One of the easiest decisions I’ve ever made was seeking out Dr. Cardner as my mental game coach. I had read her first book Positive Poker (she has since released a second book, Peak Poker Performance that I liked even more!), absolutely loved it, and knew exactly who my first choice was for a mental game coach. She has been instrumental in helping me create a program of study, deal with issues of confidence and focus at the table, been a sounding board for the endless number of questions and concerns that have come during my transition to semi-professional, and most importantly she has kept me accountable to achieving my goals (goals she helped me create), not just in poker, but in all aspects of my life. It’s a pleasure to interview Dr. Cardner on The Poker Monk blog.
Dr. Cardner, can you start by introducing yourself, telling us about your pre-poker background, how you got into poker, and where you are in your poker career today?
Most people probably know me from my books Positive Poker or Peak Poker Performance or from the Mindset Advantage Podcast, but the truth is I’ve been around in the psychology world for a long time. I am a licensed therapist and I worked with the gamut of problem types over the years. I was originally trained in the criminological area of corrections (rehabilitation) and later switched into performance psychology. I love helping people use clinically based psychology to achieve their best. I also was a tenured psychology professor before I left it all behind to pursue poker.
Like most people, I got started playing poker in a home game for fun. I was immediately taken with the mathematical and psychological underpinnings of the game. I decided almost at the start that I wanted to master the game of NLHE. The joke was on me because here I am 8 years later and I’m still working at it!
Why poker? With your education and drive, you could have been successful in any number of psychology sub-specialties. What’s so special about poker compared to other areas of sports psychology?
To be fair, I don’t just do sports psychology. I’ve worked in a good many areas of psychology over the years, and I don’t like to be restricted. Poker provides many interesting psychological challenges. Some of my students are working on maximizing their learning, while others are conquering procrastination, and some focus on managing emotions. The mental game aspect is forever changing and I like variety. I also value freedom and fun and that’s hard to get in a traditional job.
I love working with poker players because I love playing poker (and working to master the game). It’s fun for me to talk about a topic I love every single day. Plus, to my knowledge I’m the only psychology professional who also plays poker. I understand at a visceral level the issues that can come up when playing (or learning) poker in a way that a non-player can’t.
There seems to be some debate in the poker community about whether or not the findings and research in sports psychology apply to poker like they do in athletics. What are your thoughts on this?
I don’t see that much debate, honestly. There do seem to be a few people who are anti-psychology when it comes to poker and I think it is because they focus too squarely on the word “sports” and not on the more important word which is psychology.
Psychology is the science of thinking, feeling, and behaving and since we all think, feel, and behave it has universal application. That’s especially true when we have thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviors that are impeding our goals.
I have extensive training in many areas of psychology (including sport, peak performance, positive psychology, neuropsychology, and clinical psychology) which I use to help poker players use and apply to their own benefit. I’ve noticed that the most successful poker players understand the importance of mental game training and they all use it in one form or another.
If you don’t attend to the mental game, you are leaving money on the table and that’s one fact I feel very confident about.
The poker world is quite small and the universe of mental game experts within poker is even smaller! We all know each other and one day Elliot said, “we should do a podcast!” and I thought the idea was brilliant! It’s a way for us to highlight great players who are interested in mindset training. They share their tips, strategies, and experiences and I think it’s very helpful for players coming up in the game to hear the work it takes to succeed.
What has surprised you most about podcasting? Any favorite guests? Any dream guests you hope to get on the show someday?
I’ve been excited by all the guests we’ve had on the show! They all have such interesting backstories – there’s something for everyone no matter where you are in your development. Personally, I find doing the show motivates me to work harder on improving my game.
I’d also like to get Mike Sexton on to hear some of his great stories about how poker has evolved over the years!
On the podcast you focus a lot on meditation, diet, exercise, etc. How much a part of your life are these things? Do you practice any of them daily? If so, what type of an effect has it had on your game?
I’m big into all the things I talk about on the show. If I could convince everyone in the world to meditate, I’m convinced the world would be a much better place! I pack my snacks for the table – which are all pretty healthy! Diet and exercise is key to brain health and I want to keep my brain working at top speed for as long as possible! I’m a big fan of doing what’s healthy and good 90% of the time and then allowing myself to splurge the other 10%. I am lucky, though, that most of my food splurges are pretty healthy.
How often do you get to play? Do you play online or mostly live?
As of Black Friday, I mostly play live. Prior to Black Friday, I was employed full-time, but I played several days of the week. I treated online play like a part-time job. Afterwards, I decided to get more into live. It’s definitely a different beast. I try to play something monthly (like a WSOP circuit event) and I spend the summer in Vegas and play all summer long.
Why do you prefer MTT to cash?
Most of my experience is on the MTT side, so I’m going to have to say that!
You mentioned on The Mindset Advantage having an edge in live vs. online. Can you explain what you mean?
It can be much easier to get an edge live because many live players have not caught up to the level of skill that online regulars are now at. The guys and gals who’ve had access to online all these years tend to be better on average because the games have gotten significantly harder online. In the live arena, there’s still plenty of money to be made. It seems to take longer for live players to evolve.
Do you get recognized at the table? Does it affect the way people play against you?
I get recognized more if I play in Oklahoma or Louisiana which are close to my home state of Texas. At the WSOP, there are people from all over the world and most of them probably view me as they would any other female player (who is not Vanessa Selbst who strikes fear instantaneously – LOL).
How often do you study? What does a typical study session consist of? Do you use training sites?
I’m just getting ready to launch a personal poker learning project where I put in a lot more time. I want to work on building a more theoretically sound poker base such that I can improve turn and river play. To that end, I play a bit each day online (HU for now to get more turns and rivers in) and then use Flopzilla to analyze some key hands. This takes about an hour in total.
