The consequence of failing to maintain your focus is poor decision-making.

How do you maintain your concentration when playing poker?

Its a topic seldom discussed in poker books — even the best sellers by top pros and leading strategists. Regardless of whether you play online, in a home game or at a brick-and-mortar casino, your ability to stay focused will determine your ultimate success or failure.

Here’s an experiment to test your powers of concentration. Look at the chart below and quickly recite out loud the color of each word you see (not the actual printed word).

Not as easy as you initially anticipated?

This famous test was created in the 1930s by Dr. J. Ridley Stroop, a developmental psychologist. It demonstrates the concept of selective attention — our ability to process multiple or competing stimuli. A more basic case in point: you’re in a crowded, noisy room, and you strike up a conversation with a woman you’ve just met. You can clearly hear her voice over the din because you’re filtering out the sounds around you. This is a classic example of selective attention.

When you’re playing poker, the same principle applies. If you’re online, you may be listening to the radio, TV or a favorite CD as you contemplate your next bet. If you’re at a home game or casino, you’re surrounded by chatter and the clack of chips. Your task: to focus your attention on your game, while filtering out external stimuli.

According to Dr. Barbara J. Walker, a sport psychologist at the Center for Human Performance in Cincinnati, focus is measured in two dimensions:

1. Wide and narrow
2. Internal and external

When you arrive at a location you’ve never been before to play poker, your attention will be very wide and external, absorbing all of the sights, sounds and people around you, she says. As the time approaches for you to play, you need to continue to narrow your attention.

This means shifting between external focus (the outside world, including paying attention to other players) and internal focus (your own thoughts and behaviors), says Dr. Walker, who is also a competitive triathlete and marathon runner.

You’ll encounter problems if you fail to shift your focus at appropriate times. For example, if you’re narrowly focused on your cards, chip stack and inner thoughts for an extended period, you’re missing opportunities to study your opponents for tells or betting patterns. Even online, you can pick up tells without seeing other players: Has someone consistently been betting quickly and then slows down to ponder a particular hand? Odds are he has a great hand or a highly probable draw.

The consequence of failing to maintain your focus is poor decision-making.

Weapons of Mass Distraction

In a recent issue of Bluff magazine, a reader posed a question to poker pro Clonie Gowen, who writes a monthly column called Ask Clonie. He explained that he has been playing no-limit Holdem for two years, with respectable results, but one problem still plagues him: I usually start out playing well and very focused, but after a while seem to lose my focus and call a big bet or all-in without properly evaluating the situation. I usually lose at this point. I end up calling river bets with good hands, without even considering the possibility that I might have been sucked out.

Gowen explains that focus is a common problem affecting almost every poker player, and she offers two excellent suggestions:

Pause before betting. Dont try to set any land speed records. If you’re truly playing to win, you need to force yourself to stop and think, she writes. How will your next move affect your ability to win a pot or tournament? Taking the time to assess your decision prevents you from making an impulsive bet that could prove costly.

Minimize distractions. If you are playing online, make sure you dont have children running around or a spouse asking you questions, she notes. And when Gowen is competing in a tournament, she often uses an MP3 player to discourage chat. Its a tool that may come in handy even for online players who want to shut out the world, she says.

The Bad-Beat Blues. Players often lose their focus when they suffer a bad beat or are baited by opponents who engage in trash talk. These are the times when you are most vulnerable, and you need to learn how to stay on top of your game. Recognizing that these inevitable situations will occur is the first step toward maintaining your focus.
Dr. Walker recommends the following coping tools:

  • Practice breathing techniques before you sit down to play. You need to learn how to relax your body.
  • If you’re in a home game or at a casino, keep your game face on and maintain a winners body language. You dont want other players to know that they may be getting to you.
  • Before you play, visualize all of the worst-case scenarios: a devastating suckout, a horrendous bad beat or an obnoxious trash-talking fool. Think about how youll feel, and then practice relaxing your muscles and controlling your breathing.

Learning how to stay calm and composed is a great way to build up your tolerance to such things, Dr. Walker says. Being tense, tired or distracted works in opposition to maintaining good attention and making good decisions. You need to learn how you best pay attention for the task you are trying to achieve.