The following is an interview I did with Aaron Steinberg. You may have heard of Aaron recently from his interview on the Strategy with Kristy Podcast this Monday. The interview has been blowing up all over social media, but after listening to the podcast myself I had so many more questions. So I asked Aaron for an interview, and he agreed. Aaron isn’t a big name in the poker world, but I have a feeling that he may become one of the biggest in the poker psychology arena very soon. Aaron is one of the most qualified poker psychology coaches out there, he’s a certified life coach and just completed his Masters in Integral Psychology from JFK University. He has done coaching with many poker players in his career, but his most notable work so far has been as resident psych coach for Saucestakes.com, Ben “Sauce123” Sulsky’s very successful staking group, where’s he’s coached almost all of Sauce’s horses. He’s also my brother, so I know him and his work very personally. Whenever I’m having any mental game issues, Aaron is always on speed dial and I’ve probably spent hundreds of hours talking about the psychological side of poker with him.
Max: One of the main points that I extracted from your interview on the Strategy with Kristy Podcast was that the common quest of poker players to be, “emotionally dead” is impossible. That begs the question: how do we as poker players, in the face of strong emotion like anger from a bad beat or depression from a downswing, play our best poker while feeling strong emotion?
Aaron: Just to be clear, I mean that while it’s possible to become emotionally dead on the outside–i.e. no longer aware of your emotions–it’s not possible for a healthy person to eliminate the subconscious effects of emotions. On some level, the emotions still occur and affect you, but you don’t feel them on a moment to moment basis. If you’re used to feeling strong emotions, which most if not all of us are, then you cannot just flip a switch and successfully ignore them. Emotions are meant to affect us; it’s their job to help us survive and thrive in a more sophisticated, nuanced way than simply fight or flight.
The short answer to your question, then, is practice–as the annoying psychological stereotype says, feel your feelings, and don’t suppress them. Then, in addition to feeling your feelings, it’s important to understand more specifically what past experiences led to certain emotional circumstances that arise in present time. Many people feel some fear in an all-in pot, for example, and fundamentally it’s because losing money is threatening to our well being. But the specific meaning of that fear differs from person to person. One person may want to prove to his or her family that poker is a viable career, and the other may be afraid of losing money because it’s been heavily valued by people he or she loves. These are the types of things players need to understand more honestly about themselves.
As you practice feeling feelings and learning about how you’ve made meaning about experiences over the course of your life, you’ll start to notice “Yep, I feel anger at losing that pot,” but it won’t cause you to play worse. The emotion will still exist, but you’ll still have that freedom of choice that exists in emotional homeostasis.
Max: You also talked on the Podcast about having a “strong relationship to your emotions.” What does that mean and how does one develop this? Why would someone have a weak relationship with his or her emotions?
Aaron: A strong relationship to your emotions means being emotionally intelligent, and this intelligence is on a spectrum where you become more skillful and intelligent over time. Take poker skill as an example. At first, one small decision takes up all your mental capacity, can stress you out, and often takes a while to make–because you’re not poker intelligent. As time goes on, you understand all the variables that go into the decision and it comes much more easily, and you can play multiple tables at a time, etc. The same thing is true for emotions.
An average person who has not considered working with their emotions, psyche, consciousness, whatever in any way has limited emotional intelligence, in that feelings take up a lot of mental space and energy. Sometimes you don’t know why you’re feeling the way you do, and you feel compelled to act outside of your overall best interest. As you start to understand why your emotions are arising–and this will be different for every person in the details but fundamentally similar, as I tried to explain before–and practice feeling them, your emotional intelligence will increase (instead of decrease like it does when you try to become emotionally dead), and you’ll develop more fluidity with your emotions, meaning, again, feelings come and then pass through as opposed to getting hooked inside you and dragging you into bad choices.
This strong relationship to your emotions can also be understood like a relationship to a person. If you don’t know someone very well or trust him or her, you can be easily thrown by stuff he or she does or says and you feel kind of on edge hanging out with that person. As you get to know him or her, you feel more at ease and there isn’t as much turmoil that comes from challenges or conflict between you.
People have weak relationships to their emotions because a lot of emotions don’t feel good to experience, and when you’re not emotionally intelligent, they produce crappy life results. It makes perfect sense that we would want to get rid of them. But that solution is like saying we should get rid of cars because some people die from driving. Emotions have evolved to help us–in the same way we created cars to improve transportation–and we can learn to use them well and productively instead of be at their mercy.
Max: You have talked privately with me about one’s intuition as essential to playing great poker. What is intuition and why is it important?
