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The Importance of the Mental Stack in Poker

Home » Guides » The Importance of the Mental Stack in Poker

The Importance of the Mental Stack in Poker

Stacks of poker chips neatly piled on top of each other.

There’s a significant amount of overlap between poker and video games; it can be useful to keep this in mind when planning your poker strategy. The need to calculate odds, think ahead, and respond to random events while attempting to outplay your opponents is something that real-time strategy games like Fortnite, Hearthstone, and Dota 2 all have in common with online poker. No wonder poker stars like Daniel “Kid Poker” Negreanu and Bertrand “ElkY” Grospellier enjoy playing video strategy games between poker sessions.

If you take a closer look, you’ll find that something else these games have in common is the importance of the mental stack. This concept hasn’t yet received much attention in poker circles, but its relevance to the mental game of poker is obvious. Keep reading to see why managing your mental stack can raise your poker game to a higher level.

Introducing the Mental Stack Concept

The concept of the mental stack comes from real-time fighting games like Tekken 7, Mortal Kombat 11, and Streetfighter 5. At the highest levels, these games require highly developed reflexes and split-second decision-making based on various potential attacks and defenses.

With so many possibilities in the mix, skilled players will prepare specific reactions to various options. Mental stack is the concept that the more options a player attempts to prepare a particular reaction to, the slower all their responses tend to be.

Steam Community contributor Lysamus explains: “Example: preparing for a jump-in is fast. Preparing for a jump-in or a dash is slower. Preparing for a jump-in, dash, drive rush, drive impact, fireball, or an audacious taunt can grind down your reactions so much that you freeze, leading to you getting opened up to big damage and even more savage taunting.”

The Mental Stack in Poker

Five people around a green felt poker table with poker chips scattered around.

How does mental stack apply to poker? Think of all the things you can think about and prepare for at the same time when you play poker games online.

Ideally, you should continuously attempt to determine the emotional intelligence of the players at the table, reflect on what your table image is like in the minds of each of your opponents, and develop a mental model for each individual’s poker strategy.

When you receive your cards in the pre-flop betting round, you should consider what the other players are likely to do, considering the action in front of you and the chances of being raised and reraised by the players behind you.

At the same time, you should put your opponents on a specific range and gauge how this range changes through the hand.

As the hand progresses, you must continuously think about your absolute hand strength and the range you’re representing and keep tabs on how it changes from one street to the next.

With all these cogs spinning in your brain, you should also be calculating your exact odds of improving, the size of the pot, and the pot odds you need to improve.

And then there are the questions you should be asking yourself all the time:

  • What implied and unfavorable, implied odds are associated with your outs?
  • What do your opponents’ mannerisms when the action is on them say about their hand strength, and how does it affect their range?
  • How will the plays you make in the moment set you up for later plays?

All of the above goes to make up your mental stack in poker.

Unburdening the Mental Stack

Three people around a green felt poker table with stacks of poker chips in front of them.

It’s impossible to focus on everything in your mental stack at once. In poker, as in video gaming, the idea is to avoid decision paralysis by simplifying your mental stack and only focusing on the most advantageous aspects of the current situation. The exact factors you choose to focus on depend on your strengths and weaknesses. As a general rule, it’s best to play to your strengths. Some players are great at poker psychology, emotional control, and hand representation; others are experts at putting their opponents on tilt, and others have an intuitive grasp of poker math. Some players are better at specific poker variants than others. At the same time, you should be aware of your weaknesses and work on them away from the table. And don’t forget about the basics, like exercising and getting enough sleep.

Once you’ve identified your strengths, you need to build up what you might call muscle memory. Just as video gamers train their reflexes to respond automatically in certain situations, you want to develop your game to the point that you can play ABC poker without thinking. Once you’ve reached that stage of development, you can start to let your intuitions guide you. Ultimately, your decision-making will flow in an almost zen-like way, similar to the fluid actions and responses of the best video game fighters.

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Level up your poker game with the concept of the mental stack. Find out how to apply this video gaming idea to the mental game of poker.