Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Be Yourself

Psychology of Poker, Part Three

This post really wasn't on my agenda, but due to some good feedback I got on the first two psychology posts, and some deep thinking, I decided to write it anyway.

I am one of those people with blinders on. I take so many things for granted, I just assume everyone else understands what I'm talking about. They don't. So I figured I'd make it more plain.

When I describe behavior and philosophy within the world of poker, I am usually handing out extremes. Anyone can say, "Oh, just be yourself." That is pretty common knowledge.

When a writer sets out to be published, he is generally more successful if he writes what he knows. It comes across as more genuine. The same can be said about an actor and many other professions. If one stays close to ones true personality and experiences, especially in the beginning of his career, things tend to fall into place and flow better. It benefits both the professional himself, and the audience.

So when it comes to playing poker, putting on a big act at the table isn't generally advised. The best option is to be yourself. If by being yourself you are negatively affecting your bankroll and the game, then it is better to sit quietly.

In the days of these wild, crazy, loose games, becoming the clown is usually unnecessary. The Mike Caro method of playing the mad man isn't needed as much anymore. Most tables don't NEED to be loosened up. And this is a good thing, just in case you didn't understand clearly ;)

If you are at a table, or in a cardroom, where you feel uncomfortable in your own skin, then you may need to step back and reevaluate where the trouble is coming from. Sometimes the vibe in the cardroom just isn't right. I feel that was when I'm at Commerce, in the mid-high limit area. No one is happy, no one is friendly, the chips are flying, but my opponents are MEAN, and that is just the truth. It's a grumpy, high pressure area. If I walk about three miles over to the low limit Omaha and Stud section, however, the whole atmosphere changes. Chips are still flying, but a laugh is actually heard here and there. People introduce themselves to the table. The felt is rapped and lots of "Nice hands" are heard. It is a more pleasant place to play.

Sometimes you may feel uncomfortable in a cardroom where angleshooting and cheating is allowed. You may not be poker savvy enough to even know these activities are happening, but you feel that something is off. You may want to steer clear of this cardroom, or you may want to take advantage of the situation, if you are advanced enough to make it a positive EV experience. Just watch your back on your way out. Have security escort you to your car, or park in valet.

Then there is the situation where you know that the wrong vibe in the cardroom is caused by you. I felt that way many times at the Colorado Belle. It was like I was the one who was way off kilter. This was because the staff could be very abusive to the poker players, which is the exact opposite of everything I'd ever experienced before. Dealers shouting at players, "Hurry up! I don't have all day, you know!" A dealer routinely falling asleep during his down, and management laughing it off. A floorman taking tokes and bribes in order to place players ahead of others for cash games and tournaments. Then, finally, the last straw of said floorman sexually harassing a young, vulnerable female employee, and the subsequent "loss" of the surveillance tape, resulting in HER getting fired, and me getting thrown out of the poker room, for reporting him.

Sometimes there cannot be a compromise reached in these situations. You are simply going to have to find another cardroom. Other times, you can "fix" what is wrong with you.

There have been many books written on poker. Less on poker psychology. The three books that deeply address this topic are very good and helpful. Psychology of Poker, Inside the Poker Mind and Killer Poker.

Oddly enough, Killer Poker is not often referred to as a poker psychology book. I don't think John Vorhaus had that in mind. But the thing is, he is from southern California. So what, you ask? Well, to survive in LA, one MUST incorporate a lot of psychology into his game. So John wrote what he thought was a strategy book, but is actually more of a psychology book, and he didn't even realize it.

Because I feel this book is so very important to both beginners, and advanced players, I highly recommend some of the "exercises" John presents. This will only benefit you. It cannot hurt you, under any circumstances. It cannot hurt your game, your mind or your present playing level. It may hurt your bankroll, but I'm assuming that when you try these exercises, you will try them on stakes that mean little to nothing to your lifestyle. Don't sit at a 50/100 game, in other words!

1) Throw away all small cards (in any position). If your weakness is playing small cards, this will show you the number of bets you are losing. Keep track of how this affects your session. Can you go an entire session without playing any small cards (2-8)?

2) Wear headphones. Does this help you concentrate at the poker table? Does blocking out player's chatter keep you focused?

Number two is very important. If you are a gabber at the poker table, you might be truly shocked at what you are "missing," due to your nonstop chatter. Glenn is a perfect example of this type of player. He doesn't have an act, a shtick. He isn't a clown. He just had this terrible habit of talking at the tables (mostly to his neighbors). Glenn had to "share" with everyone how he played the hand, why he played the hand, what his odds were, what he was thinking, a similar hand he played yesterday, last week, month, YEAR. He could not control himself. Obviously, this killed him at the tables. He wouldn't get any action from even the loosest players. He was so easy to put on a hand, that it was like his cards were exposed. For a long time, I tried to explain to him why it was so bad to just constantly talk at the tables, but he didn't get it, nor did he believe me. Until, that is, he tried John's exercise and put headphones on.

