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How to Play Your Best Poker All (Or Close To All) the Time

Want to stay in the zone at the poker table? Here’s how.

By Jared Tendler

One area where poker differs significantly from other sports is the degree to which the competitors are evenly matched, especially among professionals.

Soccer teams compete with similar level teams determined by leagues; sprinters only race against those with high enough qualifying times; boxers are matched against fighters in their weight class and of a similar level.

That’s generally not the case in poker where there is a heavy emphasis on seeking out competition that’s significantly weaker.

The Problem with Easy Money in Poker

Sport thrives on close competition to keep spectators watching. Poker players, however, make their money by finding huge edges.

The problem is that if you’re only looking for easy money, eventually that can harm your progress and the size of the edge you have in the game.  Being challenged is a necessary component for both learning and “playing in the zone.”

flow in poker
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

One of the most popular theories about the zone comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychology professor and the author of the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

He defines being in the zone as a state of “flow” whereby a person is fully immersed in what they are doing.

In order to achieve this state of flow, a balance must be struck between the skill of the performer and the challenge of the task.

In other words, the performer needs to be sufficiently challenged and have enough skill in that task to meet the challenge.

The graphic below illustrates the relationship between skill and challenge:

Tendler flow chart

As you can see, the size of the challenge and the amount of skill you have aren’t important separately; it’s the relationship between the two that determines your ability to reach the zone.

When your skills are low and the challenge is low, or when the challenge is high and your skills are also high, you can perform in the zone.

However, if you’re a massive underdog, you’ll be overwhelmed by the challenge and according to Csikszentmihalyi, you’ll experience anxiety, not flow. Conversely, if you expect to easily crush a weak opponent, you’ll get bored by a challenge that’s too low and fall out of the zone.

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Boredom Takes You Out of Poker Zone

Boredom typically sets in when you stop feeling challenged and there’s nothing new or interesting to learn. Like a computer that hasn’t been used recently, your mind is left idling just waiting to be activated.

jared tendler poker coach
“When just showing up is enough to have an edge, it’s easy to slip into your B- or C-game.”

Boredom is the result of a perceived lack of challenge. When just showing up is enough to have an edge, it’s easy to slip into your B- or C-game.

It makes sense that poker could start to feel like a monotonous grind—you’re dealt the same hands all the time. By now, you’ve been dealt AK suited enough to consider it standard and potentially boring.

However, the players who remain passionate and motivated about seeing the nuances and unique details of how to play each hand are never bored.

They see physical tells, timing tells, metagame, combinatorics, balancing ranges, G-bucks, prior action, table image, and many other small details that most players don’t consider.

The dynamics in poker are varied and constantly changing, so while the same hand can be dealt over and over each hand will play out in a unique way.

There are always new areas in which to develop an edge; the game is always evolving and there is always more to learn.

How to Play Your Poker A-Game Most Often

One of the most common requests I get from new clients turns out to be impossible to achieve. Wanting to play your A-game all the time might sound like a simple request, but it’s not.

Trying to playing your A-game all the time seems simple in theory when you look only at your current A-game. You know what it’s like to play your best. You win more money, feel better about your game, leave the table happy, and a host of other great things attached to playing great poker.

It makes sense why you’d want that to happen it all the time. The only problem is that wanting or wishing it were true is the poker equivalent to believing in Santa Claus.

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Poker Best is a Moving Target

The reason it’s impossible to always be at your best is because your best is a moving target, which is constantly rising higher. When your game improves it means that your peak has risen higher than before.

In other words your current A-game becomes your B-game, and you’ve gained a newly minted A-game. It shouldn’t take much to realize this has already happened to your game. 

A game poker
Play your A-game as much as possible to get more of these.

Think back to what your A-game was like a year ago and compare it to your A-game now. Heck, go back far enough, and your current C-game today is better than your A-game was back then. (By the way, if you’re a serious player and this isn’t happening, follow the steps in the next section.)  

Your poker game isn’t static. It’s constantly improving, although often in ways that are so subtle they’re hard to see. As soon as you’ve played at your best, a new standard has been set.

The first time you play well it’s often hard to describe why you played so well. If you can’t explain why you played so well, it’s going to be pretty hard to do it again.

Funny enough, once you can explain why you played so well you’re able to play even better and a new A-game is created.

Playing Your A-Game Consistently

While it’s impossible to always play your A-game you can play that way consistently if you put the work in.

Most poker players aren’t willing to take the extra steps and instead are happy to dream of what it would be like to consistently play that well.

Here are a few tips how to get your A-game show up more often:

1. Eliminate Your C-game Your number one goal every single time you play is to make sure your C-game does not show up. Every time you make a really obvious mistake, no matter what the reason, you actually reinforce poor play. You simultaneously fail to correct the mistake and get better at making it. That means it’s more likely to show-up again and your A-game is now less likely to show-up. Instead, by consistently eliminating your C-game, you make it easier and easier to play your A-game.

how to play your a game in poker
What’s your range?

2. Eliminate Your Mental C-game. The mental side of the major poker mistakes you make have to be eliminated to correct your tactical C-game. Mental game issues like tilt, anxiety, boredom, being distracted, unmotivated, and losing confidence often lead to poor play. If you want to be at your peak consistently, these big issues have to be eliminated.

3. Assess Your Range. Write out the full range in your game, from A-game to C-game. Start by listing out all the mistakes you make now, when playing at your absolute worst. Then, list the mistakes that are progressively less bad until you reach your current A-game.

4. Quick Recovery. Playing your A-game consistently requires that you recover it quickly after slipping into your B or C-game. Having your range clearly listed out, makes it easier to recognize when your game has slipped and thus easier to recover your A-game quickly while playing.

5. Be Prepared. Consistently playing at a high level doesn’t happen easily. All great poker players and great athletes show up prepared to play at a high level. If you don’t have a warm-up routine, a simple way to get started is to review hands connected with all parts of your game (A to C-game). That way, you know specifically how to play at a high level and improve your B or C-game when it shows-up.

6. Track Your Progress. A good way of tracking your progress is by keeping a journal where you regularly assess the quality of your play after a session or tournament. This not only increases your skill of recognizing when you slip into B or C-game, it’s also a great way to focus you more and more on what’s necessary to play quality poker and you automatically become less results-oriented.

It may seem strange to focus mainly on eliminating B and C-game as a way to play your A-game more often. However, if you think about, you’ll automatically play your A-game more often if the rest of your game doesn’t show-up. The more consistently you play your A-game the easier it is to take your game to an even higher peak. 

Jared Tendler, MS is a mental game coach for over 200 poker players and author of, “The Mental Game of Poker.” A free audiobook version of his book is currently being offered by Amazon.


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