"Baseball is 90% mental -- the other half is physical."
"90% of the game is half mental."
-- Yogi Berra
Both of the above quotes have been attributed to Yogi Berra. While the first statement is a classic Yogism, the second actually can
lead to some interesting ideas when applied to poker.
We all know that poker is a mental game to some degree, and probably can agree poker is a mental game to a large degree. However,
what that degree is is impossible to answer, and it is also variable. Sometimes poker is zero-mental, like if you are all-in in a
tournament in the big blind. You can't do anything about it. The cards decide your fate; you have no say in the matter.
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On the other extreme, sometimes the physical cards don't matter at all. What matters is our mental gamesmanship. Today I played in a
tournament where when we were about three-quarters of the way through the tournament I found myself with a slightly above average
amount of chips, with two very short stacks
to my left and two very big stacks to my right. Those two very big stacks were in the hands of terrible players. The tournament was
Omaha HiLo where more than any other game such chip distribution is ideal.
Any time one or both of the terrible players entered the pot I could freely raise or reraise them, without fear of running into a
seriously powerful hand directly behind me. I only had to fear the four players across the table from me, who would usually have
already acted or who were in the blinds and out of
for a few hands at least I was in as good a position as I could be -- aside from having all the chips of course! So, my mission was
twofold: go after my two opponents to my right with any reasonable hand, and do my best to both not bust my two opponents to my left
and try to keep them out of harm's way. Coincidentally, the attacking and protecting go somewhat hand in hand. By raising or
three-betting the poor players I would always be giving the two shortstacks to my left a reason to pause, and hopefully a reason to
fold -- not because I feared them, but because I feared they would go broke and perhaps be replaced by a good player with a largish
stack of chips. A good player with chips behind me could be a disaster, both in terms of the threat they would pose themselves and
also the "wet blanket" implications they would have for my primary aim of playing head-up
pots or three-way pots against one or both of the terrible
players. Much better for me to have two people who are basically just putting in their blinds for a few rounds.
Poker is an individual game, but tournament poker requires
cooperative thinking and action. Most obviously,
there are plenty of times where if you don't win a pot it is much better that Player A wins than Player B (for example, if there are
three people left, you would almost always prefer Player B to be eliminated by Player A rather than have Player B double his chips).
Tournament poker is drastically different from
ring game poker in that it often very much matters who
wins pots that you aren't in, or who grows broke and when. In ring games this sort of thinking is nearly non-existent. (The minor
exceptions being basics like "If I don't win I hope the liveone does" or "I hope that annoying player goes broke".)
Usually it doesn't make a darn bit of difference whether John or Mary wins a ring game pot that you aren't in. In tournaments, you are
quite literally "in" every pot.
The physical cards didn't enter into my strategy as I considered what I wanted to do over the next few hands. I knew I had to do what
I could to get chips from the players to my right while trying to prevent the players on my left from hurling themselves onto spears
and committing chip suicide. I can't control any of this, but I sure can influence it. I can even go so far as to try and influence
the players to my left via table chatter: "You both are such great shortstack players", etc.
Most players focus on the physical, the cards, the chips and the hands. To a large degree though, we all get those. A lot of poker is
mental strategizing that is never seen and doesn't even really enter into any specific hand played.
A lot of the game of poker is played "away from the
ball". Those players who don't think in terms of an "away from the ball" game start the game one, two or ten steps behind those
who do, and they never catch up.
"You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you're going, because you might not get there." - Yogi Berra
See also Fast Enough to Win, Slow Enough to Finish and
Man at the Top