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Psychology of Poker Players

November 6th, 2017

Casino table games are mainly a game of chance, but poker is a thrilling exception. It's a game that requires stamina to sit through long tournaments. There's also a psychological element to it, as players need to try to read their opponent’s body language while remaining disciplined and not reacting to positive or negative hands. Players need to bluff (Lessinger’s The Book of Bluffs can help you with that) or make false tells that will lead the person sitting opposite them into a false sense of security. On this fundamental level, it shares many aspects with psychological warfare!

Mental Toughness

In a series of articles for Poker News, Dr. Tricia Cardner analysed the rollercoaster ride of a poker player, from winning big one day to playing poorly the next. She identifies a shared attribute in all great poker players that she terms mental toughness. She states:

"Mental toughness is the ability to play your best in any situation. It becomes especially important when you're facing problems, obstacles, adversity, or failure – either in your personal life or at the table. Having mental toughness allows you to play more consistently, regardless of challenges that might arise at the table or elsewhere."

What Cardner is trying to discover is if there's a direct correlation between a player having low mental toughness and the start of a losing streak. She also lists several qualities that high-scoring players have in common. They are:

  • Self-motivated
  • Realistically positive
  • Emotionally controlled
  • Calm under pressure
  • Determined
  • Focused
  • Self-confident
  • Don't make excuses

Maintaining positivity is the key here, as it allows players to feel worthy when they win and retain an optimistic outlook even if they lose!

Emotional Discipline

During her analysis of players, Cardner highlights emotional control as one of the key abilities of a poker pro. There are some exceptions but, by and large, world-class poker players don't throw tantrums when they lose; they keep a cool head and focus on the next hand or tournament. She quotes an anonymous player:

"Emotional control is very important. You have to be able to take the beats without going on tilt. You have to be strong and know that in the long run whoever makes the best decisions is going to win. You can’t let the effects of one hand destroy you. You have to be tough!"

Cardner offers three key tips on how to keep emotion in check:

  1. The first is to understand the mathemathetics behind a poker game, because even the worst hands offer a small percentage where they win.
  2. The second is to be like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock and try to control your emotions, suggesting meditation and breathing exercises.
  3. The last is to analyse previous games to better understand why certain hands or rounds set your emotions off.

Research Your Opponent

Just as strategising your own play is important, so too is researching your opponent. This isn't always possible, but if you're aiming for the pro tournaments, you'll know ahead of time who's likely to be sitting opposite you. Former professional poker player Steve Badger cites Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, who said:

"Know thy enemy and know thy self and you will win a hundred battles."

Of course, poker isn’t war, though it is a level of conflict in which opponents use different strategies to wrest the best reward. Badger advises expanding your focus groups beyond a narrow selection of poker friends and instead visit online forums to read about strategies or ideas from a wide variety of people, some of which you may never have considered. Knowing these approaches can help you identify them during a game with random opponents or strangers. If you know in advance who you're playing, try to find footage or records of their games and spot what strategies they use or what tells they may have.

Risk and Reward

As the old saying goes, there's no risk without reward. Badger makes a distinction between tournament poker and what he terms ring poker, which lacks the adversity of the former. He establishes that all players will face the usual issues, such as whether to bluff or fold. He says:

"In every tournament, every player has to face the abyss."

And that the reaction to these moments is the difference between an amateur and a pro. Or as Badger puts it more plainly:

"This is what separates the players from the played."

He suggests a carpe diem approach: boldly rising to the occasion and risking everything to win. He advises pushing ego aside and learning to be a better poker player, not just being in it to win it!