7 Reasons Why Happiness Makes You a Better Poker Player

Frank Black stares into the mirror. His life has narrowed to the point of a needle. Hope trails behind him like used toilet paper on the underside of a shoe. He can’t remember the last time he won a flip. He slaps his left cheek. His bankroll is dwindling fast. Then he slaps his right. He might have to quit.

A splash of the cold stuff and he heads back into the card room. He orders a beer. His friend Tom puts an arm around him. 

“It will come good, eventually,” he says.

Frank frowns: “Eventually?” 

Tom smiles.

He is always smiling. 

He is rubbish at poker. His girlfriend left him after 10 years. He picks up people's trash for a living, and yet - he is always smiling.

What's the Secret?

Later that evening, Frank sits upright in bed watching the ONE DROP High Roller. 

"I would do that, and that, and that," Frank tells himself repeatedly.

Then self-pity floods his mind and drowns any sense of relief that may have been present.

"Why can't I run that well?" Frank asks himself. "Everyone runs like God except me."

"Why can't I run that well?" Frank asks himself. "Everyone runs like God except me."


“Tom, what’s your secret?”

It turns out that Tom isn't a naturally happy person at all. He knows he is rubbish at poker, and every loss hits him like an ice truck speeding through a red light. His heart felt like it had exploded when his girlfriend left him, leaving him feeling worthless and inadequate. And, he hates his job but, understanding that he spends most of his time there, he decides to take a different view. 

Tom learned that happiness was the key to everything. It enabled him to grow wings and soar above his mess; to see it for what it was - a set of stories he had created and then acted out. It didn't feel right to proselytise to Frank about his methods. Instead, he told him to read a book. It was called The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor, and this is what Frank learned.

1. Choose Your Focus

Frank had built a habit of focusing on the negative aspects of his life, especially when playing poker. After finishing a session, he would always focus on what went wrong, and ignored anything that went well. 

The author made Frank think about how traditional psychology tends to measure everything by averages. In the book, he talked about a study of Harvard students that revealed four out of five of them suffered from depression and believed the stress of studying was the cause. 

Traditional psychology would lead into an investigation into the cause of the stress. And this is what Frank was doing as he continually racked his brains over the minutiae of his bad beats. The field of Positive Psychology suggests a different approach. Going back to the Harvard experiment, this meant studying what the fifth non-depressed student was doing right. 

Frank knew so many people in the game who were in a similar situation that he was. He drank at the bar with them on most nights sharing bad beat tales. And yet so many winners were also Frank's buddies. If he could change his focus to something more positive, perhaps he could engage in conversation with the winners and learn the secrets to their success?

But, how?

Then he read about a second study concerning the happiness levels of students in Africa. 95% of them enjoyed school, whereas most of the Harvard kids didn't. 

So what was the key?

The Africans viewed their experience through a different lens. They chose to focus on a different version of reality. The African children couldn't see their work as a source of stress because they were so grateful to attend school. It was the gratitude that was making them happy. And it was gratitude that Frank needed to find if he was going to get out of his slump.

2. Develop a Positive Mindset

Learning more about Positive Psychology, Frank began to realise that feeling happy and having a positive mindset made people smarter, more motivated, and, therefore, more successful. 

Of course, it made sense to him. He thought back to times when he was on a heater. He was always the Table Captain; smiling, cracking jokes, and getting the whole table to liven up. It was an obviousness that had been lost to him buried beneath a pile of bad beats.

Each time he walked away from the table after suffering a loss he sank deeper into a rut. Negative emotions lurked in the groove of that rut. They strangled him of ideas, thoughts, and solutions. He was on auto pilot; lethargic, and all he wanted to do was sleep.

Learning from his first lesson in changing focus, Frank started to look into the highs he had at the table, instead of the lows. He learned that when he was happy, his brain created large amounts of dopamine and serotonin, chemicals designed to make you feel like a million bucks. These two chemicals also stimulate the parts of the brain linked with learning. 

If he could learn to be happy, he would become a better poker player.

Happiness wouldn't only improve his poker game. Developing a positive mindset would improve all areas of his life. Suddenly, Frank could see how everything came together like pieces of a jigsaw. His relationships, his work; poker - they were all connected. It was the reason why Tom chose to be happy in his job. He knew the secret and Frank was also starting to understand.

3. Take a Break

Frank realised that a trend developed when he played poker and lost - he would play more. Now he had his thinking hat on this notion made little sense. His mindset was all wrong. And he remembered reading an interview with the former World Series of Poker (WSOP) Poker Player's Championship winner, Matt Ashton, saying that whenever he ran badly at the tables, he always had an instinct that kept him away from the games until he was ready to return. It was time for Frank to take a break from poker, recharge his happiness batteries, and come back, fired up like never before.

4. The Happiness Advantage

With no poker to think about Frank delved deeper into Shawn Achor’s book mining for gold when he stumbled across the Happiness Advantage. Essentially, studies have shown that happier people tend to be more successful in the future. These same studies also revealed that some people just don’t think they are happy people. 

Frank was standing in front of that mirror once more. 

He was reading about himself. 

He couldn't remember the last time he wore a smile on his face, but more importantly, didn't believe he was a happy person. He was creating the wrong story. He was choosing the wrong role. 

