The Psychology Of Poker Play
It’s a lot more than pretending to be eccentric
By Frank Scoblete
Being a competent, good or even great poker player consists of more than just putting on a baseball cap (backward or forward), sunglasses, elaborate rings and/or golden neck chains and then strutting like a preening steroidal professional wrestler around the poker room trying to act cool, or scary, or knowledgeable.
Being good at poker isn’t puffing oneself up with outlandish costumes, cigars, cigarettes, jewelry to show how much money you have won. If everyone is doing this, what is the point?
The eccentric fashion show that many poker players engage in, which works beautifully on the television poker shows, coupled with the outlandish personalities of notable poker players, has made many new poker players concerned that they will never be able to make it in this game.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Strip the costumes, the pomposity, and the personas of even the best poker players and something stands out other than their nose rings: these folks, men and women, know how to play the game.
Poker is really two games meshed into that one word. You have the mathematical aspects of the game that include which hands to take to the bank, which hands to discard, where your seating affects how you play certain cards, what the pot odds are at all moments when making your decisions, and so on. If you don’t have some idea of these particulars of the game, you are probably doomed to be a losing player as, by the way, are most poker players.
In the long run of things, all players—the good, the mediocre, and the ploppys—will get the same opening cards. That is a fact. However, how the players play those opening cards will distinguish the category of that player. Most of this can be summed up in a simple word: math. Know the math and you know the concrete aspects of the game.
The second aspect of poker might be considered somewhat ethereal, but it is nevertheless as powerful as the math. This concerns the psychology of the game—the psychology you have and the psychology of your opponents.
Poker is math, but poker is also mind. So a smart poker player minds the math and minds the mind, both his own and others.
If you are a budding poker player you must steel yourself to the fact that in every poker game you play, you will probably not be the best player at the table. That should not hurt your chances of becoming a long-term winning player because most poker players you will face are not all that good. If you learn the correct moves, you will have the advantage over most of the opponents you face. The fact that there will almost always be better players than you is not sufficient to make you throw your cards in the air in despair. You can win at this game, but you must be aware that you have to develop your math skills and your “mind reading” skills as well.
Please realize this: while the math of poker gives you a lot of knowledge, the actual playing of the game is far more difficult than merely knowing the odds. Fred Renzey in his excellent book 77 Ways to Get the Edge at Casino Poker sums this situation up quite accurately, “…poker starts out as an ‘odds game’ and ends up as a ‘mind game,’ while all other casino games are strictly odds games. In the end, winning play in poker boils down to a combination of reading your opponent’s hand, guessing how he’ll play it, and evaluating your chances of beating him either through deception or by making the best hand.”
How do you know what another player will do with his or her hands? When you have folded, don’t sit at the table reading the latest Harry Potter adventure. Instead, watch the other players. Focus on how they played their hands when the showdown comes.
Did “so-and-so” hang in a pot with poor cards hoping for a stroke of good fortune? Did “thus-and-such” play strong cards with aggression and certainty, constantly raising and taking it to the other players? Keep your mind on the other players’ minds when you aren’t in the hand to give you some insight into how they will play their hands against you when you are actually contesting a pot with them. Your mind is at work analyzing their minds, a key ingredient of the game.
Many movies have pushed the idea that you can bluff (fake that you have a strong hand) your way to victory even if you don’t have the “nuts,” which is a winning hand. This is only dramatic in the movies and usually not so dramatic in real play.
While bluffing can bring you the gold in rare cases, the fact is that most bluffs will fail. Poor players—those who have little or no idea of what they are doing—tend to stay in hands they have little chance of winning. They can’t be bluffed because they are, to be polite, ploppys. These ploppy players can only be beaten by playing your cards correctly and forgetting about reading their minds since they don’t have any idea of what their minds are actually thinking. Bluffing a buffoon makes you a bigger buffoon.
In games with strong players, a bluff can occasionally work, but is fraught with danger. Keep in mind that you might have analyzed the mind of a strong opponent to the best of your ability but he or she has also analyzed you. So, when in doubt against strong players, play your hands correctly.
Yet, there are ways to guess if an opponent has a good or bad hand. It’s called a “tell,” an unconscious communication your opponent gives you concerning his or her cards without their knowing they are doing so. These “tells” are not always correct, but they are things to watch for. Bill Burton in his wonderful book Get the Edge at Low- Limit Texas Hold’Em! gives a rundown on some possible tells:
• Your opponent acts weak when he has a strong hand.
• Your opponent acts strong when she has a weak hand.
• An opponent who stares you in the face probably has a poor hand and wants you to fold.
• An opponent who looks away from you probably has a strong hand and wants you to stay in.
• If a player has been doing something else such as watching television or reading something and suddenly focuses on the game, he probably has a decent hand.
• A player who is staring at the flop probably was not helped by it.
• If a player stares at his cards when three suited cards are flopped, he probably does not have a flush.
• If a player’s hands are shaking when he makes his bet, she might have a very strong hand.
• A change from light to heavy breathing can often show that a player has a strong hand.
• A player who blushes when she gets her initial cards probably has a great starting hand.
Now these 10 tells are not absolute. There are poker players who can fake them and sucker you into pots where they have the edge. However, you can watch players for information, especially when you are out of a hand, to see if you can pick up any knowledge that will help you beat them when you go head-to-head and face-to-face.
Poker is a great game if you mind your math and mind your mind.
Frank Scoblete’s new books are “I Am a Dice Controller: Inside the World of Advantage- Play Craps;” “Confessions of a Wayward Catholic” and “I Am a Card Counter: Inside the World of Advantage-Play Blackjack.” All available from Amazon.com, Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.