Lee Davy sits down with the mental game coach, Jared Tendler, to talk about his move into other realms, particularly, Esports, and how the players differ from those he works with in poker.
As Max Richter’s fingers drool over the piano, and my back and palms ache, I think back to when this all began. The transition from railwayman to writer. It wasn’t painful, but it was laden with the fear of failure. I never wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a poker player.
My first break was a column in Poker Pro Europe magazine, but the editor Johnny Wenzel wouldn’t pay me a dime because I was as raw as a robin in the mouth of a rat.
And he was right.
I hadn’t written anything up until the point he said, “Yes.”
Then BLUFF came in for me.
I went to London, not to see the queen, but to see Phil Connoller, the editor-in-chief. Had I been religious I would have gone to church and prayed for a winner. Like a flea that has lived on a cat with a penchant for rosemary, once you leave the nine to five, you never want to go back.
So I ordered a mint tea and gave him my pitch.
I knew I needed to sell him on the idea of a lengthy retort or two. I was thinking soap opera, not a one-ad wonder.
The first piece was the Ogmore Poker Tour, a gonzo style non-fiction piece based on my local home game.
He loved it.
The second piece was a weekly treatise in partnership with a Mental Game Coach who would rip my game apart for all to see.
His name was Jared Tendler, and he called me the worse poker player he has ever worked with.
Since those heady days, Tendler has written two best selling books The Mental Game of Poker, and The Mental Game of Poker II, and he has worked with some of the best poker players in the business (and the absolute worst).
A few days ago, a tweet from Tendler talking about Team Liquid appeared in my Gmail account.
I didn’t know Tendler was into Esports.
So I gave him a call.
How did you get involved with Team Liquid?
“To back track a little,” says Tendler. “Three or four years ago, I realised I was over leveraged in poker, and made a conscious choice to do something about it. If something bad happened, alas another Black Friday, this time internationally, I was in trouble.
“So, I tried to diversify the industries I was working in. Today, I have a decent sized coaching arm in the world of trading, my golf business has picked up again, and I have clients in poker, the entrepreneurial world and Esports. I now have a good mix so that if any one thing should disappear I wouldn’t worry anymore.
“Esports popped up two and a half years ago. Victor Goossens, who is one of the co-CEOs of Team Liquid, randomly contacted me. He used to play poker way back when, and was good friends with Lex Veldhuis and found out about me through him.
“We got chatting, loosely mapping out how it could work. As we were talking there was a Counter-Strike event in Brooklyn, New York at the Barclays Center so I drove up to see it, and give my feedback on whether I could help and what I saw from a player/coaching dynamic.
“I spent the day with the team. It was shocking to see 8,000 people screaming and cheering for video gamers. I understand it more now. Like anything that is a form of competition that gets turned into entertainment the people who like to watch it do so for a variety of reasons. You like to see people who are great at what they do, do it. And you love to watch people do the things you love to do better.
“I am interested in high-level performance, and Esports has become the next large vertical to expose a whole new audience of people to competition at the highest level. I observed players’ actions, preparation, feedback sessions, the way they interacted together and wrote a report and it impressed Victor and some of the other guys enough to bring me on board.
“I work with the Counter-Strike, League of Legends and Dota 2 teams. I look at the Esports world as a very large growth industry, like the advent of the Internet or crypto. Nobody knows what the next 5-10 years will look like but traditional sports have been able to monetise the competition so how are we going to do that? We don’t know what games will be around in 20-50 years, like nobody knew that football, basketball and baseball would become so huge on a global scale back when they started. That’s essentially what’s happening now. It’s a rapidly growing industry and it’s interesting to be a part of it.”
Where did Tendler see his value after the Barclays Centre visit?
“On the surface it was clear there was a large gap from a basic mental fundamental standpoint of principles that were true back in poker in 2008 before I got there. I am not saying I am the only one who brought that to poker, but I had a part of that and saw an opportunity to essentially do the same thing for this team and probably many others.
“Preparation was minimal. There was zero mental prep, the prep from a technical standpoint was good, but for example, the difference between a team like this and individual poker players is communication and dynamics – how is the information flowing. There were large gaps in terms of how that information was flowing.
“There was lots of individual emotional stuff, call it tilt, anxiety and things of that sort. Essentially, all the same stuff I was seeing in poker players except with five players and a coach.”
