3 Keys to Flow from a Professional Poker Player

James Chin is a professional poker player living in Las Vegas, Nevada.  He has a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School and a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from The University of Texas.  

As a professional poker player, creating and maintaining flow is of great importance. It’s often the difference between a winning hand and losing your shirt.

What is flow?  To me, it’s the feeling of being perfectly adapted to my environment.  My working environment is the poker table.  Here’s how I do it.

Genuine study of craft

Every situation I encounter at the poker table, I’ve thought through before in my head.

Reading poker books, watching poker videos, analyzing hands away from the table, and playing many hands while at the table with a deliberate thought process give me confidence that I know what the correct play is.

From genuine study comes genuine confidence.

Structure

I make sure that I practice good bankroll management — only playing a certain level of stakes if I have a minimum number of buyins for that stakes such that risk of total ruin is vanishingly small — so that the costs of my poker decisions aren’t so high that they cause me to make risk-averse and sub-optimal plays rather than the plays I know are correct for the situation.

Creating flow feels relatively simple once I have the correct form down and the freedom from fear to use that form.

Mantra

Maintaining flow is still another matter.  Poker is similar to life in that even if I make the correct decision, at times, the result will still be negative due to factors outside of my control.

At times like these, it’s easy to slip into a sub-optimal thought process where I dwell on what could have been instead of staying present in the moment and continuing to make the best decision for hands I’m currently involved in.

What helps in these instances is having a mantra that centers me back on the action.  It may sound silly, but one mantra that’s been effective for me is a lyric from the film Before Sunset: “Let me sing you a waltz.”

Whenever I think about that scene and that song, I’m immediately flooded with a sense of calm.  And just through the swingy nature of the song, I internalize the feeling that swings (in life, in poker) are natural and not something to dwell on.

How do you create and maintain flow?

Study the structure of your field and practice so that you’re confident you know the fundamentals intimately, make sure the cost of failure isn’t so high that it inhibits you from aiming for the lines, and be present, even in the face of difficulty.

This is how I do it for poker.  How do you do it?