Talking at the table is usually a no-no. There are exceptions, of course, but don't go out of your way to gab. It will usually cost you money by the things you have missed.

3) Do not utter one word during an entire session. You will be surprised at what you pick up from others, if you are doing all of the listening and they are doing all of the talking. (Make sure to have your full raise out on the table, since you cannot say "raise" during this session.)

Obviously #3 is related to #2 closely. I think if you try this exercise, you will be shocked at the difference.

4) Talk non-stop at the table. Distract other players (pleasantly) to see the psychological effect that you have on their game with your non-stop chatter.

This is in direct contrast to #2 and #3. This exercise works best on quiet, grumpy, rocky tables, which are harder to find these days than the opposite. It seems to work best at Stud tables, where players are working diligently to memorize card ranks and suits. It also has some value on certain Omaha tables. Since these tables are rare these days, you should be able to identify them very easily when you come across one.

5) Sit down at a new table and raise the first five hands you are dealt, no matter what. Watch the psychological effect this will have on your opponents. See them struggling to adapt to your play. Keep notes on their reaction. Is this how YOU react to a maniac who comes to your table? What is the best defense/offense?

Although this was written before the poker boom, John knew that pseudo-maniacal play has a deep effect on the entire table. The best benefit you will receive from playing this way when you first get seated at a new table, is that throughout your session, everyone will keep the image of you as a maniac, no matter how much you tighten up later. Years down the line, your same opponents will remember that ONE time they played against you, and how you were such a maniac. Many world-class players have used this image to their benefit for years. Everyone talks about "Action Dan" Harrington, and what a rock he is. He has never been a rock, and is certainly looser now than he ever was (due to the adjustment in tournament play these days that is necessary for winning players). But everyone still thinks of Dan as a rock, and they fold many superior hands to his raises during tournaments.

6) Raise or fold. Play an entire session where you either come in raising, or fold your hand. Never limp. An exception would be in the big blind, naturally. Take notes. See how this affects your opponents as well as your outcome.

This is a fantastic exercise, IMO. This strategy is not a bad one for cash games, period, but as a psychological exercise, it is amazing to see the type of reaction your strategy will have on the table. You will have so much control over your opponents that you will begin to see poker in a whole, new light. And not a bad one, either. One coming from domination and manipulation (which is a good thing in poker, and not bad in sex, either ;)

7) Fit or fold. Throw away any hand that doesn't fit the flop extremely well. Don't chase longshots. How many bets did you save with this method?

This exercise is clearly one left over from the pre-boom days of poker. It teaches extreme discipline for those who tend to chase a hand too far. In today's game, we are forced to chase longshots. We are usually getting great odds, so it is proper to chase. It wasn't always that way, though, and that is why John suggested this exercise. Even though it may not be as applicable anymore, try it anyway. FIND a reason to fold, not a reason to call. You will be surprised at the bets you save (even though you had odds to draw, perhaps).

Your variance will go way down, although your win rate will also be affected. Do it for the discipline aspect, and then write down your feelings about this type of play.
So, Vorhaus is really a poker psychology author? Yes. And he didn't even know it! Southern California poker is a game of the minds.

Okay, now let's say that you have actually listened to me (and John, by proxy), and you have tried these exercises. If you are not illuminated, I'd say you should get out of poker, now! If you are playing purely for recreational purposes, I'll give you a pass on that one ;)

If you are playing seriously, you should have gotten quite a bit out of John's exercises. And maybe you have found your own niche in poker. Maybe you have discovered things about yourself that you never knew existed. You are thinking more deeply about poker, and have a new appreciation for the psychological aspects of it.

And once these exercises have been completed and you have learned so much more about yourself? Find a comfort zone.

Above all, it should be "easy" for you. If you find yourself uncomfortable a lot, something is probably wrong. It shouldn't be uncomfortable or embarrassing. The game of poker isn't that complex! Even a game like Stud should be relaxing and have it's own rhythm. You should be enjoying yourself at the table to a degree. You should feel easy and comfortable. If, by creating some alter ego or shtick, you have made yourself lose concentration, lose ability, lose relaxation and lose money, then you need to reevaluate what you are doing wrong. Don't make poker a "job," or you will soon grow weary of it.

Being yourself is usually not that hard. Most people don't have an extroverted, annoying, maniacal personality. Those people are the minority. Usually introverts are attracted to serious poker. So sitting quietly and observing everything should come more naturally anyway.

Be yourself!

Felicia :)