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Mental Game: The 3 tenets of poker

Mental Game: The 3 tenets of poker

There are three core principles that cover the mental game of poker, but these principles also cover your life and your reality.

Those three tenets are:

  • Impermanence
  • Suffering
  • Selflessness

“We as humans are subject to a delusion of these things and it typically leads to some sort of pain or suffering in our experience,” says BBZ’s performance coach Frank Hamel, who recently gave a Daily Seminar on this topic.

“Obviously, poker is one of those experiences where we experience pain and suffering. So we’re going to try and understand and alleviate some of that pain and suffering or find ways to reframe it.”

Here are Hamel’s three tenets of poker.


The definition of impermanence is the state or fact of lasting for only a limited period of time. Essentially, it’s the opposite of permanent.

Hamel breaks down impermanence before applying it to poker.

Everything is impermanent and changing
All things are in a constant state of flux

“We don’t necessarily experience this impermanence in our lives because we can simply move on to the next thing, so we don’t take time to notice a change,” says Hamel. “But the more we sit with our situation, the more we’ll be OK with what’s arising.”

The best time for poker players to sit with the moment is at the end of their poker sessions.

“When you’re finished with your session, and the hope of winning is over, do you sit with that impermanence? The change is from playing and the hope of winning towards a sense of loss or acceptance.”

Nothing is permanent. When a rough session is over, you could say your suffering is over.

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“If you understand impermanence, you also understand that any pain or suffering you endure during a rough session is also impermanent. Even in the moment, if it’s overwhelming and unbearable, it won’t last.”

Application towards poker:

  • Downswings
  • Running good/running bad
  • Skill level (it won’t stay the same forever)
  • Stack depths (the blinds will always increase)
  • Your tournament life (you could get eliminated at any moment)
  • Table dynamics (you could move tables, or a new big stack could join your table)

Without impermanence, there would be no change or growth.


Impermanence can lead to suffering and discomfort.

When difficult and challenging situations arise, we feel uncomfortable and we feel like we need to react and change things.

“We have a natural tendency to move away from pain and towards things that are pleasurable,” says Hamel. “There’s a dissatisfaction that comes from getting what we’re trying to avoid, rather than what we desire.”

But avoidance doesn’t end suffering, it perpetuates it.

“We think that by thinking about something else or avoiding something painful, we won’t have to live it or experience it. But that’s not the case.”

By experiencing your pain or mental suffering in a specific moment–in a downswing or when you lose a big hand–you allow this pain and suffering to become impermanent.

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“By living and experiencing your painful situations, you allow those situations to come to an end at some point. But if you’re fighting against them and you’re in denial about them, you create a cycle where you’ll continue to suffer.”

Application towards poker:

The idea that you’re going to lose again and have another bad session. But if you avoid poker and don’t play at all, you’ll never move past the downswing.

At the end of a bad session, you wish you’d done something else with your time instead. We beat ourselves up, but we can’t turn back time. Sleep on it and see if you’re still upset the next day.

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We create a self within the moment, but our self may change over time.

“It’s like your self is dying in every moment, and a new self is always created,” says Hamel. “There’s no everlasting self because we’re always moving and changing.”

In the moment, you might tell yourself “you suck”, “you’re not good at this”, or “this player is trying to bully me”. These are constructions we create that are often not even there.

“We are not our thoughts,” says Hamel. “The source of our suffering comes from having an identity, an ego that is threatened at any moment. Why does this always happen to me? Me, me, me.

“We think the poker gods are trying to punish us. But when you have those thoughts, you’re creating a self and you’re creating suffering with it because you feel like you’re being punished for something. But that’s just a creation of your mind.”


If we want to get physically stronger, we go to the gym and lift weights. That’s the tool we use.

But how can we train our minds to better understand the concepts of impermanence, suffering and selflessness?

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According to Hamel, Vipassana meditation is the tool. Vipassana means to see things as they really are, and it’s one of India’s most ancient techniques of meditation.

“Meditation is the mental tool to practice getting into that mindset,” says Hamel. “With meditation, we can gain insight into the true nature of reality. We can become intimate with the concept of suffering by paying attention to uncomfortable thoughts, emotions and sensations.

“Even if you sit with no purpose at all, impatience may come up. You have thoughts coming up. You have emotions coming up. You may feel the sensation that you want to stand up and do something else.

“Everything about your experience can lead you to feel the impermanence, feel the suffering you’re creating for yourself, and feel like you’re attaching a judgement to your sense of self.”

Here are Hamel’s tips for Vipassana meditation:

  • Sit, close your eyes and pay attention to whatever arises (a thought, emotion or sensation in your body)
  • If you ever feel uncomfortable–be it physically or with negative thoughts–stay there
  • You’ll experience the suffering and realize the suffering is not your life
  • You might notice physical pain from sitting in an uncomfortable position goes away
  • You might notice that negative thoughts you had two minutes ago have now gone
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