Mental Game of Poker: The Inchworm (Part 1)

An Inchworm

Jared Tendler, together with Barry Carter, released the most ground-breaking poker book earlier this year, "The Mental Game of Poker". This book arms people with the tools to improve their mental game immensely but also give them the knowledge of why certain mental game aspects happen. Jared has been kind enough to allow me to publish a section on the very popular concept of "The Inchworm." This is part one of two.

“Inchworm” is a concept with a strange name that helps make the process of improving over time easier to understand. Inchworm isn’t a revolutionary new idea; it’s just an observation of how you improve over time and something you likely never thought about previously. Understanding this concept more clearly will help you to:

  • Become more efficient in your approach to improving.
  • Make consistent improvement while avoiding common pitfalls.
  • Avoid fighting a reality you can’t change.
  • Know where a skill is in the learning process.
  • Handle the natural ups and downs of learning better.

There will be times when it feels like you have taken a huge step backward, not progressed at all, or have fallen back into old habits. The next time this happens, come back to this section.

Understanding the concept of inchworm starts by looking more closely at the natural range that exists in the quality of your poker or mental game. Think for a moment about the quality of your poker decisions when playing your absolute best and when playing at your worst. In other words, how good does it get when you’re playing great, and how bad does it get when you’re playing badly?

To illustrate a point, let’s say you rated the quality of every decision you made at the poker table (your best, worst, and everything between) over the last 6 to 12 months on a scale of 1 (worst) to 100 (best) and plotted them on a graph. What you’d see on that graph is a bell curve.

Mental Game of Poker: The Inchworm (Part 1) 101

This bell curve shows the natural range that exists in your game and the game of every poker player on the planet—even shortstackers (although theirs is the narrowest). As long as you’re playing poker, you’ll always have aspects of your game that represent the peak of your ability, and the flip side, your worst. Always. Perfect poker isn’t possible over a large number of hands. There are times you play perfectly and other times that you don’t. Poker is a dynamic game that’s becoming more competitive. This means that the definition of perfection, even just solid play, is a moving target. As long as your game evolves, that means you’re learning. If you’re learning, that means there’s range in the quality of your decision making.

Poker isn’t the only instance where range exists. It’s everywhere you look, especially in professional sports. Take any player in a major professional sport and evaluate the quality of their skill set over a large enough sample and you’ll see a bell curve. Baseball players hit home runs and make diving catches, as well as strike out and make errors; quarterbacks throw perfect forty-yard passes into tight coverage and then throw terrible interceptions; soccer players make incredible passes setting up an incredible goal and also whiff or shank the ball.

When looking more closely at your game, for better or worse, it’s important to be honest about the reality of the range that exists. Not what you wish the reality to be, but what it actually is. Take a look at the strengths in your decision making, represented by the right side of your bell curve. These are decisions that happen when your thinking is perfect, so they come easily because you have a solid understanding of your opponents and you’re in the flow of the game. Generally, you have a great mindset and are in the zone.

The right side also includes new information gained from your own insights, training videos, talking with other players, etc., which allows you to make even better decisions than usual. Remember, these are skills at the level of Consciously Competence and cannot yet be counted as a solid part of your game.

On the other side of the bell curve are all of the terrible decisions you make. These are all the mistakes you know you shouldn’t be making, but still do. Often these are directly connected to mental game problems, such as your mind going blank in a huge pot and you fold the obvious best hand; you misread an opponent because you’re bored and your terrible bluff gets called; or you’re on tilt and play too many hands way too aggressively. Clearly, these are all the things you want out of your game because they not only cost a lot of money, but they create more frustration, confusion, and confidence problems. This book is designed to help you improve the back end of your mental game range, which means that not only will these obvious poker mistakes go away, you’ll also play closer to your mental peak more frequently.

The concept of inchworm comes in when you look at how the range in your poker game or mental game improves over time. A bell curve is a snapshot of a given sample, while improvement is the movement of a bell curve over time; something an actual inchworm illustrates perfectly in the way it moves.

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If you’ve never seen the way an inchworm moves, it starts by stretching its body straight, anchors the front “foot,” then lifts up from the back end, bends at the middle to bring the two ends closer together, anchors the back foot, and then stretches its body straight again.

When you reach a new peak in your ability, the front end of your range takes a step forward. Your best just became better and that also means that your range has widened because the worst part of your game hasn’t moved yet. The most efficient way to move forward again is to turn your focus to the back end of your range and make improvements to your greatest weaknesses. By eliminating what is currently the worst part of your game, your bell curve takes a step forward from the back end, and now it’s easier to take another step forward from the front.

An inchworm illustrates that consistent improvement happens by taking one step forward from the front of your bell curve followed by another step forward from the back. The implications of this concept are that:

  • Improvement happens from two sides: improving weakness and improving upon your best.
  • Playing your best is a moving target because it’s always relative to the current range in your game.
  • You create the potential for an even greater A-game when you eliminate your mental and poker C-games because mental space is freed up to learn new things. (Yes, the quality of your mental peak or zone can actually improve as well.)

Ensure you keep checking back for Part 2 which will have the story of one of Jared's clients, Niman “Samoleus” Kenkre, a Bluefire Poker Coach, and the conclusion to this great mental game article.

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