Poker Psychology, Part I

The Competitive Edge: Do You Need—Or Even Want—It?

“Winning isn’t everything. Wanting to win is.”

—Major League Baseball Pitcher Catfish Hunter

vinvanpatten2Top poker pro T.J. Cloutier—winner of 51 major tournaments and the leading all-time money winner at the World Championships—is a former professional football player. A high school athlete from Daly City , California , he attended the University of California , Berkeley , on a football and baseball scholarship, playing in the Rose Bowl in 1959. After a stint in the army, he played tight end in the Canadian Football League for the Montreal Alouettes and Toronto Argonauts. A knee injury sidelined him, leading him to the poker table.

World Poker Tour commentator and expert player Vincent Van Patten started playing in his dad’s (actor Dick Van Patten) regular home game while still in his teens. He followed in his father’s footsteps before teaching himself to play tennis and reaching the highest professional level in the 1980s: ranking 25th in the world and beating the likes of John McEnroe. Upon retirement, he traded his racquet for a stack of chips.

Study the bios of many professional poker players, and you’ll find they have an athletic or military background. They are born competitors who possess the extra edge it takes to become a champion—and they’re not shy about sharing their accomplishments.

Killer Instinct?

Competition, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, is defined as “a test of ability or skill” or a “rivalry”—descriptions that certainly sum up the art and science of poker. But if you’re one of the “regular folks” who hasn’t quite attained Cloutier’s or Van Patten’s expertise, you first have to decide just how competitive you want to be—and it is a choice. A killer instinct is by no means a necessity, says Van Patten, who believes the social interaction that poker provides—whether in a home game, online or at a casino—should never be dismissed or disparaged.

At the same time, you don’t have to be an NFL linebacker or tennis superstar to make your way into a big tournament these days. You do, however, need the drive and “heart” to succeed, Van Patten explains—and you must identify your ultimate goal before you even touch the felt.

“It’s sports psychology,” Van Patten tells in an exclusive interview. “There’s an edge—a competitive edge—but I believe there are nuances that very few players understand. You have to have street smarts. You can’t basically learn these, but they’re a huge edge.

“You also must be deceptive,” he continues. “You’ve got to be sneaky. You have to be a contrarian and have a big ego in order to tackle this great game. And yet, you have to take your ego completely out of the game while you’re playing. Most of all, you have to have that burning desire.”

Chad Wierson, an avid competitor and vice president of operations for Ankeny, Iowa-based The Nuts Poker Tables, a manufacturer of custom gaming furniture, also has a sports background and believes his athletic competitive edge carries over into his poker game. But can this edge be learned?

“Absolutely!” Wierson affirms. “The concept would be the same as picking up any sport. I think every human has a competitive edge in them. They just have to find the activity in life that most brings it out.”

Toughness Training

Mental toughness—what world-renowned sports psychologist Dr. James E. Loehr likes to refer to as “hardiness”—is the key to successful competition. Having personally coached athletes like tennis phenoms Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles, as well as boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, Dr. Loehr—author of the must-read “Toughness Training for Life: A Revolutionary Program for Maximizing Health, Happiness, and Productivity”—asserts that any serious competitor requires emotional flexibility, responsiveness, strength and resiliency. Translation for poker players:

  • Don’t become defensive when competing or allow other players to psyche you out.
  • Stay focused and avoid “steaming”—the inability to recover from a bad beat.
  • Stay positive, even when you’re the short stack at the table. Maintain the belief that you’re the comeback kid—even if you’re down to the proverbial chip and a chair.
  • Never allow your mind to wander. Keep your focus at all times.

Van Patten nonetheless emphasizes that you need to assess your level of ambition and reasons for playing.

“Do you want to be a winning poker player at the end of the year,” he poses, “or do you just want to be a guy who tells bad-beat stories and says he great? Or, do you just want to truly enjoy the very social aspect of poker? You know, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.”

One of Van Patten’s fellow tennis pros, the great champion Bjorn Borg, would agree: “I love the winning,” he once said, “I can take the losing, but most of all I love to play.”