Articles by Annie Duke

Out of Focus

What makes a winning tournament player? There are so many facets to the answer to that question. There is the mathematical facet. A great tournament player needs a complete grasp of probability theory. There is the strategic facet. A great tournament player needs a good grasp of game theory. There is the psychological facet. A great tournament player needs a deep understanding of his opponents’ psychology as well as his own. And there is the reading component. A great tournament player must be able to read his opponents, interpreting their every move and body posture to determine their holding.

But none of these things interest me right now. Right now I am thinking about the importance of focus to being a great poker player. And lately, focus is about the only thing on my mind.

Lately the life of a tournament pro has become pretty hectic. There are $10k tournaments just about every other week around the country. This means the regular circuit pro is traveling several times a month across country leaving them tired and very busy; particularly if they have anything else going on in their lives besides poker. But whatever the demands of the road are, the pro has to sit down when they enter a tournament and play a focused game, no matter how road-weary or exhausted they feel.

Imagine adding to the life of the average pro the demands of raising four children under the age of 9. Imagine as well adding to that a full-time consulting position with Now imagine writing a book at the same time. While at Foxwoods Casino recently, I managed to stay very focused during the World Poker Tour event and come in 9th; a result I was extremely happy with. But when I got back home to Portland I wanted to stay; and I wanted to stay badly. I really love the Christmas season and wanted to hang out by my Christmas tree cuddling with the four people who make my life completely fulfilled and worthwhile: my four children.

But duty called and I showed up at the 5 Diamond Poker Classic at the Bellagio on the 14th to play in their $15k championship event. I was just getting over a cold. I was missing my kids. I was missing my Christmas tree and frankly, I was tired of traveling. I wanted to be home and when I sat down that first day of the tournament, I played just like you would expect of someone who wanted to be at home with her four children. I made sure I was going to get there as soon as possible by playing the most unfocussed poker of my life.

When I got knocked out at the end of the first day I was not as disappointed as I would normally be under those circumstances. I was happy. Happy I would be getting home early. I called my kids that night and excitedly told them I would be back home the next day. Now, if my reaction was one of elation at being knocked out of a $15k tournament, I should never have played. Because if that was my reaction there was no possibility I was going to play anything other than terrible poker.

Now mind you, I am not making an excuse for bad play here. It is my own fault that I even bothered to enter that event. You see, I knew I was feeling like that before I even plunked down my $15k. I told all my friends that I was tired . . . that I wanted to be home with my kids . . .that I was excited about Christmas. And frankly if that was the way I was feeling, I should never have entered.

But having made the mistake of entering, I had no business playing so poorly and unfocused. Part of being a true professional is to overcome issues like these. To put out of your mind whatever it is that is stealing your focus and just hunker down and get yourself together and play the best poker you know how to play.

So I am spending the rest of December and a good part of January sitting at home figuring out what went wrong at the Bellagio. Why I was unable to focus when I got to the table. And perhaps more importantly, questioning why I even entered in the first place. The fact of the matter is that I knew I was not going to play well. In a case like this, it was an important lesson to learn that I don’t have to enter every single big dollar tournament.

Poker teaches a lot of life lessons. It is one of the things I love most about the game that I have chosen for a living. And I learned an important lesson at the Bellagio. Sometimes it is good to be a little less driven and listen to what your psyche is telling you. If you feel you need a break, take one. It can only improve your game if you allow yourself a little mental vacation. It can only improve your life if you sit and listen to what that inner voice is telling you. I know I would have saved $15k if I had listened to what I was saying to my friends on December 14th and taken a tournament off.

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