One of the most common questions people ask me is how I stay focused at the poker table. Focus is incredibly important for a game like poker, where any slip in your mental acuity will result in a loss of performance and a loss of money.
Generally, I don’t have difficulty keeping focused at the tables, so I hope I can pass on some words of wisdom to help if this is an issue that affects you. As a professional player, I see the games as a job, and due to the nature of cash games, I’m free to get up and leave whenever I’m not feeling it.
I’ve found that for live events, the biggest factor in losing focus would be a lack of sleep. I don’t play well when I’m sleep-deprived, so getting a good night’s sleep is important for me. Despite what some people say, I think it’s hard to play at your best when you need sleep, so I’d always recommend being well-rested before you play.
Everyone talks about the Main Event being a marathon, and it is but I see poker as a whole as a marathon. There are no shortcuts in poker; you can’t sprint and get to the finish line; you have to grind it out every day. Just like a marathon, some miles are going to be easy, and some are going to be really tough, so staying aware of how your body is feeling is important.
I’m not someone to push it when I’m putting in the hours. I see regulars making the mistake of playing long hours and studying very little, and I don’t think it’s very healthy. Keeping a healthier balance and using some of that time to study will not only give you a higher bb/100 but will allow you to keep going for far longer. Would you rather play 14 hours a day at 3bb/100 and burn out after a year, or play 5 hours a day at 5bb/100 and grind for years?
Amongst the regulars, there seems to be a competition about who grinds the hardest and who’s played the longest sessions - as if playing long sessions is the mark of a true poker player. I don’t buy into that.
I’ve never played for longer than a day because I just quit if I get too tired. Some people will stick around for days because “the game is so good, how can I leave?” but poker will always be there tomorrow. I’d rather leave early and play well tomorrow than keep playing just a bit longer because of a particular whale in the game.
This is especially so in cash games where you can make a mistake for hundreds of big blinds that turns that session from being a winner to a loser. There are always going to be good games. Despite what many people say, poker isn’t dead, so don’t kill yourselves trying to make money while the going’s good; sometimes, it’s better to live to fight another day.
Of course, there’s much more to poker than live games, and online play is key to the success of a lot of poker players. I find it’s much harder to lose focus when playing online, as you don’t have the distractions of other players around you or the general chatter of the casino floor - it’s just you and your computer. However, if you’re playing a lot of tables, it can be easy to burn out and find your mind wandering, so there are a couple of things I do to make sure I can keep focused for as long as possible.
I like to have calming music on in the background to drown out the noise of my clicking mouse, and I try not to allow outside distractions to draw my focus away from the games. I’ve found the best way to do this is to keep my phone on “do not disturb” and out of reach so I can’t be distracted by things like Twitter or Instagram.
Sitting up straight in my chair is another helpful tip, as being slouched puts you in a more relaxed mindset - not ideal for focusing on a poker game. I’ve also found that talking about ranges and hands out loud as I’m playing helps keep me engaged, but if you do that, remember to stop when you play live poker!
Overall, I’d say the biggest reason I’m able to keep my focus at the table is that I know my goal is to win. I really hate losing, and I know that I need to stay focused to be able to win, so while I’m playing, I put 100% of my energy into focusing on the game and playing my best. Winning sessions are the most fun anyway, and part of why we play poker is to have fun!
The good thing about doing that is once I’ve finished playing, I know that I tried my best, and I can switch my focus to other areas of my life that don’t involve sitting at the poker table. I believe that having a healthy balance between poker and the rest of your life is important; poker is such a mentally challenging game that if you don’t learn how to switch it off once you’ve finished playing, it can affect other areas of your life.
To round off, I’ll give my top seven tips for staying focused at the poker table (particularly cash games, as that’s what I play).
#1 - Sleep is always the most important, so make sure you’re well-rested before you play.
#2 - Snacks, of course; I mean, who wants to play on an empty stomach?
#3 - Taking breaks every couple of hours. People underestimate how good it is to clear your head and reset before continuing your session.
#4 - Remain calm and acknowledge that we aren't meant to win every session, so just be comfortable and accepting of the lucky and unlucky situations that might occur.
#5 - Looking for live reads at the poker table is a great way to stay engaged and can give your bb/100 a healthy boost.
#6 - Don’t be so serious! Poker is a game we are meant to enjoy. You’ll play a lot more consistently if you are just relaxed and accepting that we aren’t robots; we’re humans. We will make a lot of mistakes but don’t that affect our next hand.
#7 - Study off the tables and study GTO. You can play any style you want, but if you deepen your knowledge of GTO off the tables, this will allow you to play wider ranges and more hands. The more hands you play, the less bored you'll be, and the easier it is to stay focused.
The most important things to remember are the reasons why you play poker, what your goals are, and that we all make mistakes. If you fully understand those three things, you’ll become much more focused at the poker table.
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