People often wonder how some players deal with the stress of playing poker professionally. Most people would be horrified at the stakes of the games they play — tournaments with buy-ins of up to £25,000 and cash games that frequently have six-figure swings. Most professional poker players have become somewhat desensitized towards money. Despite this, they still do experience stress while playing poker, and these are some tips for anyone else who does, too.
Feeling a certain level of stress while playing poker is a key to winning, and that “certain level” varies by individual. To put it another way, to excel at poker, you must always play within your stress comfort zone. You should never gamble with money you can’t afford to lose, as this would be incredibly stressful, not to mention very irresponsible. You should not base what limit you play simply on your bankroll. You must be as emotionally ready to lose a certain amount of money as you are financially in order to justify playing in a particular game. If you are a millionaire but are not emotionally ready to lose more than £1,000 in a given session, stick to £10-20 limits or smaller. If you’re not emotionally prepared some of the big losses in these games can be emotionally devastating and very stressful. These lessons are very painful to learn, so stick to games in which you are emotionally prepared to lose at least 50 big bets, because it can and will happen frequently, even if you are a great player who rarely tilts.
What’s good — and bad — about tournament poker is that one decision can make or break the entire tournament for you. These situations create a good amount of stress and should generally keep you focused during a tournament, but they should not stress you out to the point in which you’ll avoid these confrontations and play with scared money. The types of games that can be most stressful are no-limit hold’em cash games. Unlike tournaments, in which you put up a buy-in and have a finite amount that you can lose if you go broke, in no-limit cash games, you can go broke over and over again, provided that you have the funds and the courage (or stubbornness) to keep reloading. These games can certainly test the upper boundaries of your stress comfort zone.
Most no-limit sessions will come down to the results of a few big hands, in which you either make a good call or a good letdown or lay the perfect trap, and so on. Making a single mistake in no-limit can be much more disastrous than making many mistakes in limit, and you can make up for any mistakes in limit by outplaying your opponent over the long term.
If you’re feeling overly stressed in the particular game you’re playing, it’s better to try some different variants of the game, whether it be limit, no-limit, tournaments, or any of the various sit-and-go games available. Also, experiment with playing both live and online, as they are different experiences, and you may find one to be much more to your liking and much less stressful than the other.
Here’s one last point: Your stress levels are significantly higher when you have been running bad for an extended period of time (breaking even or losing for more than 20 sessions). Poker players are more stressed when they have been on a losing streak, even if the losing is not seriously affecting their bankroll. In these cases you may have to adjust your game selection to compensate for the increased stress of running bad. You can play some smaller games that are generally too small to hold your focus when you are running well.
Finding and playing in a game that fits your stress comfort zone nicely (which will vary depending on how you’ve been running) will likely enable you to put in more hours playing your best game and will make you a lot more money in the long run.