How to read people, become mentally strong

This story is part of the Top of the Game series, where CNBC Make It dives into the habits, routines and mindsets top athletes use to achieve peak performance and success.

When Dan Cates started playing poker as a teenager in Bowie, Maryland, he quickly racked up thousands of dollars in debt.

Today, the 32-year-old – known at the poker table as “The Jungleman” – is a world-class player with over $11.6 million in lifetime earnings. But 15 years ago he was a teenager in over his head.

“I found people in the neighborhood, but they were way better than me, and I lost $3,000 when I was 17, which was most of my money,” Cates told CNBC Make. It. “So my parents locked my account. And I had to work for a month at McDonald’s to earn money.”

Cates says he earned about $1,000 in a month from that job, which he used to fund his budding poker habit. He tried to take it slow, play lower-stakes online games, and study his opponents’ best tactics and strategies.

Over the next two years, he learned a variety of crucial skills, including how to read his opponents and not let a losing streak ruin his game.

By age 19, Cates had amassed more than $1 million in poker winnings, mostly playing online, he says. He became so “obsessed” with poker that it interfered with his studies in economics at the University of Maryland, so he dropped out to play poker full time.

He quickly lost about $600,000 of that million “almost immediately,” he says. Yet he remained engaged. More than a decade later, in June 2022, Cates won his second consecutive Poker Players Championship title at the 2022 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, twice taking seven-figure payouts from his opponents.

Here, Cates discusses the mindset he needed to become a world-class poker player, the importance of being able to read people, and how he remains mentally strong even when he lose big.

The mindset Cates used to become great at poker

The growth mindset is important: being open to the possibility that there are other ways of doing things.

As a child, I was very arrogant. I knew I was smart from an early age. I had good grades and didn’t really need to work that hard. But when I started playing video games, I remember thinking, “Well, maybe I’m not that smart, because people are crushing me.”

Then I saw other things people were doing and learned from them. I learned a lot. And I realized, “Wait, this mindset of being arrogant not only pisses people off, but it closes me off from possibilities that may be even better than what I know.”

Now I beat those people who are arrogant – like, always – in poker. A lot a lot [of my opponents] thought I was such an idiot. And they have always been crushed. The more stupid they thought I was, usually the more they got run over.

The worst possible situation is if you think you’re definitely better than someone – and you’re not. This is exactly how you lose a lot of money.

How to Stay Mentally Strong, Even When You’re Losing

Losing yourself is not really a reason to quit. It’s more about how determined you are to win, how willing you are to change.

It is certainly easy to get discouraged. There have been many times, even in my greatest winning years, where I have had all these nightmarish sessions of playing all night and losing. One of my constant lessons was that even when it seemed like there was no hope – when I thought, “Oh, I’ll never win again, I’ve lost 12 times in a row” – it didn’t. never been true.

It’s really tempting to fall into that mindset of desperation. But I basically found ways to put my eggs in other baskets, which is a complicated process for everyone.

The simple answer would be to find meaningful friendships. Have hobbies. Basically, don’t put your whole life where all your emotions depend on this one thing. If that one thing is volatile, then your emotional state will vary a lot.

You also don’t want to let too many wins affect you negatively. It’s easy to think, “Oh, I’m always going to win.” That’s not how it works.

Why reading people is the biggest skill you need in poker (and in life)

I think it’s the ability to find the truth, to recognize what is true and what is false. You need this in combination with something else: the ability to act.

In poker, you need to be able to read your opponent and respond appropriately. I find the real equivalent of this would be something like, “Look at their actions, not their words.” When you look at someone’s face, they will try to hide their emotions well. That’s when they don’t know you’re looking, that’s where you should be looking.

You want to look more at how they move chips in the middle, you want to look at their overall psychology in the situation, things that they’re not really aware of. Like, they sweat really hard, because money really means something to them.

If someone looks hard enough, like in real life, the truth will eventually come out. Because if you look closely enough at someone’s story, if they lack integrity, then it will show somewhere.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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