There are no gaming pursuits that are exclusively mental or entirely physical. The two feed into one another; even something as conceptually simple as 100m sprinting requires a management of emotions, while a game like poker that heavily relies on mental strategies is still better played with a healthy body. A healthy body feeds a healthy mind, with the mind the decisive tool in building poker success. Minute alterations to a poker strategy can have the most considerable of effects. Strategy is one thing, but controlling emotions is essential if a player is to successfully follow their plan.
The ultimate strategy game
There are not many, if any, games with more onerous demands of the mind than poker. While the mind can't deal the cards for you, it dictates how to respond to the game's proceedings. There is a dizzying array of possibilities that can arise during a game, made all the more difficult by the nature of the game. Whether played in the form of no limit hold'em, 7 card stud, omaha hi-lo or another variant, poker comes with the obstacle of incomplete information; a player is not fully aware of what has happened in previous rounds, largely because they cannot see what cards their opponent has.
Poker has always been renowned for its strategic aspects, but research in 2015 from the Computer Poker Research Group at the University of Alberta proved just how complex the game is. Michael Bowling and his team developed an AI computer program called Cepheus, which was trained to play the perfect game of poker. Bowling explains how Cepheus trained against itself by playing a billion billion hands of poker. This has given Cepheus a career that has taken in more games of poker than the entire human race.
Clearly, there is no hope of a human poker player developing the perfect strategy. Even the most assured and most experienced poker player can never be truly sure that they are winning until the moment that they have won. John Cynn was visibly stunned when he eventually beat Tony Miles after a grueling match at the final table of the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas in July. Cynn won on the 442nd hand after ten hours of play, a remarkable effort that is testament to the nuanced strategies and impressive endurance of the worlds elite. Cynns reward for his victory was $8.8 million, but it must have been difficult for the Illinois native to have kept his cool for the deciding hand.
Knowing your opponent
This constant state of uncertainty places huge emphasis on knowing your strategy, but also where possible knowing your opponent. Professional sports teams would be derided if they confessed to entering a match without researching their adversaries beforehand. That isnt so that players know that they should run faster or jump higher; even pre-match preparation for the most physical sports is based on tactical understanding, pre-empting individuals moves in order to respond intuitively and effectively during the game.
The same is true in the mental battles of poker and online gaming. Players at a poker tournament or in an online gaming arena may not always be able to predict who will show up a certain phase of the game. Perhaps a complete newcomer will outlast all of the veterans. This is why it is essential to be familiar with the leading players of the game. It is likely that a complete newcomer has adopted a strategy based on one of those luminaries, subsequently giving you an insight into their possible moves. It is vital to be completely familiar with the tactics and mentalities of the games finest exponents.
That way, players will have a much better chance of quickly reading a completely unfamiliar opponent. During the game, it is also important to learn about your opponent through observation. They may react a certain way when they are bluffing, or they may have a clear response to receiving a bad hand. The caveat to in-game observation is that it is a small sample size from which to make a definitive judgement, but it is still worth observing your opponent in case they have any blatant tells.
A calm mind makes better decisions
It is also useful to watch your opponent to see how they are handling their emotions, with a failure to do so likely to make them vulnerable. Controlling emotions is easier said than done, due to the impulsive and unexpected nature of many emotions. Sometimes, emotions can creep up on a player during a game and lead to an irrational outburst. Rather than dwelling on that single moment, it is much more beneficial to reflect on all of the moments leading up to that emotional expression.
Analyzing the long-term process is more instructive than the dramatic culmination of emotional build-up. Emotions are often driven by a realization that events are not going quite as hoped. Entering a game with clear and rational ambitions is vital. Even the worlds elite players are going to have moments, or even entire games, where the cards dont fall in their favor. Remaining cognizant of that reality is vital to maintaining level-headedness.
One of the finest players of his generation, Phil Ivey demonstrates how to maintain control of emotions during a match. Source: Phil Ivey via Facebook.
At the same time, fortunes can change very quickly. A match can turn on its head with a single card. It is imperative to remain calm in order to maximize that opportune moment if it arrives. It may not arrive, but that is beyond a players control. If a player doesn't have a clear head, they will be unable to react swiftly if that moment does appear. Trying to force an opportune moment is something that a tilting poker player frequently attempts, largely to no avail.
Tilting is where a poker player succumbs to frustration and neglects their planned strategy. That frustration can arise from a run of poor hands or unsuccessful bluffs, but it is vital that the decision-making process is not affected by negative emotions. The poker strategy guide from 888poker identifies the link between energy and decision-making. Having sufficient energy is essential for a poker player to bring their best, with focus channeling that energy towards the right details. All forms of poker, from Texas hold 'em to stud poker, are heavily reliant on an understanding of events, so that data-gathering process is crucial. This therefore gives a poker player the tools they need to make the right decision at the right time.
Becoming better at game management
These practices of understanding your opponent and remaining calm throughout are not just successful in poker but are applicable to all types of video games. They are particularly important in strategy games such as Civilization VI, in which players have to make a series of careful minor decisions in order to reach a long-term objective.
Keeping a clear head is also a fillip in all facets of life, as it enables the mind to remain sharp enough to react to the most unfamiliar of events. A calm mentality is useful in all forms of video gaming, through developing a more instinctive response to opponents' moves in a sporting game like FIFA 19 to allowing players to make better judgement calls in a multiplayer game like Fortnite: Battle Royale.
Developing a mind that can handle poker and other forms of games is predominantly achieved through practice. That practice must be a process of critical reflection rather than practice for practice's sake. It is crucial to calmly evaluate events. By identifying the little factors that influence the big moments, a player's mind can be ready for whatever the game throws its way.