Top 5 books to improve your mental game

BBZPoker’s performance coach François Hamel designed his new Mental Game Bundle to help poker players develop the discipline and consistency they need to take action and succeed.

His job is to inspire others. But what inspires him?

Here, Hamel selects his top five books for improving your mental game in both poker and life.

Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones

by James Clear (2018) – available on Amazon

If you’re near the beginning of your poker career, ask yourself the following questions:

What do you want to have? What don’t you want to have?

Once you can answer those honestly and realistically, you can begin to design the ideal path for you to get where you want to go. As BBZ says in ‘How to avoid going broke in poker’: “Design behaviours, habits, and routines that will help you get there. Don’t be held down by the way you define yourself right now. Instead, think of how you would design a robot to get the job done.”

If you need help to build those good habits, Hamel suggests Atomic Habits by James Clear.

“This is my bible for understanding behavior change,” says Hamel. “Atomic Habits provides four simple steps to build better habits leading to more discipline and consistency in your life and in your performance.”

Your results and success are a lagging measure of your habits. But how can you ensure they’re good habits?

Here’s what Atomic Habits suggests:

Make it obvious: Create an intention.
Make it attractive: Transform “I have to” into “I get to”.
Make it easy: Downscale your habits to two minutes or less.
Make it satisfying: Never miss twice.

These are concepts that Hamel breaks down and applies to poker in his Mental Game Bundle.


Mindfulness in Plain English

by Bhante Gunaratana (1996) – available on Amazon

Hamel has chosen this book as it helps the reader cultivate an awareness of their mind and their experience (mindfulness), as well as understand the true value of meditation.

“Meditation takes gumption. It takes time, energy, grit, determination, and discipline,” Bhante Gunaratana writes in Mindfulness in Plain English, just like poker does. “You’re not running away from reality when you meditate; you’re looking at yourself exactly as you are, to see what is there and accept it fully. Only then can you change things.”

According to Hamel, our minds are generally influenced by desire, resentment and delusion. Our egos get in the way and color our judgement.

“Think of a snowglobe,” he says. “You shake it, but once you let it sit, the snow falls down and you’re able to see life clearly. This is exactly how poker can be sometimes, full of stimulation, triggers, distractions…we have to learn to let the snow sit so we can see clearly and make better decisions.”


The Obstacle is the Way

by Ryan Holiday (2014) – available on Amazon

Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way touches on a modern way of seeing stoic philosophy.

“It teaches us how to remain “stoic”, detached, unshaken, and unphased in the face of adversity and challenges…basically the daily experience of being a poker player,” says Hamel.

The book questions how we can frame the challenges and obstacles we face in our journey to make them the way, i.e. our new journey, and it does so in three steps:

Perception – How we look at our problems
Action – How we turn problems into opportunities
Will – How we cultivate an inner will to allow us to handle defeat and difficulty

“First we must see things for what they are (perception), then we must do what we can (action), and endure and bear what we must (will),” says Hamel.


Chop Wood Carry Water: How to Fall In Love With the Process of Becoming Great

By Joshua Medcalf (2015) – available on Amazon

When your non-poker friends ask you how your poker is going, chances are they want to know about money. The questions “How much have you won?” and “How much have you lost?” have been brushed off by poker players more times than an invite to play LLinusLLove heads-up.

They might even go one step further and ask you to teach them. The reason for such a request? “I need to make some money.”

And there’s the problem right there. Sure, most of us strive to be financially successful in poker, but it’s a love of the game and a will to improve that keeps us coming back after that first online deposit is gone.

“Joshua Medcalf’s Chop Wood Carry Water is all about the process, the journey,” says Hamel.

Hamel points out one particular section of the book he enjoys, and one that’s particularly relevant to poker players: Surrender the outcome (pg78).

“Surrendering the outcome doesn’t mean you care less about the outcome or your process. It doesn’t mean you don’t give your very best. It simply means that you have surrendered the outcomes that are outside of your control. Many mornings I pray and surrender things that I desperately want to control but know I don’t have control over. Surrendering the outcome is about having peace with that which is outside of our control without sacrificing the effort or care of what is inside of our control.

“I hope you don’t give up. Your failures, shortcomings, and challenges can either end up as your excuse or your story. I hope you choose courage, curiosity, persistence.” – Joshua Medcalf


Deep Work

by Cal Newport (2016) – available on Amazon

“This book is strongly linked to our capacity to remain focused when studying and playing poker,” says Hamel.

In Deep Work, you’ll learn about skills related to:

Deliberate practice: deliberately practice specific aspects of your game, with a purpose or goal in mind, while studying and playing poker. By practicing a skill, you’re forcing the relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation.

Busyness as a proxy for productivity: we often rely on the idea that doing a lot of things equals productivity. Instead, set clear goals and intentions.

Great creative minds think like artists but work like accountants: don’t wait until you feel ‘inspired’ to get on with your poker study. Set up a routine that allows you to learn and grow and stick to it. Before you play a poker session, set up a warm-up routine that allows you to slip into your optimal performance state seamlessly every time.

Attention restoration theory: spending time in nature can improve your ability to concentrate. Step away from the computer during tournament breaks or take periodic breaks. Create some distance and perspective from your performance. Give yourself time to come back to the tables refreshed and more focused.

Shutdown ritual: have a routine to finish your session that allows your brain to move on from your poker session.

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