Understanding Flow & Playing in The Zone

One area where poker differs significantly from other sports is the degree to which the competitors are evenly matched, especially among professionals.

Soccer teams compete with similar level teams determined by leagues, sprinters only race against those with high enough qualifying times, and boxers are matched against fighters in their weight class and of a similar level.

That’s generally not the case in poker, where there is a heavy emphasis on seeking out competition that’s significantly weaker.

It is routine for a world champion to share a table with a complete amateur. In fact the difference in class between a ‘shark’ and a ‘fish’ can sometimes be equivalent to Tiger Woods playing against a 20 handicap.

Sport thrives on close competition to get spectators interested in watching. Poker players, however, make their money by finding huge edges. The problem is that if you’re only looking for easy money eventually that can harm your progress and thus the size of the edge you have in the game.

CroppedImage320180 csikszentmihalyi Understanding Flow & Playing in The Zone

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Being challenged is a necessary component for both learning and playing in the zone.

One of the most popular theories about the zone comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychology professor and the author of the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

He defines being in the zone as a state of “flow” whereby a person is fully immersed in what they are doing.

In order to achieve this state of flow, a balance must be struck between the skill of the performer and the challenge of the task.

In other words, the performer needs to be sufficiently challenged and have enough skill in that task to meet the challenge.

The graphic below illustrates the relationship between skill and challenge: Tendler flow chart Understanding Flow & Playing in The Zone

As you can see, the size of the challenge and the amount of skill you have aren’t important separately; it’s the relationship between the two that determines your ability to reach the zone.

When your skills are low and the challenge is low, or when the challenge is high and your skills are also high, you can perform in the zone.

However, if you’re a massive underdog, you’ll be overwhelmed by the challenge and according to Csikszentmihalyi, you’ll experience anxiety, not flow. Conversely, if you expect to easily crush a weak opponent, you’ll get bored by a challenge that’s too low and fall out of the zone.

Boredom Takes You Out of the Zone

Boredom typically sets in when you stop feeling challenged and there is nothing new or interesting to learn. Like a computer that hasn’t been used recently, your mind is left idling just waiting to be activated.

“When just showing up is enough to have an edge, it’s easy to slip into your B- or C-game.”
CroppedImage180320 jaredtendlerphotoslide Understanding Flow & Playing in The Zone

Jared Tendler

Boredom is the result of a perceived lack of challenge. When just showing up is enough to have an edge, it’s easy to slip into your B- or C-game.

It makes sense that poker could start to feel like a monotonous grind—you’re dealt the same hands all the time. By now, you’ve been dealt AK suited enough to consider it standard and potentially boring.

However, the players who remain passionate and motivated about seeing the nuances and unique details of how to play each hand are never bored. They see physical tells, timing tells, metagame, combinatorics, balancing ranges, G-bucks, prior action, table image, and many other small details that most players don’t consider.

The dynamics in poker are varied and constantly changing, so while the same hand can be dealt over and over, each hand will play out in a unique way. There are always new areas in which to develop an edge; the game is always evolving and there is always more to learn.

An easy way to stave off boredom is to make sure there’s always something you’re interested in learning.

Are there parts of the game that you’ve wanted to work on, but you just keep putting it off? Focusing on these areas could boost your interest and provide a challenge at the same time.

What are some ways you can stay challenged against weak opponents? Create a game within the game, such as seeing how quickly and accurately you can assess their game.

What information would be useful to gather while you’re card dead? Assume you’re going to find something about another player that will help you exploit them in future hands and your challenge is to find it.

There is always something you can do to make learning more fun and the game more challenging. This is where you should always keep a firm eye on your goals and be ready to refine them to incorporate new challenges.

Jared Tendler is a Mental Game Coach who has worked with over 250 poker players. His newest book, The Mental Game of Poker 2 is the first poker book devoted to teaching players how to play in the zone consistently.

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2 Responses to Understanding Flow & Playing in The Zone

  1. Totally know what that flow feels like. It’s funny though, I never realize I’m “in the flow” until I’m taken out of it. It’s a total out of body experience for me.

  2. I love the perspective shared on this post, great one…

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