How to Fix the Flaws in Your Mental Game

Recognizing the Flaws in Your Mentality Will Improve Your Play


The weakest part of my game has always been my mentality.

Yes, I am tough. I am not bragging; this is a fact. I started in 2005 online. I was told by practically everyone that I sucked and would never make it. Now it’s 2015 and I’m still here, arguably doing better than ever.

That doesn’t change the fact that poker is my job. Many people say poker is their profession, but they have no idea what that entails. Professional poker is equivalent to taking a standardized test for eight hours a day, every day. Yes, maybe you can cut it and even flourish in the first couple years, when your enthusiasm runs deep, but try doing that day in and day out for a decade. Try doing that for an entire year while losing. Poker doesn’t feel like much of a fun game then.

I’ve done well for myself, but I haven’t had an earth-shattering score. I’m pretty grateful for that, because I probably would have stopped working on my game long ago if I had made considerable money. Such a move would have likely left me broke right now with no marketable skills. However, without a real jolting victory, it is easy to get caught in the day-to-day minutiae. I’ve struggled at times, for years even, to get to the tables and put in considerable volume, favoring instead to hide behind my computer and make money off the felt.

It is easy to get into a rut as a poker professional, yet there seems to be a real stigma as to clawing your way out. Asking for help from the average person or family member can be greeted with eye rolls, especially when that family member thinks you’re taking in millions.

Tournament players deal with this especially, as they have their “millions” of dollars on display in tracking websites. I had to explain to a friend recently who worked with me at Arby’s that his friends telling him I was a baller was patently false. “Look man, tell your boys to keep studying, to not do this for a career. Say I won $3.5 million. But tournament entry fees, hotels, meals, and airfare ran the costs to $2.8 million. That’s $700,000 in profit. Half of that goes to taxes in the USA. Now you have $350,000. Divide that by ten years: Congratulations, you’re making less than a postman, YOU BALLER YOU.”

Obviously, I’ve done a little better than that, but many MTT pros are lucky to make $30K-$40K a year before taxes. However, with currency leveraging, foreign residence, and extensive study, the upside in poker is practically unlimited. It is wildly meritocratic in nature. Yet, to wrangle in all the opportunities afforded to you, one must be in the right mind to make optimal decisions.

The following tips have helped me the most in keeping my mental together.

1. Block out the noise

I have had quite a few people try to coach me mentally who had no business doing so. Pretty much everyone has an opinion about what a poker player should have done, and they’re usually idiotic. I’ve watched “fact” after “fact” about poker get thrown out over the years. The cast of jackasses telling me I suck has a high turnover rate, but come rain or shine, they show up.

Some people are well-meaning, but are projecting their own bullshit onto you. Others really don’t want you to succeed. Some don’t know what to say, so they blow smoke up your ass.

2. Listen to the right people

You should pick a few people in your life who do seem to give you a different view. I’ve been blessed to meet a few poker players who can think clearly about a situation, minus others biased opinions. They are rare, so if you meet one, make sure to stay in contact.

You should also have a few good friends outside of poker. They can be family members. My wife, sister, and mother are exquisitely trained in informing me of when I’m a whiny self-absorbed bitch. Nevertheless, they do it with love.

Many poker players have to become selfish about their interest in order to advance. It’s important to have good friends or family members give you reality checks.

3. Cut out the booze, drugs, and loose women

If you were doing fantasy poker drafts and heard one of your prospects was getting lit regularly and chasing ass, you’d rightfully be concerned. Don’t give yourself the same disadvantages.

4. Do something for someone who can’t pay you back

It’ll make you realize all of this has a point, buried somewhere.

5. Have specified work hours

Have specific times when no talk of poker is allowed. Have days every week where you can step away from what’s going on. Take vacations. Go to places you wouldn’t normally go and just chill out.

It’s even better if you can do an activity that is the opposite of poker. Go mountain biking, go for a picnic, read an actual book, or play that pussy form of “football” my countrymen call soccer.

6. Invest in a mental coach

I’ve recently hired a long-term mental coach, because it’s clear to me I will never be at peak performance without one pretty much on call. Before finding a good working relationship with this one, I went through many excellent and not-so-good coaches, and I felt I learned a great deal about the process.

First off, everybody has crap they need to work through. I don’t care how well off your family was, no one is immune (and remember, this is coming from someone who grew up on welfare before it was the cool thing to do.) Pretty much everyone I’ve met who went to a real professional reported improvement.

Men in particular can benefit greatly from talk therapy, coaching, or counseling. Many of us are expected to be the tough breadwinners. Complaining to our significant others or family could cause them to be insecure. Going to a professional to unload before you explode at home on someone innocent is the adult thing to do. There is nothing pansy about it.

There’s also a great deal of difference in who you should consult. If family members believe you have a chemical imbalance that needs to be corrected (as yours truly once did) you should probably see a psychiatrist, as they are the professionals who can prescribe medication. Some psychologists in particular states can prescribe basic medications if they have an add-on license, so be sure to look into them too.

If you have just general issues, as a recent study conducted in my head confirmed 100 percent of people have, a counselor might be more appropriate.

For peak mental performance during competition, you need to hire a mental coach. Now, the scary thing about the word “coach” is that anyone can use it. Take it from me; I’m the most successful coach in MTTs, and I don’t have a degree in jack shit.

Now, this doesn’t mean a coach can’t be exactly what you need. Many people with their doctorates and Master’s degrees want to be coaches. However, you do want to check them for their education and real-world experience. In my experience, those who are studying to get their degree in psychology or are working with a coaching institute tend to be more professional.

A guy like me offers occasional mental coaching to my students, but I have no formal training, so I always send them off to my coach John Wood.

It can help to talk to real poker players about how they got over the hurdles, but many of us did so because we ran well when it mattered. Others of us have just been doing this for so long that we don’t really know how to do much else, so we calmly accept the day-to-day situations. That’s not really something that can be taught.

A real mental coach will help with much more than just tilt. People who have been watching my Twitch stream lately have remarked how my demeanor at the table is extremely balanced. This doesn’t mean I’m always playing my best game. If something is bothering me away from the table, be it a relationship, a financial issue, my work schedule, whatever that still could be seeping into my game.

A good mental coach will bring you to a place where you can process a piece of advice you may have heard a hundred times before. These leads many players to go, “oh, I could have figured this out myself.” As someone who has fallen for this trap, I can only laugh at myself now. If I could have done it myself why didn’t I for years before that?

As John says, “a mental coach shouldn’t look for holes in your game. They should look for holes in your reasoning and plug them up.”

My best coaches have also not given me straight answers. Those do not stick. They guide you through the process of attaining those gems for thoughts. If you don’t work through it in your own perceptual framework you’ll never hold onto the lesson, because it won’t truly be yours.

I hope these bits of advice I’ve attained over the years can help you structure your mind. Good luck to all of you.

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Alex “Assassinato” Fitzgerald has won millions online, is a Pocket5’s training instructor and a sought-after MTT coach currently living in Costa Rica with his wife. He has his own Twitch stream and developed his own Assassinato HUD.
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