I grew up during the ‘70s and ‘80s smack dab in the middle of Star Wars hysteria.
Between 1977 and 1983, the original trilogy entertained youngsters like myself, and plenty of adults too. George Lucas’ timeless story of a band of misfits banding together to topple the evil Empire captivated me at the time, and my love for the ways of the Jedi remains strong to this day.
I recently had a chance to soak in a massive Star Wars marathon on cable, complete with the second trilogy spearheaded by Lucas in the late ‘90s, and even the first two from the latest non-Lucas entries. All told, I probably spent the better part of an entire day watching lightsaber battles and Death Star destruction, after which I promptly sat down for an online poker session.
For whatever reason, I decided to have a little fun that evening, casting myself in the role of Luke Skywalker – circa his badass black-shrouded master days in “Return of the Jedi,” of course.
After absorbing countless hours centered around learning the ways of the Jedi – powerful knights who harness the mysterious Force for the sake of good – I wanted to see if using those lessons might have any effect on my poker game. And while a one-off sample based on a few tournaments is hardly enough to make firm conclusions, I must say playing the role of a Jedi at the table certainly had its benefits.
If you’re a poker player who finds yourself struggling with one area of the game or another – or simply a Star Wars fanatic looking to combine your two favorite hobbies – this page was written with you in mind. Below you’ll find seven Jedi mind tricks designed to be deployed at the poker table when your back is against the wall.
Sure, you can’t wave your hand like Obi-Wan Kenobi did, deceiving opponents into acting at your command. But by taking a cue from several Jedi masters and apprentices features in Star Wars lore over the last few decades, any poker player can set themselves on the path to enlightenment.
And along with each Jedi mind trick, you’ll find a quote straight from the screen to help guide you toward the Light side:
1 – Have Faith in Yourself and Your Game During Downswings
“I find your lack of faith disturbing.” – Darth Vader (A New Hope)
The half machine, half man in black wasn’t a Jedi by this point in the story, but even Darth Vader at his most dastardly still had a bit of his old Anakin Skywalker persona still in there.
When an arrogant Admiral Motti lectured Vader on the futility of believing in the Force, the former was met with two replies – the foreboding quote above and a Force-choke to quiet his doubting ways.
This scene reminds me of the internal monologue most poker players run through when the cards are running cold. Downswings are a natural extension of random variance, and no matter how good you might be at this game, you’ll inevitably suffer through an extended losing streak.
The best players in the world routinely go broke, or spend a year futilely buying in only to bust out without fanfare. That’s just par for the course when it comes to poker.
The only thing is, far too many players can’t seem to accept these facts of life.
When “run bad” rears its ugly head – producing bad beats and suckouts galore – it can be all too easy to lose faith.
Vader knew better though, so when his fellow Empire villains were lamenting the Rebels’ progress, old Darth simply focused on his faith in the Force.
From a poker player’s perspective, this advice essentially directs you to keep the faith – even when you can’t seem to drag a pot if your life depended on it. Instead of abandoning your strategic foundations – chasing draws without sufficient pot odds or playing poor hands to try and get back at a pesky opponent – stick to what got you here in the first place.
Of course, all good players adapt to the circumstances, so I’m not saying to stay totally rigid in your gameplay approach. Depending on a whole host of factors – such as stack size, players in the hand, position, and a slew of others – you may need to deviate from your established parameters here and there.
What I am saying though is to do your best to focus on playing well, even if your results aren’t bearing that proper play out in the short-term.
Perhaps your bet sizing on the turn let a fish chase their gutshot straight draw and get there on the river. Even so, that doesn’t mean you should size the same wager larger in similar spots going forward. In fact, betting an amount that entices a bad player to chase reckless draws is exactly what top players do – even if the fish occasionally spikes gin.
Or maybe you tried a three-barrel bluff holding nothing but air, only to see the pot pushed to a player who called with bottom pair. In cases like this, many players will respond by beating a hasty retreat, vowing to purge those triple-barrel bluffs from their game altogether. That’s not the right response at all though, because one instance in which you were called down doesn’t negate all of the other times your courageous play will pay off.
Have faith in yourself – in your approach to poker theory and your insights into the game – even when things aren’t working out in the moment. When you keep the faith, you’ll find that those inevitable downswings come to an end much quicker than they would if you were panicked into switching things up.
2 – Commit Fully to Your Bluffs or Don’t Bother at All
“Do. Or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda (The Empire Strikes Back)
When a frustrated Luke Skywalker found himself chafing under Master Yoda’s apprenticeship, the latter issued a stark challenge – focus fully on the Force in order to salvage your sunken spaceship.
Luke wasn’t a believer quite yet though, so he answered hesitantly, saying he’d “give it a try.”
Yoda was having none of that though, replying sternly in his typically cryptic syntax that Jedi don’t try – the simply do.
I found myself thinking back to Yoda’s famous advice after running a particularly ill-timed bluff that wound up being picked up. Well, the bluff was actually perfectly timed based on the opponent’s middle pair and bad kicker holding. The only problem for me was a failure to commit fully to the best play.
