Brunson: The magic of the zone

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in the London Telegraph in 2005.

Doyle Brunson index.

Historical note: The following explanatory note didn’t appear in the series, but was sent with each column as submitted.

Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson stands unchallenged as the most celebrated poker player who ever lived. In 2005, at age 72, he won an unprecedented 10th championship gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker. He is among the few living members of the Poker Hall of Fame, and his books  are the bibles for poker professionals.. Through and, Brunson has teamed with Mike Caro, today’s premiere poker educator, to offer a free learning experience to players worldwide. This column is founded on  those collaborative teachings.

Doyle Brunson

In sports, we call it being “in the zone.” It means that everything’s working right, you can do nothing wrong, and your opponents know it. Because they know it, they regress to a state of little children sitting sadly on the street corner after their cotton candy has toppled over and been run over by a car. They’re no longer adult competitors. They’re dazed and disoriented.

Ask any athlete. When you’re in the zone, you’re acting on automatic pilot and something from deep within you is coordinating your skills, turning tough decisions into instinctive athletic artwork, and guiding you effortlessly to victory.

This happens in poker, too. And when it does, it’s truly a thing to behold. Every bet you make, every call, every bluff, everything seems to be the correct choice. And the chips keep stacking up in front of you. And your opponents keep buying more. And there isn’t any tension in you at all. Your decisions are so perfect. And your opponents are so terrified.

You’re in the zone.

The poker zone

The magic of being in the poker zone is absolute. Some very good players I know don’t believe in the zone. They think every decision must be puzzled out and that you should be fully cognizant of every action you take. But it’s not just Doyle Brunson here who tells you differently. Practically every world-class poker player you’re ever going to meet will say the same thing. They’ll tell you that the zone comes and it goes and you’re either in it or you’re out of it. And when you’re in it, you know it 100 percent. It’s not something you see after the fact. You know it right then, right now, know you have control of the game and there’s nothing – absolutely nothing – any of your opponents can do about it, except quit.

But now I’m going to tell you that there’s more to the zone than I just explained. Much more. Remembering back to my early games as a kid in Texas, I can clearly see how the existence of the zone could work against you.

It worked against many of the really good young players I knew back then, and occasionally, it worked against me, too. You see, the problem with the zone is that once you’ve been there, you want it all the time. But you can’t have it all the time. And it takes maturity to learn that. So, if you’re not careful, you develop the bad habit of faking the zone.

When you fake the zone – pressing your bets and forcing yourself toward control of every situation when you’re not genuinely feeling that force – it’s not magic. It’s miserable. You can only dominate your opponents when you’re truly in that zone, not when you wish you were.

I can’t tell you how many players – really good players – have thrown poker parties by faking the zone. Maybe you haven’t heard that term – “throwing a party.” Well, when you accommodate your opponents by bashing your head against a hay wagon, that’s what you’re doing. You’re playing into their hands. Your betting when you shouldn’t bet, when you don’t feel you’re in control. And you can feel yourself sliding away. I mean, you can just feel it.

The opposite

It’s the opposite of being in the zone. It’s being outside the zone, desperate to be inside. And trying. And failing. And pushing for no reason at all, other than to get that feeling back – that feeling of poker magic, the magic of the zone.

And so, you keep barging ahead futilely into that wagon. You can’t move it. And your chips dwindle. That’s when you’re throwing a party. Everyone’s enjoying it, but not you. You’re the harried host.

And so the sum of this lesson is: There’s magic in the zone. But that zone isn’t always there. When it is, you’ll know it. It’s OK to be not quite in the zone. You can still make lots of money outside of it. Well, you can as long as you realize you are outside. But if you do what so many others have done, if you fake the zone, if you don’t feel it and barge into the hay wagon, well, then, don’t come asking me where your money went.

Your money went into the zone – the zone that wasn’t there. — DB

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