Problems That Block You From Reaching Next Level

Sam Forde
29 Apr 2024
Psychology Coaching
29 Apr 2024

Sam Forde, a poker professional, licensed counselor, and university lecturer, offers valuable insights to help you overcome common challenges hindering your progress in the game. By understanding and applying two powerful concepts, you'll be empowered to take the right actions necessary to navigate the day-to-day hurdles faced by poker players. Whether it's mastering strategy, managing emotions, or enhancing decision-making skills, Sam Forde's guidance can help elevate your game to the next level.

About author / introduction

Hey everyone! I'm a counselor and university lecturer who's been playing heads-up no-limit poker full-time for the past year. I've got some valuable insights to share that I've found useful in my work and studies, and I think they'll be helpful for poker players too.

Our poker decisions are influenced by the stories we tell ourselves. Here are some personal experiences:

  1. Last summer, I lost most of my bankroll and had to play at the lowest stakes.
  2. I became too focused on results and got frustrated at the tables.
  3. I took a two-week break to recharge.

These events form a narrative that I'm not cut out for success in poker. But narratives aren't set in stone — they're just interpretations of our experiences. By recognizing and challenging these narratives, we can grow as players.

In our discussions, we'll explore strategies for reframing our narratives, fostering a healthier mindset, and improving our poker game. Let's embark on this journey together!

It's like a saga with various contributing volumes, and here are some extra titles — these recurring events are easily absorbed into the story. 

I don't have what it takes to make it as a poker player (baffled by fish)

This story really blossomed last year. Those who study with me or have coached me will know this. I observed in myself a tendency to preserve mental energy by autopiloting or even actively resisting reflection against recreationals.

I wasn't analyzing their game carefully; instead, I'd pigeonhole them into general categories, thinking in generic terms like "he's super passive" or "he's a maniac". 

These opponents should have been my most lucrative opponents by far, but I dropped the ball again and again. This story here is about skill, performance, and mistakes — things that are really worthy and important to reflect on and review. But the identity story with which I lived was this "not good enough" saga. 

Real poker players don't feel things

It is another recurring event in the series. You'll be shocked to hear that I experience tricky thoughts and feelings every day, and this clashes with broader constructs about being a poker player, a man, a professional, and so on. 

On some level, it's easy for me to buy into the idea that I should keep a resting Steven Chidwick face in every situation, that I should be able to experience variance as if it were as natural as the rise and fall of a wave. But I don't. For me, I like to cringe, I sigh, I sweat, I pray, I groan, and I get discouraged and depressed — to the delight, I'm sure, of any of my opponents if they're in the session.

Hero calling in under bluffed spots

Another recurring event that fits into the story "I don't have what it takes to succeed" is a collection of my many adventures hero-calling in under-bluff spots. Maybe you've experienced this too. It's a big river spot where I have a zero EV call in theory, and I'll even think, "Yeah, people don't find enough bluffs here," or "This guy definitely doesn't find enough bluffs here, but maybe this one time he's found a reason to go for it." 

Even when a simple population node look would show that the call is clearly minus EV, I still find myself making it.

This story has a straightforward technical game component, but it also involves a lot of inner elements — hopes, desires, fears and all that sort of stuff. It's really a "what's wrong with me" kind of story, which fits nicely with these other ones into the big "I don't have what it takes to make it in poker" story.

Now, let's return all this to the diagram. On the bottom half, you'll see I've got this landscape of action with all the events that we can choose from, and on the top half, the landscape of meaning and identity. These are the stories, the identity conclusions that these events get collected into. 

The blue dots are just events that haven't been highlighted because they don't fit into this story. 

So, if it's okay with you, let's just take one of these events which didn't feature in the story. This one, for example, is that during this time — remember, I'd bust my roll, I'd reloaded just enough to play at my lowest stake, but I was frustrated in my gameplay and took some time off — during that period as well, I maintained a routine of study and reflection. 

And here's another: at this time, I opened up to my partner about the situation I was in. These two events, which don't really fit into this particular story very well, taken together with all the other events highlighted, can actually fit into a story like "I'm a poker player on a journey." 

I think this is a reasonable conclusion to draw from all of those events combined together. It's not that it's truer than the other story, but this story fits for me and one which serves me much better.

I'll quote the therapist and author Alice Morgan here — she's over the ditch in Australia. She says, "Our lives are multi-storied. There are many stories occurring at the same time, and different stories can be told about the same events. No single story can be free of ambiguity or contradiction. No single story can encapsulate or handle all the contingencies of life". 

