Do you have what it takes to bluff with $8.7M on the line?
That question will be answered by nine players when they take their seats at the final table of the World Series of Poker in three and a half months. Last Tuesday, the field of 6,865 players was whittled down after an intense two weeks of Texas Hold 'Em in Las Vegas. Now the November Nine, as they're known, will have to wait for their shot at the bracelet and a huge mound of cash.
But what separates the home game enthusiasts who relish $20 pots from the poker elite still vying for the title?
It's not their cards. Or their luck. Jared Tendler, a leading mental game expert in the sport, says the very best are using psychology as a powerful weapon in their poker arsenal.
"We're subject to decision-making breaking down under emotional stress, whether it be anger or anxiety," Tendler says. "As all games evolve, players look for new edges to create and the mental game is a version of that."
This way of thinking about poker is relatively new and coincides with how much the sport has grown over the last decade. When Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 WSOP after qualifying through an online site, the sport exploded in cyberspace and with it came many websites dedicated to helping players learn. Tendler says it was the first time education in poker had become formalized. That's when he saw an opportunity to help players reach a new level.
Tendler ended his pursuit of playing professional golf (another mentally draining sport) and used his master's degree in Counseling Psychology to focus on poker. The only problem was outside of nickel and quarter games at the pool in his younger days, he didn't know much about it. Enter golfing buddy and poker pro Dusty Schmidt.
"Dusty was the perfect first client," says Tendler, who has coached over 170 players from around the world. "He could describe poker using golf terms, which I was very familiar with."
Schmidt needed help to resolve his tilt issues -- basically when frustration would cause him to play poorly. The result was not only gambling losses, but destroyed computer equipment. Tendler says Schmidt paid for their sessions with all the money he saved on new mice and monitors. The poker player went on to make roughly $600,000 over the next four months. That's when the coach knew he was onto something.
More than his results stood out to potential clients. Unlike many sports psychologists who focus on visualization, deep-breathing or other touchy-feely approaches, Tendler took an admittedly tougher stance.
In his book, "The Mental Game of Poker," Tendler describes how players tend to blame external factors, like (of course) luck and bad cards. Tendler's response: "You're full of [it]."
"It does no good for me to make things sound nice and feel better if they don't really deserve it," he says. "I try to be as realistic as possible and in some cases that comes across as being very hard, but it's purposeful because I don't believe the person who's coming to see me has all the answers."
In fact, Tendler says no poker player will ever have all the answers. He makes it clear at the end of the book that the reader hasn't solved anything yet. The best anyone can do is identify current weaknesses and conquer them over time. That will get them playing at a higher level, but there will be new flaws at that plateau as well.
These changes take years to work on, which the November Nine don't have at this point. So Tendler's advice is to keep it simple over the next few months.
"The biggest thing is to identify weaknesses. Pressure exposes weakness," Tendler says. "And if you don't understand what your tactical weaknesses are or your mental game weaknesses are then you will be taken by surprise by them and you'll be unable to control them."
He recommends players analyzing their own games going back three to six months to try to get a feel for how opponents approach the game from a mental standpoint. That won't be easy to do though. Many of the finalists are relative newcomers and the only recognizable name is Phil Collins -- but that's only because of the singer with the same moniker.
"They've played a lot with each other over the last week, so that’s certainly going to help," Tendler says. "And the poker community is pretty tight, so they'll be able to get a scouting report of sorts. The tells aspect of poker is important, but not as important as understanding how your opponent plays."
The leader going into the final table starting November 5th is Martin Staszko with 40.1 million chips. But it's the guy in 5th, with roughly half that amount, that Tendler has his proverbial money on. Ben Lamb has already captured one bracelet this year and has taken home $1.2M in winnings.
"I'd say Lamb is the odds-on favorite. He's my pick," Tendler says. "He's mentally the strongest and he's proven himself to be one of the best players there."
And he's got 8.7 million reasons not to crack.