Poker is often described not as a card game, but as a people game played with cards. This is because of the significant role psychology plays in the game.
We'll be looking at how you can use poker psychology to your advantage while you're at the tables.
Poker Psychology Explained
The human element of poker is what makes it such a fascinating game. If the table were filled with robots making perfect decisions every time, the game would be boring, as the only winner, in the long run, would be the rake.
Instead, we have humans playing the game, and humans do not play perfectly. We're influenced by so many things when we sit at the table that one session is never the same as another. One session you could be full of confidence having figured out something you've been studying hard at, another session you could be depressed because your partner split up with you, another session you could be in a bad mood because you haven't eaten - all of these external factors affect our emotions and in turn affect how we're able to process the game.
Poker Psychology on Biased Decisions
It's not just daily variables that affect how we think, people have a lot of cognitive biases when it comes to strategy games and in particular how good they are at them. Here are some of the most common examples of biases that could be affecting you at the tables:
Gambler's fallacy is the belief that future probabilities are altered by past events when the two are not correlated.
For example, you have pocket aces three times in a row and they get cracked all three times. Someone whose biases include the gambler's fallacy will be more likely to play cautiously the next time they have pocket aces, thinking that they're going to get cracked again. Or, alternatively, will think that there's no way they can be cracked again because it happened the last three times.
Both of these beliefs are common examples of gambler's fallacy. The past events in no way shape the probabilities of future events and therefore should not play into any strategical decision making.
Outcome Bias is the tendency to judge a decision based on the results of that decision, rather than the quality of the decision when it was made. This is one of the hardest for people to overcome as humans are hardwired to associate positive results with positive decisions.
The most common example of this is when a player will play a bad hand out of frustration or boredom and ends up winning a huge pot. They think that because there was a positive outcome, the decision to play the hand was a good one and they will continue to play that hand in the future and end up costing themselves a lot of money in the long run.
Selective perception is the tendency to only take note of/perceive events that fit a pre-determined narrative, thus enhancing that narrative in your mind.
We've all seen the players sitting at the $1/$2 table saying how they never win with a certain hand (usually pocket jacks), they'll go on and on about what a terrible hand it is and how they hate playing it. They'll get the hand a couple of times in the night, quietly win a couple of pots, but as soon as they lose a hand with it they'll shout "See! I always lose with this hand! I don't know why I play it..." - conveniently forgetting the pots they won earlier in the night with it.
Having these internal narratives about how a certain hand always loses or how you never make flushes is detrimental to your game as you start to adjust your strategy based on your perceived luck rather than what the best strategical decision is.
The Illusion of Control Bias
Whilst poker is a game of skill, there is a large element of luck involved - particularly in the short term. We like to believe we're in control when we're playing poker but the reality is that sometimes no matter how well we play we're going to have a losing session.
All of the best players in the world do a lot of losing in this game. No one wins 75%+ of the time they play, they just make sure they limit their losing days and maximize their winning days.
The danger of feeling like you're in control when you're not is that it can lead to bad adjustments and/or tilt. If you've been going through an extended downswing, the natural reaction for humans is to think "My results have been bad, I must be doing something wrong", whereas you could be making all the right decisions but getting unlucky.
This thinking can lead to you adjusting things that don't need adjusting, making you lose more; or start tilting which is a very slippery slope and can lead to large losses.
Poker Psychology on Tilting
"Tilting" in poker is an emotional state where your decisions are no longer based on logic but are based on emotions. It is similar to the red mist descending, it clouds your judgment and you are unable to play at your highest level. Unable to control tilting is one of the most costly mistakes in poker.
In fact, the general skill level of players drops dramatically when they are tilting. When you're experiencing intense frustration or anger, it's really hard to think decisions through logically as you can only focus on your perceived bad luck.
Due to the fact tilt comes during a losing period and players are experiencing heightened emotions, the most common reaction is to play a lot looser and a lot more aggressively in an attempt to win back the money they've lost. In reality, all this does is increase their losses as they're deviating from their winning strategy and playing hands that will lose money in the long run.
What Triggers Poker Tilt
Poker tilt is triggered as a result of losing, either over an extended period of time or through a particularly unlucky string of events. For example, if a player gets AA, KK, and QQ all cracked within a short space of time, they're very likely to get frustrated at their bad luck and go on tilt.
Each player has a different tilt threshold - some players are quicker to go on tilt than others and some even start their session on tilt! It's important to know when you're reaching your tilt threshold so you can effectively manage it and reduce its impact on your performance.
Managing Poker Tilt
Whilst tilt happens to everyone, there are ways you can manage it so it doesn't affect your results:
Be Logical with Your Decisions
While it sounds a bit obvious, the important thing to do when you're on tilt is to stay logical. When you're making a decision, recognizing that you're on tilt is an important step in overcoming it. Acknowledging that you're tilting, it allows you to take a step back and view things objectively.
Once you've distanced yourself from your emotions, you can allow yourself to make logical decisions again. this isn't as easy as it sounds and can take a lot of practice and self-awareness to get to the point where you can de-tilt yourself by analyzing your state of mind.
Stay Calm All the Time
When players tilt, the overwhelming emotion they feel is frustration. They're annoyed at the run of bad luck they've had that has caused them to lose which has led to the tilting. This frustration is what is dangerous as people try desperately to win their money back by playing hands that they shouldn't play.
