The Power of Positive Thinking

I hit something of a low point last week…

when I realized (in no small part thanks to my girlfriend, who knows me even when I forget myself) recent events had left me depressed and unhappy about some important things in my life, most notably my health and my work (two of the three to five most important components to a happy life, and three if you count physical and mental health separately). I decided to change my habits and start getting lots more regular exercise, even if it’s low-impact stuff. (In Tommy Angelo’s book The Elements of Poker, he discusses three things that, in his words, “saved his life”: quitting smoking, beginning yoga, and taking a twenty-minute walk twice a day.) I also decided to actively start thinking positively, to re-develop the self-awareness to analyze my own thoughts, to go into the game thinking “I am prepared to win and am going to play well” instead of “Well, poker sucks, but I gotta make a living.”

My results immediately improved, and my depression cleared up as well, even though I wasn’t exactly doing a lot of hard exercise– in fact, I’d stopped running altogether and replaced it with regular walks instead– and hadn’t especially changed my diet (beyond the no-junk food and little-to-no-alcohol changes I’d been already implementing for a couple of weeks before that). As a result of lowering the impact of my exercise, I got a lot more of it, and that in turn helped my brain chemistry, which made it easier to think positively and maintain a clear head while playing.

Now, no, I don’t think positive thinking willed me better cards or anything. But here’s a fact, an axiom you can live by: Poker is a game of math, and if you think negatively and assume the worst, you are going to make plays based on incorrect math.

It’s easy to show examples of this. Let’s say you have a draw that is expected to come in 1 out of 3 times. You have a bet to call and the math says it’s proper for you to call, but you think “I can’t make a draw today, what’s the point?” and you fold. That is a mistake, and a clear one.

Now, the mistakes are rarely so obvious, since even a depressed guy can use a calculator. With me specifically, when I get negative about my game, my play turns passive; I stop bluffing and I stop reraising from the blinds. In other words, I start incorrectly underestimating the times I will be successful with those plays. I didn’t use those as examples because they’re far less clear-cut, but internally I know when I’m doing it. Poker is a complex game of decisions based on information, and if you filter those decisions through an incorrect mental model, you will make mistakes.

Now one could argue “But if you think positively, won’t you start expecting to make hands you shouldn’t and make too many bad plays in the other direction?” That might be true for someone who plays happy-go-lucky and tries to make every draw no matter the odds or the cost, but I’ve been a longtime professional and have a solid foundation for the game. That’s not who I am.

I know myself well enough to know how negativity manifests itself in my poker game. I’m convinced I’ll lose, so I don’t try to win. It is true that when I’m thinking positively I’ll occasionally get overaggressive with hands and draws I don’t quite have the right odds to, but that is usually because other factors are in play (for example, I’m on a hot streak and my opponent is getting frustrated, and I think he will pay me off out of frustration if I make my hand). But for the most part, I need to keep an optimistic mindset to realistically assess my chances in a given situation.

Anyway, the point of this post is that I’ve made a deliberate decision in the last week to actively think positive and stay optimistic, and also to get more exercise, even if it’s low-key (long walks are a favorite). I won a tournament and a couple hundred in cash games for about $1000 profit for the week. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

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