It was late in a multi-table tournament and I held A-K of hearts with the money bubble fast approaching. After three-betting an early opener from the button, I headed to the flop heads-up against my lone opponent, only to see black baby cards hit the board.
My big slick was practically useless at this point, but I had slightly more chips than the other player, and both of us were feeling the pressure of a looming bubble. With that in mind, and a check from the opener already made, I decided to fire out a standard continuation bet bluff. The other guy called rather quickly, and with two spades on board I believed he could easily hold something like a small pair with a flush draw, or maybe just the flush draw alone.
The turn was a red 10 to change nothing, and once more the opponent checked my way. This time, I sized my bluff up a bit and bet the size of the pot, leaving myself roughly 15,000 chips to work with. The opponent tanked long and hard on the turn, but they eventually found the call button to see a red Queen arrive.
They checked for a third time, and now it was up to me to figure out how to bring this big pot home.
Obviously, I couldn’t check back with just Ace-high, as that was almost sure to be loser based on the opponent’s post-flop calls.
I knew I had to bluff at it, but I also didn’t want to waste four hours of play by going bust right on the money bubble.
I bet 9,000 on the river bluff, knowing I’d fold to a raise and leave myself with 6,000 chips to cling to and hopefully make the money.
The opponent used their full-time bank before finally making the crying call with middle pair and a 7 kicker, cutting my stack down in brutal fashion.
After seeing the opponent’s cards, I know the correct play there would’ve been to shove all-in. First of all, they would’ve been given a different price, and maybe those pot odds wouldn’t be enough in their eyes to warrant a call.
But more importantly, while I was worrying about money bubble pressure, I neglected to take into account that the opponent was short-stacked too. I bet enough to leave myself a nub to comeback with, but my bet also gave the opponent a similar spot. They knew the could call and lose without ending their tournament life, which made calling much easier I’d imagine.
By committing to the full all-in bluff there, and forcing them into a much tougher test with a tournament at stake, my play might just have worked out.
Instead, I violated Yoda’s advice by simply trying to take the pot, instead of doing what needed to be done with the shove.
Bluffing is the ultimate gamble in poker, but unless you’re willing to put everything you have behind the play, it’s best to avoid it altogether. Folks who fire a single-barrel bluff only to shut down on the turn, or bluff half-heartedly on the river like I did for fear of being eliminated, are eminently exploitable by sharp players.
3 – Follow Your Gut Instinct Instead of Overthinking
“Close your eyes. Feel it. The light…it’s always been there. It will guide you.” – Maz Kanata (The Force Awakens)
As an extension of the previous story, I knew deep down as my own time-bank was ticking away that an all-in bluff was the right play.
As soon as the opponent checked my heart immediately said: “push it in man, don’t let him get off cheap here.” My heart said that, but then my head got in the way…
I scrolled the tournament lobby to see how many players were left, and just how short their stacks really were. Then I made every poker player’s fatal error and consulted the pay table to see how much I’d lose if I busted out short of the money. Finally, I convinced myself that a two-thirds stack bluff would do the trick just like a shove.
In the end, my inability to follow that natural gut instinct every poker player feels from time to time cost me that valuable pot.
The modern world of poker strategy is based on computer-assisted “solvers” and game theory optimal (GTO) techniques, leaving little room for what 15-time WSOP gold bracelet winner Phil Hellmuth likes to call his “White Magic.”
But even as the game is becoming more automated in a sense, the best players trust their gut when it’s screaming at them to play a hand or opponent in a certain way.
I’m not saying you should fall into the fish refrain of “I felt a 9 coming there, so I had to call” – that sort of instinct-based play is strictly for suckers.
No, I’m talking about fold/call/raise decisions in which your subconscious mind might just put all the puzzle pieces together before your mind catches up. When you face a particularly tough spot and the action is on you, try to trust that initial impulse a little more often and see what happens.
The alternative is tanking for minutes on end and letting your mind become cluttered with overthinking. You know what they say about “paralysis by analysis,” after all…
We should all be analyzing poker situations to the best of our ability, that much is obvious. The problem is, many players forget that their instinct is simply a byproduct of all the analytical heavy lifting you’ve previously put in.
4 – Refuse to Succumb to Short-Stack Pressure
“Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not. For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is.” – Yoda (The Empire Strikes Back)
I mentioned Hellmuth in the previous section, and whenever I see the “Poker Brat” patiently wielding a short stack, I always come back to Yoda’s indignant response to Luke’s doubts.
When Hellmuth and other top players find themselves short in a tournament, they refuse to “punt” their remaining chips off in a high-risk coin flip. But you see countless lesser-skilled players do just that, throwing an entire tournament away on an Ace-high shove simply because they lost a pot and found themselves short.
Players like Hellmuth, on the other hand, know that any stack is better than none at all, so they bide their time and grind it out until a more equitable opportunity arises.
