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Poker Stress and How to Deal With It

Poker is about making the right decisions. If you make that decisions, the money will take care of itself.

If stress is causing you to make mental mistakes, you are likely one of your game's "contributors." The key to dealing with stress at the poker table involves understanding two interlocking factors. One involves recognizing the elements that increase stress, like that rush we get from highly charged situations that energize and excite us. The other is related to finding a comfort zone, a level of play that reduces stress so that our thinking doesn't become flawed.

But first, back to that topic of individual differences. Some people thrive in what certainly look like situations of high stress:mountain climbers, sky-divers, X-game enthusiasts. A lot of them are "action junkies." They get an adrenaline rush from the danger; they seek it out and revel it. However, many of them, usually those with long-term success, will also tell you that they don't regard what they do as really dangerous. They don't attempt things that are not within their range of skills and expertise. What may look like a contradiction isn't.

Now let's look at how these factors play themselves out in poker.

The adrenaline rush There is no doubt that the adrenaline rush, the high-tension moment, is a key element of the game. Who has not sat there, heart beating at Indy 500 speeds, gut clenching, waiting for our opponent to make a classic lay-down to our naked, stone-cold bluff? These are magical moments for some, and a psychological nadir for others. If you have the stomach for this roller-coaster life, that's great. Poker requires risk, risk involves stress, and the money has always gravitated to those who understand the risk and can handle the stress.

But all highly charged emotional states, even those we seek out, have their consequences. The research shows that it's difficult to live with these high levels of emotional tone without long-term negative effects. Scan the poker world. It's filled with players who soared for a time, only to crash and burn. The "rush" has to be modulated; the high that accompanies these situations can become seductive unless it is kept under control.

Finding a comfort zone The solution, of course, is not to avoid stress but to learn techniques to modulate it and keep it at nonmalignant levels. If you look at the top players, the ones who have managed to carve a successful life out of the game, they look a lot like those highly competent mountian climbers. They have a keen sense of their skill level; they know how good they are, and they have a finely tuned sense of how good others are. They have found their "comfort zone." They don't get involved in situations where they don't feel confident that their skills are up to the task. There is an old line that fairly reeks with poignant truth: "If you don't know who the fish in the game is, it's you." If you feel uncomfortable in a game, the rest of the table will know it in a New York minute, and you will discover new meanings for "stress."

Oddly, this factor is often independent of money. I know several wealthy people who love poker but will not play for high stakes. So, what's the bottom line? First, understand how you deal with stress. Are you easily affected by it? Do even modest levels, as the Brits say, "get your knickers in a twist"? If so, then play only at lower levels, where the pressure will not hamper your decision-making. If not, feel free to move up as your skill level improves.

There are two keys here. First, be careful not get "addicted" to those adrenaline rushes. If they show up, you can roll around in them like a hog in a muddy swale, but don't go out of your way to find them. Second, you need to find the comfort zone where you feel at ease, where stress is minimized and decision-making is at its best.

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