How to avoid checking out mentally during a poker session

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Having a winning poker session, like anything worth doing, is hard work. It can take a long time to finish in the black–particularly when you’re a multi-table tournament (MTT) grinder–and often requires hours and hours of unwavering attention and focus.

Within that time, there are bound to be lots of ups and downs, both in terms of your win rate but also your emotions. Things could be going ahead swimmingly, then one bad beat, misplayed hand, or computer malfunction can send your mind racing and your entire session into a tailspin.

So, how can we make sure we don’t check out mentally during a poker session? What can we do to try and avoid agitation and restlessness and keep our sessions on the right track?

This is a subject that Frank Hamel, BBZ Poker’s Performance Coach, recently covered in a BBZ Daily Seminar.


There are many possible scenarios that could lead you to check out mentally while playing. When this happens, and the outcome of your poker session suffers, you’ve become a “victim of your mind,” according to Hamel.

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He then asks seminar attendees what can cause check-outs during a session.

Here’s the list our students provided:

  • Increased expectations
  • Mistakes you make that you know are mistakes
  • Tough spots where you feel lost
  • Bad bluffs/calls
  • Getting put in tough spots (e.g. getting 3-bet non-stop) then forcing the action to regain control
  • Having to rebuy several times
  • Getting into levelling wars with yourself
  • Playing too many tables and not having time to process things
  • Technical errors such as a computer crash or software glitch
  • Losing a big chip lead

Sounds familiar, right?


“When the situation becomes too much, we just want to check out,” says Hamel. “We’d rather watch a video on the side [of our sessions] so that we at least don’t tilt or make bad irrational decisions.”

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When something happens during a poker session to agitate us, many players distract themselves with something else–such as watching YouTube while playing–so that they can check out of their minds and avoid the situation.

This, of course, puts a strain on our focus and our ability to play our best.

Instead of checking out and distracting ourselves, we want to understand and manage the agitation of the body and the mind.

This allows us to:

  • Reduce the burden of accumulated thoughts/emotions while playing
  • Be more focused on our game and be less distracted
  • Avoid checking out mentally


Slowing down the body and the breath as you would in meditation can help you regain your composure and flush out thoughts, feelings and impulses that might hinder you.

But in this particular scenario, when you’re still in the middle of a session and the cards are flying and tables are beeping, Hamel recommends trying ‘coffee breathing’.

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Coffee Breathing, also known as up-regulating, essentially means breathing faster.

  • Around 20 quick, fast and forceful exhales through the nose from the belly per minute
  • Repeat 1-6 rounds of 20 exhales

Why is Coffee breathing effective?

  • It’s good for when we need to get cranked up
  • As little as three rounds of 20 will stimulate the sympathetic nervous system
  • Rapid movements of the diaphragm will liberate adrenaline

Try this out during your next poker session when you feel yourself becoming agitated, wanting to get up and move around, or becoming bored and distracted.


“Let’s say you have one table left [from your MTT session] and it’s your lowest buy-in. How can you make the situation more interesting?”

The first suggestion Hamel has is to be curious.

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“Remind yourself that you’re playing a game to make money,” he says. “Have a sense of wonder and surprise.”

Playing one table only allows us to play poker more exploratively. Perhaps you’ve learned something new in your study and you want to explore the possibilities of this new strategy. Perhaps you can hone in on your opponents and use your skills to exploit their playing styles.

If you’re always curious about how the game works, then playing should never be boring.

Another way to avoid boredom is to remember your motivations.

“We start our sessions with some hope and aspiration, maybe you have expectations,” says Hamel. “But at one point in your session, five or six hours in, maybe your motivation for playing has lowered simply because you’ve bricked most of your tournaments.”

In that moment, try to reconnect and focus on your purpose and motivation.

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“Sometimes it feels like: “My session is lost already so what’s the point?” says Hamel. “Whenever you tell yourself ‘what’s the point?’ or ‘let me out!’, this is the time to find the answer to that. Find a goal or intention at that moment.”

Maybe you want to be a professional poker player. Maybe you haven’t won a tournament in a while and you hope to win a trophy. Maybe you’re simply trying to rebuild your bankroll during a downswing.

Whatever your goal/intention is, giving up on your tournament or session and checking out mentally is never going to be the answer.

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