Poker is the ultimate game of skill for those willing to brave it at the highest level. Something is thrilling about throwing caution to the wind and pushing in that stack of chips, all the while knowing that you have the best hand and your opponent has nothing. Poker can bring the highest of highs and lowest of lows all within a few hands of each other.
During the whole ordeal, as a poker player, you and your opponents have only a few tools to work with:
As wonderful as the human mind is, it’s governed by its own psychology which is mostly a good thing. Sometimes that psychology can work against itself, but for the most part, controlling your psychology and understanding its secrets can help you win every match, every time.
When it comes to a poker player’s psychology, the first step to unlocking its potential is a little self-reflection. You, the aspiring poker player, must know yourself. You must learn your inner secrets as well as your tells and how to avoid them.
Why is knowing yourself such an important key to victory? Put simply; you have a unique set of preferences, skills, aptitudes, and allowances that define a style that is uniquely yours. It’s always fun to watch the really aggressive players at the table take huge risks and make them pay off in the end.
However, if you’re grossly uncomfortable taking big risks and that’s not your style, you should not try to become a daredevil at the poker table. One, it’s not going to be any fun for you; and two, it’s going to keep you from playing to your fullest potential.
Instead, learn a style of game that suits you and become the best at that style as you can be.
Just like you have your own style, your opponents do, too. Fortunately, we live in an age of information. So, if your opponents are players of any renown, you will be able to research their preferences, their weaknesses, and how they play in certain situations.
If you’re just playing with your buddies, chances are you already know everything you need to know. While most friendly games of poker tend to be more aggressive than professional games (since it’s usually not a life-changing amount of money on the line), at the end of the day, when the chips are on the table, your buddies are going to act like your buddies and bet accordingly.
Online poker presents the most challenge in knowing your opponent since you cannot look them in the eye. In many cases, you will need to play several full games with an online avatar before you start to learn the patterns. Failing that, you can try to observe a player in an online game and guess their personality.
However, keep in mind that the secret is to know your opponent, not guess who they are. If you are not very confident that you have an opponent figured out, assume you don’t, or they will surprise you and steal your pots.
Poker requires confidence, especially when there’s a significant amount of money at stake. Before you hit the table, you must believe that you can win. If you don’t, then refrain from playing because you will lose to someone who believes she or he can win.
On the other hand, don’t let your confidence get the best of you. Ego and arrogance are weaknesses that are easy to detect and easy to exploit. The minute your opponents realize you have an ego issue, you’ve handed them everything they need to manipulate you.
Fortunately for you, the opposite is true. If you are playing an arrogant player, bait them into doing exactly what you want. Also, assume they’re bluffing. Overconfident players do that a lot more.
There’s a lot going on during a game of poker. There’s the card in the deck (or decks), the cards you can see, the cards you can’t see, and the cards that get knocked and no one sees. There are your opponents and their tells. The betting history of each player in the game and in the hand. There’s probably someone smoking. Other people are most likely talking, and it is not about the game. If you’re in a casino, there’s loud music, the clank of slot machines, the wait staff walking by and the exalted cries of someone who just hit it big.
That’s why you must learn to keep your focus. You need to make sure that you can eliminate distractions and let your brain absorb the information it needs to play the game. If you can’t do that, you will miss a tell, forget a bet, or misremember what cards you kept and which ones you tossed away.
Fortunately, focus is a skill you can learn and improve simply by playing poker in less than perfect circumstances. Play video poker in public places or at home with loud music. Work on remembering everything that transpired in the game so that when you play for real, you’re either prepared for distractions or, better yet, much sharper when you play in environments without them.
This may seem like a strange thing to put into an article on psychology, but really a tell is a physical manifestation of an emotional state. In other words, tells are you making movements based on your psychology. Don’t believe it? Google the ex-CIA interrogators who served as human lie detectors.
They have a list a mile long of movements, gestures, and mannerisms that indicate someone is lying. You should have that, too, for when the other folks at the table are bluffing, excited and every emotion in between.
Once you have that list, make sure that you don’t display any of those tells. Play online poker in front of a mirror and coach yourself to stay dispassionate and stony. Play with sunglasses, a cap, and hoodie if you must to avoid reveal your inner emotional state. Doing so will immediately make you a better poker player. Even if you never master the art of reading tells for anyone else at the table, if you can prevent other people from reading you, you will always be a better live poker player who won’t give the rest of the table information about what you’re thinking.
Yeah, you read that right. The hot streak is a myth.
Sure, you can statistically look at a player’s win/loss rate in a given period of time and see that they won more than they lost (and perhaps “got lucky”). The problem is that just because you won the hand before, doesn’t mean that you are more or less likely to win the next one.
Because they don’t exist, don’t rely on a heater to get you through a bad hand. Fold and live to fight another day.
The “tilt” is when you play below your abilities because of some inner emotional turmoil (usually jealousy or anger). If you’re still not sure what that means, go watch the scene from the biographical drama film Molly’s Game in which Harlan Eustace lost to Bad Brad, and it wrecked his world. Harlan, the far more superior player, lost the game to a guy who was so terrible his nickname was “Bad” Brad.
Unable to deal with the shame, he started to play with his emotions leading instead of his mind. While emotions are great for a lot of things, they’re not very good at deciding when to hold and when to fold. Harlan lost all his money and eventually his family because he let his feelings get the better of him.
While there will always be debate about the historical accuracy of characters in a movie, you can undoubtedly think back to a time you’ve done or said something stupid in the heat of the moment. Now, imagine yourself pushing in a stack of chips representing a few hundred or a few thousand dollars (or even more).
Do you really want to make that decision while you are angry, tired, or upset? Of course not.
Finish the hand you’re playing (or just fold depending on how bad you feel) and get up from the table. You don’t have to quit the table permanently, just remove yourself from the situation until your head clears. In fact, if you find yourself heading down the tilt road often, find a ritual that calms you. That can be standing up and stretching, looking at a picture of your kids, (quietly) singing a song, whatever. You cannot win if you are emotional and you can’t win if you don’t play. So, restore your balance and get back in the game.
Clearly, a lot goes into poker psychology and while you might be tempted to tackle all these things at once, fight that temptation. Start with learning about yourself. Then develop your focus and work on never tilting. The rest will come with play time and practice.
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