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"Peak Poker Performance" raises the bar for working on your mental game

29 Aug 2016

By Clare Fitzgerald
Despite the cloud of floating buzzwords on the cover, the science in this book is solid.

Despite the cloud of floating buzzwords on the cover, the science in this book is solid.

I admit I was a little bit skeptical going into Dr. Patricia Cardner's Peak Poker Performance: How to Bring Your 'A' Game to Every Session. I am literally a professional fault-finder, and the sometimes bogglingly large gap between actual science and science as it's presented in popular writing is one of my areas of especial interest. I've done time in the trenches of academic publishing, working with textbooks and journal articles in assorted social sciences, and I've done time in the trenches of the sort of content mills that are responsible for filling your social media feeds with "5 Simple Life Hacks That Will Make You 10 Times More Productive, According to Science"-type articles that tell you to take a nap at 2 p.m. in the office, like that wouldn't get most of us fired. Pop-sci self-help works are just about the only type of book I viscerally distrust.

On the other hand, Dr. Cardner is a highly credentialed actual practicing psychologist (which I am not), rather than just a journo wibbling on about science (which I am). Dr. Cardner is also a former psychology professor and in recent years has built a reputation as the foremost expert on poker psychology, having written an earlier book on the subject, Positive Poker, and providing mental game coaching to players. So I gave it a go.

Reader, I was impressed.

It's difficult to write a book that is both accessible to laypeople, information-dense, not too oversimplified, actionable, tailored to a specific activity and generally applicable across a broad audience, all at the same time, and all under 250 pages. But Peak Poker Performance does as good a job of balancing all these seemingly contradictory mandates as I've ever seen.

The book borrows its basic structure from longstanding traditions in self-help publishing, designed to be as easily digestible as possible. Each chapter focuses on a specific area of performance — procrastination, habit formation, emotional awareness/intelligence — and starts with a look at some of the key research in the area, boiled down to the fundamental concepts. This is followed by several exercises or advice for putting these concepts into practice; a bullet-point recap of the key points in the chapter; a list of further reading; and a short personal essay from Jonathan Little about how the subject at hand actually relates to his life as a professional poker player.

Many of the concepts discussed will sound familiar if you've spent much time with any sort of health and wellness content — terms like "flow state" and "mindfulness" have become quite hip in certain circles over the past few years. And a good chunk of the book is dedicated to telling you that yes, you really do have to exercise and eat your vegetables and get enough sleep, which is probably not a brand-new idea to most people.

What really makes this book useful is its concrete, step-by-step advice on how, which honestly addresses the difficulties involved in creating and sticking to maximally productive habits. Dr. Cardner also addresses a number of common misconceptions about subjects such as willpower, emotional suppression, the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy, and the myth that humans are rational creatures — or, more specifically, the myth that humans are supposed to be rational creatures, and that non-rational thoughts or feelings are inherently defective. She explains some basic brain science, like the parts of the brain and their functions, and teaches about how learning and decision-making actually work. She even discusses a little bit about mental illness, mostly how depression manifests in the brain and alters its functioning.

If there is one overall principle I think readers of this book would best stand to take away from it, it is acceptance. It is easy to get into a cycle of basically fighting yourself for not doing and thinking stuff "correctly," and then beating yourself up for beating yourself up, and never really moving out of that pattern. Cardner's book gently but firmly insists: You are not a computer; you are a human with a human brain; deal with it. Dealing with it means knowing what it's doing to do and managing it intelligently, not "beating" it through brute force of denial.

I don't play a whole lot of poker — a few times a month, and that only recently — but I am hugely self-competitive and prone to the sort of anxious-perfectionist thoughts that get me stuck in loops of scolding myself with "You know better than that, you idiot" for ages instead of actually doing things. It takes a deft touch for me to process any kind of self-help advice as anything other than "Here are some more expectations you can pile on yourself to stress out about!" But it turns out that a lot of the exercises and advice in this book are actually geared precisely toward derailing and moving past those types of thoughts.

In fact, most of the advice in the book either doubles as general lifestyle advice, following the inarguable logic that you'll have a better time with poker if you become an overall higher-functioning human being, or can be applied to other intellectual endeavors with minimal tweaking.

That said, the poker focus is never far from hand, even when we're mucking about in the different lobes of the brain or learning about the Dunning-Kruger effect (OK, especially when we're learning about the Dunning-Kruger effect). There are workbook-style fill-in charts for monitoring and evaluating your own play, such as distinguishing your 'A' game from your 'B' game, 'C' game and so on, and tracking when and how you go on tilt. Jonathan Little's contributions are especially relevant here, as he covers subjects like sticking to a particular diet and sleep schedule while traveling a tournament circuit, the best place to keep your phone during a session (answer: not on your person), and dealing with the stress of downswings.

This book leaves the reader with quite a bit of work to do, both at the poker table and in life in general — but I, for once, feel good about doing it.
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