As you get more advanced, you have to be able to design your own learning programs and then carefully select materials that will help you achieve your goals.
What percentage of players do you believe actually study? Of those players, what percentage do you think study the mental game?
I’d say many players think they study, but they are not actually studying because they are passively consuming content. So they are essentially wasting their time because they are not really learning. Even fewer study the mental game. I’ve heard players say that they think they don’t need to watch mental game videos because they don’t tilt. I think that’s very short-sighted because most of the information that I deal in has very little to do with tilt.
The best players spend a good amount of time studying all aspects of the game, and I like to take my cues from the best 🙂
How much should players be studying? What should the ratio of strategy to mental game study be?
I’ve asked this question of many top players and it seems like it’s a higher proportion than you might think. If you play for 30 hours per week, you should probably be studying at least 10 hours a week. If you are new to the game, switch this ratio.
Everyone (including myself) talks about deliberate practice. Can you explain exactly what that means? How does one actually practice deliberately?
Deliberate practice is like a stretch goal for learning. It is intense and feels hard when you are doing it. It is very goal directed and consists of repeated striving to reach beyond your current level. It is a slow process that takes place over a long period of time and includes some type of problem solving.
Let’s apply this to poker. Let’s say you watch a poker video. As soon as it’s over, challenge yourself to write a 1 page summary of what the video covered. This requires you to reach into your brain and pull out as much as you can from memory. This is a form of deliberate practice that can help you learn much quicker than if you don’t do this. It is also better than just taking notes during the video (which you can and should do because you can compare your summary to the notes you took to see if you missed anything important).
What is one thing you see consistently lacking in most low-limit players’ games?
Not enough study time! People think that because you can learn the rudiments of the game so quickly that you can become an expert in short order. The truth is only a small percentage of players will become the very best that they can be before they settle into a plateau. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it often is because most people will not do the work.
Also, players don’t realize that working on the mental game from the very start of your career can pay massive dividends. Start meditating, eat right, learn to accept variance, and study optimally and you can get ahead much faster!
You work with both up-and-comers and the very upper echelon of players. What is it that separates the average players from the very best players?
The very best players are humble and continue to work hard. They understand that the game is constantly evolving and they don’t want to get left behind. There is no such thing as an overnight sensation. If you want longevity in this game, you have to work. If it was easy, everyone would do it.
They are also keenly interested in the mental game. I’ve never heard a top player “debate” the importance of the mental game, but I hear it often from lesser players.
I’d like to talk a little bit about coaching because I know that’s an important aspect of your work.
With both strategy and mental game coaches charging anywhere from $75 to $300+ per hour, do you think there is sufficient value in getting coaching for low-limit players considering the significant dent it might make in their bankrolls? Should they get coaching when they are still playing low-limits or wait until they move up?
Get coaching as soon as you can! It can help you move up faster (if you have a good coach & that’s a whole other ball of wax). A great coach can help you develop a plan for study (deliberate practice) and can show you some short-cuts. As you move up, get better (and possibly more expensive) coaching.
Who should consider mental game coaching?
Anyone who wants to get every edge available. I focus on helping players design their lives and schedules so that they are more likely to get results. Jared Tendler works a lot with tilt. Elliot Roe works using hypnosis and can teach you how to visualize what you want.
Do you get coaching? If so, what type (strategy or mental?) and how has it affected your game?
I do get strategy coaching. In the last year, I’ve worked one on one with Alexander Fitzgerald and Jordan Young the most. i also took a camp [Solve for Why Academy] with Matt Berkey. In the past, I had some personal coaching with Jonathan Little.
Right now I’m working a lot on the underlying theory of the game and coaches are 100% necessary for that for me. I’m not sure I’d ever figure out all of the nuances on my own!
Who are the players you admire most and try to emulate?
There are a lot of players that I admire. I like players who are great away from the table as well as on the felt. Matt Berkey is one of the smartest, most hard-working and generous people in the game. Jonathan Little is one of my favorites in terms of his work ethic and his attention to life balance. I love Alex Fitzgerald’s love of teaching & I’ve learned a lot from him. At the lower stakes, I’m a huge fan of Gareth James and Christian Soto – although both of these guys are moving up very quickly!
I love me some alliteration! I’m not sure it will last though – I may have to move on to another letter!
I’m working to bring more content to the masses whether it is in the form of videos, books, and/or courses. I want everyone to have access to mental game training materials. Stay tuned – but more is definitely on the way!
Jonathan Little provides some great insights in both of your books. How did the two of you connect?
I took a bootcamp with him a few years ago and won $100k right after I finished it, so he holds a special place in my heart. After that, I asked him if he would commentate on my book, Positive Poker, and that was so successful, that I asked him again for Peak Poker Performance.
Rapid Fire Questions
Favorite TV show?
Hmm…Don’t really have a favorite
Favorite poker book?
Favorite non-poker book?
Favorite place to play poker?
Favorite place when not playing poker?
Freud or Jung?
Jung – but I actually prefer another contemporary of theirs – Alfred Adler
Dogs or cats?
Favorite brain food before or during a session?
I get in a lot of protein before and while playing.
If someone wants more information about coaching or your various books and projects, what’s the best way to get in touch with you?
I can’t thank Dr. Cardner enough for the interview and for being such an inspiration in my poker career. Make sure you pick up her latest book, Peak Poker Performance, which you’ll find at Amazon. The audio version of the book will be available soon so keep your eye (ear?) out for that.
Also, if you are enjoying the blog, be sure to subscribe by putting your email address in the subscription box to your right, and follow me on Twitter @thepokermonk.