How to Prepare for a Poker Session

By Pete Carter
January 22, 2013

It’s what the greats do before every performance. A ritual, a walkthrough, a cadence that they utilize to get themselves focused and ready for the task at hand. Preparing for the big event is something that may seem somewhat trivial to a poker player, but in performing a job that directly impacts your income after you play it in both positive and negative ways, it may be wise to actually gear back and analyze and prepare for your game before taking part in it. Here are some pointers for getting yourself mentally prepared to do combat at the poker table, and ways to debrief after a session to be better prepared for the next one.

First, make sure you’re mentally prepared to grind a long session. If you’re not ready to play for at least four hours, you probably don’t have the mental edge needed to even both going to the tables. Sometimes, you’ll get down to the cash tables, and find a juicy game with no signs of ending any time soon, and you’ll need to be on top of your game for many hours to take advantage; if you go down tired and unfocused, you may sit in the game and get destroyed. If you’re getting ready to play a tournament, understand how long the tournament may run before entering it; you may be looking to play a 5-6 hour session, but enter a tournament that may take 8-10+ hours to complete; what’re you going to do when you reach the bubble at the fifth hour and have little energy and no motivation to continue?

Second, take a mental note of the player archetypes you’ll be facing in the game you’re entering. If it’s a cash game that you’re familiar with, look at the players and where they’re seated, and how their position will help or hurt your game in the time you’ll be at the table. A game that normally may be very profitable for you may actually be hard to break even in if the weak players all have position on you; as powerful as position is in hold’em, being put in awkward spots by even the most rank of amateurs can turn an awesome table into a terrible one quickly. Being able to scout out in advance and see what seats are available and where the money is in the game helps to determine what table would be best for you to sit at, instead of just plopping your name on a list and accepting the first table that the card room manager or online card room generates for you.

Third, ensure that you’re in the proper mood and mindstate to play poker. This differs from the first step in that, instead of looking at the length of time you can devote to poker, you look at how you’re feeling, what your motivation for playing is, and so forth, and ensure that you’re playing for the right reasons. If a guy that sucked out on you for a $700 pot last night is at a table, and suddenly all you can think about it “getting to that table to break his back real quick” then, chances are, you’re not going to be playing for the right reasons. It’s much easier to suddenly go on tilt when you’re manic, depressed, raging, or other highly volatile moods, than when you go into a game calm and focused. Be able to gauge the type of mood you’re in before you play, and give yourself ample time to put yourself into a state of relaxation and happiness before you play. Find an activity that calms you down before playing; maybe take a 15 minute walk around the casino, play some music, and mentally prepare yourself for the grind. If you feel confident and ready to go, head out. If not? It may be best to simply pass up the opportunity to play, instead of risking it and potentially losing a big chunk of change.

Finally, when your session is over, make sure to take notes and make assessments about your play. This seems contrary to actual preparation, but in fact, is continuing the process of prepping for your next game immediately. Try to remember key hands you played, or patterns you detected in certain opponents; when David overbet the pot twice tonight, both times he had a marginal hand. Jot those sort of tidbits down and make sure to put them somewhere you can access in the future, like a spreadsheet online or a small notepad you can pull out and index players with. As you grow more accustomed to playing in a single location, you’ll find yourself playing against the same cast of characters over and over again. You should assume at the least these players are aware of things you do and don’t do from game to game, so by making sure to capture and analyze things they do in their play, you can make the changes and implement the plays needed to stay one step ahead of them and keep them on their toes at all times when facing off with you.

Poker is a game that requires a great deal of discipline and mental acuity to properly play. Preparing for a game of impulses and constantly shifting playing fields may seem impossible to do, but it also can be the biggest factor holding you back from being a consistent winner in the games. Take the time before a game to ready yourself for a winning session, then take the time afterward to learn from your success and your failure, and you’ll be building a resume to poker success, well before any of your opponents even have an inkling as to what’s going on. All it takes is a few minutes to reflect, and the rest of your time spent at the table will go much, much better.

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