Poker Psychology, Part II

Poker Psychology: Three (or More) Is a Crowd

By Barbara Feiner

Here’s an experiment you can perform in the comfort of your home that is destined to make you a much better poker player.

Poker_1First, log onto one of your regular online poker sites, and grab a chair in one of the play money poker rooms. As each hand unfolds, start keeping track of how many players bet after their hole cards are dealt – and how many remain in the hand after the flop. If your experience is anything like mine, you’ll find that virtually every player bets on every single hand, and the majority will likely stay in the hand post-flop and beyond. If someone decides to raise a significant amount (say, $500 in a room with $5/$10 blinds), at least three or four players in the crowd will stick around or even re-raise.

Next, watch a televised match featuring the pros. I’m not talking about a star-studded match on “Poker After Dark.” Grab some popcorn and sit through an entire World Poker Tour or World Series of Poker event. Carefully track how many players compete in each hand – and watch how many muck their cards and get out of the way quickly when someone raises and another player re-raises a substantial amount or goes all-in.

If you do your homework, you’ll see a huge difference between these two scenarios. Online players – especially those competing with play money – will call, raise or even re-raise on more than 90 percent of hands. Because they’re playing with cyberspace chips and there’s no actual bankroll involved, they figure, “What the heck? Maybe I’ll get lucky.”

Simply put, it’s a horrible strategy – and an excellent way to develop bad habits that will come back to haunt you when you enter an online tournament that requires a cash buy-in. In the real world, a pro with K-Q will often get out of the way when faced with two opponents’ raises, re-raises and/or all-in bets. He knows something is going on, and it’s not worth risking his chips unless he knows he has the nuts.

The trick to improving your game when you’re in a play money poker room is to compete as though the cash is coming out of your own pocket. If you adopt this attitude, you’ll find that your betting tactics change dramatically. You’ll muck that 9-6 instead of hoping for some insane twist of luck by the time the turn and river cards are revealed. You’ll learn to appreciate the value of a good starting hand and develop the discipline required to succeed in real-world poker.

It all boils down to biding your time and knowing when to make your move – and if you’re making a move on every hand, you’re undisciplined, out of control and destined to lose. According to Arizona-based organizational psychologist Marcia Reynolds, author of “OutSmart Your Brain!”, everyone is susceptible to bouts of impatience – some more than others.

“To shift from impatience to being patient, no matter who you are, is a learned behavior,” she tells The Poker Source. “Shifting out of any strong emotion – especially one where we are attached to having a specific outcome and we can barely imagine any other outcome to be right – is a difficult feat.”

As a poker player, you must therefore learn to recognize any impatience you feel, Reynolds says. This enables you to play with “emotional intelligence.”

“Emotional intelligence starts with acknowledging what we feel and then telling the truth about why we are feeling that way – declaring what is truly at stake,” she says. “After releasing our anxiety, we can make the best choices for how we want to feel, instead of being impatient. This is a difficult practice that takes discipline to learn, but life is much brighter when you go with the flow.

ace of hearts

To break the impatience cycle, practice the following simple relaxation exercise long before you hit the poker room:

1.       Settle comfortably into a chair.

2.       Close your eyes and take some deep breaths. Concentrate on your breathing – each act of inhaling and exhaling.

3.       Count backwards from 100 to 1, while continuing to breathe deeply. Be sure to take slow, even breaths.

4.       As you fall into the rhythm of deep breathing, begin to tighten and relax your muscles. Make a mental note of what it feels like to be tense versus relaxed. This will allow you to create a “body memory” that will sound an inner alarm when you begin to tense up or feel impatient.

In poker, you can use these techniques to release tension well before you sit down to play – and even when you feel yourself becoming edgy or impatient at the table.

“When your body is running on the adrenaline released by impatience, it is difficult to think,” Reynolds says. “You have to first relax your body before you can attempt to relax your mind.”

-Barbara Feiner is a Los Angeles-based journalist who covers the poker world.-