Sunday, May 23, 2010

Meditation and relaxation for poker players

I've recently noticed a few threads that touch on the tremendous benefits of meditation and the Buddhist approach to life... especially when it comes to staying in control of your emotions while playing poker. As most of us have learned the hard way, tilt is usually to blame for our epic bankroll meltdowns.

I know firsthand how difficult playing for a living can be as I did it for nearly six months in 2005 (as my sole income). Long before I discovered 2p2, I was a self-taught online 5/10 and 10/20 NL grinder and was making more money than I ever had in my life, and decided to quit my full time job as an IT consultant. However, I was not in a good place mentally and eventually lost my entire bankroll due to stress, anxiety, and plenty of tilt.

Anxiety got the better of me for over five years, as I was plagued by daily panic attacks and developed many social anxieties as well. These problems were present before I started playing online poker in 2004, but the financial and emotional swings, along with the social isolation of playing online for a living certainly made things worse. Simply put, I didn't know how to handle my stress and anxiety, and I was a mess.

Things are much better for me these days. I've gotten past all of my anxiety problems (without having to depend on medication or therapy) by learning how to relax, guide my thoughts, and quiet my mind. Much of the peace of mind I enjoy today comes from my daily practice of meditation. I have taught many others how to meditate and relax and I wanted to share a brief introduction to meditation with 2p2.

Beginner's Meditation

Within thirty minutes of waking up (before you drink any coffee!), go to a quiet spot in your home where you will not be disturbed. Get into a comfortable seated position such that no part of your body is likely to fall asleep or start tingling. Put on noise-canceling headphones (or at least earplugs) and close your eyes.

The goal of your first few meditations is to learn how to focus on only one thought at a time. The simplest way to do this is to concentrate on solely the in and out of your breath.

With your eyes closed, simply breathe in and out slowly through your nose. With every breath you inhale, try to hold it for two to three seconds before slowly exhaling through your nose. With every breath you inhale, feel the air as it passes from your nose, down your throat, filling your lungs. With every breath you exhale, imagine feeling more stress and anxiety leaving your body. Feel yourself sinking into a deeper state of relaxation with every breath you exhale.

You may have difficulty focusing on just your breathing. Random thoughts may begin filling your head – what you had for dinner last night – what you’re going to wear today, etc. This is normal. Your mind is not accustomed to being quiet, and is going to resist this change. Take solace in knowing it feels awkward for everyone at first.

The trick is to gently shift your focus back to your breathing. You don’t want to focus on these random thoughts. As soon as a distracting thought arises, shift all of your attention back to your breathing. Be aware of every tiny detail – what the air feels like as it enters the inside of your nose, your chest expanding and deflating, and the stillness of the rest of your body. Focusing on these small details forces your mind to let go of other distracting thoughts.

Your goal for your first few meditations should be to practice for five to ten minutes. Don’t expect to receive complete enlightenment and inner peace right from the start! Like anything worthwhile, it takes much practice and repetition to become good at this. The more often you practice, the better you get, and the more you get out of it.

I recommend you practice this meditation daily. If during one of these sessions you find yourself feeling very relaxed and focused, by all means you can go longer than your goal of five to ten minutes.

I personally meditate every morning for 15-30 minutes, and feel quite out of sorts if I miss a day. If you give this a try it may take several days before you feel fully relaxed during a session, so stick with it. You'll know when you're there, the feeling is complete peace of mind, and anyone can get there with regular practice.

If you can't find time in the morning, I'd recommend you try this meditation just before you fire up the tables for a session. You will likely find yourself thinking much clearer and making better decisions.

Some other relaxation tips specifically for poker players

In addition to the above introductory meditation, here are a few tips to help you stay focused and controlled while playing online. This is much of the same advice I give to people that have stress and anxiety problems in other occupations.

Exercise before you play

Exercise helps us release excess energy and promotes the natural release of endorphins which provide a calming feeling. You will find you are thinking much clearer and are less prone to overreact or become emotional to a horrific bad beat.

Take a break every 30 minutes

We all know how intense multitabling can be, especially for those of you who who can handle 10+ tables. Your mind can only stay sharp for so long before you start making bad decisions or simply start playing on autopilot (instead of analyzing each individual situation). Your mind needs a break, so every 30 minutes sit out and get up and away from your computer. Get outside if you can and get some fresh air and do some jumping jacks or other easy exercise to get your heart rate up. Do some easy stretches to help promote better circulation and to relieve any tension that's likely building up from the stress of focusing so intensely.

Be prepared to walk away

Being reactive and taking things personally is at the root of all tilt. If you get sucked out on and know you're steaming, in the very least sit out at all your tables and walk away for a few minutes. Get outside and crank out some push-ups or sprint around the block - something to help you get rid of your frustration. Try to take a few more minutes to sit calmly and gather your thoughts, remembering the big picture of grinding and that it's just variance, before you return to play.

Garbage in / Garbage out

I'm not saying you have to sign up for Jenny Craig, but do your best to cut down on sugary drinks and unhealthy fried stuff. Your body goes through a whirlwind trying to digest that stuff and the inevitable surges in blood sugar and eventual crash certainly makes it much more difficult to focus on the task at hand. We all know what foods are healthy, try to stay in bounds.

Easy on the caffeine

If you're getting all jacked up on red bull and the like, your going to be all over the place both mentally and physically. Sitting at a computer with a heart rate of 130 while your hands shake is not conducive to making good reads and hero calls. Try to cut back and give other drinks such as tea a shot.

I certainly don't claim to be an expert when it comes to poker - we all know how soft the games were in 2005 when I climbed up to 10/20NL (and eventually tilted my roll away). However, I am an expert and published author in the field of anxiety and know from my own personal struggles how difficult finding peace of mind can be.

If I could get there, you certainly can too. Best of luck guys, hope this helps.



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