Editor’s note: In time for the first weekend of the 2017 World Series of Poker, we’re resharing a favorite WSOP story from poker author, coach and player Tommy Angelo.
“How could you forget your swimsuit?” said the big-bellied bald guy to his portly wife. We three and sixty others were lined up to board Southwest Airlines flight 1691, bound for Las Vegas, Nevada, the true center of the known universe, despite what Neil Degrasse Tyson says.
The husband’s question made the wife tilt, and then she said something back that made the husband tilt. Meanwhile, the 6’7″ guy ahead of me was getting into it with the frizzy-headed boarding-pass collector, and that hold-up was causing the guy behind me to rant out loud, even though he was about to get into a tube that will land in Vegas when it lands in Vegas, no matter what he says or feels.
And I wondered. If Mr. Complainy Pants gets this upset over an inconsequential delay, how would he react if he busted out on the bubble in a bracelet event? How would he feel if he ate crappy food for a week, and didn’t get one good night’s sleep, and then busted out on the bubble, and he owed money he couldn’t pay? Because no matter how much pain and frustration piles up in airports, it can’t compare to where I was going.
The plane landed in the desert. I walked the halls of McCarran and taxied through town. I checked into the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino, home to the greatest confluence of mental suffering on earth: The World Series of Pain.
After a nap, a coffee, and some slow yoga, I headed downstairs to play poker.
The Pavilion room is the approximate size of NASA’s Vehicle Assembly Building. I found my game — $5/$10 no-limit hold’em — on the sign-up board. They had four tables going and no list. Perfect.
The staffer handed me a laminated card with 238 on it. Minutes later I was in action for the first time in months, and I wasn’t even excited about it. I didn’t have time for that. I had a movie to catch up on. That’s what it feels like now, every time I join a game in progress. It’s like coming in halfway through a movie. I’m desperate to figure out who these characters are, and what I missed.
Who is winning?
Who is losing?
As the movie plays on, I watch every scene, and I send out my tilt feelers, because the main thing I need to know is:
Who is content?
Who is agitated?
By constantly updating that information, I can make better reads, better bluffs, better calls, etc. But that’s merely money stuff, profit stuff, poker stuff. The bigger benefit of watching every bet on every street is the pain relief. Ahh, it feels so good, to not feel bad, even right after I get stabbed by a bad beat.
Here’s how I pull that off…
Being a daily meditator comes with a cost. Sometimes I inadvertently tune into nearby pain. You know that punched-in-the-gut feeling you get when you lose a big pot on the river? Sometimes I’m like a stealth punching bag at the table. No matter who loses the pot, I feel the punch.
It also comes with a benefit. Because of my mindfulness training, when I lose a pot that stings, I can send my tilt sensors out, and aim them not at my opponents, but at myself, so that I can look at my tilt, and end it.
For example, I might observe my own mental activity and then think, “I am full of heat right now because I just made a sloppy preflop mistake that ended up costing me $1,000.” And when I do that, my pain stops. Maybe only briefly, before it returns. But it definitely stops. And when it comes back, it’s not as bad as it would have been, had it not been temporarily halted. And by repeating that process, I can gently beat the living shit out of my pain.
What makes this all possible is mindful breathing. Awareness of if I am breathing in, or breathing out. That’s it. That’s all I need. With mindful breathing, I can heal my wounds in the heat of battle.
That’s because, when I follow my breathing, it stops my unconscious thinking — in other words, my pain — just long enough to create the wedge of awareness required to step outside myself, and look at my thought pain dispassionately, as if it belonged to someone I don’t even know, like the guy next to me at the airport. And that makes the pain stop. And then I can consciously put happier stuff in its place, such as gratitude, and self-kindness.
Breathing in — I am aware that I am breathing in. Breathing out — I am aware that I am breathing out. Breathing in — I am aware that I am hurting over a hand I botched. Breathing out — but I’m not starving to death, so that’s good. Breathing in — and I can play the banjo. Breathing out — and I’m playing poker right now! Breathing in — there is so much to be grateful for! Breathing out — and I’m not really an idiot. Breathing in — I just made a mistake is all. Breathing out — so deal the next scene!
Any concentrated observation of anything going on right now — such as sights and sounds and thoughts — serves as pain relief. That’s why watching a movie relieves pain, and that’s why watching the poker game relieves pain. But of all the things to concentrate on, the best is the ins and outs of breathing because:
- Mindful breathing has physiological effects that cause instant calming.
- Mindful breathing is available at every instant. No devices — or poker games or anything else for that matter — are required.
- One mindful breath is enough to fling open a door of awareness that can lead to mindful hearing, tasting, walking, etc.
Pain reduction at the poker table is its own reward. But wait! There’s more! There’s the financial payoff. I call it “pain reciprocality.” If pain causes you and me to perform sub-optimally, and I experience less pain than you do at the table, then that will convert to money in my pocket.
So that’s my story. By watching the game the way I’d watch a movie, and by observing my breathing, I create an island of peace in an ocean of pain.
World-class coach and author, Tommy Angelo is considered a modern master of poker’s mental game, and has helped pros and rec players alike achieve less tilt and more focus. Called “the seminal poker text of the 21st century” by The London Times, Angelo’s Elements of Poker has revolutionized how serious players approach the game. His latest book, Painless Poker, already a bestseller, can be found on Amazon.com. Connect with Tommy on Twitter @TheTommyAngelo, and visit his website: tommyangelo.com.
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