Playing Poker Over The Holidays

Having vacation over the holidays is beautiful. (Image:

There’s no two ways about it – having vacation over the holidays is fantastic. You don’t have to work, you can visit family or friends, or you can just take it easy. And assuming you don’t play poker professionally, you can play a LOT more than you normally do. This is great for me since my job usually prevents me from playing live poker during the week, and I’m often too tired to feel like grinding online at the end of the day. But there’s just one little problem…


Historically, playing poker while on vacation has not gone particularly well for me. I’ve probably not run the best over these periods, but more than that, I’ve just generally played terribly. I don’t start punting money around and not giving a damn while on vacation, but I play bad. My sample may be small, but so far it seems pretty consistent. Because the holidays are upon us, and I’m visiting my parents in Boston, I’ve tried to do some reflection on why this is. Why does it seem that I always quickly fall apart when trying to play poker while on vacation?

When I get time off, the relief is palpable. My job is demanding and not my favorite thing in the world, and I always wish I had a little more free time to myself. Free time for spending with my girlfriend, for just relaxing, and of course for playing poker. Free time is always in shorter supply than I’d like.

So when I get time off, the change is astonishing. I’m more relaxed, less stressed, less anxious, and happier overall. But shouldn’t that translate to being a good thing in poker? Especially in live poker, stress and anxiety can overwhelm you at the table. Being more relaxed and happier normally directly correlates to better play for me. But when it comes to vacation, this doesn’t seem to hold true anymore.

So far, what I’ve been able to come up with is that there is an ideal balance of emotion that is required to play poker. It’s good to be in a happier, more relaxed place in life in general, because it means you aren’t overly stressed or anxious. But an excess of any emotion – including happiness – can be a detriment to your ability to play solid poker at the table.


Finding an emotional balance is key to playing profitable poker. (Image:


How many times have you seen someone win a gigantic pot, get really excited, and then go on to play way too many hands, and take them way too far? I’ve personally seen this a ton in live poker. A flood of positive emotion prevents us from making good poker decisions almost as effectively as the same amount of negative emotion.

Jared Tendler, author of poker books The Mental Game of Poker 1 and 2, contends that there is also a minimum level of emotion that we should have when we play poker. It’s effectively a level of stress or physiological arousal that is required for us to play our best. I think of this as the amount of anxiety associated with “caring about what happens.”

Of the possible explanations, I think this one comes the closest to an answer for why I’ve played so bad while on vacation in the past. I’m too relaxed, and while I usually play poker because it’s enjoyable, when I play on vacation I’m only playing because it’s fun. I play to maximize my enjoyment, rather than to maximize my profit.

Because of this, I end up making some poor decisions. I’m not playing the worst I could possibly play –  but I’m not playing well either. This is obviously not ideal, so the past few times I’ve had a lot of time off, I’ve not played poker unless I was explicitly on a poker trip. But vacation is such an ideal time to play because of the lack of other responsibilities – so is there some way to combat these challenges?

I think that it really comes down to my mentality going in. When I’ve played over the holidays in the past, I’ve not put much thought into playing. I would fire up a table on a whim and go from there. That doesn’t exactly put me in the right mental state to grind. But the fact that I’m aware of this phenomenon allows me to prepare.

Before sessions, I can take a few minutes to remind myself of why I’m playing (for both fun and profit), and do some warm-ups that get me in the right mindset to grind. When it comes right down to it, being on vacation seems like too good an opportunity to pass up grinding altogether. Now that I’ve got a bit of a strategy for combatting some of my known weaknesses in this area, it’s time to implement them and see how effective they can be…
Happy Holidays, and I’ll see you at the tables!

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