Poker-Table Mindfulness

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Using Mindful Meditation At The Poker Table

"Don’t think that only sitting with the eyes closed is practice. If you do think this way, then quickly change your thinking. Steady practice is keeping mindful in every posture, whether sitting, walking, standing or lying down. When coming out of sitting, don’t think that you’re coming out of meditation, but that you are only changing postures. If you reflect in this way, you will have peace. Wherever you are, you will have this attitude of practice with you constantly. You will have a steady awareness within yourself."

~ Ajahn Chah

These days it seems that everywhere you turn you find another poker player advocating to use of meditation. From Elky to Isabella Mercier, from Ike Haxton to Faraz Jaka, meditation is fast becoming on of the most popular ways for poker professionals to take their game to the next level. And although my own interest in meditation evolved out of a desire to improve my life outside the game, it has completely transformed my mindset on the tables as well. In fact, as we get underway with the World Series of Poker, the most important tournament series of the year, it's exactly this table-side transformation that I'd like to discuss today. Because while a number of players – myself included - have spoken about the benefits of meditating before or after poker sessions, I have recently discovered the incredible power of meditating during them as well, particularly when playing live.

Wait a second, you might be thinking to yourself, did he just say he meditates during a poker game?

Why yes, I did indeed.

But how can that be, you might now be asking, don't you need to be sitting on the floor with your legs crossed and your eyes closed to meditate? Don't you need your thumbs pressed tightly against your middle fingers while humming Ommmmmmm unnecessarily loudly to yourself? Don't you need to be burning vanilla-scented incense sticks while Sarah Mclachlan whispers rainforest sounds gently into your ear?

Well no, strangely enough it turns out you don't actually need all those things to meditate. In fact, you don't need any of them. I promise.

So what then? What do you need to meditate at the table?

Well, before we can answer this we should first specify exactly what type of meditation we're even talking about here, because there are many. And while I can't speak for any of the pros I listed above, I know the only type of meditation that I've ever felt personally connected to is the one outlined in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, which was developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn as way to help his patients deal with issues related to stress, anxiety, depression and chronic-pain that had proven resistant to other forms of treatment. His landmark studies into the benefits of mindfulness and mindful meditation on the human body led to the creation of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and make up the backbone of the MBSR program that has since been adopted by medical centers, hospitals, and health-care professionals throughout the world.

As Dr. Kabat-Zinn explains, mindfulness means “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment to moment.” Mindful meditation doesn't utilize visualizations, mantras or even those irritating ohmmmm chants many of us have come to associate with meditation through popular culture and the media. Mindfulness-Based meditation is not about creating something to help you relax or focus - though it will accomplish both these things - but rather about utilizing what is already there - the breath, the mind, the sensations inside and outside the body – to return to a more natural and aware state of being. It is not about finding your happy place or even clearing your mind; in fact, it's sort of the exact opposite. Rather than attempting to empty your mind of all thoughts – something that is all but impossible – the intent is to turn the attention to the mind and simply observe it in all in glory, noting all the various ways it attempts to hijack your attention without allowing it to do so for longer than the shortest of moments. But rather than discussing it in abstract philosophical terms, it might be more effective to try and outline how we can begin applying it at the poker table in concrete terms instead.

So let's begin doing so by imagining the following scenario: we are in the sixth or seventh hour of a major tournament, maybe it is our first live tournament or maybe our hundredth, but either way, the initial surge of adrenalin that had kept our hyper-focused attention in its appropriate place has now subsided and has instead been replaced by a never-ending string of distractions attempting to pull our mind away from the task at hand. Some of these distractions come from outside of us – the basketball game showing on the big-screen, Phil Hellmuth insulting a European player at the next table over, the attractive masseuse walking back and forth across the room – while others come from within – thoughts about what we're going to eat for dinner, our frustrations at the donkey across the table who sucked out on us two orbits ago, memories of an ex who looks just like that attractive masseuse. But regardless of where these distractions originate, the point is that we are perpetually stuck in a vicious battle with more of them than we can even count and, if you're like the vast majority of us mere mortals, more often than not they are doing a fantastic job of kicking your ass. It's true, left to its own devices the mind will continuously attempt to derail your intention and lead you down a path that adds absolutely no value to you in that moment at all. In fact, the vast majority of the time what it actually accomplishes is sucking value right out from under you; it causes you to miss certain actions at the table, it leads you to throwing in the wrong bet amount, it distracts you from picking up valuable information about a player that you may be able to use in a meaningful pot later on, and it distracts you from your own intentions just enough to give up that little bit of information that ends up costing you a ton.

