The Pressure to Succeed in Poker

By Donovan Panone | December 3, 2010

Whether you’re a casual player or a professional, there is always some element of pressure to succeed in poker. Poker is a competitive game and as with anything in life, you want to do your best. But this desire to win can sometimes be an obstacle to achieving success. In this article I’m going to talk about the tendencies you may not realize you have, their impact and how you can improve your game as a result.

There are many ways you might be creating stress in your game that you may not realize. The following are few common ones:

Overly High Expectations

If you set a goal to have a certain bankroll or make a certain amount of money in a fixed period of time, and you are not where you want to be, this can add extra pressure to your poker game. You may also have expectations to achieve these goals faster than what is realistic. If you’re running good and on the path upward, these pressures are not an issue. But if you start running bad and are overly focused on your results, impatience can set in and affect your play.

False Perception of Your Skill

You might think you are a stud because you’re on a hot streak or you’ve just won a poker tournament, but it doesn’t mean you’re ready to take on Phil Ivey. Be realistic with yourself. If you think you are better than youreally are, you can trick yourself into believing you should win every time you sit down to play. When things stop going your way you must be prepared to stay emotionally neutral or this extra pressure to win can lead to chasing former glory and blowing all the money you recently won.

Setting Goals For a Session

You can also put unnecessary pressure on yourself by setting goals for an individual poker session. This could be to win a certain amount in a cash game or win a particular tournament. If you are down for the session, you get short-stacked or have busted from a few tournaments, this extra pressure can lead to forcing pots or chasing losses which creates a vicious cycle of spewing money.

Hoping For Good Things to Happen

It’s easy to fall into the trap of waiting for hands to play and hoping for good situations. When you are card dead, it can get frustrating. This hoping and waiting can start taking it’s toll on you and blind you from observing table dynamics and profitable situations. You might wait too late to shove all-in or check/fold in frustration when your AQ missed the flop, missing an opportunity to take down the pot.

Competitiveness & Ego

For some, the pressure to succeed simply comes from hating to lose. It’s a control thing. When you lose a pot, even a small one, it eats at you. You may even start getting mad about people stealing “your” blinds or assume everyone is bluffing you every hand.


For some, the pressure to play poker perfectly and not make a mistake is enough anxiety to send them off the edge. The first time they make a decision that they deem is “bad”, it causes them to second guess every future decision and paralyzes their decision making. They play so afraid of making a mistake that the biggest mistake is not playing poker at all.

The common thread behind all of these pressure factors is that they can lead to making bad decisions or even full blown tilt. The emotions of each situation can cloud your judgment and cause you to play either too impatient or too timid. In a given session you may start speculating with too many marginal hands, bluffing too much or putting people on hands that you want them to have in order to justify a tilty decision. Over longer periods of time these pressures to succeed can also lead to prematurely jumping up in limits because you are chasing results or forcing yourself to play poker because you’ve been losing lately and are trying to make up ground. All of which are a disaster for your bankroll.

Pressure & Tilt

One major point of this article is to communicate that the feeling of tilt that you experience after taking a bad beat isn’t a result of the beat itself, but the internal pressures you are putting on yourself. According to sports & poker psychologist Jared Tendler, tilt is essentially the moment when something happens that you didn’t want to happen. You get mad when a play doesn’t work or you get sucked out on and then blame yourself for making a mistake or worse, blame the poker gods for coming down on you. When it happens one time it doesn’t seem to affect you, but most of the time tilt creeps up. It starts with a small mistake or a little suck-out and then maybe you miss the flop with AK and you get check-raised; then your Aces get cracked. Next thing you know, your heart is racing, your neck is tense and you are pursing your lips. All judgment is clouded and the next hand you get dealt is JJ…a disaster waiting to happen.

How Can You Alleviate This Pressure?

While many of these internal pressures are part of the fabric that makes you who you are, any skill can be improved over time. The key to preventing tilt from manifesting is to recognize the subtle signs when they first happen. There are a few techniques that you can use to diffuse it early and keep yourself focused on playing your “A” game.

The Three Rs

One technique for dealing with pressure situations is called The Three R’s. By following these simple steps you can alleviate the pressures and focus on playing solid poker.

  1. Recognize – Take note at how tense your neck or stomach muscles are. Are your legs wrapped tightly around your chair? Are you pursing your lips and banging your chips down? If so, this is a good sign to calm down and not take things so seriously. You have to first consciously realize that your play is being compromised.
  2. Relax – This can be taking a slow/deep breath or having a routine that calms your nerves like riffling chips. You may also just want to step away from the poker table for a bit.
  3. Refocus – Once you have calmed down, it’s time to focus on the task at hand. Forget the results of the past and ask yourself “What is my job right now?” What is my stack size and how does this change my poker strategy? How are others viewing my play? How are others playing? What are my opponents’ hand ranges? The key to re-focusing is to stay proactive with logical thoughts about the present and not emotional ones.

And remember that just like in an individual hand, you cannot be results oriented in poker. You must focus on making long-term profitable decisions and the results will show over time. Remain emotionally detached from each situation and trust your gut to make the right decisions.

Mental skills are just like any other poker skill. In order to master them they must be practiced over time in order to make them part of your subconscious. You must continuously work on your mental game each time you play poker. And even when you think you have it mastered, pressures can still reveal themselves in new situations. This could be moving up in limits, entering a big poker tournament or anything else that may cause you to have added pressure to succeed. But knowing this ahead of time and not thinking you are immune to these tendencies will help you recognize them and rise to the occasion, no matter how big.

By Donovan Panone

Donovan started playing poker in 2004 and is an experienced tournament and cash game player who has a passion for teaching and helping others improve their game.


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