focus at the poker table

5 Tips for Staying Focused at the Poker Table

Being able to focus for extended periods of time is one of the most important skills a poker player can have.

Better focus during sessions will increase your win-rate substantially, and it separates okay-to-good poker players from the great players.

Giving the game your undivided attention might even be more important than figuring out your c-bets, check-raise strategy, or any other strategic concept. 

To give you the best chance at success, we’ve prepared 5 tips for staying focused. These tips are geared towards tournament players, but cash game players would be wise to heed this advice as well.

1. Put away your phone

If someone asked you what the number one distraction in your life was, what would you say? Many would say their phone. When it comes to focusing on one specific task, phones are a major distraction.

If you’re a serious poker player, here’s a more important question: Do you habitually look at your phone while playing?

I hope the answer is ‘no’. Our friend Joe Ingram has weighed in on this:

joe ingram tweet focus at the table

Deep in tournaments, most players start to focus more and put their phones away, which proves they know there is value in focusing their attention. But by not putting the phone away earlier, they are burning money and preventing themselves from getting to later stages more often.

Pratyush Buddiga (coach of the Upswing Tournament Master Class) struggled with an attachment to his phone for years. He began to break the habit by starting his day with one hour of no-phone time.

Many of us reach for our phones the moment we wake up, but by starting the day without it–and without the negativity of the news, Twitter, etc–you can start to break the habit. You might initially have a feeling that you’re missing out on something, but that will go away.

While playing, turn your phone on ‘Airplane Mode’ or simply turn it off. The dopamine hits from seeing messages and notifications are just too attractive in the early stages of a tournament. Avoid this by putting the phone away.

To stay focused and off your phone, try to range other players when you are not in the hand. Pay close attention to showdowns–you can learn a lot about a player’s strategy from just one showdown. Do anything productive to keeping yourself from getting bored.

Less phone = more $.

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2. Leverage music

Music can be a great tool for staying focused, if it suits you. Music can keep you “in the zone,” or at least it allows you pay attention poker without checking your phone or staring off into the distance.

Music can be great especially when trying to break the habit of using your phone. It also can keep your mood high.

If you choose to use music to stay focused, a personal recommendation is the “Have a Great Day” playlist on Spotify.

3. Don’t squander your breaks

This point is fairly obvious. If you are playing live poker tournaments, you have a break every two hours on average. Use these breaks to your advantage. Take a moment to stand up, take a walk, get the blood moving. This will help your focus level going back to poker after the break.

Since you are no longer checking your phone while playing, use breaks to go crazy on your phone. Check messages, Twitter, Instagram––whatever you want during break. Get it out of your system before returning to the table.

4. Pace yourself

Multi-day tournaments can be very draining, which is one possible exception to not having 100% complete focus from the start. If the tournament is very long (e.g., 4+ days) it can be exhausting to pay close attention to everything right from the start, because there are so many days ahead of you.

In these cases, there is an argument to be made about whether it’s okay to go on “autopilot” during day 1. Playing your B game, not paying attention to every hand, and saving energy for later days is acceptable. Just be aware that by doing this you are consciously lowering your expected value at the time, so it is a personal decision.

But if you’re playing a shorter event, you should aim for your A-game from the start–staying off your phone, focusing, listening to music, and ranging players.

5. Try meditating

If you’ve never tried meditation, you should really give it a shot. Some of the most successful people in the world, from poker players to CEOs, swear by meditation’s effectiveness. 

Meditation is especially useful for live players, who have to deal with countless distractions in busy casinos. The common benefits fall right in line with what live players often times struggle with, including less stress, less anxiety, and improved blood circulation.

New meditators should probably start with guided meditations, which are offered by a myriad of phone apps. Tournament beast Fedor Holz is so confident in the effects of meditation, he created his own meditation app, Primed Mind. Another great app is 10% Happier: Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics.

A few words on deliberate practice

In short, deliberate practice is an approach to learning that allows you to retain more information and dive deeper into a given field. One of the main steps in the process is “practicing with focus.”

Here is a great article to get you started on the topic: “How to use deliberate practice to reach the top 1 percent of your field.”

Conclusion

If the greats aren’t doing it in other games or sports or jobs, then you shouldn’t be doing it in poker either. Avoid distractions!

To hone your focus, you can try playing one table at a time online to see how it goes. Try to stay focused despite the downtime. Ryan Fee digs into the value of focusing on one table in his article here.

Hopefully you’ve made it through this article without checking your phone. Until next time, good luck!

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Your everyday MTT grinder from Toronto, Canada. Also happens to play professional lacrosse.

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