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The Inner Workings Of a Poker Player’s Mind

October 27 Sandra Wong

Although the world may be filled with self-proclaimed “professional” poker players, few have truly mastered the entire sport.

As in any competition, players spend a lifetime striving to reach their goal of being the very best, but of course few achieve it. As poker grew into an international game in the past decade, the learning process for millions  worldwide began. Although it took the Internet and tele- vised poker to start the education process  for some, game-improvement tools have been out there since the ’70s. Game strategy in books can vary wide- ly based on the author. If you want to learn to play  aggressive poker, you’re more likely to take advice from Ivey or “ElkY” or online pros, and if you want to learn to play more traditional solid poker, then Dan Harrington’s series of books may be a  good choice. Poker theory has progressed along with the boom, and so has the average skill level of your opponents. Daniel Negreanu said in his Poker Pro Canada interview earlier this year: “The game is ever changing. With the younger players (like the aggressive Europeans) emerging on the poker scene, the game is constantly evolving and in order to stay on top of my game I have to evolve as well.”


Doyle Brunson started as a road gambler 50 years ago. Since then the knowledge and experience that  the Godfather has gained is immeasurable. When Doyle and friends wrote How I Made Over $1,000,000 Playing Poker in 1978, it shocked the poker world. Now called Super System, it’s still a must-read, but back then it was sacrilege to tell the public what the small cadre of top pros had spent a lifetime learning. Today there are hundreds of books on poker, many building on the Super System foundation, others using volume- based strategies designed for online play. All of the good ones stress bankroll management. Basic bankroll strategy is essential and once a player has an understanding of financial planning, the same principles apply even when the bankroll size increases, or shrinks. One area where poker thought has evolved lately is with the psychological game. No, not reading other players at the table – that has always been there. Today players are focusing on their OWN mental preparation and psychological state. Players who prepare mentally have a serious edge over their opponents.Some world-class players have undertaken dramatic changes in both their game and lifestyle to improve their results on the felt. Yes, this topic has gotten more attention in recent years, but this too goes back to the ’70s. Back to the bible we go!


When Doyle first decided to write a book sharing some of his trade secrets, he approached some other world-class pros to collaborate with him on the project. First to join the “Brunson Squad” was the one and only “Mad Genius,” Mike Caro. He would contribute 50 statistical tables and a chapter on draw poker. I doubt whether even the Mad Genius knew at that time just how much he would later contribute to the game and his many future followers. To attempt to include everything that Caro has covered in his elaborate career would never fit into one article, or book. His online poker university and website ( is a massive collection of articles and books to help the poker community understand the depth of poker psychology and how to implement it at the tables. With over 600 articles and 16 books (including the famous Caro’s Book of Poker Tells) to his credit, as well as video tutorials, numerous TV appearances including ABC news, NBC news and Hard Copy, and seminars across the world, there is no doubt that over 30 years later he still remains a leader in poker psychology. It was in 1984 that he created the first computer program (The Orac) that was able to compete against real players. On the TV show Ripley’s Believe It or Not, “Orac” played the owner of Vegas World casino, Bob Stupak, in a $250,000 challenge. Stupak won the match, but this wouldn’t be the last computer program the Mad Genius would create. In 1990, the first poker analyzing software was released, “Poker Probe.” It was the first computer program designed to analyze hands and produce correct odds for players. Again, Caro paved the way for a multimillion-dollar poker software industry. Of course, he wasn’t just interested in the math. His many books allowed poker players to truly understand the psychology of their opponents based on actions and reactions at the table. In a recent interview, Mike shared with me his top three tells to reading opponents.

1- Shaking hand. Whenever you see an opponent’s previously steady hand begin to tremble after making a bet, that’s almost never a bluff. Bluffers bolster themselves and don’t allow themselves to tremble when making a wager. They’re afraid to seem nervous for fear of making you suspicious. When you see fingers trembling during a bet, that’s a release of tension after the suspense has ended and a big pot seems almost certain. It’s not a bluff. Don’t call.