It was a powerful message for Frank. Poker is a game where you lose more hands, more sessions, and more tournaments than you win. In poker, it's deadly to connect this cycle with happiness. Frank started to understand that he had never actually accepted suffering in the form of variance. He was always fighting it, and it was a battle he would never win.

It was time for Frank to shed this unhappy skin and start to grow a happier one. He decided to take a Transcendental Meditation (TM) class and started meditating 20-minutes a day twice a day, because the author explained how meditation promotes growth in the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for happiness.

He also learned breathing techniques from Tony Robbins and set a timer on his phone to remind him to focus on the moment and complete his breathing exercises as they would help reduce stress, and increase his levels of patience, and therefore make him happier. 

Finally, the author suggested a way of creating a Happiness Advantage was to set some positive goals. Frank made a list of all of his life goals, including various poker-related goals, and pinned them onto his fridge. The first goal was to return to the tables with a fresh, positive mindset on July 1. 

He had a month.

“The more you believe in your own ability to succeed the more likely is it that you will.” - Shawn Achor

Frank was starting to believe.

5. The Pain v Pleasure Principle

Frank learned through the author that you couldn't feel pain and pleasure at the same time. Your brain cannot allocate resources to the two. It has to choose, and your mindset is the ultimate indicator as to how that choice will pan out.

Frank studied his reactions to his bad beats. He was always so wound up, almost praying internally, to a God he didn't believe in, that his card would fall from heaven like an angel with pockets full of chips. 

He needed to plan ahead. He needed to accept the maths. He knew his flush draw would only hit a percentage of the time. He needed to learn how to react when he missed and to make it automatic. And this is where Tom came to mind.

Frank knew that Tom always smiled when he lost a hand, so he asked him how he managed. Tom explained that it wasn't easy. It hurt. But the way he turned pain into pleasure was to have empathy with the person who had just beaten him. Instead of making it all about him, he made it about someone else. Gradually, he was able to accept the mathematical probability and felt happy for his opponent safe in the knowledge that he couldn't control the deck. 

The mind is a powerful thing.

The author described a study that took place in 1979 of 75-year-old men who were asked to live in an environment designed to look like 1959. They viewed everything in their new world through the lens of a 55-year old. 

After the experiment had ended, the subjects were sent for a medical. The results were astounding. Most of the men showed an increase in strength, posture, perception, and short-term memory. It was as if they had gained 20-years of their lives back. 

Imagine what was possible if Frank adopted the same changes in his poker game?

6. Train Your Brain

Way before Frank started playing online poker he was addicted to Tetris on his Gameboy. So his interest was piqued when he read another study of Harvard Students who were asked to play Tetris for prolonged periods of time over a three-day window. 

After the study had ended, participants described a desire to want to organise boxes on supermarket shelves, so everything fit perfectly; would imagine buildings along the High Street having a balanced look, and would fall to sleep dreaming of different shapes falling from the sky.

The Tetris Effect was born.

Frank learned that there is a positive and a negative aspect to the Tetris Effect, and he could see how both were prevalent in his poker game. 

On the downside, we can become programmed to see problems everywhere, and this is what was happening to Frank's poker game. The more he focused on his bad luck, the more bad luck he tended to have. This way of thinking then spilt into his personal life where he could only see the negative in people and the environment in which he existed. Poker affected life, which in turn affected poker. 

If Frank's mind was powerful enough to create imagery of nastiness everywhere, then surely it could also be programmed to see happiness? And this is the positive side of the Tetris Effect. You can train your brain to look at the positives of everything. It becomes a habit, or in the case of a poker player, a winning pattern.

“Habits are like financial capital – forming one today is an investment that will automatically give out returns for years to come.” - Shawn Achor

So how do you cultivate happiness?

Frank decided to follow the author's advice and before he went to bed each night he would write down three things that went well for him during the preceding 24-hours, and to be grateful for three things during that same period.

7. Finding the Third Path

Tom was the key; Frank could see that now. 

He wasn’t the greatest poker player in the world, but he was happy, and Frank knew that happiness was more important than any technical skill he could learn in the game. 

It was Tom that showed Frank the Third Path.

The author describes how during a moment of crisis, such as losing a vital hand in poker, your mind becomes Gandalf lost in the Mines of Moria sitting in front of three doorways smoking a pipe. 

You can choose:

1. Nothing changes. You accept the status quo. Life rolls on.
2. Your gloom worsens. One trapdoor leads to another until you are falling deeper and deeper into the mire.
3. You learn from the failure, and your reaction to it, and become even stronger.

Nobody in this world just makes it. 

The author Steven Pressfield had written for over two decades before someone handed him a paycheck for a novel he had written. It was called The Legend of Bagger Vance, and it turned out to be a major motion picture starring Will Smith.

That novel was 20-years of failing and trying. And yet Pressfield never gave up. He wrote several self-help books on how to beat the imaginary leash that keeps us tied to our negativity. He called this beast Resistance, and Frank could see that to walk down the third path he would have to take out his sword and cut off the head of the beast that blocked his path, breathing fire out of nostrils bigger than his head. 

July 1

Frank looked in the mirror, and his reflection smiled back. He wrote in his journal three statements of gratitude. He meditated for 20-minutes, walked to the fridge and took out a pen and crossed out the goal that said:

Return to the Tables With a Positive Mindset

The doorbell rang.

In walked Tom.

“Are you ready?” asked Tom.

“Let’s go and have some fun,” said Frank with a big smile.