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Mindset for Poker Players: 6 Japanese Words to Motivate Your Journey


Sky Matsuhashi

on January 21, 2024

I've been practicing my Japanese in preparation for a month-long trip to  Japan later this year. This practice has reminded me of my 6 favorite Japanese mindset/learning concepts, and I share them in the podcast here. The goal is to give you a new perspective on some of the things we deal with as poker players and to help you develop healthy, growth-oriented mindsets.

Listen to Podcast Episode #474: 6 Japanese Words to Motivate Your Poker Journey

Japanese Word #1: Ganbatte

Meaning: “Do your best!” or “Get ‘em” or “knock ‘em dead” all rolled into one.

Example: Ganbatte is used to encourage others (or yourself) to do their best.

How we can use ganbatte in poker:

I say it to myself all the time before I start a play session, simply to motivate me to play my best. I also say it at the start of every podcast episode for two reasons:

  1. “Ganbatte” encourages me to deliver the best possible podcast I can.
  2. To encourage you to listen up, take notes and apply what you learn on- or off-the-felt.

#2: Kaizen

Meaning: a Japanese business philosophy of continuous improvement.

Example: The cycle of Kaizen can also be viewed as: Plan >>> Do >>> Check >>> Act.

For example, a Toyota employee notices that one step in the production line could be shortened. He works with his supervisor to Plan how this could take place and if it will actually speed up production. If they believe that it will, they implement the change (Do). Then they Check the results to see whether it really sped up production and if it’s a viable ongoing operation. If so, they finally Act upon the change and make it a permanent part of the production process and they continue their newly improved work.

How we can use kaizen in poker:

We can follow this same process of Plan >>> Do >>> Check >>> Act.

For example, you’re studying 3bet bluffing and you hear from me that suited baby Aces like A5s-A2s are good for 3bet bluffing due to their blocking power. So, you make a Plan to experiment with these 3bet bluffing hands over your next 5 sessions. You play with focus on making (Do) 3bet bluffs with baby Aces. Each hand is tagged for later review (Check). You continue experimenting with these hands until finally you decide to Act upon what you’ve learned. You're either going to keep baby Aces in your 3bet range or not, based on your findings.


Work hard to become a poker shark!


#3: Shoshin

Meaning: a beginner’s mind

Example: It’s letting go of old ideas and any notions you have and being open and eager to hear new ideas.

This is like the first time you picked up a football. You wanted to throw a perfect spiral like your favorite quarterbacks do. You listened intently to your coach or dad as they showed you how to grip it, cock your arm back and attempt to throw it in a spiral motion. Maybe you’ve thrown rubber balls, tennis balls or baseballs before, and some of the mechanics are still the same. But, if you threw the football with all the same motions, you’re going to throw it all wobbly. Listening with an open mind and acting upon the directions given are how you learned to throw it properly.

How we can use shoshin in Poker:

Be open to any new ideas you’re presented with and be eager to try them out for yourself.

You don’t want to be a naysayer when you hear new poker ideas. Forums are full of these people. They quickly shoot down ideas with a short sentence that derides the original poster: “That’s a terrible idea, it will never work in my games.” Don't be one of these close-minded people.


#4: Issho Kenmei

Meaning: work hard or with utmost effort. The original use was for samurai and it meant to “devote ones life to protect their inherited land.”

On a kendo website I found, the sensei uses it to mean, “Devote yourself into whatever you are doing at the moment.”

Photo by Bernd Viefhues on Unsplash

Example: For kendo-ists, it’s like putting your full attention into learning the next movement or a full dedication to each cut you’re making.

How we can use issho kenmei in Poker:

I teach my students to “focus on one until done.” Learning is more efficient and productive when you devote your time to one concept only.

Imagine trying to work on learning player types, making better 3bets, post-flop bluff sizing, facing donk bets and improving river calls all at the same time. Talk about overwhelm!

You don't want your mind bouncing around between so many disparate topics. Learning is more efficient, and overwhelm is avoided, when you devote your study time solely to one topic.


#5: Gaman

Meaning: according to Wikipedia, “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity”. This was originally a teaching of Zen Buddhism.

Example: This is persevering through hardship or having patience in trying times or with difficult situations.

How we can use gaman in poker:

For us poker players, we need to persevere through the ups and downs, the variance, that comes with poker. We must have patience to deal with the beats and suckouts that can set us off, cause tilt, and lead to huge losses.

Let’s get Zen in poker and keep our emotions under control so we can continue to study and play with purpose. Gaman.


#6: Otsukare sama desu

Meaning: “job well done” as said from one coworker to another. But it doesn’t mean your work is over, just today’s portion of it.

Example: At the end of the day, Japanese people say it to express appreciation of the work of others. When I worked in Japan, we would also say it to each other at the beginning of the day, like acknowledging the work ahead and that we’re all in this together.

I like to think of it as a way to encourage yourself or others to “keep on keepin’ on”.

How we can use otsukare sama desu in Poker:

Because poker improvement is a never-ending process (kaizen), the hard work you put in each day to play and study with purpose will be repeated the next day. Saying to yourself or to others, otsukare sama desu, is like saying “Great work today, you’ve improved those skills, but you’re going to be back at it tomorrow.”

Taking action on and off-the-felt is the only way to plug your poker leaks

Here’s my challenge to you for this episode: Choose one word above and put it on a sticky note with the definition/meaning. Read your sticky note before or during every study and play session. Contemplate on how you can use this word/concept to improve your poker journey mindset. Ganbatte!


Sky Matsuhashi

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