Identifying Your Key Defense Mechanisms as a Poker Player

By in Poker on
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Poker Defense Mechanisms

It wouldn’t be easy to come up with a card game that resembles the game of life as much as poker. In both cases, one is always tempted to avoid responsibility for undesired events. And, in both cases, one’s success depends a lot on how much responsibility he/she is willing to take.

It doesn’t matter how you choose to define the word success. Because, one way or another, you’ll still have to know how to deal with your defense mechanisms.

1 – What Are Defense Mechanisms

Let’s talk a bit about Sigmund Freud.

As it’s well known, he made some remarkable contributions to the study of the unconscious more than 100 years ago. As expected, many of those contributions have been disputed. But, even if none of his theories would have stood the test of time, we’d still have to acknowledge his efforts.

Because he, more than anyone else, made our inner struggles something of relevance to science. And one thing he knew quite a lot about was the distance between reality and one’s ideal self-image. In the late 19th century, he wrote for the first time about what would be known as “defense mechanisms”.

According to psychologist Saul McLeod, “defense mechanisms are psychological strategies that are unconsciously used to protect a person from anxiety arising from unacceptable thoughts or feelings.”

Freud came up with 10 of those strategies. Nowadays, most people who study them tend to agree that there are even more. In any case, it seems that each person tends to favor some mechanisms over others.

In this article, I’ll talk about 6 of those. Not because they’re more or less important than the rest. Simply because they seem to be more prevalent at a poker table.

2 – Repression

I chose to start with this one because, to Freud, repression was the mother of all defense mechanisms.

You’ve heard about the Oedipus complex, haven’t you?

The basis of that theory is that the son wants to marry his mother. The problem is that there’s that other guy, who happens to be his father. If the boy could, he would kill his father. But he feels that he can’t. So, what can he do? He can do many things, as we’ll see.

But one of the first strategies employed by him will be to repress his desires. (There’s also the Elektra complex, by the way. That’s about the daughter wanting to marry her father.) According to Freud, we have these inner conflicts all the time in our daily lives.

How do we manage to get by, then?

Well, you may also have heard that Freud saw the brain as being divided between id, ego and super-ego. According to him, that’s how we’re able to function in society. The id is that part which feels the impulse towards the satisfaction of a desire. The super-ego thinks about the punishments that may arise from there. And the ego tries to find some balance between them both.

So, what makes a person repress his/her feelings? You’re right: a strong super-ego.

Now, bringing it all to the poker table, we can see that repression happens often. It’s hard for a player to have a bad session and not feel frustrated by that. And, in order not to show that frustration, he/she will likely repress it. Such a player may do so for different reasons.

Maybe he doesn’t want to show weakness to others. Maybe he doesn’t want to be impolite. (Usually, it’s a little of both.)

In any case, such a strategy tends to work better in the short run than in the long run. Which leads poker players to resort to other defense mechanisms.

3 – Acting Out

Acting out is when a person gives him/herself permission to perform destructive behaviors. This can be done either to oneself or others. (Or, of course, both to oneself and others.)

Let’s take the id, ego and super-ego into account once again. Acting out is like throwing the super-ego out of the picture.

So, Why Is It Even Classified as a Defense Mechanism?

Because there’s still repression, but in a less obvious way. According to Freud, what’s being repressed here is the memory of past troubles. Then, a person who is unable to deal with the past may bring it to the present. Again and again.

At poker, this lack of reflectiveness tends to be disastrous. Players who are not able to keep their composure tend to not go too far. There are exceptions, of course. Especially in live poker tournaments. But even those exceptions would admit that acting out does more harm than good for their game.

4 – Displacement

The word displacement isn’t so well-known, but it describes a common occurrence. It begins when a person has an unpleasant feeling towards something or someone. But then, that person doesn’t confront that issue directly. Instead, he/she directs that strong feeling towards people or objects he/she sees as less threatening.

(If you’ve watched Analyze This, that’s the “hit the pillow” scene):

Now, let’s bring this to poker.

Let’s suppose a player can’t accept how bad he played a certain hand. He may know that he screwed things up. Instead of accepting this, however, he may hit the table. (Hopefully not with a gun.) Or he may even be impolite with the dealer. In any case, he’ll do anything but confront the real source of his emotions.

5 – Denial

The best thing about denial is that I don’t even need to explain what it means. It’s easy to see this in everyone but ourselves. But how often are we in total denial at poker?

The game is tricky because, even if you’ve had a series of losing sessions, you can always blame them on the deck.

Of course, it’s hard to deny that you’re losing money (although some people manage to do that).

But it’s easy to deny that this has had a lot to do with your performance.

In fact, denial is a big part of what makes poker so attractive to so many people. When they lose, they can talk for hours about how unlucky they’ve been. If that’s what they want to do, fine. But if you want to take your game seriously, you must go beyond this tendency. For some, it takes a bigger effort. But it’s well worth it, for sure.

6 – Rationalization

Rationalization is among those defense mechanisms that require at least a certain level of self-awareness. That’s when a person gives a somewhat reasonable excuse for something he/she hasn’t been able to deal with.

That excuse may be given both to oneself and others. An example of this is the Aesop’s fable about the fox and the grapes. The fox tries to catch some grapes, but is unable to. After that, that fox rationalizes the whole thing saying that the grapes didn’t seem that good in the first place.

At poker, rationalization happens quite frequently. And not always after a loss.

For Example:

Sometimes a player may do the best play for the wrong reasons. He might have called an all-in bet thinking he was beat, relying on pot odds. But then, his opponent may turn his/her cards up and show a bluff. That player, if he’s prone to rationalization, might say that he knew it all along.

In the end, defense mechanisms are all about vanity.

Rationalization just makes this clearer.

7 – Projection

In our day-to-day lives, projection is much more common than most people give it credit for. It happens when you attribute your own unpleasant tendencies to someone else. As you can imagine, it takes a certain lack of self-awareness for a person to be able to use it often.

Still, That’s What Many People Do Routinely

For example, they may say that someone is afraid as a way to avoid facing their own fear. You can substitute fear for any other unpleasant tendency: anger, rudeness, egotism, etc.

In real money poker, this may lead a player to display some paranoid tendencies. Maybe he/she is aiming to bust a certain opponent from a tournament. Then, he/she may believe that is that other person who’s out to get him/her. I guess we all feel the need to find some nemesis from time to time.

But, if we don’t pay enough attention to our projections, our biggest nemesis ends up becoming ourselves. It sounds cliché, I know. But that’s the way it is. Unless you happen to be one of the few who know how to use projection without burning yourself along the way.

But that’s another story.


It must be said that defense mechanisms aren’t bad per see. If you read once again that definition from Saul McLeod, you’ll see that they’re “psychological strategies” that are “unconsciously used”.

Some of those strategies are actually considered mature ones, such as humor and sublimation. So, if we learn how to be aware of our most harmful defense mechanisms, that’s already something to feel grateful for.

From there, more and more we’ll be able to grow into self-realized beings. Of course, a big part of the challenge involves learning how to leave the past behind.

But that’s what psychiatry is for, isn’t it?

Michael Stevens

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 since early 2016. ...

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