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Playing Poker with an A-game Mindset


Sky Matsuhashi

on March 4, 2024

A-game mindset means that you're in the best mental state to play lights out poker. You’re thinking about all the available info and you use it to make solid reads and exploitative plays. 

You’re paying attention to the action and your opponent’s tendencies, bet sizes, stack sizes and pot size, positions of the players and those still to act, and you’re making logical decisions based on all of it. 

Because you have an A-game mindset, you’re not distracted by anything from outside of the poker you’re playing.

Listen to this podcast #480 as you follow along below:

The Poker A-Game Mindset

Recently, one of my students asked me:

…the other thing is a mindset thing where I can’t seem to get motivated to play my A-game all the time, maybe the stakes are too low for me to get in the right mindset.  Do you always play your A-game? Do you always feel motivated when playing? Should I only play when I feel in the right mindset? It’s just something I would like to get your thoughts on.

In general, I try to end my session as soon as I realize I’m NOT in A-game mode.  Because in all my years of poker, I know that if I’m distracted or maybe I’ve had some alcohol or I’m just not feeling it, I often make bad decisions that cost me money.

Now here’s the thing about that, I’m not a professional player.  I’m playing poker to improve my skills, to enjoy my time on the felt and to potentially make some profits. For someone like me, and for most recreational players out there, playing when you are not in A-game mode is antithetical to why you’re playing poker.


Why is Non-A-game Bad?

When you’re not making great decisions, you have a better chance of making mistakes which cost you money. And if you know you’re not in the right mindset, those mistakes can get you really angry. They can put you on tilt or just make you feel lousy about yourself. That’s not why you’re playing poker.  You’re playing for fun, skill development and potential profit.  So, my recommendation is to NOT play when you’re not feeling it.

How many dozens or hundreds of times have you played terrible poker, realized you are playing terrible poker, but continued to play and lost even more because of it? For me, I don’t know if it’s happened hundreds of times, but it’s at least dozens of time.

I hate the fact that occasionally it still happens. Like the other day I was playing with my mouse in one hand and a glass of whiskey in the other.  Before I knew it, I was involved in 7 different cash game tables and 2 different Double or Nothing tables. That’s 9-tabling while being a little tipsy.  I knew I wasn’t in the right mindset but hey, I had these 2 DON’s running, so I might as well play a little cash at the same time, right?

Nope, I was not speaking through my decisions and I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was also berating players for the way they were playing hands. For me, that’s a huge indication that I’m not in the right mindset.

But I failed to end my session, or at a minimum, cut back on most of the cash game tables.  It ended up being a losing and frustrating session of poker.

This is something I try to be aware of, but I’m not always the best at following through. So, the mental game is something I’m constantly working on.


For the Pros

Now if any professional players are listening, my advice to you is a little different. Can a professional football player take a Sunday off because he’s “not feeling it”? Can a musician get somebody to play the drums for them at the concert tonight because they’re not in the right mind space? The answer to both of these is no, and if you are a professional player you need to play through the times when you’re not feeling it.

What you need to do is treat each session like something you cannot skip and you cannot avoid but you always need to do your best.

You need to push through those non-A game moments. One way to do this could be to play a one table focus session when you know you’re not feeling it. Try to make the best decisions you can with one hand at a time and speak through all of your decisions (unless you’re playing LIVE). If you’re able to get into the right, A-game mindset, then start adding tables as long as things continue going well.

“Just Get Started”

Sometimes when I’m not feeling it, but I need to do a podcast or video, I’ll fall back on my mantra of “just get started”.  When you don’t feel like doing something, but you need to get it done, just force yourself to do it for 5 minutes.

That’s often all you need to kickstart your mind, and that 5 minutes often turns into 10, 20 or even 60 minutes of work.  This same thing works for when you don’t feel like studying poker as well.

So, I recommend if you really need to play through your non-A game mentality but you don’t want to start your session, force yourself to play one table for 5 rounds. That’s 30 six-max hands. Just play these hands, one at a time, while you’re speaking through your decisions.


Recreational Players

If you are not a professional player, if you think of yourself as a recreational or a hobbyist or just a lover of the game of poker lovers of the game of poker, what can you do to keep playing safely when you’re not “feeling it”?

I use the word safety here because if you play in C-game mentality, you could easily spew off multiple buy-ins as the pain is mounting and before that pain forces you to your senses and you finally leave the table.

You can do the same thing that I recommend to pros when they’re not feeling it; just play one table and speak through your decisions.  Also, don’t allow yourself to buy-in to bigger games or tournaments.  If you usually play $7 MTT’s, firing up a $20 MTT won't be good for your mental state.


Part of my student's question was “how can I get into A-game mode?” I have 3 very simple and highly effective suggestions for this.  If you do these 3 things every time you sit to play, you’ll be much more likely to play in A-game mode.

Tips for A-game Play

1. Do a Warm-up

Every warm-up needs to include ditching any distractions, so that’s an imperative.  Beyond that, you can pick and choose what you want that will help you get in the right mental space.  I really like having a strategy focus for each session, and I also like doing a hand reading exercise around that strategy.  These get me thinking poker before the first hand is dealt.


2. Record Game Tape

You know I love game tape! Let me help you set it up:

Start up your first game tape session if you haven’t done one already.

It’s critical that you’re speaking through the logic that you’re using for each button click you make.  Pretend your coach or an audience is watching you play and you need to justify every play you make because they’ll be silently judging your session.


2a. For LIVE Players: Learn Something With Every Hand Dealt

Because you're playing LIVE, game tape is not an option. But, to help you stay focused, have a goal of learning something from every hand dealt.

I believe there is something to learn from every hand dealt, regardless of you being in the hand or not.  Maybe you see that Bob open-limped then re-raised to 15bb’s with AA; record that note.  You might see Suzy 3bet from the BB with A5s; record that note.  Or maybe you see that Bob capped his hand with a red chip that ended up being a huge pp, but he capped with one white chip when he was holding 87s.

Watch me demonstrate this:


3. Ask and Answer a Question Before Every Decision

This can be tough to for LIVE players (asking and answering in your own mind). But when you're playing online, you can ask yourself questions and answer them out loud.

By coupling this with game tape also gives you a record of the questions you're asking and answering yourself.

While reviewing game tape, you might find yourself asking some stupid questions or possibly giving some stupid answers. You can learn from these mistaken questions and answers and work to NOT repeat them next time.

This will teach you to ask yourself better questions and you'll find yourself giving better answers. Your decisions will improve and you’ll make more money, which leads to having more fun on the felt.



Here’s my challenge to you for this episode:  Do a warm-up prior to your next session in order to put yourself in A-game poker mindset.  A warm-up will get you thinking poker before the first hand is dealt, and will lead to better reads and plays.

And beyond this, do a warm-up before every session from here on out!

Now it’s your turn to pull the trigger and do something positive for your poker game.


Sky Matsuhashi

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