Mental Game of Poker: The Inchworm (Part 2)

The Inchworm

Earlier in the week we brought you part one of "The Inchworm" by the excellent and renowned mental game coach, Jared Tendler and as promised here is the second and last part on this very popular subject, taken straight from the book, The Mental Game of Poker.

Client’s Story

Niman “Samoleus” Kenkre: BLUEFIRE POKER COACH
$5/$10 to $25/$50 NLHE

“It’s kind of unusual; I actually started talking with Jared when I was on a real tear, and at the top of my game. I’d been a successful pro for more than five years, but had a really rough patch at the end of 2009; I was playing really poorly and was screwed up a bit mentally. I sorted my game out on my own and went to Jared when I was playing well, because I thought in a better state of mind I would get more out of it. Plus, I figured working with him might prevent my game from slipping again.

I was really skeptical working with a mental game coach; what was he going to tell me that I hadn’t heard before? I expected goofy stuff like ‘stay calm,’ ‘don’t worry about results,’ ‘visualize yourself winning,’ blah, blah, blah—stuff you read in forums. I was really surprised; Jared has a fantastic system of learning and it had a really immediate and emphatic effect on me.

He talked about concepts, such as inchworm, in a context that I never thought about. Realizing how the front end fits with my back end was eye-opening. I always thought of my A-game and my F-game as two separate things. Jared helped me understand how they worked together, which made it very systematic and clear how to improve myself overall as a player. I now understand that when I am playing my worst game, I have to work hard to make it a little better, so it won’t be as bad tomorrow.

I also didn’t understand how emotions were part of the learning model. Surprisingly, just knowing more about that completely removed the effect negative emotions had on my play. Previously, I would take bad beats and have bad players get rewarded, and I’d react like a caveman – ‘that guy was stealing my money!!!’ I didn’t have a framework to understand those emotions, and then everything would go haywire. The whole concept of the Unconscious Competence helped to totally change all that, as well as how I went about working on my game.

Unconscious Competence may be the single most important thing Jared taught me. When I was on tilt, one of my leaks would be that I would get frustrated when players 3-bet me in position with hands they should not be playing. I would overplay my hands, and get really tilted at how they were playing. It was my weakest area, and I knew I wasn’t playing well, but couldn’t wrap my head around it. Jared laughed and told me ‘So your opponents are not allowed to play in a way that puts you at your weakest?’ Seeing it in that context made me realize instantly that my emotional reaction was trying to protect my greatest weakness. I fixed the leak, and now when I encounter those situations my head is much better. It’s still frustrating, but my play doesn’t go haywire, because playing well in that situation is now learned to the level of Unconscious Competence.

Now, every day that I play, I think of my play in the context of the learning model. My tilt-induced emotions come up far less frequently, and when they do come up they don’t affect my play as much as they used to. That’s another important thing I took away from Jared. After a couple sessions, I assumed I was supposed to have this Zen-like state of mind and shouldn’t get tilted by bad beats because I now ‘understood.’ Emotions are going to be there and just knowing that makes them easier to handle. I’ve been a pro poker player now for five years, and there has been no greater positive influence on my game than my lessons with Jared, and nothing else even comes close.”

Two Common Learning Mistakes

To further understand how inchworm applies specifically to poker, here are two common mistakes players often make, along with a solution for each.

Ignoring weaknesses. When players constantly learn new things while avoiding, ignoring, blocking out, or protecting weaknesses, their bell curve gets flatter and flatter. Weaknesses haven’t improved so the back end doesn’t move. They also have a bunch of new skills to use, so when they’re at their best, they’re better than ever. The problem is that by exclusively learning new things, they create a wide range in their game, which means that it takes a lot of mental effort to think through all these new concepts.

Mental Game of Poker: The Inchworm (Part 2) 101

If you aren’t mentally sharp, there’s a dramatic drop-off in your play. So when you’re at your best, you’re better than ever; but when your play goes bad, it gets really bad.

Here are a few other consequences for this approach to learning:

  • Playing your best takes a lot of energy so it doesn’t happen that often.
  • Mistakes show up completely out of nowhere and are really basic.
  • It feels as if you’ve stopped improving and your game has plateaued.
  • You have a lot to think about and often get confused or miss important details of a hand.

To make matters worse, all the new information you’ve acquired is in the process of being learned, so it won’t show up when you go on tilt, lose focus, get tired, or are nervous in a huge pot. When any of those mental game problems happen, it feels as if you’ve just had the carpet yanked out from under you, and now you’re lying on the floor (the back side of your bell curve) with your confidence shattered, wondering what the hell happened. For some players, this leads them to question everything in their game, which furthers the free-fall like an airplane in a death spiral.

The consequence of not working on your weaknesses and exclusively learning new things could be the difference between being a slight loser and a solid winner. Preventing this from happening is actually quite simple: You must stay focused on learning the correction to your weaknesses until it is trained to the level of Unconscious Competence—especially after your A-game improves. Doing so keeps you humble, reminds you of your weaknesses, and is the most efficient way for your best to improve.

Comparing your worst to your best. Inchworm also has another important lesson that comes in handy when your game is under pressure from being on a bad run, on tilt, or having poor motivation and focus. During these times, it’s especially hard to maintain proper perspective, especially for improvement in your poker and mental game. While actually recognizing improvement may not seem like much, it can be critical to helping turn things around.

The only way that you can prove the back end of your game has taken a step forward is by analyzing your game at its worst, and comparing it with your worst during a previous tough stretch. So, rather than comparing your game at its worst to your recent peak, which can seem miles away and makes you feel worse, instead compare apples to apples, or your worst to your previous worst. Remember, it’s under intense pressure that you rely heavily on skills at the level of Unconscious Competence; so for better or worse, what shows up at that point gives you a perfect view of the greatest weaknesses in your game.

Comparing your worst to your previous worst allows you to prove that the back end of your range has improved. For example, you might not be completely tilt-free; but compared to before you are more aware of your tilt pattern, manage your tilt better so you play better longer, and quit sooner when it’s no longer possible to recover a solid thought process. Basically, you’re looking to see your worst improve; and seeing that you have improved in the midst of a tough stretch can give you a much-needed confidence boost.

Jared Tendler is the industry leader in mental game coaching and is the author of the amazing book "The Mental game of Poker". He can be contacted through his website, Jared Tendler Poker.
The co-author to The Mental Game of Poker is Barry Carter, a respected poker journalist and poker player based in the UK. He can be contacted through his personal blog, Barry Carter Poker.

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