The following is an excerpt from the next book from Two Plus Two Publishing LLC Real Poker Psychology by Mason Malmuth. It should be available on Dec. 1 2015.
Mental toughness is something that’s difficult to define, and therefore I’m not going to try. But let’s say it has much to do with the ability to persevere under difficult circumstances and is also associated with the desire to make oneself better.
To start, let me change the subject a little. Instead of poker, suppose you were a video poker player and were playing a machine where the expectation was positive, and you have memorized the optimal strategy for that machine. Do you need to be mentally tough to always make the correct plays?
First, notice that video poker is a fairly simple game once you have memorized the correct strategy, and second, executing the strategy is not hard either. That is, for every hand dealt, the expert video poker player will know the play with the most positive (or least negative) expectation and will thus make it. So we won't, for instance, see a video poker expert on a standard jacks or better machine throw away three aces when he has four of them to draw for the royal flush, but we will see him discard an ace when he has two of them but also has four to a royal flush.
Furthermore, when a good opportunity comes up, you'll see the video poker players play for hours on end, sometimes not sleeping for a couple of days. So it’s my opinion that this game and being mentally tough have virtually nothing to do with each other.
Now let’s look at football. Here’s a game where being mentally tough is important and you’ll hear top football coaches talk about mental toughness all the time. The reason for this is that it’s a game where strength and power are important, and it can hurt to get hit. In fact, players play with injuries all the time, and to play well under this circumstance does, in my opinion, require mental toughness.
Boxing is another sport where being mentally tough is important. In fact, in boxing, it’s well know that many new fighters after getting hit in one of their initial fights will stagger back to their corner when the round is over and ask their trainer to “cut the gloves off.” Clearly these are not the mentally tough fighters.
And probably the most famous example of a fighter not showing mental toughness is when Sonny Liston quit against a young Muhammad Ali — at the time Cassius Clay — after the sixth round in their title bout in Miami Beach in 1964. It’s my opinion that Liston, even though he was known as a tough guy, didn’t want to face the humility of continuing in a fight he couldn’t win, and this is clearly a symptom of not being mentally tough.
Now, let’s go on to poker. Top players virtually always know the play with the most positive (or least negative) expectation, and they'll just make this play since it's fairly automatic for them. And when I say automatic, what is meant is that the expert player immediately goes to (in his mind) those concepts which will now drive his playing decisions. It doesn’t mean that his decision will be made in one or two seconds. This can include your starting hands, how often to bluff, what hands to call with, what hands to raise with, and how to adjust these plays against different opponents. Thus I don't see any mental toughness in the football sense present in poker.
But there is another side of this, and it’s that some players do tilt, sometimes quite badly. So what happens here?
Let me give an example. Suppose a particular player knows that playing ace‑ten offsuit under‑the‑gun in a full ring game is a bad play. That is, if he picks this hand up he should just throw it away. To do this is mental toughness required? But sometimes you'll see a player who should know better make this play.
Well, it seems to me that his discipline has broken down, and one of the contributors to this is that the ace‑ten, while not good enough to play in this spot, is certainly better than a random two cards which he still won’t play. So why did this play occur and is this player on tilt?
To answer this question, just turn to “Part One: Them Fluctuations.” One of the chapters is titled “A Mathematical Model of Tilt ‑ Cause and Cure,” starting on page 9 if you want to review it again.
And what this chapter argues is that the player on tilt doesn’t understand poker as well as he should. Notice that this is different from what I’m calling mental toughness. Furthermore, I also argue in this chapter that if someone who is tilt prone improves their overall understanding of the game, the tilt should go away or at least be reduced.
Let me give one other specific example. In The Intelligent Poker Player by Philip Newall, this author does a great job of explaining why, in limit hold ’em, when in the big blind and heads‑up before the flop, you should virtually never reraise no matter what your hand and no matter what the position of the original raiser. Yet, when playing this game in Las Vegas, I routinely see virtually all players reraise their better hands from the big blind in this spot. But since this reraise is wrong from an optimal strategy point of view, does it mean that all these players are mentally weak? Of course not. It means that they don’t understand this concept.
So, let’s again ask the question, does being mentally tough help us at the poker table? Well, as I point out over and over in this book, the attribute that helps us the most at the poker table is a very good understanding of everything poker, especially strategy. To be specific, someone who’s mentally tough but who also doesn’t understand how to play poker well should have much poorer results than someone who does play poker well but who is not as mentally tough.
Related to this is the idea that mental toughness can make you more intimidating at the poker table which means that some of your weaker playing opponents will play passively against you. Well, I guess this might be true, and if that’s the case it would be beneficial. But if instead you learned how to play poker well, this should have the same effect and your win rate would now be even higher.
One way that mental toughness may be helpful to poker players is the idea that mentally tough people are willing to do what it takes to persevere. One of the reasons that we play poker is that it’s fun to play, at least it is on those winning nights. But if a mentally tough player is willing to give up a fun night so that he can study and improve his overall knowledge of poker, then being mentally tough becomes a good thing.
Still, I don’t consider this to be an important topic in the area of poker psychology, and it’s also my opinion that if you learn how to play well, the mental toughness aspect will take care of itself. And that’s really the final answer. Learn how to play poker well and you’ll be mentally tough,
However, just make sure you aren’t overly mentally tough relative to your poker knowledge since this may cause you to lose. If your confidence becomes over confidence you might venture into a tougher game, usually at higher stakes, and it often will be a game you can’t beat.