But here's a story of mine: poker player on a journey. It's a what I'd call an "I am becoming" type story. And every now and again, usually with the help of people that we care about, we get to write these "I'm becoming" type stories where our intentions are witnessed by others and are noticed and celebrated and developed. 

This is all the more powerful because our sense of who we are will tend to guide how we ought to act in any given situation, if that makes sense.

That sense of who we are ends up actually affecting or impacting our sense of how we should act. 

Deficit story

We do very often tend to be in the grip of deficit stories — stories about us lacking something, about us not being something. Another way to describe it would be problem-saturated stories. And these have an enormous gravitational pull. When these stories dominate, any actions and events that contradict these stories or point to something else, like the one here, a story about "I'm becoming," these easily get neglected or tossed aside.

It's a bit like a favorite old story of mine that you might have heard before about the drunk guy under the lamppost. So, you've got this drunk guy under a lamppost, and a jogger comes along and says, "Hey, what are you doing?" And the drunk guy says, "I'm looking for my keys." The jogger offers to help and asks, "Where did you last have them?" The drunk guy says, "Over there, in the bushes." So the jogger asks, "Why are you looking here then?" And the drunk guy says, "Because the visibility is better".

The pull to make sense of life in terms of available problem stories is incredibly strong. I think we're like moths to a flame in this respect. We're always missing keys that are out of sight in the bushes. 

We often need a kind of disruption or especially help from others to explore the landscape of our own lives in different ways.

So, this is really the main point I'm bringing today, to cloak the other things that we're talking about. This highlights to me that it makes a difference how we story events, and especially how we talk about the problems in our lives. From my experience working alongside people in counseling, I know that how we talk about our problems matters a ton. 

We don't make up identity stories so much as piece them together from the stories that are available and acceptable within our own world of influence.

I guess that in a technical sense, you could say that we enact our own versions of the stories made available to us and our communities. And stories about us or others being the problem and failing to form at some standard in life are super available — sitting there just waiting with open arms.

And then what happens when you believe that you are the problem and that there's really something wrong with you? Well, it becomes really difficult to take action. You just end up being preoccupied with yourself and taking action against yourself. So, if you want to give yourself a chance at revisiting the stories in your life, then this idea here is really key, and I want to spend some time talking about that today. 

And that's this idea or this motto — the problem is the problem. 

It seems a bit obvious, but it's totally logical. It's saying the same thing, but what I mean is, the problem is the problem, as opposed to the person in the problem. So when we talk about problems and predicaments, we tend to be constrained by dominant ideas and dominant ways of talking, as well as cultural assumptions. That includes assumptions about well-being, about being a person who has it together, someone who handles things, someone who can deal with adversity, all sorts of norms and expectations. And these default parameters constrain how we talk about problems.

So, let's run the sim with these default parameters, and it worked it out pretty fast. The problems in your life reveal some truth about: 

  • Yourself, your nature and character; 
  • The nature and character of others;
  • The nature and character of your relationships.

So when you see the problem, you think, "That's the truth about some inherent quality of either you or others or your relationships." I mean, just think of yourself in a couple for a second, and it'll become apparent straight away.

In other words, the common output that you'll get with the default parameters is that your problems are internal to yourself or the selves of others. You are the problem — others are the problem. 

This kind of understanding, the sort of deficit story, in other words, that there's something not good enough about you or not good enough about them or not good enough about your relationship with them, this sort of deficit story shapes the kinds of efforts that you take to resolve problems. And usually, these attempts to resolve the problems often make the problems worse. 

Then you conclude even more strongly that the problems in your life come from the truths about you. Basically, once you believe your problems are internal to yourself, it just sinks you further and further into the problems that you're attempting to resolve.

Commonplace internalizing language

I want to give you some examples about language, and I know it can be fiddly to focus on language, but actually all our understanding is formed through the ways that we talk about things. So I think it's really important. 

Here are some commonplace ways that we talk about problems in this internalized kind of way:

  • "That dude has some serious anger issues" / "Caroline is a depressive sort of person";
  • "I'm a failure; I'm unmotivated. I can never follow through on projects". / "She's an addict; that's who she is";
  • "He's a random fish" / "Disordered, dysfunctional, incompetent, inadequate".

