Avoid These Mental Traps in Poker (It might shock you)

3 Mental Barriers That Are Holding You Back in Poker (and how to overcome them)

They say that fighting is 90% mental. Well then poker is about as close to 100% mental as you can get. Your success or failure is quite literally all in your head.

But for many poker players there are several mental barriers that hold them back from achieving the kind of success that they deserve in this game.

This is stuff like a lack of confidence in their abilities, putting higher stakes players on a pedestal and creating negative internal dialogue streams when the cards run bad on them.

And the reason that I can speak to these is because I have gone through each one of them myself. They are debilitating and if left unchecked they can sabotage your entire poker career.

So in this article I am going to provide you with some practical and actionable ways to start overcoming these 3 mental barriers that are holding you back at the poker tables.

1. Deep Confidence is Critical

Implementing your strategy at the poker tables (and ultimately turning a profit) is predicated on a deep sense of belief in your own abilities.

I simply do not know anybody who is a big winner, even at the lower stakes, who doesn't have a high opinion of their own poker skills.

Much like in other professional sports a healthy arrogance is actually a good thing. You should absolutely believe that you are the best player at the table each and every time that you sit down.

If you don't believe this, then find another table where you are!

Here's the thing. You probably know a lot more than you actually think about this game. At the lower stakes in particular, which I focus on in this blog, you will regularly encounter some of the worst poker players in the world.

Believe me when I say that your average player at stakes like NL2, NL5, NL10 (or $1/$2, $2/$5 live) is not very good. Even the so called "good regs" at these limits have massive and glaring leaks in their game.

In fact, they would get eaten alive in minutes if they stepped into any kind of a real poker game at higher limits.

So just by the fact that you are reading this blog tells me that you have more than a passing interest in getting better at poker. You may have read some books or watch training videos as well.

This means that you are probably far better than the majority of your competition at the lower stakes already. And yes, even if your results do not prove it yet.

It is always important to remember that it can take an insanely long time in poker for your true results to show themselves. Variance can be totally insane in this game.

I am talking 100k hands or more in some cases. This can amount to months of play online or even a year if you play live. Poker is the exact opposite of a get rich quick scheme.

But the only thing that is going to see your through it all is a rock solid belief in your own abilities. Keep putting in the hours studying poker and improving your game away from the tables.

However, also remember that your opponents at the lower stakes honestly aren't very good and you probably know a lot more about this game than most of them already.

Now go play like that and fear no one at these stakes!

2. High Stakes Pros Are Humans Too

Another mental barrier that a lot of lower stakes players have is putting higher stakes players on a pedestal and giving them an almost godlike status. As if they are super human geniuses or something.

Most sports out there require a lifetime of practice in order to be the best. They also require significant natural physical and mental talents as well.

It doesn't matter how many hours a day you shoot hoops, you probably aren't gonna learn how to nail a jump shot like Steph Curry any time soon. Similarly, no matter how much you work on your chess game, you probably aren't going to win a game against Magnus Carlsen...ever.

But in poker we see massive superstars come out of nowhere all the time in a much shorter period of time, often 5 years or less. And while they might have a little bit higher intelligence than the average person, they typically don't appear to be gifted in any major way.

Some recent names like Dan Colman and Fedor Holz are great examples of this. Both have won over 20 million dollars playing poker in just the past few years alone.
3 poker mental barriers
Dan Colman outlasted Daniel Negreanu to win the One Drop tournament for 15 Million Dollars
Image Courtesy: Las Vegas Review-Journal

Now yes, most if it came through big tournament wins. And did they run insanely good at many key moments along the way? Yes, and they wouldn't deny it themselves.

But both of these players are also often regarded by other pros as being some of the best players on the planet today. In other words, their luckbox helped them but their own skill level would have brought them significant success in this game on it's own.

There are countless other examples in the online poker world but the names and results are a lot less well known so I won't bother rattling them off here.

The real point here is that rising to the very top in poker does not require any kind of special godlike abilities. You can be the next huge name that everyone is talking about too if you want it bad enough.

While you should always be well bankrolled for any games that you are playing in, it is very important to aggressively take shots and move up the limits as well.

This is the only way to really get better. And you are going to have to learn how to beat the best in order to become the best anyways.

Dan Colman has stated in interviews on several occasions that he accelerated his learning big time by consistently challenging (and often losing against) some of the best heads up no limit players in the world online.

Secondly, if you want to reach the top in poker, then you need to fully devote yourself to it.
This means putting in way more hours to mastering this game than the average person is willing.

As I talked about in my recent 10 years as a poker pro post for my first several years all I did was eat, sleep and breathe this game. I literally did nothing else.

This is why I was able to create the kind of results at the lower limits that were well beyond what most people thought was possible.

In fact people used to ask me all the time at the poker tables if I even sleep or if I am some sort of a robot. I would usually reply in binary code "Affirmative, I Am Robot 01001101100."

But seriously, these were the best compliments that I could possibly receive. It meant that not only was I outworking everybody else but that people were actually noticing it too.

Put in mediocre effort and get mediocre results. Put in exceptional effort and get exceptional results.

