How to Get in the Poker Flow

A woman plays a video poker machine. (Photo by Pascal GUYOT / AFP)

There’s a lot of dubious “mental game” content out there in the poker sphere. This is the good stuff. We’re giving you a simple yet scientifically-grounded guide for putting yourself in the best possible frame of mind (and body) to play poker; some people call it The Zone, but in psychology circles, it’s known as a flow state – and you can better achieve this state by taking the following three steps.

1. Choose The Right Stakes

When psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified the concept of flow in 1975, he was trying to understand why artists (painters in particular) seemed entranced by the work they were doing, to the point where they’d lose track of everything else.

You don’t have to be an artist or a psychologist to know this state, though: It’s called “having fun.” Perhaps you’re familiar with it. According to Csikszentmihalyi, we each have a certain limited amount of mental processing power that we can apply to any task.

The trick with achieving a flow state is to choose a task that is just challenging enough to engage our attention and keep our interest, but not too challenging for us to process. In poker, that means choosing the right stakes for the job.

Have you been playing at too high a level for where your skills are at? Are you bored because the games are too easy? Adjust your stakes (within the confines of smart bankroll management), find your sweet spot, and you’ll be well on your way to achieving that flow.

2. Make A Smart Schedule

Speaking of mental energy, everyone experiences ups and downs throughout the day. There’s no way around this – it’s hard-wired. Your body (and therefore, your mind) goes through natural cycles, including circadian rhythms that repeat every day, and ultradian rhythms that repeat every 90-120 minutes or so.

These are very real things, unlike biorhythms, and you need to respect them if you want to achieve a full-on flow state. From a poker perspective, cash game sessions that last 90 minutes (followed by a 30-minute break) will be the easiest to fit into your flow schedule.

If you’re a tournament player, consider playing more Sit and Gos (SNGs), which take a lot less time to complete than multi-table tournaments (MTTs). But don’t abandon MTTs if that’s where your heart lies; just be aware that your poker flow is going to ebb every couple of hours, and if you’re playing online, use your tournament breaks wisely to refresh as much as possible.

3. Be Healthy

How serious are you about poker? This is where the rubber meets the road: If you want better results at the table, treat yourself better away from the table. Diet and exercise might be the last two things people want to hear about, but they’re the keys to achieving anything in life – and you can always improve the way you approach both.

We can’t tell you exactly what you need to do with your own process, but in very general terms, you need to monitor your inputs (food, water, liquor, et al.) and your outputs (daily activities, sports, workouts) to make sure you’re putting in quality time on both fronts and to make sure you’re striking the right caloric balance between the two.

It wouldn’t hurt to pay closer attention to your sleep patterns, either; irregular sleep will throw off your circadian and ultradian rhythms and mess up your flow big-time. Once you apply this three-step approach, the next trick is to continue getting better at poker.

The more you study, practice, and play, the less challenging the game will be for you, which means you’ll be ready to tackle the higher stakes – if your bankroll allows. With that in mind, keep watching this space for more useful poker guidance, keep fighting the good fight, and may the rectangles be with you.