An Idiot's Guide To Poker: Get into the groove

Most, if not all, poker players want to be playing in the zone. The zone is a state that exists where everything becomes natural and fluid and good. Decisions are easy and correct. Calls and folds and raises are seemingly automatic and without thought. Nothing jars, and nothing bothers you.

The zone is the area where we should all be heading and, once there, we should do our best to stay there.

Recently however, I seem to have been playing in the anti-zone. Every decision has been tough and awkward and aneurysm-forming. I find myself halfway through playing a pot and wonder what the hell I'm doing. I have no idea what my opponent has, what I have, or, even, who I am.

This, clearly, is no good. So earlier this week I turned to the advice of Jared Tendler. Jared Tendler wrote a splendid book, The Mental Game of Poker, which helped me a great deal until I forgot pretty much every word I read. Its successor, The Mental Game of Poker 2, expands on some of the theories espoused in the former book with a heavy emphasis on "playing in the zone." 

As poker players, so the theory goes, we are all becoming more strategically sound. We know about ranges and odds and expected value and merging. What separates the great players from the fairly good, average and poor ones, however, is having a solid emotional and psychological base. 

This, I think, is what Jared is telling us. He then goes on to mention an experiment, the Iowa Gambling Task, in which subjects pick from "good" or "bad" decks of cards and are either rewarded or punished accordingly. Participants don't consciously know what makes a good deck good or a bad deck bad, but their subconscious picks up on subtle card patterns and acts accordingly. 

This I like. Often I'll find myself in the middle of a hand and "feel" like I'm ahead or behind without really being able to articulate why. This isn't some homespun witchdoctory or blind faith; rather, after playing millions of hands, I've come to instinctively know where I'm at through a lightning-quick appraisal of the situation that I'm barely aware I'm doing - a combination of timing tells, board texture, opponent history and so forth.

Earlier today, I attempted to get into the zone. Rather than apply rigorous thought to every decision, I performed more instinctively. It worked. In fact, it may have worked too well. In a £55 buy-in tournament I found myself around average stacked with a third of the field gone. I pick up AK on the button. Everyone snap-folds round to me and I raise three times the big blind. The short-stacked small blind shoves in his remaining chips and I'm preparing to call when the big blind - who has me covered - also goes all-in. 

Normally I would call here. But I summon up a few shreds of instinct and, after a mighty sigh, fold. I'm probably flipping for my tournament life or, against AA/KK, could be disastrously behind. The small blind has AQ and the big blind QQ. 

If I had known the big blind has QQ would I have called? Quite possibly not - I felt like I had an edge over the table and didn't need to gamble. Would I have called if I had known two kings would come crashing down on the flop (as, indeed, they did)? Um, probably yes.

Still, I stayed in the zone. A few orbits later I pick up AJ off-suit in the big blind. A frisky small blind raises. I flat call. The flop saunters down A-6-8. Mr Frisky makes a pot-sized bet. I call. The turn is a (possibly?) reassuring 8. He pots it again. I call. The river is a brick. My opponent shoves all his chips in. 

Now, if I thought about this too deeply I might feel I'm behind. My opponent's line is incredibly strong, suggesting perhaps a full house or at least AK. But instinctively I feel like I should call, that the shove on the river represents either weakness or frustration. I call, and he turns over A6.

After that hand I sail onto the final table and am looking at scooping up a huge prize until my set of sixes are beaten up by a set of queens. No amount of being in the zone, unfortunately, can account for such poker malfeasance. Until next time. 

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