2- Staring away. Always observe to see which opponents are conspicuously pay who are apt to be the least of a threat. Players who you should truly worry about show little interest in you or the pot. Often they will be staring away. But that’s just an act designed to make you feel safer about betting before they pounce. Beware!

3- Breathing. Watch your opponent breathe – or listen to it, if you’re close enough. The more obvious the breathing, the more likely it is that the opponent holds a satisfying hand. In contrast, bluffers breathe very shallowly and sometimes not at all. It’s a fear response. They’re trying to make themselves inconspicuous, so they’re less likely to be called. When a player bets into you and almost stops breathing, it’s probably a bluff and you should strongly consider calling.


Getting inside your opponent’s head and understanding his reasons for what or why he does what he does is one aspect, but what about what’s inside your own head? Lately, you may have noticed a lot of players wearing a rubber band around their wrists. At first I thought to myself: “Maybe it’s some type of cancer awareness or fundraising idea to raise money for a good cause.” The first time I saw a player wearing and using his rubber band “jewellery” was at the Fallsview Poker Classic in 2010. The pro was Gavin Smith. After a not so great year in 2009, when he would only cash three times, 2010 proved to be a year for things to change. Smith went on to win the event and take down over $188k. Other pros were spotted wearing the bands too: Antonio Esfandiari, Paul Wasicka, Josh Arieh and even Phil Hellmuth. So what is the big secret? Do the bands have magical powers? In fact, the band is a very small part of the psychological craze hitting the poker scene. The bands are designed to aid focus and positive thinking, and the man behind them is Sam Chauhan.


After first hearing about Chauhan, I began looking into his theories and lessons. A certified expert in the field of neuro-linguistic programming, Sam Chauhan is changing how poker players mentally prepare to be at their very best. Neuro-linguistic programming is an approach to psychotherapy and organizational change based on “a model of interpersonal communication, to educate people in self-awareness and effective communication, and to change their patterns of mental and emotional behaviour.” According to one study, a classic interaction in NLP can be understood in terms of several major stages, including establishing rapport, gathering information about a problem and desired goals, using specific tools and techniques to make interventions, and integrating proposed changes into the client’s life. The entire process is guided by the non-verbal responses of the client. The most recognizable figure in the field is Anthony Robbins, self-help author and motivational speaker. Along with his ubiquitous self-help books and seminars, Robbins has been featured on numerous TV shows talking about his personal success and how his methods can change lives. So how did Sam Chauhan change the lives of poker pros who already had money, success and titles? And furthermore, what more did they want from life? Some of the richest and most powerful men and woman in the world may have tons of money, but still find little happiness in life. Is it true that we can’t have everything? Who says so?


Recently, I began researching the increasingly popular mindset coach, whose students were getting results. Esfandiari started working with Sam just before the 2009 WSOP began, and the “Magician” made the final three tables of the Main Event. When Sam went to check on his student, there were around 30 players remaining. As he stood watching from the rail, Antonio caught a glimpse of his new mindset coach and
stood up out of his chair, threw his arms in the air and shouted, “It’s MY TIME!” Indeed it was, sort of. Antonio finished in 24th place and earned a very impressive $352,832. Paul Wasicka, after learning from Sam, went on to win a WSOP circuit event in Tunica and with it $139,422. But of all the pros who made changes, perhaps the positive change in Phil Hellmuth may be the most significant.
The temper tantrums, screaming and yelling that branded Hellmuth the “Poker Brat” may very well be a thing of the past. No longer will you read “tweets” from him ranting and raving about how poorly his opponent played;, instead there is a “glass half full” type of attitude present in his posts. Some tweets had an almost optimistic attitude, like this one from July:

“But this is not the time to lament and beatmyself up!! This is the time to MAN UP and win the WSOP Main Event!! Look out WSOP: HERE I COME!” And: “I won 1 pot all day, 1! But I still have 25k + a table ready to try to bluff me, PERFECT!! In bed resting up, gathering strength to CHARGE!”

