“In the Lab” with ACR Pro, Jon Van Fleet – Brain Hacks

“In the Lab” with ACR Pro, Jon Van Fleet – Brain Hacks

Our “In the Lab” is a series of blog articles and Twitch streams where our ACR Pros provide insight on all the hottest poker topics. You can watch the Twitch stream here every Monday and Wednesday at 4:30pm ET, after the ACR Show.

This week, our blog article focuses on Brain Hacks from ACR Pro, Jon Van Fleet (Apestyles).

“We all know the pain of getting hit by a two-outer for all our chips. It will always hurt and I will probably always yell, “F*CK!” when it happens. In that moment, I’m physically heated. I can feel pin pricks all over my skin as the blood rushes to my head and in that moment, it feels like I’ve been truly screwed over by the Universe. Within minutes, though, I’m usually back to equilibrium and playing my “A” game.

In my opinion, the trick to mental game success in poker isn’t being an unemotional robot. Instead, it’s all about shortening the distance between your emotional reaction and getting back to being focused and calm. In this article, I’ll share a few tricks or brain hacks that I use to get back in the zone.

Belly Breathing/Diaphragmatic Breathing

As soon as I get hit by any intense emotion, my mind immediately goes to my breath. The steps are simple: breathe four seconds on the inhale, four seconds on the exhale, and one second in between. On the inhale, expand your stomach from the bottom up as if you’re filling a glass of water. On the exhale, push the air out from the top of your stomach downwards. Ideally you should be focused only on counting your breath and the movement of your stomach.

Diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the Vagus Nerve and activates the relaxation response of the parasympathetic nervous system (UCLA Health). I learned about this technique, Heart Rate Variability, and brain performance with the Neuropeak Performance Training Program. Ideally one should be doing about 10-20 minutes of belly breathing a day to be at peak performance, but I also find it very useful to anchor me when I get caught off guard by intense emotions.

Embodied Attention

Another technique that I use in tandem with or separate from belly breathing is putting my attention into my body. I view my chest and stomach as kind of an energy field of sensation, so whenever I get hit by something like anxiety, I “explore” it. With curiosity and detachment, I attempt to look at exectly what is there: is it sharp, dull, moving, still, hot, cold, tight, or loose, etc.?

For example, I experience nervousness as kind of an electric, tingling sensation in my chest, not all too different from the way excitement feels. The main difference between excitement and nervousness is the storyline you choose and your perception of the situation as being positive or negative.”

Gratitude and Self-Love

I’ve just been picked off in a bluff deep in a major tournament but still have other sweats going on. It is super easy to start a negative internal dialogue, “I’m the worst”, “I should quit poker” and other self-defeating thoughts. Now, I try to catch myself and pay attention to the words I speak. A good rule for self-talk is, “Would you talk to someone else like that? Would you be cool if someone spoke to you that way?”

Beating yourself up may seem necessary, but self-flagellation is almost always inefficient unless you’re using it to improve. If you think you made a mistake, note the hand, and move on. Otherwise, you’re wasting valuable brain space talking yourself down when you should be focused on poker. This may sound hokey, but it’s okay to thank yourself for putting in a grind and trying your best. Be your own cheerleader, not your own hater.

Gratitude is another simple but powerful tool. For me, it is just smiling and appreciating what I have. I have a lot now, but I’ve torched it all down before. When I was broke and in rehab 10 years ago, I realized I didn’t need a lot beyond good friends, food, and a place to sleep. I find when I give gratitude and appreciation to those around me, that’s what is returned to me.


I shared these tools in the hope that others can benefit from them in the way I do. Once I clear my mind of distracting emotion and negative self-talk, I have the room and presence to be focused and ego-free. Poker to me is mostly a game of puzzles that I try to play without getting too emotional. It’s more fun that way and after 20 years, the best thing about poker is that it’s still fun.

Thanks to Patrick Leonard, Josh Korda, and Morgan from Neuropeak for inspiration.



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