The Alexander Technique and Poker

by Ashley P. Adams

All Rights Reserved by Author

My wife’s an Alexander teacher. I’m a poker player. She’s a damn good teacher. Everyone says so and I believe them. I’m a solid poker player. I don’t know if anyone says so, but my bank account is the only index that matters to me. And it says I’m pretty good.

What’s interesting to me is that our professional worlds intersect around the concept of inhibiting habitual response. It’s what I gather to be the core of the Alexander Technique. And it is the heart of playing solid poker. Let me explain.

I pick up bits and pieces form my wife about what the Alexander Technique is all about. From what I’ve gathered, as a non-student and surely as a non-teacher of the Technique, at an early age, our bodies learn to respond to varied stimuli. We don’t learn this consciously. But our startle reflex, early on, caused many of us to adopt many bad habits of movement and posture that, over time, bite us in the ass.

For example, many of us, when we first started to make presentations to our fellow elementary classmates, “learned,” to hold our shoulders up, arch our backs, or do other sometimes subtle movements that little children make to compensate for their unease and anxiety. Similarly, when the child musicians among us practiced a difficult piece of music we tended to compress our heads into our necks or otherwise hold and tense ourselves in needless though temporarily comforting ways. We tensed up at the plate before we hit a baseball, compressed our back before shooting a basketball, and we scrunched up our bodies when we were on the phone. None of these things actually helped us do what it was we were trying to do. But they became our habit – and we became slaves to them – eventually suffering injury, pain, lack of mobility and/or efficiency as a result.

From what I gather, Alexander teachers, my wife for example, work with students to teach them about these unnecessary, stressing, and ultimately injurious habits of movement and posture that we have unwittingly practiced for much of our lives. And then, through words and some light hands-on work, they help the student inhibit these habits and learn a more easeful and eventually less injurious way of being and doing. Over time, the successful teacher helps the students learn how to inhibit their habitual responses on their own – so they can free themselves from these injurious routines on their own – thus freeing themselves physically and perhaps even emotionally and psychologically.

Though my fellow poker players would rarely put it in quite these terms, this process is at the heart of becoming successful at my profession.

Most of us, when we start to play poker, bring to the game many habits of being and doing. Some of us are naturally aggressive. We like to bully others at the table. We get into the habit of initiating the betting, raising or re-raising – irrespective of the true value of our hands or our opponents’ hands. Our opponents check and we bet; they bet and we raise. Some poker players learned early on to be more passive when playing the game – checking and calling bets made by others became habitual. While still others became, for one reason or another, timid at the table. They learned to fold even their good hands if they faced any aggression from their opponents.

Whatever our natural tendency was – aggressive, passive, timid or some other habit of play – it determined, to a large degree, what our action would be, regardless of the particular situation we were in.

(As an aside, let me note that these “poker habits” are not always indicative of our general “posture” in the non-poker world. Many players who are timid at the table are bold in real life. Similarly, some of the most aggressive players in a poker game tend to be enormously conservative and restrained in their day-to-day lives. But I digress.)

These habitual responses at the poker table injure us in two significant ways that I’d like to explore. And then I’d like to show you how to do what an Alexander teacher trains her students to do – inhibit those habitual responses and replace them with more thoughtful action.

The first injury caused by habitual responses in a poker game is self inflicted. We hurt our bottom line by failing to properly think about and weigh all of the many factors that should go into determining our action.

Let’s say, for example, that you are playing 7-card stud, a type of poker with exposed and hidden cards. The highest ranking up cards determine who has the option of initiating the betting in the game. Some players, given the option of betting because they have the high hand showing, invariably bet. For whatever reason, they seldom decline the option by checking. If someone raises their initial bet they routinely re-raise. Perhaps they think that doing otherwise is an unwanted sign of weakness. Perhaps they want to always look as strong as they can – who knows. But their habit is to begin or escalate betting every time they have the option. They do so automatically.

In so doing, they are failing to properly weigh all of the factors that should go into making the important decision of whether to bet or check. Sometimes, for example, the best move based on the exposed cards, the type of players you’re up against, and the cards you hold, is to check rather than to bet. But if a player’s natural inclination to bet goes uninhibited, they don’t give themselves the ability to cipher out the best action – settling for their automatic action. This will cost them money in the long run.

There are countless variations of this. Any player who raises, calls, checks or folds out of reflex rather than reason clearly prevents himself from figuring out and taking the action which makes the most sense, tactically and strategically. By failing to employ a thoughtful strategy or a useful tactic, these players deprive themselves of the useful tool of thought -- sacrificing potential profit in the process.

The other injury the uninhibited player will suffer will come at the hands of his more thoughtful and observant opponents. Good players – that is players who do not respond habitually – will notice what type of player they are up against. In other words, your general habits at the table – your inclination to be, for example, aggressive, passive, or timid – will be exploited by the better player to your disadvantage. Good players exploit your habitual play by using it to figure out what cards you are likely to have based on your pattern of response. Hence, a player who is properly typed as timid who actually raises will be known to hold a truly powerful hand – causing the good player to fold and thus depriving the habitual player of money he would have received had his opponent called his bet. Players who habitually raise, and are thus categorized by their observant opponents as aggressive, will find that good opponents will steal pots from them when they don’t initiate or escalate the bet – since the good player will properly conclude that the habitual player must have absolutely nothing if he doesn’t bet – and bluff mercilessly to win the pot.

The best players are those who can inhibit their habitual response and replace it with a thoughtful and appropriate betting action. These players will notice how their opponents seem to be responding to their cards, couple that with the quality of their own cards, and then, using that and any other information they have gleaned, determine the best action to take to further their objective of maximizing their winnings and minimizing their losses.

In poker, as in life, there may be nothing we can do about our immediate and visceral reaction to things. We all have impulses. But when I’m sitting at the poker table, I have learned to listen to the voice of my imaginary Alexander teacher on my shoulder whispering that I should think first about what I should do before I act. I have profited from those whispered lessons – literally. (This article was originally published in Exchange, a publication of Alexander Technique International)


Ashley Adams has been playing poker for 42 years, since learning the game literally at his grandfather's knee. He's been playing seriously (and winning) in casinos, poker rooms, living rooms and kitchens all over the world, for the past 12 years. He started playing seriously in 1993 at the poker room in Foxwoods Resort Casino and he's been winning just about ever since. He's won No Limit Hold‘Em and 7-Card Stud tournaments in Connecticut, Massachusetts, California and Nevada.

He is the author of Winning 7-Card Stud (Kensington 2003) and articles in Card Player Magazine, Poker Player Magazine, Live Action Poker Magazine, Southwestern Poker Magazine, 5thStreet Magazine, and numerous online sites. He is under agreement for his next book, Winning Low Limit/No Limit Hold‘Em, due to be published by Kensington in early 2006.


He is by profession a union organizer and negotiator, representing broadcasters, health care workers and now teachers. He has two daughters, both of whom play poker.

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