These phrases depict individuals or situations as having inherent qualities that lead to problems. Terms like "disordered," "dysfunctional," "incompetent," and "inadequate" are often used in similar discourse, suggesting that issues stem from an inherent deficiency rather than external factors or circumstances. This language reinforces the idea that problems are intrinsic to individuals or entities, rather than acknowledging the complex interplay of various factors contributing to the situation.

Basically, again, if we come to believe that the problem is something wrong with us, it becomes difficult to take action and demoralizing.


So, I'd like to offer you an alternative way of talking about problems and predicaments called externalization. Instead of thinking that the person is the problem, as we've been discussing and as represented by this diagram on the left, we talk about the problem being the problem. 

What we're doing here is objectifying the problem instead of objectifying the person. This makes it possible for people to experience an identity that is separate from the problem. 

When we talk in this externalized kind of way, the problem stops being understood as the truth about people's identities, and then problem-solving options become more visible and more accessible. That's why I like to use this phrase: "Opening up space through externalization: Person is not the problem; the problem is the problem". I hope that's a memorable takeaway from today, even if you end up thinking it's wacky.

Here are some examples of this externalized way of talking that might play itself out at a language level:

If I think to myself, "I'm not cut out for this," and I want to objectify the problem, instead of saying "me", I might say something like, "This sense of inadequacy really shows up when XYZ happens". The sense of inadequacy really shows up when this and that happens, which already involves a bit more detail to be able to reflect on.

"He's a sore loser; disappointment really grabs hold of him in these spots. And I want to say, as a disclaimer, I know this might seem a bit "naf" at first, and it may even seem like we're abdicating responsibility by talking about problems in this way. But I do want to say, in my experience, it's the complete opposite. 

Once a problem is seen as external to yourself, it makes it easier to see what the problem is, what its effects are, and especially to see your relationship — your relationship with the problem, your relationship to the problem, et. And that little bit of space can be super empowering to take actions that are more in line with what you really deeply care about and hold to be valuable.

While externalizing problems enables you to separate yourself and your relationship from such problems, it doesn't separate you from responsibility for the extent to which you participate in the survival of the problem. 

In fact, as these practices help you become aware and describe your relationship with the problem, they empower you to assume responsibility for the problem, which might actually be a new thing. And to highlight this point even more, I'd add that this way of working is acknowledged in this part of the world. 

So, I can't remember if we mentioned that I'm in New Zealand — like the proof is that it's 6:25 a.m. here — so in New Zealand and Australia, this kind of approach that I'm sharing has been seen to be very effective. Specifically, it's acknowledged in this part of the world as one of the most effective approaches in working with men to reduce violence and abuse. 

So, I just wanted to add that. I'm not presenting some fluffy notion; there's real change that's happened to real people who thought they had exhausted every avenue and where everything seemed to have turned to desperate and dangerous situations. So, I want to imagine my knee-jerk reaction to hearing this concept. I think it would be along these lines. So, I wanted to add that in. It's actually an invitation to responsibility once you externalize problems.

I'm useless versus the feeling of uselessness shows up strongest for me after a losing session. 

That's, I'm kind of trusting that everyone here feels this way, no matter how advanced you are in your meditation practice or whatever you're up to, no matter how deeply loved you are by the people around you.

"All right, Caroline is a depressed person" / "Caroline says she's been in a fog of depression since losing her job". And how about this one? Villain is an aggro fish. Well, his strategy has clear leaks. His strategy has him not splitting hands across the game tree effectively, struggling to react to Hero's big adjustments against him, and favoring the aggressive option on many nodes. And hey, in addition, when winning or deeper stacked, he tends to tighten up. 

And by the way, I'm indebted to Corey Mikel here. He has an article on his website called 'Beating Fish in Omaha,' which I couldn't resist purchasing off his website, even though I don't play Omaha. And I feel comfortable plugging him because I know he's a coach.

But yeah, fish operating according to some strategy, it shouldn't be a revolutionary idea, but I actually really enjoyed his thoughts on the meta. Just seems to be an all-around brilliant thinker.

Yeah, so the fish can be the fishiest fish that ever did fish, but the fact is — he’ll be operating according to some kind of strategy, some form of tendencies, and you as a player have a responsibility to figure this out as accurately as possible and adjust. That's the game, that's what it's about.

Or you could just shrug and call him an aggro fish. Yeah, it's a description. It's just what we call in the trade a very thin description, like 'what a naughty child' or 'she's just an attention seeker’. We want thicker descriptions.

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