“Man,” you might now be thinking, “I never realized my mind was such a jerk. How can I stop it from lighting my equity on fire like this?”

Well, one strategy that you could use is the next time your mind tries to convince you that rather than paying attention to the game you're in, you should instead be attending to that pressing Facebook drama, or posting yet another chip update on twitter, or internally hurling a vicious string of insults at the old lady across the table who seems to be operating on a 3 minute delay each and every hand, simply deny it the privilege of distracting you by directing your attention away from the distractions themselves, and instead bring it to rest on one of your 5 senses (I personally prefer to leave my sense of taste and smell out of my poker experience for obvious reasons, but to each his own).

So, for example, when I notice my mind attempting to drag me away from the task at hand (playing each hand as optimally as possible), I'll begin by shining the spotlight of my attention on the sounds coming from just my own table. I'll see if I can hear which players are expertly shuffling their chips, I'll pay attention to the voices of my table-mates who are engaged in conversation about a prior hand, and I'll become aware of the sound of my own breath moving in and out of my body as I contemplate whether to value-bet or not. Once I've done that, be it for the duration of a single hand or an entire orbit, I may decide to move my attention over to my sense of sight; I'll observe each of my opponents' faces as they peak down at their cards, I'll watch the way their hands move as they place their bets out, and I might observe my chest moving up and down as I wait for my opponent to decide if he or she wants to hero-call. And finally, I may then decided to turn my attention to my sense of touch; I'll note the feeling of the cards or chips against my fingertips as I toss them into the muck, I'll observe the changing sensations against my skin as I lean back in my chair to watch the action of the player beside me, or I may place my hand on my stomach beneath the table and note the feeling of my diaphragm rising and falling as I wait to find out whether the German reg staring me down from across the table will try to 6-bet bluff.

And as I do all these things – listening, feeling, observing – I make sure to keep a vigilant eye on the mind's natural tendency to judge, criticize, analyze or just generally wander off to somewhere that it has no real reason to be wandering to at that time. And when I notice it has succeeded in its goal of distraction and I am no longer observing, but instead lost in the distractions themselves or in my own thoughts, I simply note where it was the mind had pulled me off to and then gently and compassionately move it first to the sensations of my breath moving in and out of my nostrils or abdomen – the “home-base” of mindful meditation - and then right back to the task at hand, without the slightest bit of criticism or reprimand.

This constant cycling between attention and inattention is the natural and intended course of any mindfulness-based practice and should be approached with steadfast and unyielding patience. Remember, the goal with mindful meditation is not to clear the mind or even feel more relaxed, but rather to be fully and completely present in this one singular moment, the only moment we ever get to exist in, for as long and as best we can.

And if you read my description above of the way I meditate during a poker game with the same level of awareness that you should have when you're sitting at the table, you may have noticed that rather than completing this mindfulness-based meditation exercise at random - for example, listening to sounds of the TV or noting the feel of the dealer's leg rubbing a little too close to mine - I instead chose to do so in a manner that not only brings me back in touch with the present moment, but also simultaneously maximizes my edge by forcing me to hone in on my opponents' tendencies while remaining mindful of my own (if you didn't notice that, perhaps go back and read that part again while noting the specific things I chose to focus my awareness on). Because although this exercise may seem painfully tedious at times, there is absolutely no denying that the amount of information you will acquire by remaining hyper-vigilant with your attention while pinpointing it on very specific characteristics of the game you're playing in will yield much greater benefits than compulsively refreshing your Twitter feed or even simply being lost in thought.

So as frustrating as it might seem at first, perhaps for this one orbit, or even just this one hand, let your mind know that you've had enough of it being such a jerk, and start seizing your attention-equity back.



To learn more about mindfulness and download our free ebook, check out www.organicmentalhealth.com


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