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The Ol' One-Two: Winning Poker Psychology

To outfox your poker opponents, you need to know how the typical gambler thinks and behaves, then depart from this in your own actions. Your opponents will assume you are the typical gambler too until they get to know you better. In the online game, with the cast of characters at your poker table constantly changing, by the time the opposition understands what you’re doing, you will already have a lot of their money.

Stay the course

How does a gambler mentally “keep score” for his results? We have all sorts of measuring units for tracking time. Yet every gambler keeps score using the same time unit: the session. When he quits the game, he wants to be ahead. That way, he can call himself a winner, and congratulate himself for being a success. To achieve this result, here is what the typical gambler does.

At some point, the losing poker gambler will realize that playing normally is not going to get him even for the session. But you can create some big swings by taking some hard hits. So he plays to create swings and get back to even by departing from his usual way of playing. However, he tries to rationalize his behavior, which you can exploit. We call this behavior “steaming” or “going on tilt.”

There has been plenty written about your need for not going on tilt when stuck, and you have already been lectured about it many times. I would like to focus on the fact that you are positioned well to make some money when you are getting brutalized in a game. The other players will know you’re stuck and expect you to behave in the usual manner: playing a lot of hands, raising on unsound values, and doing a lot of bluffing. So you shouldn’t steam; you should not even play your normal game; you should do the opposite of what they expect. Play solidly and don’t bluff. If you can catch some hands, you will likely take in more than the usual amount of money you make with them.

As a poker teacher, I’m often asked if it’s right to set a loss-limit and stick to it. My answer is always the evasive, “It depends who you are.” If you’re a weak player or a steamer, or both, go ahead and limit your losses. However, if you’re a good player, and one who can control his emotions, you’d be taking yourself out of a good situation for making money by quitting when you’re stuck a lot. Few professionals set a limit on their losses, because they don’t want to pass up the good moneymaking situation that exists when they’re losing big.

Leverage your betting

In poker, leverage means the psychological implications of your wager as it affects future betting rounds. If you run a bluff on the end, an opponent knows you’re not semi-bluffing with a draw––but he also knows he’ll get to see your hand if he calls. If you make a wager on any of the other three betting rounds, unless one of you will be all-in, the opponent has to consider how much more money the hand might cost him if he calls. There is of course some leverage at limit poker, but far more at no-limit, where the next barrel might be all your chips.

Leverage is responsible for most of the intimidation that goes with playing no-limit hold ’em. The player who does a lot of betting and raising is using leverage to win a lot of pots with the worst hand. He also doesn’t need to jeopardize a lot of chips doing it, if he uses leverage well.

1985 World Champion Bill Smith once told me about a super-aggressive player who was willing to side-bet his opponents that he’d win more than half the pots. He found a couple of players who were more than willing to bet him––but he made them pull up from betting before the night was over. (Nevertheless, the fellow was big loser for the session, despite winning over half the pots.)

You don’t have to try to win over half the pots, but you do need to try to win more than your fair share. I seldom enter a pot when playing for cash, but I win an extremely high percentage of the ones I enter. There’s nothing in poker like having both a good hand and a strong arm. When your good hand turns to trash after the flop, your strong arm can still win the pot for you. Put that leverage to work.

by Bob Ciaffone.
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