When you feel yourself starting to tilt, the best thing you can do is take a break and reset your state of mind. Taking 5/10 minutes to walk around and calm down is a great way of dealing with tilt. It allows you to come back to the table refreshed and in the right state of mind to start playing again.
Prepare for Intense Emotional Moments
Poker is a game of big emotional swings and if you're not prepared for them they're going to take a toll on you. Whether you're coming off the adrenaline rush of winning a big all-in or picking yourself up after a massively failed bluff, not being emotionally stable can lead to tilting.
It's important that after every hand or every major emotional inflection point, you reset your emotional state ready for the next hand. The way you do this will differ for each player but a good way to make yourself at peace with the last hand is to run through all the decisions and analyze them objectively. Once you've analyzed the hand, you can take comfort in the fact that you either played it perfectly or know where to improve for next time.
Using Poker Psychology
While it's very important to manage your own state of mind while you're playing, poker psychology can also be used as a way to better understand and exploit your opponents. Try to implement these strategies in your next game to get one over on your opponents.
Psychology of Poker Tells
A poker 'tell' is a subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) and unintentional signal as to the strength of a player's hand. Everything you do at the table conveys information, and most people are terrible liars, so when it comes to concealing information at the poker table they end up giving away how strong they are through non-verbal cues.
The usefulness of poker tells is hotly debated in the poker community, with online players saying it's all bargain basement psychology that isn't applicable across a spectrum of players and live players insisting they hold true across an entire player pool. The answer is likely somewhere in the middle, where people do give off tells but they don't always mean the same thing from one player to the next. What might be a tell meaning strength for one player, could mean weakness in another.
That being said, for the average player who isn't thinking about concealing or reversing tells, there are some that do commonly appear and have a consistent meaning. These are the ones you should be looking out for as it's a valuable insight into how strong your opponent is likely to be. Let's look at them now:
An opponent taking a long time before making their action implies they have a tough decision. This doesn't necessarily mean they're weak, as they could be deciding between calling and raising with a strong hand.
However, this coupled with other tells such as facial expressions as well as general body language can help you decipher what a long pause means. If you think your opponent is taking their time before calling with a weak hand, that's the signal to make a big bluff on the next street or go for a small value bet to try and get a crying call.
Conversely, an opponent acting instantly tells you they have an easy decision with their hand as they don't need to take the time to think through their options. These players are often called calling stations since they are willing to pay and see as many flops as possible. Commonly weaker players will do this with a drawing hand such as a straight draw or a flush draw - they don't consider raising as a bluff and they don't want to fold a draw to a strong hand so they instantly call.
If you come across one of these players it allows you to play the next street almost perfectly as you can shut down if draws are complete and you can check and bluff catch if the draws all miss.
Constantly Checking Hands
Double-checking hole cards can mean different things depending on whether a player is betting or calling. If a player double checks before betting, it usually means they want to absolutely make sure of what they have - which leans their range towards strong value.
If a player is bluffing, they don't need to check to see if they have anything because they're relying on you to fold to win. However, if they're betting for value, they may want to check and make sure they have the hand they think they do before making a value bet.
Conversely, double-checking cards before calling can indicate a weak hand as players with strong hands tend to act more stoically and subconsciously don't want to draw attention to themselves. Double-checking cards also allows players more time to think and if they have a tricky decision it's more indicative of a marginal hand.
Psychology of Poker Bluffs
Bluffing is the act of betting with a hand that is very unlikely to win at a showdown in an attempt to get your opponent to fold a better hand. The ability to bluff is what makes poker a skill game, as otherwise, it would just be a case of whoever gets dealt the winning hand most often will win the money.
Players fall on different parts of the bluffing spectrum, some are afraid to do it at all and some will do it every time they don't have a hand to value bet. Like most things in life, the right balance is somewhere in the middle where you have the ability to bluff when you need to but don't go overboard with it.
Knowing what kind of player your opponent is can really change your strategy when facing aggression. If you're facing the timid player that will never bluff in case they get called, you know that you can fold all of your marginal value hands when facing a bet. However, if you're up against the maniac who can't stand to give up on a pot, you can call him down with a much wider range and expect to be good more often.
But what about if you're the player that needs to bluff?
Bluff Only at Appropriate Times
While it's tempting to attempt to bluff every time you can't win at a showdown, you need to temper your aggression and learn to give up on some pots. You can't win every hand in poker and sometimes you just need to let one go.
The reason we don't bluff every single time is that if we did, our ratio of value hands to bluffs becomes heavily skewed towards bluffs. This means that our opponents can call every time they have a small piece of the board and can make money.
By keeping our ratio of bluffs to value hands balanced, we make our opponents indifferent between calling and folding and force them to call at correct frequencies if they don't want to lose money.
Avoid Naked Bluffs
So how do you choose which hands to bluff and which hands to give up? Generally, the best hands to bluff with on the flop and turn are hands that have some sort of equity. Common ones are hands like open-ended straight draws and flush draws as they have a lot of outs to improve. Other hands that have decent equity are gutshot draws, backdoor flush draws, and two overcards on low boards.
By the river, there are no more drawing hands to bet with so we have to take a different approach. We want to bet with hands the block the most likely value hands our opponent has in their range. For example, betting with a hand like QJ on KT642 as the queen and jack block the stronger Kx hands our opponent has in KQ and KJ.
Whilst poker has become a lot more about pure strategy over the past few years, learning about poker psychology and how to apply it at the tables can give you a boost in your win rate.