Book Review: Peak Performance Poker vs. Poker Mindfulness

Peak Performance Poker vs. Poker Mindfulness

My Two Minute Review: Given the choice between Travis Steffen’s Peak Performance Poker and Eric Beck’s Poker Mindfulness, Steffen’s is the better book by far. Whereas the latter consists mostly of uncontroversial platitudes and little practical advice, the former is a helpful book packed with practical, actionable advice for how and why to integrate health and fitness with a poker lifestyle.

I still remember my mandatory 7th grade Wellness class. I remember a perky female teacher who wore frumpy sweaters with oversized ceramic lapel pins. I remember videos of energetic, multi-ethnic teens proudly proclaiming by song the “Smoke Free Class of 2000” (“two zero zero zero, everyone’s a hero!”, though of course by 7th grade quite a few of my peers were no longer heroes in this regard). I remember grades determined by attendance and fill-in-the-blank worksheets. What I don’t remember is learning anything remotely useful or interesting.

This was my concern about the recent batch of what might be called poker lifestyle books. Their authors, who tend to have graduate degrees in fields like wellness, nutrition, and physical fitness, promise to increase your profits at the table by sharing insights from these disciplines that are applicable to poker. Consequently I had no intention of spending money on these books, but two of these authors offered me free review copies, so I agreed to have a look.

Eric Beck’s Poker Mindfulness lived up to my expectations, which is to say that it consists mostly of uncontroversial platitudes and little practical advice. Moreover, it’s a sloppily written book, full of typos, grammatical errors, and run-on sentences.

Despite the title, Poker Mindfulness isn’t particularly heavy on Buddhism. Most of the quotes in the book, which consists of nearly as many words penned by other authors as by Beck himself, come from psychology, business, and sports books or from poker books, videos, and forum posts. The basic idea is to help the reader achieve a better mindset while playing poker and recognize when he is off of his A-game. While the author argues vociferously for the importance of positive thinking and “being in the moment”, I didn’t find much in the book that would actually help a reader achieve these objectives.

Travis Steffen’s Peak Performance Poker is just the opposite, a helpful book packed with practical, actionable advice for how and why to integrate health and fitness with a poker lifestyle. The book is peppered with “Action Points” that the reader is encouraged to perform immediately, and extensive appendices provide comparisons of foods, explanations of exercises that require no equipment, and useful resources for pursuing these subjects further.

To be honest, Peak Performance Poker isn’t all that specific to poker. There are chapters about choosing foods that enhance mental performance, exercising to build up stamina, when and how to refresh your mind and body with rest, and even time management. Presumably the same advice could be found in greater detail in entire books devoted to each of these subjects, and Steffen includes an extensive biblography of just such resources. For those of us with no intention of reading those other books, though, it’s helpful to have someone extract the most applicable information, condense it, and present it all in one place in a way that’s understandable to a lay person.

Both authors are primarily concerned with helping you to achieve Flow at the poker table, a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to refer to a state of “relaxed intensity” in which the world’s greatest artists and athletes seem to do their best work. This means focusing entirely on the task at hand but attending to it with confidence and expertise rather than stress and anxiety. That sounds great, but of course it’s easier said than done, and the test of a good book on the subject is not how well it explains the idea but how well it helps readers achieve it.

Beck’s Poker Mindfulness is long on the former and short on the latter. Verbose introductions expound upon the importance of a proper mindset to playing good poker and marshal quote upon quote from scientific literature and from successful poker players to drive home the point. When it comes time to tell the reader how to get there, though, these long paragraphs and run-on sentences trickle off into bullet points, slogans, and one-liners.

“Don’t think Flow but instead feel Flow,” is all we get on that subject. If you feel yourself getting frustrated at the table, “Have perspective/be mindful” and “tune back into your mind and body.” Those read like headings or topic sentences that would introduce longer sections of advice, but they are literally all that Beck has to say on the matter for some time. Later chapters brush over these concepts again but still leave the reader wondering what they mean and how exactly to accomplish them.

It doesn’t help that the book is poorly laid out and edited. The lack of spacing between paragraphs, makes already long introductions appear as foreboding walls of text. The reader is further challenged by omnipresent typos, grammatical errors, and poorly formed sentences. I’ve reproduced my favorite here, taking care to present the original punctuation and lack thereof: “Don’t make the mistake in making decision based outcome thinking (a player goes all-in and you say to yourself (despite having a hand you wouldn’t normally make the call with) ‘If I make the call and win the pot, I am almost a guaranteed winner.'”

The one redeeming quality of Poker Mindfulness are the occasional questions directed to the reader to help stimulate thought on a given subject. What are the early signs of tilt for you? If you took your game to the next level, what would that look like? How do you feel when you are playing at your best? Questions like these get the reader thinking about things he can do to achieve the noble goals that Beck has set for him. That these questions are few and far between ultimately serves only to highlight how unhelpful the majority of the book is, though.

Steffen, on the other hand, offers loads of practical advice combined with just the right amount of convincing you that this stuff is worth taking seriously in the first place. He even preempts common excuses that people employ to avoid exercise and healthy eating. At times he sounds more like a motivational speaker than a poker author. While I personally tend to roll my eyes at that tone, it has the effect of making his recommendations seem both desirable and very feasible, and that’s ultimately a good thing.

Steffen does make some effort to customize generic nutrition and health advice for poker players. He specifically encourages yoga and other forms of exercise that increase stamina, core strength, and breath control, which he considers among the most important benefits of healthy living for the poker player. At times, though, he seems to have only the most affluent poker players in mind. Looking for a good workout? Hire a personal trainer. Having trouble planning nutritious meals? Hire a personal chef.

Many of Steffen’s other suggestions and solutions are more broadly applicable, though. He points readers to a number of books and websites that explain workouts in greater detail, sell vitamins and other supplements, or contain more information about nutrition.

While I haven’t read the other recently published poker lifestyle books, it’s hard to imagine any of them being better than Peak Performance Poker. Steffen presents a wealth of information on a wide variety of topics in a clear, easy-to-use format. Best of all, he makes you want to start living a healthier lifestyle right away, and he leaves you believing that increased focus at the poker table is well within your grasp.

Given the choice between Travis Steffen’s Peak Performance Poker and Eric Beck’s Poker Mindfulness, Steffen’s is the better book by far, not to mention that it is barely half as expensive on Amazon as of this writing. Though the subject matter of the two does not overlap entirely, it is similar enough, and Beck’s book is weak enough, that I wouldn’t recommend getting both.

I must add that it’s tacky and a bit irresponsible that the author seems to have a financial interest in several of the resources he recommends most strongly. He repeatedly refers readers to a training website called WorkoutBOX at which he is apparently a trainer and co-owner. This fact he openly discloses, but he also recommends exactly one site for buying vitamins online. Only by reading the About the Author page did I learn that Steffen is in fact the owner of this site as well.

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