3. Master Your Thoughts, Master the Game

Poker is a very simple game. In the long run everybody gets dealt the same amount of good hands and bad hands.

Anybody can play well when god-mode is activated. When you always have AA, a set or the nut straight everybody looks like a genius.

Real champions are made when you run your KK into AA for the 3rd time in a row, you get shown a higher flush once again and so on.

Most people create a series of negative inner thoughts when this kind of stuff happens. They convince themselves that it always happens to them, that they are cursed and the unluckiest poker player on earth.

You can see people ranting and raving about it on literally any poker forum or in any casino. This game can turn many otherwise completely rational and calm people into unhinged mouth-foaming crazies.

I know this because I have been driven to the edges of sanity by this game on countless occasions myself!

Something that you will eventually have to learn though is that this game doesn't care about your temper tantrums, your feelings and it doesn't owe you a thing either.

Each hand is an independent event and just because you have run your KK into AA 3 times in a row doesn't mean that it can't happen for the 4th time or even the 5th.

The odds of someone else having AA when you get KK are still the exact same every single time, around 3% at a 6 handed table and 4% in a full ring game.

It does not matter one bit what happened in previous hands. This is a new hand, and although it is extremely rare, that 3% or 4% chance will always be there.

The real point here though is that you cannot control any of this. If you play enough hands of poker then absolutely absurd statistical abnormalities will happen to you. The only thing that you can actually control is how you react to it.

Look, nobody is perfect. However, it is very important to constantly observe and monitor your inner thoughts at the poker tables when this happens.

Sit out an orbit or two if you need to and just passively and non-judgementally listen to what you are telling yourself. Eckhart Tolle suggests the exact same thing in one of my favorite books, The Power of Now.

If what you observe is a constant series of negative inner dialogue, then it is probably a good idea to step away from the poker tables and assess why it is that you are thinking like this.

Because this negative self talk often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for many people. Once they have convinced themselves that the whole world is conspiring against them, they start playing poorly, which creates bad results and only further reinforces their beliefs.

You can't possibly expect to achieve real success in poker until you learn to cut through all of the BS and start seeing the game in it's true form.

Each hand represents an opportunity for you to play your best poker. World class poker players don't let poor results in previous hands affect their play in the current hand.

Don't allow your own mind to sabotage your results in this game.

Final Thoughts

Poker is mental warfare. Those who consistently think better, tend to achieve better results. Most people put up all these mental barriers though that thwart their progress in a huge way. It is absolutely vital that you learn to free your mind from all of this nonsense that is holding you back.

Yes you are good enough to beat the lower limits at the very least. Yes you can even achieve phenomenal results in this game as well with the right amount of effort and a stronger will to succeed.

And finally, you can overcome the stream of negativity that destroys so many others in this game when the cards go bad on them.

You can learn to see each poker hand for what it is and stop poisoning your mind with negative inner self talk when the results don't go your way.

Because truthfully, no individual poker hand actually matters anyways. Neither does 10 hands, 100 hands or even 1000 hands.

We play this game for the longterm which means months, years and even decades of play. Only your results after this amount of time really matter.

Every time you sit down to play poker you have a choice about how you are going to react to all of the short term madness that can happen in this game. You can either let it bury you or make you stronger.

Let me know in the comments below what mental barriers hold you back at the poker tables. And make sure to grab a copy of my free poker ebook below for more on my complete strategy.

Lastly, if you found this article helpful, do me a quick favor and give it a "Like" or a "Tweet" below. Thanks!

poker mental barrier


  1. Thank you so much, I really needed this!

  2. I don't know about others but I don't feel a need to become the very best even if that means earning a lot of money .... reaching NL100 is enough for me and I will have enough money from it .... I don't see the appeal of playing with the best poker players and own them .... what I do what do is become a very good dancer ... one of the best in the world ... since I also do streetdance classes and that is the only domain where I feel a need to become the very best ... but I don't feel the same way in poker for some reason ... don't know why .... considering I like poker very much ... I like the feeling when I own that fish after he got lucky and then boom he loses all his stack again and again ...

    1. what I do want is to become a very good dancer* - corection to writting mistake

  3. Nathan. Ty dude. I moved up to NL25 and it works. Soon i will play for living and go to Malta. <3

    1. Wow that is awesome! Let me know how it goes.

  4. Been enjoying your posts for the last 2-3 months.
    They helped a lot.
    I haven't got the results I was hoping for yet and I had to drop one limit for now, Buy I beleive with the right mindset and enough work I will be able to crush these stakes in no time.
    Thanks for the continual inspirations.

    1. Glad I could help! Hope the results start turning around.

  5. Sometimes all it takes is to be crushed be a single two-outer for me to tilt, doubt my abilities, question whether I can do this and become angry at the tables. I should consider the sitting out and injecting logic that you suggest and implement in to my game as you suggest. Tilt is easily my biggest fault.

    Thanks for another great article!!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Davey. Tilt is probably the hardest part of the game for most people. You are definitely not alone.