With his new attitude, Hellmuth was a one-man wrecking crew at the World Series. In addition to finishing second in the $50k Poker Players’ Championship Event for $1 million, he also had four other cashes, including two seconds. More impressive than the money was his change in attitude, which was noticeable. Having affected these poker players’ lives in such a positive way, I was very excited to speak with Sam about his methods and teachings. If there is one thing I am certain I need to improve in my game and life, is to have a more positive outlook on things. I asked Sam about his methods for teaching his students and how it helps them overcome the negative thoughts while their playing.


“Ego is a very negative thing for poker players, and we all have to deal with it,” Sam explained. “It can very easily cloud a person’s judgment. When decisions are involved and the person doesn’t have a clear sense to himself, the outcome usually isn’t what they hoped for. It’s definitely one of the most difficult challenges for some players. I teach people how to control their ego with their thought process. Some of the techniques I use are based on exercises. Every day people will email me a list of things they are thankful for in their life. The power of positive thought is stronger than most are aware of.” The power of understanding the mind is also amazing. “It can help you reach the next level of your goals. You can find the answers to dealing with any situation in life; the problem is knowing how to look for the answers,” Sam says. “Some setbacks in life are out of your control, and worrying about the things you cannot control is what you shouldn’t be doing. The setbacks in life make us stronger. We can improve every area of our life – our work, our family and our self.” Sam says the first stop is changing your perception. “Change is often the hardest part, but worth the work in the end. It’s important for people to create positivity around them, with the people in their lives as well as their own attitude and beliefs. If you are able to change the positive force within you, amazing things can happen. Many studies have proved the positive effects of meditation in one’s life, both psychologically and physically. Starting your day with a clear mind and a positive perspective on life will only make the difficult times we experience easier to deal with.”


Sam’s teachings are obviously changing the lives of many poker players, and their tournament results are proof. He shared a few tips on staying focused during tournaments. For example, just how does the rubber band help a player? “The rubber band around the wrist is a tool to keep focused and only think of positive thoughts. Quite often during the long stretches of a tournament, players can lose concentration or have negative thought processes that affect their game. The rubber band is a tool that is used to ‘snap’ their attention back to where it should be focused any time they find themselves thinking something negative.” Three things that are important to staying focused in tournaments are:

1 – Don’t pay attention to the chip stacks of other players at your table. Your focus needs to be on your own stack and not any others. Your
attention must always be directed to your own situation and spending time concentrating on another player’s stack can cause you to lose focus on what you can control – your own stack.

2 – Tournament clock. Of course, during any tournament you need to have an idea of blind levels and time, however, focusing too much on the tournament clock is a distraction. It is relevant but not an important factor, certainly not enough to make you lose focus. At times when your chip stack is less than your opponents’ at your table or the tournament average, concentrating on the tournament clock is not a positive activity.

3 – All-in decisions. It is very important that when you are considering risking your tournament life on an all-in situation, that you stop and focus on your thought process. You need to ask yourself: Is this a situation where putting your tournament life on the line is the right decision.” And before you make that “all-in” decision, you need to be sure that no matter what the outcome of this hand, you are happy with the decision you made. “If in the end you win or lose, you know that your decision was the right one and nothing else should matter. Naturally, all poker players want the win, but ultimately it’s the right decisions they make that matter the most.”


On a personal note, now that I’ve spoken with Sam Chauhan, it’s obvious to me that most of the negative thoughts or the insecurities he spoke about players having during a tournament often applied to me as well. I can’t wait to start working with Sam, as I’m sure he will find a lot that needs changing. Admitting my mistakes is the first step towards improving. If any athlete in history has proved that the power of thought and believing in yourself makes a difference, that athlete was Muhammad Ali. Before every fight Ali told himself and everyone who could hear: “I am the greatest fighter that ever lived. I am the greatest!” He spoke the words that the world all knows, but would Ali have been the fighter he became – the champion who changed the world of boxing forever during a time of racial chaos – if he didn’t tell himself every day just how great he was? In my humble opinion and I’m certain in the minds of many people, Muhammad Ali will always be the greatest boxing champion. And a lot of what he achieved was because he believed in himself and wasn’t afraid to show it. To all the ones who never give up, who focus on getting back up rather than on what knocked you down…To the fighter in all of us: If we don’t believe in ourselves, who will?


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