This story is part of the Top of the Game series, where CNBC Make It delves 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 “Jungleman,” is a world-class player with more than $11.6 million in lifetime earnings. But 15 years ago, he was a teenager who was in over his head.
“I found some people in the local neighborhood, but they were way better than me and I lost $3,000 when I was 17, which was most of my money,” Cates tells CNBC Make It. “So my parents locked my account. And I had to get a day job at McDonald’s for a month to earn some money.”
Cates says he made roughly $1,000 in a month at that job, which he used to fund his growing poker habit. He tried to take it easy, playing lower stakes games online and studying the best tactics and strategies of his opponents.
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.
At 19, Cates amassed more than $1 million in poker winnings, mostly playing online, he says. He became so “obsessed” with poker that he was hindering 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 $1 million “almost immediately,” he says. Still, he remained committed. More than a decade later, in June 2022, Cates won his second consecutive Players of Poker Championship title at the 2022 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, earning seven-figure profits from his opponents both times.
Here, Cates talks about the mindset he needed to become a world-class poker player, the importance of being able to read people, and how he stays mentally strong even when he’s losing big.
The mindset Cates used to become great at poker
The growth mindset is important: be 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 a very young age. He had good grades and didn’t really have 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 would see other things that people were doing and learn from them. I learned a lot. And I realized, “Wait, this mentality of being arrogant not only annoys people, but it closes me off to possibilities that may be even better than I know.”
Now, I beat these people who are arrogant, as usual, in poker. many many [of my opponents] I thought he was an idiot. And they always crushed them. The more they thought he was an idiot, the harder they usually squashed them.
The worst possible situation is if you think that you are surely better than someone, and you are not. This is exactly how you lose a lot of money.
How to stay mentally strong, even when you’re losing
Losing by itself is not really a reason to quit. It’s more about how determined you are to really win, how willing you are to change.
It certainly is easy to get discouraged. There were many times, even in my most winning years, where I had all these nightmarish sessions of playing all night and losing. A constant lesson of mine was that even when it seemed hopeless, when I thought, “Oh, I’m never going to win again, I lost 12 times in a row,” it was never true.
It is very tempting to fall into that mentality of despair. But essentially I have 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 thing is volatile, then your emotional state will vary greatly.
You also don’t want to let earning too much affect you negatively. It’s easy to think, “Oh, I’m always going to win.” It’s not how it works.
Why reading people is the biggest skill you need in poker (and in life)
I think it is the ability to find the truth, to recognize what is true and what is false. You need that in combination with something else: the ability to take action on it.
In poker, you must be able to read your opponent and respond appropriately. I find that the real-life equivalent to this would be something like, “Look at his actions, not his words.” When you look at someone’s face, they will try to hide their emotions very well. It’s when they don’t know you’re looking, that’s where you should be looking.
You want to see more of how they move the chips in the middle, you want to see their general psychology in the situation, things that they’re not really aware of. They are sweating a lot, because money really means something to them.
If someone is looking hard enough, similar to real life, the truth will eventually be revealed. Because if you look at someone’s story long enough, if it lacks integrity, then it will show up somewhere.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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