Chess Lessons From the Mental Game of Poker
By Jennifer Shahade   
May 31, 2013
MGOPpoker2.jpgI was first introduced to Jared Tendler’s Mental Game of Poker by one of the most analytical thinkers I know, Alex Wice, a poker pro and chess fan. Since such a numerically minded person lauded such praise on a psychology book, I had to give it a try. I was immediately drawn into by several of the concepts and started to reference the book in my chess coaching. 

I especially used it for two-time WSOP bracelet winner and financial analyst Bill Chen, who I began coaching a year and a half ago. As a poker player, I knew Chen would relate to the concepts in the book. Bill was featured in Chess Life Magazine’s, “Faces Across the Board” this January and surpassed 2000 for the first time in March.

Tendler recently came out with a second volume of the Mental Game of Poker, which focused on getting into the zone”, a particularly key skill for a chessplayer, who has to carefully calibrate his or her focus for up to six hours, sometimes two times a day.

I’ve isolated six of the top lessons I took away from his books:  

1. Inchworming : This concept from the first book explains that the distance between you’re A-game and your “C” game often moves forward together, as an “inchworm.” I thought of this specifically in relation to chessplayers who are composing an opening repertoire. When I was a kid, I loved playing the Dragon, and disliked most defenses vs. 1. D4. Armed with the inchworm idea,  I would have realized that my openings will always be spread out in some sort of bell curve. 

Jared also uses inchworm to explain why improving your weaknesses may also push your “A-game” to reach even greater heights. “When you reach a new peak in your ability, the front end of your range takes a step forward. Your best just became better, which also means that your range has widened because the worst part of your game hasn’t moved yet. The most efficient way to move forward again is to turn your focus to the back end of your range.”

On the zone Tendler told me, “The quality of your zone can keep elevating. But the goal is not to be the highest point at all times, but ideally to always be at least somewhere at your best “B” game. In chess, I assume that having a really solid gear where you don’t make a lot of mistakes can help you become successful. I know that’s true in golf and I’ve even seen it a pool player I started working with, who just won a major tournament in Europe.”

2. Build Gradually: Jared compared getting into the zone to training for running: “If you can run 5 miles, and your goal is to run 10 miles, you don’t get up the next morning and run 10. You run 5.5. Similarly, if you can focus on chess for 5 hours, and your goal is to be able to focus for ten (for instance, for a grueling American style tournament with two rounds a day), you should gradually train in studying chess for increasing blocks of time.” 

3. Thinking of Your Pre-Game as “Zone Warm-up”: Some chessplayers like to take walks or listen to energetic music before a game. In his second book, Tendler gives plenty of concrete details on how to create an ideal pre-game plan: “You can increase your chances of getting into the zone by developing and maintaining consistent routine.” A zone warm-up routine “Allows you to build momentum so you’re ready to play at a high level from the start” and “creates a buffer against excessive stress and pressure.” 

4. Identify Mistake Tilt: When I make errors, I tend to get pretty upset at myself. This tendency toward self-critique can be helpful for training but debilitating and self-perpetuating ingame.  It’s not easy to play optimally if “I missed Bxh7+ & hate myself” is circling through your head. 

Tendler’s coins this“Mistake Tilt.” He writes, “Being frustrated by mistakes isn’t necessarily a problem, and can even be a good thing when it provides motivation to actually do the work to fix it. What distinguishes mistake tilt as a problem is frustration that is so intense that it affects your play, leads to more mistakes and ultimately makes it harder to fix the mistakes you’re making.”  Tendler analyzes different causes of mistake tilt and goes into detail on how to address it. Personally, this was the most important lesson for me and just having a name for it made it easier for me to recognize and attack.

Jared Tendler
5. Unlearning is Twice the Work: If you learn an incorrect method or idea in chess, the process of unlearning that idea can be just as difficult as building the correct foundation. Tendler explains just how destructive bad habits can be: “Repeating a negative habit…costs you twice. Not only did you lose an opportunity to reinforce the correct play, you repeated the bad one; in other words, you got better at the mistake. Now it’ll take two repetitions to get back to where you could have been had you made the correct play in the first place.” 

6. Distractions: Pokerplayers can text and tweet at the table as long as they’re not in a hand, which provides endless excuses to avoid the task at hand: poker.  When I explained to Jared that chessplayers don’t have the same conflict since using electronic devices is against the rules, he replied, “You guys are lucky!” 

But distractions can still haunt chessplayers, whether it’s constantly checking a friend’s game, or thinking about romance or food while playing. Jared thinks that in trying to limit distractions, it’s important to identify the underlying reason. “For instance, if you are obsessed with facebook, maybe you’re lacking social interaction in your life.” He also recommended engaging in distractions away from the table or board so the main stage of competition associates with peak performance. 

Find out more about Jared Tendler and his  books (written with Barry Carter) on his official site and find him @JaredTendler on twitter.