At the end of the summer at the EPT in Barcelona, I realized that I needed a psychologist. Everyone I know came to the casino every day and, unlike me, quietly grinded, playing marathon sessions. You don’t pay attention to this online. We don’t see our competitors, so when we take a day off, we automatically assume that everyone else is doing it. Likewise, when we finish a session, we do not notice when our opponents sit down or leave the tables.
In live poker, everything happens before our eyes. You come up to exchange a few words with a friend, and he tells you that he’s been playing for 12 hours and doesn’t plan to leave. And you barely sat at the table for four hours.
That trip exacerbated a problem that I already knew about, but didn’t even try to fix. Before sessions, I often felt anxious, but I shrugged it off and sat down to play anyway, even when I was clearly not ready. Essentially, I was “forcing” myself to play, even though the process itself did not give me any pleasure. As a result, I started counting hands in order to play a certain distance and finish quickly.
At the same time, I continued to love poker, but I no longer liked playing. This is unacceptable in professional poker; you drive yourself into a situation familiar to many office workers – you enjoy life only on the weekends, and on the rest of the days from 9 to 5 you sit at work and count the minutes until the end of the day.
I recently read a biography of tennis player Andy Murray. I almost gave up in the first chapter, because he talks mainly about his mother (I don’t want to offend anyone, but I’m not interested at all, I bought the book to find out about him). But still, I forced myself to read at least to the second chapter and did not regret it, otherwise, it was simply excellent.
In the middle of the biography, Andy tells how Ivan Lendl began to train him. If I'm not mistaken, Murray had reached the Grand Slam finals four times before but lost all of them. In the entire history of tennis, no one had lost five finals in a row. Obviously, in terms of talent, Murray was worthy of winning at least one Slam, but psychology came to the fore.
At such moments, talent is useless. When the problem is in your head, you become your own biggest rival and can hurt yourself so much that no amount of talent can save you. The opposite can also happen; a strong and stable psyche, multiplied by talent, can take a person to the top.
Lendl advised Murray to take a break from tennis more often, socialize more with friends, and enjoy life off the court. The pursuit of his cherished dream – the first Grand Slam title – became an unbearable burden for Andy. He was under pressure from all sides, called the only hope of British tennis, and because of such increased attention, at some point, he almost hated tennis. In his quest to become one of the best tennis players in the world, Andy forgot why he even picked up a racket as a child. And there was only one reason – the love of tennis.
As a result, Andy managed to avoid a unique anti-record; he won in the fifth final. Then he won two more Grand Slam titles, won two Olympic gold medals, and became number one in the rankings in the midst of the most difficult and competitive era in the history of men's tennis.
The greatness of Roger Federer, former PokerStars pro Rafa Nadal, and Novak Djokovic is often talked about. But in 2016, Andy Murray became the best in the world, and only injuries prevented him from achieving even greater success on the court.
I saw a lot of similarities with his story. At some point, I also stopped playing poker for fun and continued to do it only out of necessity to earn money to pay bills.
Recently, in conversations with myself (and on the blog), I have often discussed how to bring back that same joy from the game. Like Andy Murray, I became my own worst enemy. For him, the psychological barrier was the desire to win the first Grand Slam, and for me, it was to reach NL5k-10k+. If you lack mental toughness and, even more importantly, self-belief, no amount of talent will make you a winner.
But I managed to regain my love for the game. Now I look forward to each next session, every time I strive to set unsolvable tasks for my opponents. I want to make them nervous and misjudge my ranges, pull off huge bluffs and make expensive hero calls, exploit regs and fish, play a ton of hands, and ultimately be proud of myself when I get it all done.
Among other things, old Ben Sulsky videos helped me regain my passion for the game. I was inspired by how one of the best players in the world adapts even to those opponents who played much weaker. This did not stop Ben from constantly thinking during hands, being creative, and when to connect exploits to his game.
Andy Murray is exactly the type of player I aspire to be in poker. He fights for every point, watches his diet, has never drank alcohol, tennis is his passion, and he uses every little thing that can give him an advantage. But the most important thing is that he always gives his best.
Of course, Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic were superior to Andy in terms of natural talent. But in that memorable year of 2016, it was Murray who became king. He reached the peak of his potential, and for me, there is nothing more worthy of admiration.
In a world where natural talent is celebrated, I prefer to admire people whose results exceed their talent. Especially when they were clearly inferior in talent to the opponents they beat.
So, when you wash down your next burger with beer, remember that somewhere there is a young guy who may be inferior to you in terms of natural abilities, but in terms of aspiration and desire to win, he is already ahead of you. He clearly has a better chance of reaching his potential.
I've thought a lot about the feeling of anxiety I get before sessions. It was caused by certain life situations. For example, buying my own home became a big stress, since I couldn’t decide on for a long time. However, the main problem turned out to be that my brain had long associated poker with stress and discomfort, so I began to subconsciously be afraid to sit down at the tables.
I have never worked with poker psychologists. I didn’t even have poker coaches. I contacted them twice during my career, but both times during the negotiations there was a steep upswing and the matter did not come to specifics. Realizing that I needed help from a psychologist, I accepted that I had a problem. This is an important step on the path to healing. Understanding the situation allowed me to conduct an analysis to see if I could find a solution myself. And it seems I can. So for now I decided not to seek help from specialists. Perhaps I will return to this issue in the future, especially if I still have a mental block to climbing the limits. Until the end of this year, I plan to grind NL500-2k, and at the beginning of 2024, I will take another shot at higher limits.
This post is already long, so I'll end here. Last week I played five days in a row for the first time in a long time. In the last two sessions, I actually felt like I left money on the table when I finished. The game was so good. But you can't become perfect right away. At the moment, my main goal is to play often and consistently, and the distance and gain will gradually come.