Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Zoned out

I chatted with Monsignor the other day in the cafeteria about the state of our respective poker games. The discussion centered mostly table image. He thought his was donkey, which he knows isn't true. His tournament skills are solid and evidenced by some recent cashes in Group tournaments. His cash game is not so strong, which is understandable given how little he plays it.

But the actual subtext of the conversation was more about self-image and how we want people to perceive us. What I should have said then (and did mention today) is, "Dude, you need to get out of your head and into theirs." Understand, this admonition was as much directed at myself as it was to Monsignor. My inability to crawl out of my own obsessive-ridden head and into my opponents' is one of those nagging weaknesses in my game.

Here is an embarrassing but telling example: It's perhaps the second hand of last night's Mookie. I get pocket jacks in early position and raise 3x BB. The big blind (who I don't know) calls and the flop comes 2-2-5. I bet 3/4 of the pot and he min-raises me. Hmmm. He doesn't have a 2. I know he doesn't have a 2. A set of fives? I don't think so. Screw it, I say, and push. He calls. I'm right. He doesn't have a 2 or presto. He's got freakin' kings and I'm toast.

I completely fail to consider that he might make either a weak or trappy play by simply calling the preflop raise with a bigger pocket pair. I eliminated the 2 and pocket 5s and then made only a half-assed attempt to get into his head, put him on a range of hands and donked off my stack. And there have been other similar miscues in recent days/weeks that have turned MTTs into a money pit for me because of unfocused play, including my first attempt last night at the new $25+2 on Stars. (I saw some truly awful play in the 20 minutes I lasted but only contributed to the stupidity.)

Unfocused poker costs money that I don't want to spend. My last two MTT cashes, Riverstars and an online Group tournament on Monday, only occurred because of ginormous suckouts. If I don't get extremely lucky in those two instances, I make nothing.

There has been plenty of discussion of athletes being "in the zone" and even at the low-levels of competition I experienced over the years, there were instances when I felt it. You know the ball will rip the nets when the shot leaves your hand. The baseball speeding toward you is the size of a beachball. Or there's no doubt you're going to put the football squarely in the receiver's hands.

I didn't begin playing golf until my early 20s and fell deeply for the game. I slowly improved, took some lessons and embraced the game with a passion that bears an uncanny resemblance to my relationship with poker.

Eventually, my scores were low enough that I tried to compete in some small local tournaments. The results weren't good, but that was okay. I was learning. Playing a round with your buddies is one thing. Shooting a score in competition is another matter.

I entered the course championship at the Metroparks course I regularly played. (The top finishers qualified for the systemwide Metroparks championship.) A 41 on the front 9 put me well behind the leaders. I didn't feel nervous or uncomfortable, which I had in the past, but I basically schlepped around the course at a mediocre pace.

But I didn't abandon hope. I reset my goal of qualifying and decided to seek a moral victory with better play on the back 9. I managed to do that and reached the 17th tee just 1-over for the back. I found the fairway at 17, a semi-tough par 4, put it on the green and sunk a 10-footer for birdie.

Unfortunately, the 18th awaited. It's an almost unfairly tight par 4 down into a valley and back up to a severely elevated green. Many a score at Manakiki had been fattened over the years by the 18th hole and tee-shots that had wandered into the woods left and right. Adding to the pressure was the realization that a par and a 77 might get me into the championship tournament.

What's a hacker to do? Get a clue. Take your time. Don't rush. Rush I did not. A smooth 3-wood found the fairway. I took my time reaching my ball and was in no hurry to play my approach. I visualized the shot -- freaking saw it -- and put the ball about 20 feet back of the pin. The instance the ball left my putter I knew I had drained it. A 35 on the back and a 76 for the round proved to be the exact number I needed to qualify.

For most of the back 9, and certainly for those last two holes, I resided in the zone. I quieted the voices that can creep into your head in such situations and performed without effort or strain.

Are there poker lessons to be learned here? (By the way, I bombed out of the bigger championship tournament.) I think so. I believe that successful poker players not only possess a better understanding of the game than the rest of us, but are better at thinking and concentrating. They're better at muting negative and extraneous thoughts.

And they are better at getting into our heads, using shadow puppets to project scary images when they're weak and harmless bunnies when they're strong and having us buy it more often than not. And while they may not always be in "the zone," they're at least somewhere close.

I sneak into my scaled-down version of the zone occasionally. But those moments are infrequent and all-too fleeting. Experience and knowledge can help get you there, but clearing out the clatter in your head seems equally important.


Anonymous Chris said...

Monsignor is a tournament-cashing machine.

8:30 PM  

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