Is Tendler’s approach different with the players from different Esports genres?
“They are different because they are different people with different needs, structures, prioritisiations, and some players are more open than others. One of the biggest challenges is none of these players are paying me. It’s the same dynamic as when staking groups are hiring me to work with their players.
“There is a different feel to it than when someone hands me the money telling me they are making a commitment. I am not saying they aren’t committed but there can be a degree of openness that’s not the same. There also has to have been a large education. For these players it’s just about the basics and that can be somewhat arduous and somewhat challenging for me. I went in expecting a little too much from them. I came in at Step 5, thinking it was step 1, and I had to work hard to get myself oriented to the real step 1 and work with them from that point.
Define the basics.
“The ability to even see that these emotional issues are present. The mental prep for sure. I think awareness is the biggest one. The challenge in poker or Esports is that the place that your technique lives is mainly in your mind. There is some mechanical ability in terms as how fast you can move your fingers, and in what coordinated pattern, but it’s minimal compared that to a golfer.
“So the idea that your mind needs to be trained to operate in a certain way was foreign. It never really occurred to them. They still see it in their mind but they don’t see it with any comparison with a sport. There is a knowledge about the game that is obvious. Outthinking someone else is obvious. The process with which you make decisions in milliseconds that that can be trained and focused on was not prevalent for them.
“They are also young: 17-27. They haven’t had the exposure to this and the stigma that it had early on was I was there for the problem players. The guys, who had the big problems, like being sent to the counselor in high school because you got into a fight. You’re talking to me because you think you have a problem not for the reality, which is you’re trying to become a world class player, I can help you get there, so you should be eating this stuff up.”
Is tilt the same with Esports players as it is with poker players?
“The factors that make the tilt different in how it shows up is there is a lot of fan interaction in Esports. One of the interesting things the first day at the Barclays Centre was the Fan Meet. There were 500 – 1k people lined up to get autographs from these people. Poker players make money from weaker players. Esports athletes make money from sponsorships and sponsorships are based on fans. In essence they have to have a sort of celebrity to them to keep the ecosystem growing and that adds a layer of pressure and toxicity that can make things difficult. At the end of the day the core issues that a player will react to are the same. If someone is getting pissed off because of something someone said, or they lose confidence because the way fans react, or they are struggling under pressure, or they have lost because they have made a mistake. And there is some luck in the game, nowhere near like poker, but bad runs happen. There can be a sense of injustice and revenge on other teams. Tilt shows up for the same reasons but for a unique way for that person or the way they are struggling. It’s all the same stuff which is why the transition from golf to poker to trading to Esports is relatively seamless for me because it’s about understanding the competitive arena enough to help.”
How do you know you’re making a difference?
“How much they are winning or losing is a part of that, but I’m not solely responsible for that. The Counter-Strike team’s world ranking was somewhere between 7-11th when I joined, and they are now ranked 2nd. All but two of the same players are currently in the roster. The acquisition of new players makes a difference. They have a new coach, and he is one of the best in the world. I have had an role in that but certainly not the only factor. Winning is certainly one metric.
“How they win is another metric they just struggled in the Grand Final of a LAN event against a team they should have beaten. And this team has historically struggled to play well under pressure. So yeah that’s on my shoulders to help the team figure that out.
“There are certain players who have particular issues and their ability to take leadership roles, control tilt, engagement, have less of an ego when it comes to interactions, be willing to work and to practice, all of these can be metrics to monitor progress.”
I have picked up the vibe that certain factions within Esports believe that corruption within the game is more prevalent because of the age of the Esports stars. I ask Jared for his opinion on this.
“I think the players I am working with are prepared to deal with that type of stuff, and I don’t think they would be seduced. One of the things that’s nice working with Team Liquid is from top to bottom they are a unit with high integrity and they bring people on board who embody that. There is education and training that goes on so they understand these things, similarly to traditional sports – player conduct and stuff like that.
“I would reject the premise that youth is the most basic factor for what would allow someone to be corrupted or not. I think that people at any age can be corrupted, and you could make an argument that older people could be more susceptible to corruption because they can see their lives might not be going to plan and how extra money could alleviate that, whereas younger adults would be far more reticent to take on something like that knowing the potential repercussions. I would look at the way someone has been raised as a factor, but not youth per se. To suggest that young adults are more prone because they are naive is pretty naive and even insulting in my opinion.”