Using the triple column technique to defeat negative self-talk at the poker table

Using the triple column technique to defeat negative self-talk at the poker table

Lee Davy takes a look at a Cognitive Behavioural Technique known as the Triple Column Method and sees how we can use it in poker.

Using the triple column technique to defeat negative self-talk at the poker tablePete was married to Linda for 52-years when he decided to quit alcohol. It was a difficult decision. Alcohol was omnipresent. His family, his friends and Linda all thought that it was a daily part of their lives.

In the first week of sobriety, Linda was supportive. After a month, something bothered her about it. After two months, she turned to Pete and said, “I feel like I have lost my best friend.”

When I am not writing about poker, I try to help people like Pete and Linda. Their tale is a common one. Last night, while filming a podcast on the subject of quitting alcohol when your partner doesn’t, my guest, DeAnna Jordan, Clinical Director, New Method Wellness, suggested that Pete should take a look at something known as the Triple Column Method.

Before I passed the advice on to Pete I took a look at the method for myself and thought, “this would be ideal for poker players.”

The Triple Column Method

David Burns, a professor emeritus in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Stanford University, wrote about the Triple Column Method in his book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy.

Burns points out that it’s your thoughts that determine your actions, and so it’s important they align with values and beliefs that serve your greater purpose.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values; your values become your destiny.” Mahatma Gandhi.

Consider what happens when you play poker. Invariably, most of the time you are deep in thought, calculating a broad range of actions and reactions based on a combination of past experiences, at the moment feelings and concerns about the future.

These thoughts have the power to lead you towards a correct decision or to the inevitable meltdown that we all experience from time to time. Burns believes there is power in writing these thoughts down, identifying distorted thinking patterns, injecting logic to test their rationale and then changing the thought with a more positive and rational choice.

Column 1 – Create a List of Your Self-Criticisms & Thoughts

What are the self-criticisms that regularly pop into your mind when playing poker?

What are the thoughts that often lead to tilt?

Make three columns on a piece of paper and write these down in the first column.


• I never hit my draws
• I have to make my decisions quickly. Otherwise, people will think I am stupid
• I am not good enough
• Why does he always win, I am better than him?

Column 2 – Identify the Distorted Thinking Pattern

We all have a different worldview. Very often these beliefs are only a relative truth, but along the way they get distorted by the knowledge and feedback that becomes stored in our memory.

Burns believes there are ten common distortions. Here they are looking through the lens of poker.

1. All or Nothing Thinking

If we make a mistake, we automatically believe we are a failure.

2. Overgeneralization

We lose a hand against Tim and then believe that we always lose hands against Tim. Or, we miss our draw and think we always miss our draws.

3. Mental Filter

We lose a crucial hand and concentrate on it so much that it dominates our thoughts and we cannot think of anything else.

4. Disqualifying the Positive

You deliberately ignore the positive things that happen in your game and only focus on the negative.

5. Jumping to Conclusions

You always reach out for the jar of boiling pessimism without there being any just reason to do so. The river card hasn’t arrived, and you are sure that you will lose. You believe your opponent doesn’t like you without any justification. You become a mind reader.

6. Magnification

You blow things out of all proportion and make a problem much bigger than it is such as getting angry over something as simple as missing a draw. Or you flip it around and make things tiny and inconsequential, for instance, your abilities and skills at the table.

7. Emotional Reasoning

You sit down at the game with a negative frame of mind and believe that everything that happens fits into this worldview. You feel this way, and so, therefore, it must be true.

8. Should Statements

You pour scorn on your plays and decisions by introducing a myriad of ‘should’ statements into your dialogue both externally and internally.

I should have folded.

I should have raised.

I should have moved all-in.

9. Labelling and Mislabelling

This takes the ‘should’ statements a little further by labelling people or actions.

He is a fish.

I am a fish.

She is too good.

I always lose.

10. Personalisation

You blame yourself for every bad beat and cold deck when the truth is you were not responsible. The outcome was inevitable.
Write these headers in your second column and see how your thoughts and self-criticisms align with them.

Column 3 – Inject Logic

This is where Burns suggests you change your thought process from one of self-criticism to one of self-defence. He wants you to analyse your thoughts and inject logic to reveal the lies.

Byron Katie has a great book called Loving What Is where she talks about a practice known as Doing The Work.

In her practice, she asks you to write down your problematic statement (or in this case our column 1 thoughts), and then she asks you if these thoughts are true?

It’s a simple but revelatory question because you always see that the statement is false; how it damages the way you think, and how the ensuing actions don’t serve you.

Burns takes the same line here.

In your third column, inject logic and challenge your assumption before replacing it with a more positive thought.



ThoughtDistortionLogical Response


I never hit my drawsOvergeneralization
I hit some and I miss some and I can’t control either outcome


If I don’t make my decisions quickly, people will think I am stupidJumping to ConclusionsMaking quick decisions doesn’t serve me. It helps my opponents. Their opinion of me shouldn’t affect my play, and I have no way of knowing what that view is. I am not a mind reader.


I am not good enoughLabeling & MislabelingI am a great player and learning all of the time.


Why does he always win? I am better than him.Emotional ReasoningThere are times that I will win and lose. There is an element of luck in the game. I should embrace that. The chance variability gives weaker player confidence to remain in the game.

Now, it’s your turn.

Create your Triple Column lists and share your insights below.