Poker

The World's No. 1 Poker Player on Winning, Losing and Staying Sane in High-Stress Situations

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Entrepreneurship, like poker, is a high-risk game. Whether you're gearing up for a big pitch meeting or leaving your 9-to-5 job to pursue your side business full time, it's a leap – often, a very scary one. That special blend of excitement and anxiety entrepreneurs know so well is something I deal with whenever I enter a big poker tournament.

In a game where the results are volatile and largely out of your control, it's easy to get caught up in the stress of it all. You may not be able to win every hand, but what you can do is put yourself in the best possible situation to succeed during these high-stakes situations.

Related: 5 Powerful Poker Tips That Shaped an Engineer Turned Executive

Here are some things that have worked for me over the years.

1. Manage your expectations.

In a 1,000-person poker tournament, if you are skilled enough to win the tournament 1 out of 200 times, you are doing a good job. Even with an edge big enough to have a solid ROI, if you get heartbroken every time you don’t win a tournament, you're going to spend most of your time being disappointed – and that can affect your future performance. Some amount of heartbreak is inevitable; poker is a brutal game. But if you go in thinking you deserve to win every tournament, it’s going to be a lot harder. When you are fortunate enough to have a good day at the office, make sure to enjoy it! Too often, we're quick to forget the wins and dwell over the losses.  

2. Prepare as much as possible.

In high-stress situations, it can be hard to perform your best. It is easier to calculate some scenarios in the comfort of your own home, with no cameras, all the tools and resources (computer/calculator/Google) at your disposal than on the fly. If you have practiced beforehand, you can more easily do it on the fly. With enough practice, you will find your educated guesses can become quite precise.

It’s also important to know how your body and mind handle high-pressure situations. I sometimes lose my appetite, so I make sure to have easy-to-digest foods on hand. If I don’t do this, I find that I might accidentally go 16 hours without eating. I also understand that when I am playing, I like to stay "in the zone," and I find that staying in a quiet room to meditate helps me maintain my focus better than a crowded area where I would be expected to socialize. Everyone is different, but knowing what it takes for you feel and perform your best can be hugely beneficial. 

Related: What Successful Poker Players and Entrepreneurs Have in Common

3. Avoid 'tilt' by moving on from mistakes.

Despite doing everything right -- weeks of preparation, a good night’s sleep, and however else you might prime yourself to succeed – sometimes, you just make mistakes. This happens at all levels of any craft. One of the major differences between an expert and an amateur is the expert will strictly make fewer mistakes. But it's important to realize that even the best in the world mess up sometimes. We can strive to make it as infrequently as possible, but we are human and cannot be expected to act 100 percent consistently, especially under extreme duress. A common leak in the poker world, is for a player to get very upset over an error. In this state of mental confusion or “tilt,” a player becomes much more susceptible to making another error. Feeling bad about something that is no longer within your control is counterproductive.

4. Diversify your interests.

When all your time and focus is on a single task, that result will fully dictate your happiness. Unfortunately, despite doing everything right, sometimes there are things that are outside of your control that will prevent you from accomplishing your goals. Even when in full time “poker mode,” I like to spend some of my energy on other outlets. A new personal record at the gym helps me feel better about a failed poker trip. I’m not saying don’t work hard; repetition and improvement are very strongly correlated. But I think pushing yourself too much can lead to burnout and frustration.

Related: How to Win the Game of Life