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Psychological Poker Considerations

Choose Your Battles

How often have you entered into a dispute that afterwards you judged as not worth it? It could be a price dispute at a store, an annoying action of a co-worker, or a trivial argument with a family member. In the end, winning or losing didn't matter. The most you could have hoped to gain would never compensate for the cost in time, effort, or ill-will generated. With experience, you learn to avoid confrontations that in the long run are not worth the cost. We all have our "principles," but savvy people choose their battles. They know when it is worth taking a stand and when it better to let things go.

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choose the right battles is crucial

In poker, learning to choose the right battles is crucial to success and it is perhaps the hardest skill to learn. Your first impulse in any confrontation is to act. You come to the poker table to compete for the pot. Watching others vie for the money feels counter to that goal. How is folding hand after hand competing? Inaction also leads to complacency. You stop paying close attention and then miss out on the opportunities that do occur. Poker is a fast-moving game and decisions must be made quickly. For these two reasons -the desire to compete and the need to stay alert-, it is difficult to suppress the urge to play in most of the hands. Even if intellectually you know to fold, your emotions constantly urge you to make exceptions.

All books on poker correctly state that the number one mistake most beginners make is to play in too many hands. Be patient and wait for the right situation and cards is the standard advice. This advice is sound, but in my opinion, it is poorly expressed because patience is the wrong idea. Patience is what you need waiting in line at the bank, waiting for the light to turn green, waiting for an unproductive meeting to end. In all these cases, you know when your goal banking, driving, returning to useful work-will be reached. Patience is accepting that your goal will come in its own time, that it cannot be rushed. Also, being patient means that if you pass the time daydreaming, nothing is lost.

Contrast waiting in line with waiting for a decent hand in a poker game. In poker, you never know when your goal -a favorable betting opportunity- will occur. You must be mentally alert and ready for action at all times because at any time, you might have to act. In the meantime, unfavorable betting opportunities are constantly present, tempting you to take foolish chances. Rather than patience, what you need to learn is what I call "deliberate non-action". You must understand that not acting is one of the most important actions in poker. You must accept the counter-intuitive idea that not taking action is an integral part of the game and essential to your long-range goal of making money.


If folding is not your most frequent action, you are playing badly. It is nice to wish for hand after hand of great cards, such as pocket Aces and pocket Kings occurring several times per hour. You fantasize about betting forcefully as both of your pocket cards pair up on the flop, while your opponents shrink back in fear. There will be times when these events happen, times when you can do no wrong and winning is easy. There also will be long hours, even long days, of hand after hand of garbage. During these times, your chip pile gets eaten away by the blinds, the few good starting hands you get don't hit on the flop, and the game seems utterly pointless and futile.

Poker encompasses both euphoria and frustration. It is impossible to have one without the other because over the long-run, statistics rule. Play in enough hands and the distribution of cards received and draws hit approaches the percentages in the charts. The problem with poker is that you have no control over the good times and bad times. The nature of randomness means that events happen with no discernable pattern. You are never due for either a good streak or a bad streak. Whatever your thoughts are-however alert you feel, however ready you are for action-your mental state will not change the distribution of the cards.

While alertness does not change the cards, it does affect the one thing you do control: the decisions you make. Again, this is why patience is the wrong idea. Being patient means you fall into a routine of automatic decisions that dulls your thinking and causes you to loose your edge. Alertness is required at all times and to stay alert, you must think of non-action as a deliberate action.

Consider the outcome of a hand at my table one afternoon in an Atlantic City casino. A showdown occurred between two players with a board of mediocre cards: 6, 2,5, 6,9. Expecting boring hands, none of us at the table, including the dealer, paid close attention. One of the players showed 2, 5, and having matched both his pocket cards, claimed the pot. The other player with a 5, 10 didn't object so the dealer pushed the chips to the player with 5's over 2's and set up for another hand. Only after the transaction ended, did a few of us at the table wake up and realize that the pot had been awarded to the losing hand. By then, it was too late to change the outcome.

When you first read this, did you immediately see that the 5, 10 is the winning hand? The 2's are completely irrelevant because the board has a pair of 6's. That means each player's hand consists of the same two pairs-5's and 6's. The kicker (fifth card) decides the hand and since the 10 is higher than all other cards on the board, it beats the 9 on the board. (If a card higher than a 10 was on the board, say a Jack, the players would share the same kicker and the pot is split. The best five-card hand for each player in that case would be 5's and 6's with a Jack kicker, and the 10 does not play.) By not analyzing the situation, the player with the winning hand lost an entire pot, potentially the difference between a profitable and an unprofitable playing session.

Deliberate non-action means you don't let the routine take the edge off your play. To stay focused, analyze the actions of the players and dealers, and take breaks. Be mentally alert at all times and ready to act. Over time, small mistakes add up to big losses and small victories add up to big profits. If you are not paying attention at a crucial time, as in the example above you 10se money. But if staying focused requires you to contest every pot, you also 10se money.

The concept of tight-aggressive play is to forcefully contest pots only when you have the edge. Keep mentally focused by careful observation of the other players when the odds are against you. Choose only battles where you are the favorite, and don't feel that you have to win every time. If you select the best situations to challenge your opponents and ignore the marginal ones, you will accumulate money over time.

Alan Schoonmaker explains in his book The Psychology of Poker, that the successful tight-aggressive style for poker is unnatural. In his observation, only in the professions of fighter pilot and police officer are there people capable of tightly controlled aggression. Tight people are naturally cautious while aggressive people tend to take chances. The combination of the two traits results only from a deliberate training process. It does not happen on its own.

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