Aaron: I’m not sure what intuition literally is. People have different opinions that vary widely based on their spiritual and religious, or lack thereof, viewpoints. I like to understand it as a flash recognition of the aggregate of everything inside you that relates to the present stimulus. For example, when someone tells you something and you think they’re lying–and you’re right–but you can’t explain exactly why until later, or maybe never. In poker, then, your intuition to make a particular move at the table will be an aggregate of all of the info you’ve stored over time that relates to the particular spot. But intuition, even in poker situations, will also include things that are related only peripherally, like fear of failure or money issues, etc., because our brains want to compartmentalize things to make them more usable for us in situations that threaten our survival. (For a further discussion of connections in the brain, I think Daniel Kahneman does a great job in Chapters 9-11, I believe, of Thinking, Fast and Slow).
When you’re first starting out in poker, your intuition is going to weigh heavily on things not directly related to poker play. Your mind will relate the poker spot to other examples of competition, success, money, etc. in your life, as these are more of the experiences it has to draw on at that point, rather than other situations where you raise preflop and someone donks into you on the flop, for example. At this stage, it’s extremely important to think through your decisions, because you’re learning about new things that your mind is going to try to organize into not-new categories to keep you safe. As you progress at poker, however, your intuition will draw more from poker experiences than life stuff and you can trust it more–it’s become trained intuition.
The tricky thing about this (and this is something I haven’t tested as much as the other concepts but it seems likely) is that even if you have a lot of experience playing poker but you also have a lot of suppressed issues and emotional baggage, your intuition will still rely too heavily on other non-poker factors. Your mind, or consciousness, seems to favor things that have been suppressed because your mind’s main focus is safety and if something has been suppressed it means by definition that it’s unsafe and needs to be weighed very heavily.
Max: One Poker Psych idea that’s circulated around the poker world is that a player has an A, B, and C game (their ‘A’ game being their best state of mind to be playing, ‘C’ being the worst) and players will unavoidably play their C game on occasion. Therefore one has to improve their ‘C’ game in order to improve their mental game. What do you think of this idea?
Aaron: That seems fine to me. It reminds me of the idea that professional golfers are better because their misses don’t miss as badly. To me A, B, and C game is a kind of arbitrary distinction. However, one of the most important things about psychology and consciousness is finding metaphors and languages that really–although I hate this word–resonate with you, and if this idea makes you feel motivated to learn and you can frame growth around it then it’s quite useful.
In reality, there is no such thing as an A, B, and C game. It’s just a metaphor to help explain something much more complicated and cloudy. I could also say your logical, mixed, and emotional game and mean basically the same thing to most players. The important thing, again, is to find metaphors that work for you and use them as a framework and map for improving your poker psyche-mind-consciousness.
Max: The most talked about issue in poker right now is the time professionals take to make individual decisions at the poker table, more specifically how absurdly long it takes for some players to make decisions. This has many players calling for a shot clock in tournaments (players would only have a limited time to act every hand). Why do you think modern players take such a long time to make decisions?
Aaron: I think it’s because there is a lot on the line, and people tend to think that the more they consider a decision the better the decision will be, and this is true and not true at the same time. I also tend to think, cynically of course, that people are imitating an idea of what they think good poker play is supposed to look like. I’m sure even seasoned pros do this without being aware of it.
Max: Do you think, in general, the more time you take the better you’ll play?
Aaron: I think it depends on how much poker you’ve played and how emotionally intelligent you are. When I think about this question it reminds me of Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. He tells the story of people at the Getty trying to determine if this sculpture was fake or real. They did tons and tons of analysis on it and came to the conclusion that it was real, and subsequently purchased it. However, every art expert they brought in had had an adverse reaction to it and thought there was something wrong with it. Later they could put words to it, but at the time they just intuitively thought something was off. I think we can extrapolate some important information about poker from this.
As I said, people with well-trained intuitions probably don’t need to take a long time to make the right decision, whereas people with less experience likely do. Also, when you’re very good at poker, over thinking can often lead you astray from your gut instinct that was, in fact, correct. Last, when a human plays poker and is dealing with equities that are very close together, no amount of analysis is going to spit out “52%, you should call,” like Poker Snowie might do. It’s kind of like asking “How do I know I want to spend the rest of my life with this person?” We’re dealing in gray areas, which are invariably eventually intuitive decisions. However, one thing I like to do in those situations is think about every piece of information I have, bring that to the surface, and then as what my gut says and go with it.
