arousal? Not me, baby. I want someone really stoked if my house is on fire; but if he's wielding the surgeon's blade, I want him calm and confident. And, of course, the flip side of the coin holds as well. The calm, relaxed demeanor the surgeon needs isn't worth a hell of a lot in getting the kid out of the burning car. To make this point clear, imagine that it is the same person in both situations. It's the surgeon's kid in the burning car.

And the moral for poker? It's simple: You need a moderate level of arousal for optimum play. Like Goldilocks, it can't be too hot and it can't be too cold, or too high or too low. If you are cranked, hyper-stoked, on a permanent adrenaline rush, your thinking is going to suffer. And if you sit there like a dead fish with virtually no motivation to get involved in the game? Well, not with my money, you won't. Poker is a lot closer to heart surgery than to emergency rescue operations.

Question # 1 Have you ever wondered why you often hear solid players complain that they can't beat the $3-$6 game even though they crush the $15-$30 tables? Well, one reason may be that their stress levels are too low. There isn't enough pressure. They don't care enough. They haven't gotten their motivations up to the point needed to play a solid game. They may whine about getting run down on the river by one-outers and tables full of bluff-proof calling stations, but the truth is that they know this, and they know what they have to do to beat the game. In the final analysis, in most of these cases they just don't care enough. They are surgeons in a rescue operation.

Question # 2 Have you ever wondered why winning $15-$30 players complain bitterly about getting smacked around when they move up to the $75-$150 game? Well, one likely reason is that their stress levels are too high. There is too much pressure. They care too much. They aren't making the kind of clear, reasoned decisions that are needed to play a solid game. They may bitch about suck-outs when guys call raises from the big blind with 4,3s or whine about how "lucky" their opponents seem to be, but the truth is that they know how the game is typically played at this level and the adjustments they need to make. In the final analysis, their emotional levels are too high. They are rescue workers trying to do surgery.

What is interesting is that it can be, and often is, the same player in both scenarios. His knowledge of the game hasn't changed. His capacity to make decisions is the same. In fact, he probably could tell you exactly the kinds of adjustments in strategy he needs to make for each game but, alas, he can't pull it off. His emotional tone is amiss. At one-fifth the usual stakes, his levels are too low; at five times the usual stakes, they are inappropriately high.



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