Poker Psychology and Behaviour

Humility and Objectivity

In poker, it is very important to be self-critical and to acknowledge when you have made mistakes. When asked about losses, the majority of players will tell you it was due to bad luck, those “bad beats” that befall you when you otherwise would have won. In fact, in poker there are usually other reasons and explanations for losses; possibly you played too slowly and too loosely and allowed your opponents to profit from cards that they ordinarily should not have, or maybe you misjudged the quality of their hands, or you played too early and too aggressively with a particular bet and ended up losing unnecessarily. In reality, “bad beats” are quite rare, but players misjudge the likelihood of their occurrence and end up losing purely because they believe they are having a run of bad luck and then fail to employ their skills. This is where poker psychology comes in.

If you lose your chips before the flop with a pair of Aces against a pair of 2’s, is this really a matter of bad luck? Not necessarily; you have four times as much probability of winning, but if out of the five communal cards dealt a 2 has been revealed, all will be set in the air. In poker, you should not deny or ignore the dimensions of risk. Over time, with the number of hands that you play, you will go through periods of play where everything is all smiles, while at other times all will seem lost, despite your good level of play. The problem will be when you do not remember the times when you have had a run of good luck but only remember the bad times.

We often talk in poker about cycles of luck. Players are more likely to identify their game in terms of cycles of luck; if you do not recognize your errors and are persuaded of the fact that bad luck is on your side, there is a very strong chance that you will then push yourself into a pattern of playing whereby the game is off-balance, and you are likely to take the wrong actions and play with less skill, i.e., you will play as if skill were not important. Humility is therefore very important in poker. You will always be the “bait” of other players, and having too much confidence in yourself is often damaging to your game. Your objectivity should never be far away, and you should never try to conceal your face. You are allowed to be tired, it is not important. In this case, simply leave the table, go outside, get some fresh air, and the chips that you do not lose will amount to the same as chips won.

The right attitude for tournaments

During a tournament, pauses in play are moments when players who are still in the competition can relax a little. You must take advantage of these pauses in order to better manage stress in a tournament situation; usually, players are much more likely to analyse their periods of bad luck, the hands that they lost, and begin asking themselves what they could have done to improve their game.

Once you have folded, that part of the game has finished for you. It does not serve any purpose to re-hash the last period of play with what-ifs and if only’s. It is much more effective for you to analyse why you folded, why your opponents raised so much that you no longer knew the best way to proceed etc. it is this type of positive attitude that will allow you to remain calm and collected, often by taking a small step back, you will be able to take a huge leap forward by avoiding the same mistakes in the future.

Avoid the tilt

Being in a situation of tilt is the worst thing that can happen to you as a poker player. We say a player is “on tilt” when he can no longer control himself and changes radically his method of play, taking huge and ill-considered risks. The tilt can come about for several reasons:

1. You have just lost a strong hand, believing yourself to be under the influence of a “bad beat”. In this scenario it is best for you to take some time out from the competition; get up, go outside, drink something, socialise with your friends… This type of situation happens to everybody, you simply have to weather the storm and re-enter the game with a positive attitude. Do not fall into either of these currents; being too aggressive in order to re-establish a lead, or being too apprehensive and stop playing important hands. If you judged that your prior play has been good, continue by playing in the same vein.

2. You are continuously dealt with poor cards and have not had a single opportunity to enter into the game. Here, you simply have to take the bad run with patience. On the one hand, you will develop a tight player profile, a player who plays few hands. On the other hand, if you complain that you have had nothing passable to play; the other players may suspect that when you do play it is with an average hand. Beware, and profit from the time to observe other players and possibly steal a few pots when you are in a good position.

3. You unnerve yourself by observing one of your opponents. Attention, this is a tactic some players actually consciously use in order to make opponents tilt, if you are feeling provoked then you probably are being provoked. Do not buy into such a player’s game, remain vigilant but indifferent. When faced with players who are impolite you have two possibilities; ignorance or sarcasm. But the best way forward is to remain concentrated and to not be swayed by these underhand tactics. Most of the time, such players are perfectly precise in their provocations and it could be that these tactics are to ward off others doing the same, thus allowing them to concentrate, i.e. it can be a pre-emptive tactic. If the other player is really being out of hand, you can always ask the floor manager to deal with him.

4. The system that you have been using at the start of the game is no longer viable at a later stage. Here, change tempo, rhythm, and the method of play. You should be unreadable to other players and unpredictable from the very start. It is your ability to disconnect from the psychological difficulties of the game that will give you the greatest advantage in the advanced stages of the tournament.

The last piece of poker psychology advice…

Before throwing yourself into a long tournament, adopt a good lifestyle. Poker is essentially a sporting competition; do not abuse stimulants (tea, coffee, vitamins…) which will make you very temperamental and put you in a state that is non-conductive to skilful play. Once you have exited a tournament, remove yourself fro the environment, do not sit and ruminate about your game, do something distracting before going to bed. During breaks for food, eat lightly and do not drink alcohol (this is the worst enemy of a poker player because it induces a euphoric state of mind, and you may think your hands are better than they are).

Do not hesitate to practice meditative techniques prior to any tournament, play a sport or something. Sitting around a table for hours on end is not very healthy, so you would do best to get in shape prior to a tournament in order to make yourself feel better. Remember a healthy body equals a healthy mind, and a healthy mind is a winning factor in a game of poker!

Gordon Dyke

Poker Expert

Gordon Dyke has served as our poker expert since 2017. Gordon has been playing poker professionally and recreationally for nearly two decades.

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