I know this isn’t really an answer, per se, but my general thesis is yes for less experienced players or experienced players with lots of un-dealt-with emotional issues, and no for very seasoned pros who are emotionally intelligent and experience life balance, whatever that means to you.
Max: Do you think a shot clock is a good idea?
Aaron: I guess I’d say yes, because it encourages improvement, as the better players who’ve done the work won’t need 11 minutes to make the right choice. Also, your choice really isn’t likely changing during those times when you think it is. Depending on how compelling the stimulus is, many choices are made for us before we’re conscious that we’re making them. So a lot of this time being taken is just bullshit. Not all of it, but some, certainly.
Max: A player approaches you for mental game coaching but on one condition, he will not talk about his personal life. Would you coach this person?
Aaron: I’d certainly try. My goal is to help make people’s lives better, and that doesn’t mean only a certain type of person. However, I don’t think we’d get very far because I believe that everything inside a human is connected to everything else, e.g. fear of going all-in for your tournament life is not going to be totally unrelated to other fears you’ve experienced. And really this isn’t so much a belief anymore as just scientifically proven reality, as research by many people. Your emotions and instincts need to put everything into boxes to make sense of them and keep you safe, and there just aren’t that many boxes to put stuff in such that poker can be separate from everything else in your life. In this case, however, I’d just give the person as much help with poker-specific tips as I could.
Max: Is there a poker mental game concept that you’ve heard about that you think is unequivocally wrong?
Aaron: The thing that I speak out against, and have already said I think is wrong, is emotional deadness, but that’s not something that came from poker psychologists, it came from poker players enacting a slightly misguided strategy. Other than that, not really. I think that the information out there that exists is generally great–especially Jared’s stuff–but only a part of the whole story.
In Jared’s first book he talks about how if one doesn’t resolve the root cause of a problem, the problems will just come up again and again. I agree with this completely, and so I’d say any advice that doesn’t attend to the root causes, at least as a bigger picture intention for the work, is wrong.
Also, I don’t totally agree with the way people use Jared’s idea of injecting logic. I think his idea is really powerful, but people take it to be a comprehensive intervention to mental game issues, and it’s not, and I don’t think he intended it to be. I mean that mental game issues are mostly emotional and instinctual, and those parts of the brain are pre-logical, so often logic doesn’t solve the emotional issue in itself. There is a big difference between understanding an idea and being able to embody it, so to speak.
Furthermore, affirmations, which are my language of what injecting logic is, are much more powerful if the root of the issue is addressed within them. For example, it’s one thing to say “I know variance is part of the game and I will weather it today,” or something like that. But why do you get upset about variance? Is it that when you have bad beats the less sophisticated parts of you start to doubt your skill and worthiness of winning? Then you’d want to say “I am a talented poker player and I deserve to be successful,” or something that speaks to you. This may sound corny, but to snap you out of emotionally charged states, you need to get to the core of the issue. Again, whether we like it or not, these issues get ingrained in us when we are children and can’t think in the sophisticated ways we can now. Imagine yourself like those Russian stacking dolls. The part of you that is getting bent out of shape isn’t the most surface doll; it’s one of the smaller ones toward the middle.
Max: You play the WSOP Main Event in 2025. You quietly observe the table for an hour. What do you see?
Aaron: That’s a really good question. It’s hard to know how much and quickly people will evolve over the next 11 years, especially with so many advances in neuroscience and all the sub categories that go with it like neuro-psych. I would guess overall people will be calmer, less yelling, less angry ranting and making a big fuss about everything, but that would be more for amateurs. I don’t really have a good answer. I’m sorry.
The only thing I can think of is that more sophisticated poker games will have to become more popular as Hold’Em and Omaha become more solved, like limit games are now less popular and Hold’Em and Omaha are king at the moment.
Anything I say is extremely speculation, but the question makes me think of developmental psychology and stages of worldviews as researched by Clare Graves. Most poker players seem to be in the individualist/scientific/materialist/modern stage, which means they tend to have kind of an Ayn Rand-ian, primacy of matter, everything is math and random and meaningless worldview. For all I know this could be the highest stage of development and the rest of it is a bunch of bullshit. But the next stage is pluralistic/post-modernity, which states that there is no such thing as absolute truth or that we can’t know absolute truth and it completely removes hierarchy. This worldview believes all perspectives contain some truth and need to be taken into account. After that is the integral stages which brings back hierarchy while still maintaining the validity of all perspectives being true and partial and becomes less about survival needs and more about self-actualization.
What does this all mean in terms of poker? I don’t really know, but I thought maybe people would be intrigued by that/learn something I couldn’t forsee.
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