Every activity calls for a certain set of personal characteristics for a person to succeed at it.
In sports, those characteristics include both physical and mental strength. And in a game like poker, you definitely don’t need to have a certain type of body.
But, since it favors those of more analytical tendencies, it raises some questions.
One of the most pressing is, can you be an emotional person and still be great at poker?
1 – Putting Things in Perspective
To begin with, what does it mean to be rational? And what does it mean to be emotional?
According to Longman’s Active Study Dictionary, a rational person is one who is “able to make decisions based on the facts of a situation, and not influenced too much by feelings.”
On the other hand, if you’re emotional, this would mean that you tend to “[show] your emotions to other people, especially by crying.”
These definitions should be more than enough to convince us of the benefits of being rational at a poker table. But, to make things a little more interesting, let’s go beyond the dictionary definition here.
Because it’s when we bring psychological depth to this discussion that we can have a more nuanced view of these terms.
2 – Enter the MBTI
If you’re indeed a more emotional person, it’s likely that you have at least heard of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).
Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, expanded on some personality theories that had been developed by the great Carl Jung.
In his 1921 book Psychological Types, Jung talked about one’s preferred psychological functions. Briggs and Myers took those further, coming up with a system that categorizes people into 16 possible types.
Those 16 types come from combinations of 4 different cognitive functions:
Introverted vs. Extraverted
Intuitive vs. Observant
Thinking vs. Feeling
Judging vs. Prospecting
For our discussion here, the most important distinction is, obviously, the third one–thinking vs. feeling.
The excellent website 16Personalities presents the following description of “Thinking” types:
Thinking individuals focus on objectivity and rationality, prioritizing logic over emotions. They tend to hide their feelings and see efficiency as more important than cooperation.
And here’s what it’s said there about “Feeling” types:
Feeling individuals are sensitive and emotionally expressive. They are more empathic and less competitive than Thinking types, and focus on social harmony and cooperation.
Now, we’re talking. At a poker table, these differences often become crystal clear.
3 – Emotions and Mathematics
The most striking difference between both types tends to be in their mathematical skills.
Oftentimes, at poker, you can get by through following some simple rules of thumb in regards to odds and pot odds. But it’s no secret that those who have a more analytical brain usually do much better with numbers.
And that can make quite a difference, especially in split games (such as Omaha Hi-Lo and Seven-Card Stud Hi-Lo).
In any case, the math of poker is something that anyone who is disciplined enough can have at least a decent grasp of.
It’s in the more psychological aspects of the game that emotional people will face their biggest challenges.
4 – Going Inside
Feeling people, by definition, are much more attuned to their emotions. This can be a double-edged sword at poker.
The problem is that emotional people also tend to take their feelings way too seriously. Consequently, it’s much harder for them to disengage from their emotions when it’s time to do so.
One of their biggest challenges, then, is to not let their self-awareness degenerate into self-consciousness, especially if they also tend to be introverts. People who are both emotional and introverts are the most prone to getting hurt by remarks from others. And this hypersensitivity tends to affect their confidence.
At a poker table, they may start to play more timidly. And they may do so at least in part because they don’t want to offend others. These people, myself included, need to learn how to be more thick-skinned.
How? This is what I intend to answer towards the end of this text. For now, I’d like to consider other challenges faced by emotional poker players.
5 – Face to Face
People with a more developed Feeling function tend to take other people’s feelings into account more often. This is another double-edged sword while playing poker.
On the one hand, perceiving other people’s emotions is, by definition, what makes you an empathetic person. And empathy is another critical aspect of emotional intelligence according to Goldman.
It’s also one of the fundamental traits of winning poker players according to Barry Greenstein in his book Ace on the River. The problem is that emotional people don’t stop there. Not only do they perceive others’ emotions; often, they also feel them.
As a consequence, their empathy may turn into compassion. Compassion is a desirable trait in many aspects of life, but not while playing poker.
If you ever catch yourself feeling too compassionate at the felt, remember these words from Greenstein’s book:
Compassion is a combination of empathy and sympathy. A good player has the first, but not much of the second. He expects no sympathy, and any that he gives is usually patronizing.
6 – Into Your Heart
Okay, so what do you do with all this information if you’re a more emotional person yourself?
You might be tempted to train yourself to become cold-hearted and insensitive. If that’s what you really want to do, there’s nothing I could say here that could dissuade you from that idea.
I’d just like to tell you that you don’t necessarily need to do this. Rather, you could strive to become more emotionally intelligent.
I’ve talked about emotional intelligence a couple of times during this article. As you’ll remember, I’ve mentioned two of its domains—self-awareness and empathy.
But, according to Daniel Goleman in Working with Emotional Intelligence, there are three more. And in my next section, I’ll briefly talk about each of those.
7 – Things to Be, Feel, and Do
The first one I’d like to talk about is self-regulation.
When you develop this trait, you learn how to minimize the damage caused by your most unpleasant emotions. This is particularly useful for those players who tend to be both emotional and extraverts.
At poker, they are the ones who have a bigger tendency to blow up in tournaments. A simple tip on how to exercise self-regulation is to practice some kind of breathing technique.
Talking about them is beyond the scope of this article. But I’m sure you’ll be able to find many examples after a quick Google search.
Okay, so let’s continue talking about the five domains of emotional intelligence. Another one that is quite important (especially in live poker) is your social skills.
If you’re more of an introvert, this is probably one of your biggest points of improvement. I’m not suggesting that you have to be as talkative as Scotty Nguyen or Daniel Negreanu. But knowing how to initiate conversations without being awkward will go a long way for you.
And it can have quite an impact on how you’re perceived by other players.
Last, but not least, is motivation. It’s important to say that, here I’m talking mainly about intrinsic, and not extrinsic motivation. Roughly speaking, intrinsic motivation is more about doing something that is valuable to you.
Extrinsic motivation is more about doing something that may lead you to being well-regarded by others. None of them is better than the other. And it seems that introverts tend to be more comfortable with the former, extroverts with the latter.
But, regardless of how extravert you may be, being emotional is a gift when it comes to finding what motivates you. Because once you’ve defined a purpose that resonates strongly with your feelings, you’ll reach the greatest heights.
This is the biggest reason why players such as Phil Hellmuth or Mike Matusow have found so much success in tournaments.
They may lack in some of the other four domains of emotional intelligence (especially self-regulation), but they more than make up for it with their insatiable hunger for achievements.
No one’s personality is fixed. People change their outlooks on life due to a variety of reasons. But, most of the time, these changes happen unconsciously, driven by external factors. And they may not always lead you where you want to go.
That’s why it’s better to be intentional and deliberate in your actions if you want to become a great poker player. And that’s why I can’t stress enough how important it is to find your purpose.
That’s right. I said find it. Because your purpose is always there. It may not always be grandiose or complex. But it always takes some courage to accept it as it is.
By the way, courage comes from the Latin word cor, which means heart. Isn’t that a good reason to make peace with your emotions?
Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016. ...
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