The Psychology of Poker – Achieving The Balance

It doesn’t matter if you – like me – are a casual poker player who enjoys a couple of hours of fish-baiting most nights, or a seasoned pro who has twenty-four tables open at any one time. The greatest enemy to both of us is when we lose our balance, and by that, I don’t mean our bank balance, although that’s a pretty evil entity as well.

To play poker successfully you need to submerse yourself in game theory, and to get used to crunching those all-important numbers inside your head – but, no matter how dedicated you are to obeying the laws of positive equity, you will always remain vulnerable to the threat of losing your balance, and tilting.

Why Do Players Tilt?

In all walks of life, people are prone to allowing their emotions get the better of them. In soccer, the greatest French player of his generation, Zinedine Zidane, ended his brilliant career with a head-butt to Italian Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup Final. In poker, I once turned a $50 deposit into $4,400 in twelve days, then lost it all bar $20 in one single hour. Why? Because I tilted, and didn’t do the right thing about it.

Poker can be an emotional game – heck, poker is an emotional game. When we’re on a down-swing, we take it personally. It’s not that the cards are not falling for us, it’s because we’re not playing right, even though we’re playing the same way we have always played, and successfully at that. Emotions defeat logic, and if you’ve stop playing logically, then you’re not playing well.

Understand the game … understand yourself

You’ve probably read thousands of words on psychological behavior during a game. You’ve also probably read thousands of words on how to play the game right. Yet, there is one aspect of poker that can never be truly defeated – blind chance. It’s part of the gambler’s folly to think that if you land 72o on one hand, you’re more likely to land AA the next. It’s the same reason why people bet on black on roulette because the ball landed in a red groove the last time around. Is black more likely? No, of course not. Are you more likely to land AA after 72 off-suit? No, you are not. (FYI: AA is the best possible starting hand pre-flop and 72 off-suit is the worst). If you understand that in poker, there is no connection between two successive hands, then it sends an important message to your brain. Your brain wants you to do well, so will try and persuade you that on the next hand, you’re going to be re-gathering in all those chips that you lost on a bad break on the last one.

Extending the balance beyond the table

I have the luxury of not playing professionally – you won’t bump into me at the WSOP, at least not in the real world, although I do enjoy the odd showdown at their online tables – but I still wager a lot of money online. I worked out what I could afford to wager ($5,000) some time ago, and knew that was enough for fifty 100BBs – enough to play on $50/$100 limit tables (Limit Texas Hold’em). Once I had rolled my bankroll up to $10,000, I switched to $100/$200, but when I dipped back below $10,000 I didn’t fall back down a level. It took until I was down to $6,000 (in three days!) before I found my common sense hiding under the sofa, and dropped back down.

If you’re aiming to play poker as your career, then be doubly-sure you’re doing just that. Award yourself a salary, and set enough aside for tax considerations. If you can’t meet your targets, and find playing poker becomes stressful, then it’s time to take a prolonged break.

The key to retaining balance is to recognise that you are tilting. If you find that the emotional centres of your brain rather than the logical ones are making the decisions at the table for you, then the cure is simple: Stand up, walk away, and come back to play when you’re feeling balanced once again. Having time away from the table allows you to re-focus, re-energise and place your mind somewhere that isn’t poker related. Take a walk or read a book. If you then come back to the tables, you’ll find yourself both feeling and thinking a lot sharper, and you’ll find you’ll be able to make those crucial, logical decisions with a balanced frame of mind.

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