  6. Thanks Nathan, perfect timing is this article for me. I'm very dedicated to getting better, i have bought both of your books (CTM and MSS) and are you working on a 3rd book? Really looking forward to it if you are.

    1. Glad it helped and yes, I have been working on my 3rd book behind the scenes for most of this year. I am planning on releasing it within a month, hopefully sooner.

  7. Hey Nathan .... what do you know about the new VIP system pokerstars is going to release in July ? Do you think it's a major improvement over the old VIP system and help us regulars make more money ? Acording to their video and what they say ... it looks like it....

  8. So hey Nathan..

    First of all this will all be completly offtopic. I tried to get into my old forumaccount but forgot the passwort or stuff, I dunno.

    I found you and shortly after your site exactly a year ago. I never played one Pokerhand in my life, i knew that AA was good and saw James Bond Casino Royal, that was anything i know (yep srsly). I purchased your book "Crushing the Microstakes" and got into Poker, started from NL2 and now a year after im a NL50 reg close to 50BI Shots of NL100. (Rly conservative BRM i know)
    I have to thank you! You got me into a game i now love and play hours and hours every day. You got me from 0-30 and gave me ne ressources to get from 30-100!

    I want to give valuation/rating on your books and downloadable stuff, I purchased everything you have over time.

    Crushing the Microstakes: Its 11/10 I swear. It's damn basic and thats good for that limits. With no foreknowledge I understood anything and could slowly improve my game until I was a decent winner at NL2 - had struggles at NL5 at first but that was because i wanted to get fancy. Not playing the solid TAG style from your book.
    Videos of you playing: 8/10. For me it was perfect to see sth else than just the textwalls from the book. I don't think it helped me at all to improve my game, I mean theres nothing discussed that isnt in Crushing the Microstakes itself but for me it was good to see someone grinding at my limits instead of NLmillionsandmillions on Twitch.
    So and now to my Nemisis: Modern Small Stakes: I rly have problems with this book. Im rly sorry but in my opinion most of the guidelines in the book are outdated and just wrong nowadays. I know you always said "do not just follow my Charts" but let's be realistic - I would say 99% of the guys playing at NL10 and below doing exactly that. When basics things like the Preflop opening range from your book is just !wrong! it's rly hard to understand why exactly u are loosing right now when u were a decent winner before. I stagnated a long time at NL10 because of that book because i just didnt know what i was doing wrong - i followed the lines from the book 1o1 but was loosing insanly. After month of self-doubt and frustration I entered a Coaching project where the first thing that was said to me: Pls pls forget anything about these ranges.

    Anyways - I still have to thank u to get me into a game that I love :)
    And to anyone who starting right now: Yeh online Poker is tough nowadays but trust this man, he knows what he is talking about :)

    1. @Unknown guy ... so in 1 year you reached NL50 ... holly shit .... how big is your simple on the entire year ? More than 500k hands ? 1 milion hands or less ?

      Also ... did you made any withdrawls at all from your account ? Or you kept the money every month to move up in limits ?

      Nathan said in his book that he is losing now ? At what limit ? He said on his blog multiple times that he is crushing up to NL100 with no problems ... I am curious what he said in his book .

    2. Oh sorry about this Unknown thing, i dunno what happend.

      To your questions: I play around 75k Hands a month, atm its close to 1 mio hands. No i never made withdrawls and im not planning to in the near future, i have a stable job and have enough money to live. I think the secret to move up these days is to play on small sites which have big first depositer offers - with them anyone should be able to get at least nl25 in a year.

      Nathan never said sth like that in his book. I said that i was loosing at NL10 for a long time because i played strikt after his book "MMS" which is outdated (at least in my opinion). This shouldnt be an insult at all, i admire Blackrains workethic and am rly rly thankfull he got me into the game :)

    3. @minimaL interesting .... yeah I only read Crushing the microstakes because I never got to advance limit in order to use the "MMS" book ... I am curious what Blackrain thinks about it but yet again he is writting a new book more detailed so it's probably a better version of MMS ...
      You say about the small sites ... even if the sites don't allow you to play more than 6 tables and their software is very crappy ? Can you still make decent money off from the fish on the long run ?

    4. Hey minimaL,

      I am glad that my books and videos have been (mostly) helpful for you! Congrats on your success as well! Let me know how it goes as you continue to move up.

  9. @Mircea Enache: I guess this is one of the reasons he is writing a new book atm. I don't say it is a bad book, i think i was a perfect book like 2-3 years ago. Btw it could just be my incompetence too for sure im still a little fish and have big big big problems in my game which i have to work on :)
    When u question directly - I would start to work through any Microgaming and iPoker skin. They still have huge 100% First Depositer Bonusses, the Playerpool isnt as small and the software not that bad. For sure not Pokerstars but not awful.

    @BlackRain79: Still fangirling hard when i speak to bigger names haha :D
    Thank you that u understood the mainmassage of my comment which wasnt bad at all - thought about correcting it because it sounded negative which wasnt meant to be at all :) Btw what im interested in: do you would back my statement? Or u think everyone can still crush with the the strategy in this book?

  10. Good read as ever Nathan. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Bryson! Glad this one helped you :)