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Getting inside the mind of your opponents

by Jack Clayton


Hey, it’s the 50th anniversary of B.F. Skinner receiving the National Medal of Science! Let’s have a poker party to celebrate in honor of ole Burrhus Frederic.

Err… who?

Okay, Skinner was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud, a behavioral psychologist, prolific author and thinker. He and Siggy never cleaned up at the poker tables, at least that I’m aware of, but using cognition and advanced psychology is an essential component to understand how to win. Skinner wrote about “The Principle of Reinforcement,” meaning if something good happened via actions a person will learn and repeat those positive actions. You can do the same thing by studying your opponents to try and get inside their heads to anticipate the best moves and cash more chips.

Think of it in terms of things we can see and can’t see. We know that helium, time, gravity and radio waves exist but we can’t physically see them. We can’t directly see thoughts, either, but through careful observation and experience you can get a sense of what people are thinking. Other times they can give away what’s on their minds with subtle physical moves and tendencies. It’s the advanced poker player who understands what to look for and how to exploit it.

Trying to get into the mind of your opponents is a huge facet of the game, making it far more about skill than luck. This means that physical things like cards and poker chips are less important, while thinking and outmaneuvering your opponents is the real name of the game. Anyone can learn the rules, but elite card players are experts on the inner workings of the mind.

Loose players look to simply be a part of the game, calling with marginal and even below average hands. That means they don’t fold often. Identifying novice players, how they play and what they’re thinking is an excellent first step to improve your winnings. A general rule is to play around 10-15% of hands, while very skilled players are able to push that another 10-15%. At maximum, that’s 30% hands that are worth playing – which means 70% are worth discarding. Mathematically that’s a lot of average cards you’ll be dealt and it’s challenging enough to turn a profit with any hand, let alone a weak one.

So, one goal is to not be afraid to drop out – the opposite of a loose player. So when sitting at the tables pay close attention to your opponents. Make a mental checklist of tendencies to identify who is loose, who’s a bluffer, who is tight, and who is an above average player. Notice this has less to do with the cards being dealt and all about what is going on inside the heads of your opponents.

A novice player can get fired up about being dealt a king of spades and a 10 of diamonds. Overvaluing a hand will lead to wagering too much and ultimately losing more chips. Conversely, some players will psychologically undervalue when getting, say, an 8 and 9 of hearts. That means multiple opportunities to get a straight, a flush or a pair

The chance of one of your hole cards making a pair on the flop is 32.43%, almost one of out of every three times. If you have a pair, the odds of getting three-of-a-kind plummet to just 7.5%. Again, it’s about knowing the statistical probabilities and maximizing opportunities. Whether you’re handling your weekly budget or trying to make some extra bucks playing poker, knowing the math is cost-effective.

There are three levels of thinking that encompass poker. Novices think only in terms of their own cards. Better players try and gauge what cards their opponents have. True poker experts add an additional third level, which is “What does the other guy think I have?”

For example, if you can convince your opponent you have a weak hand, you can call or raise, confident that they will follow playing loose. You can play off your opponent’s read and allow them to do the raising while you bide your time to raise or drop the hammer.

It’s not easy to get to this third level. It takes practice, time, patience, learning through trial and error – and a lot of games. That means absorbing losses, but don’t let it get you down as that happens to the best of players. What differentiates the good, mediocre and great poker players is their understanding of what level their opponent is thinking and then adjusting strategy.

After watching a friend go broke in Texas hold ’em, I think it was Freud who said, “Alas, poor Johann. He was all-in with a fat full house and got busted by quads. What a dummkopf!” Or maybe it was a guy I use to run into at tournaments, loose Lenny the Loser, who never saw a hand he didn’t fall in love with. In any event, the fact is you really can see more than meets the eye at the tables by using your brain. And understanding mind games and opponents’ thoughts are how the best poker players get to the elite level.


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