As Yoda makes clear, size matters not in poker (and hopefully in all walks of life). Sure, it’s definitely nice to hold a huge stack, exerting pressure on opponents while remaining secure in the knowledge that you can’t go bust on a single hand. That’s the dream scenario, but it’s a rare one within the context of tournament poker.
For the most part, you’ll be riding mid-range stacks within the 20 to 40 big blind range.
That means any significant loss can send you tumbling down to the 10-20 big blind “danger zone.”
When this occurs, it can be quite tempting to shove your stack forward with any old hand – Ace-high, two face cards, and low pocket pairs are popular options – hoping for a quick double up to regain traction.
When you can move past the fixation on stack size though, you’ll realize that the real power comes not from the amount of chips you hold, but how you wield them on the field of battle. Even with a sub-10 big blind stack, a thinking player should be looking for advantageous spots rather than high cards and connectors.
If you can get a re-shove from the button through after the cutoff opens light, you’ll instantly earn five big blinds or so – all without ever seeing a flop. Conversely, shoving the same stack from early position with a marginal hand means you’ll likely need to survive five board cards to double through.
Thinking players always opt for the spot strategy when short-stacked, searching for opportunities to accumulate chips without unnecessary risk.
5 – Practice Smart Game Selection to Target Weaker Players
“There’s always a bigger fish.” – Qui-Gon Jinn (The Phantom Menace)
The Phantom Menace was probably the worst of the lot when it comes to Star Wars, but while the baby-faced Vader to be and bad visual effects don’t hold up, Qui-Gon Jinn’s advice sure does.
In his case, Qui-Gon was talking about the ever-looming threat of larger predators lurking nearby. For poker players though, the idea that “there’s always a bigger fish” out there somewhere provides the key to long-term sustained success.
Head into any poker room in America and you’ll find folks playing above their head. These guys and gals may have been consistent winners at the $1/$3 cash games, so they decide to take the plunge and try their hand against tougher competition at the $2/$5 tables.
Invariably, these “shot-takers” find themselves outmatched and outplayed by better opponents, so they head back to the lower stakes with their tails tucked. And what do you know? Playing against weaker competition produces more winning sessions and increased profit margins.
So why do they ever try to play better opponents in the first place?
Well, for some, it’s the spirit of competition which drives them to take shots. Others succumb to hubris and refuse to admit that they can’t quite hang at the higher stakes just yet. Still, others are just greedy, hoping to parlay a hot streak into bigger pots.
In the end, these players almost always see their winning ways end in abrupt fashion – all because they refuse to focus on the bigger fish.
When you find a game you can beat or a regular opponent whose number you have, take full advantage of the situation. Game selection can be unsavory at times, as it can feel like you’re picking on worse players to pad your own bankroll.
Poker is played by willing adults though, and if they bring their money to the table, it’s your job to beat them out of the dough.
The poker world is littered with would-be legends who couldn’t resist playing against better opponents. And it’s also flooded with long-term winners who know where their bread is buttered best – so be sure to adopt sound game selection and scoop pots off fish whenever possible.
6 – Use Your Senses – and Sensible Play – to Avoid Setups by Tricky Players
“It’s a trap!” – Admiral Ackbar (Return of the Jedi)
This one harkens back to the advice on trusting your instinct, but I’m a sucker for Admiral Ackbar so I couldn’t resist.
Sometimes poker players feel that “Spidey Sense” tingling, alerting them that something might just be amiss.
Maybe a normally talkative opponent has suddenly gone silent, or the typical “loose aggressive” type decides to check the flop after three-betting pre.
In any case, when your instinct sounds the alarm, trust Admiral Ackbar and do your best to avoid falling into a trap.
7 – Ward off the Dark Side Known as Tilt at All Costs
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.” – Yoda (The Phantom Menace)
On a final note, the battle between Light and Dark never ends, and even Luke himself briefly indulged his anger and rage.
Yoda always knows best though, and like he told a struggling Anakin before the latter full embraced the Dark side, fear, anger, and hate have no place in life – or in poker.
You’ll be sucked out on, and bad beats will crush your premium hands on the river. These things just happen, and if they didn’t, poker wouldn’t be much fun to play at all.
If you start to feel the twinges of tilt affecting your play, take a step back and reassess the situation. Do a lap around the casino, grab a quick bite to eat, or simply rack up and cash out right then and there.
Whatever you have to do, banishing tilt from your brain during a poker session is an essential skill.
Star Wars and its various trilogies are timeless classics for too many reasons to count. The acting, the special effects, and the storyline all provide crucial hooks, but for my money, it’s Lucas’ theory of Dark and Light sides battling for all eternity that pulls so many people in.
Everybody feels that give and take between their better nature and their bad behavior, which makes the story of Jedi versus Sith so endearing. At many junctures in poker life, you might just feel like going full Darth Vader, indulging your temptations and setting the world ablaze. But in the end, staying true to the Jedi way and maintaining disciplined focus always offers a better way.
May the Force be with you.
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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