There was a hand a couple of seasons ago on High Stakes Poker where Barry Greenstein committed close to a half-million dollars to a pot against Tom Dwan, when he knew he was going in with much the worst of it, and was an underdog in the hand. After he took down the hand, Greenstein said that he just felt he was going to win the hand, and even though the math was wrong, he instinctively knew it was the right move.
In the world of high-level sports, players report being “in the zone,” a place where every single thing they do is right, for reasons that they often can’t even explain. This phenomenon is explored in a book called Flow, written by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, where he fully describes this state of mental and physical operation where a person is fully immersed in a feeling of complete focus, involvement and success. In the world of poker, this concept is no less important than in other competitive arenas, and it is a state that all players should aspire to.
You’ve no doubt had the experience while at the table that, no matter what you do, it will turn out right. You keep finding the perfect times to bluff-raise players out of pots, you make big lay downs at exactly the right moments, and you are able to maximize profits when you hit your biggest hands. After a while, this feeling feeds on itself, so that your expectations for success continue to grow. Doyle Brunson has described this as a “rush,” something that every poker player should stay alert for, and then ride it for all it’s worth.
The feeling of the rush is unforgettable once you’ve experienced it, but flow goes beyond just an inordinately fortunate run of cards. When you are in the flow, you actually may not win (although you will be profitable the vast majority of the time), but you will play optimally, as your creativity, card-reading, and balance of math and instinct will continually direct you to make the correct play.
You will pick up patterns that you were previously unaware of, and you will start to recognize that big river bet by your opponent as a busted flush draw and make the big call with just second pair. You will, as Greenstein did, get a “feeling” that you are going to hit your straight, or your full house, or whatever card it is you need to fill a winning hand, and confidently get your chips in, regardless of the math.
Just as it is important to cultivate getting in the flow whenever possible, it is just as essential to recognize when you are not in that state. If you find yourself in a state of fear, or if you get a sense that the cards keep putting you in awkward situations, or if you can’t seem to establish a rhythm in your betting against the other players at the table, you are very far from flow.
The best thing to do in this situation is simply to remove yourself from it, take a break, regroup, and come back when you are better prepared to “go with the flow.” Go and do something enjoyable that gets you smiling, as it is much easier to be in flow from a place of pleasure than it is from a feeling of struggle. Return to the table only when you are able to fully focus on the game, and let yourself become immersed in the cards, with no attention put on any of the nagging details of life. The more frequently you can approach poker in this way, the more your full experience of the game will be, and the more quickly you will become a better player.