Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Learn to Think Like a Fish

(Psychology of Poker, Part One)

One thing I love to talk about, is the psychology of poker. I get more out of thinking deeply, discussing and reading poker psychology than I ever have playing.

When I go into a cardroom, I don't just take the first seat available. I have no interest in just getting into the action, no matter how poor the table may be. I would rather think and study than play, anyway.

So when I am asked why I am so bland at the tables, why my expression never changes, why I take "bad beats" so well, why I look so bored and detached, why I study everything and everyone rather than gabbing it up at the tables, these are some of my responses.

1) I always downplay my ability (this is the opposite stance of most players. They tend to inflate their ability, and decrease the luck factor when they are running well.)

2) I am hyper-aware, which makes up for my lack of skill (and is actually a skill set in and of itself)

3) I am emotionally dead (this is both a help and a hindrance in poker)

4) I realize that poker is not chess, it is poker, and that I rarely have even as much as 5% of an advantage over the worst player at the table, because of the luck factor

I can goof it up, and laugh as much as the next guy, but I rarely do this. At "fun" limits with friends, I can be the life of the party. At tables where it behooves me to be cheerful and friendly, to keep everyone loose, I can tell a joke-a-minute. I expose cards HU, I tell my opponents what I have, I flash cards to another player not in the hand, I tip the dealer more than the total pot, etc.

But this is the act, this is not the real me. And usually it is better for me to be serious than it is for me to be the table clown (this was not always so. Before the poker boom, I was more frequently the clown).

Getting back to my original point, however, why are some players emotionally controlled, while most players are out of control?

That is an easy question to answer. The recreational player who plays tight gets out of control when he is outdrawn hand after hand...the recreational player who plays loose gets out of control when he loses many buy-ins due to playing every hand, and he is "running bad." Both of these types of players are making big mistakes.

A more serious player can get out of control when he is running bad, period. Tight or loose, passive or aggressive, sometimes it just takes a series of beats for him to start tilting.

And both types of players can lose control when they are being ridiculed or made fun of at the tables. It doesn't matter if the player is a man or a woman. If another player can push the buttons of someone, he can tilt them relatively easily.

Since control at the table is something that every player should strive for, and since this seems to be a huge psychological factor in poker, I am asked just about every time I play live how I can manage to keep myself under control, hour after hour, hand after hand, beat after beat.

I already outlined the reasons I have this control (and so rarely lose it). But I will share with you how I think about poker, how I approach it, as well as give you some hints on why it is so easy for me. In this first post, I will tackle getting into the mind of a fish.

I'm very lucky in the fact that most of you already know that I am a ranter & raver. I get angry and I pound out posts like I'd pound potatoes into mush. You know what a temper I have and how many pet peeves I have. You've seen me get angry at individuals, groups and various topics (mostly at myself). You've seen me lose my cool more times than I could ever count. So at least you know that I am capable of anger, that I use it to my advantage in life and all things. You know that I don't try to control my anger, that I let myself vent.

Therefore, you will tend to believe me more when I make huge claims about my calm at the poker table, if you have not watched me play before.

When you play with loose, horrible players, try to get into their mindset. Imagine you are playing a typical 2/4 LHE game where 8-10 players are seeing every flop. You are not one of these players, you tend to play tighter than they do (maybe you are even a loose player, just not THIS loose).

In YOUR mind, this is how the hand went: "I had pocket aces. I raised in MP and got three callers behind me, plus both blinds and the two limpers who had come in ahead of me. This meant eight of us saw the flop. It was a perfect flop for my hand, T72r. It was checked to me, and I bet out. Only the big blind and two other players (one before me, one after) stayed in. Four of us saw the turn, which was a perfect offsuit four, meaning no flush could be possible. I bet again, and only two players called; the big blind and the player before me. On the river was a six. I knew now that a straight was possible, but it was so unlikely and improbable that someone had stayed in with 53 or 98 that I bet anyway. I was check-raised by the big blind. The EP player cold called two. I made a crying call and was shown 53s from the BB and T6s from the EP player. Beat by both fish! How could they make those calls?"

Now let's get into the mind of the fish. Take the big blind, for example. He sees all of the limpers, he sees MP raise, he sees the cold callers after the MP raise. He sees that everyone is in the hand except two players. He never thinks about things like odds, but instinctively he realizes that with that many players to see the flop, he should probably call just one more bet also. So he does.

On the flop he has nothing save two runner-runner draws. He knows his hand is shite. He checks, as do the EP players. MP raiser bets out and gets a LP caller. He knows it is unlikely for the EP player to raise, being that he has already checked, so he figures it's just two more dollars to see the turn, and with all of the money in the pot already, he may as well see what happens. He shrugs and calls $2.00. The turn was a perfect card for him, so he thinks. Wow, a four! He looks at his hand again. Then the board. Then his hand one more time. Nope, no flush draw now, but he is open ended for a straight! He doesn't even think of the possibility that someone else would have a better straight draw and he could be drawing dead. He certainly is not thinking about the MP raiser and how he has an overpair. He only thinks of his own hand, and his own possibilities, and assumes that if any draw comes through, he must hold the winner.

He is often confused when shown the same pair, better kicker on the river and the pot is not pushed to him. He is confused when he has a straight or a flush, but another player has a higher straight or flush. Sometimes it takes him a few minutes to understand why he is beat. Different dealers have tried to explain to him the fact that no, it is not a split pot if you BOTH have a flush, the highest flush wins. Dealers have shown him the three or four cards on the board that were the community cards, and how his cards fit in with those cards, and why the pot was pushed to someone else. He vaguely understands why he is not winning, but he still thinks that most likely, when his draw comes through, he will win the pot. So then on the river he gets the perfect (to him) six. Now he has the winner! No way anyone could beat him! In his own mind, there are no two cards that could possibly beat or tie him. At first he doesn't even realize what the six has done, because he has already forgotten what his holecards were again. So he just checks. While the EP player looks at his holecards again, starts to reach towards his chips, then backs away and hesitantly checks, the BB looks at his cards again. The board, the holecards, the board...YES, he really does have a straight! So after the initial MP raiser bets out, he realizes that he must have the winner, and check-raises. When he is shown the aces and the two pair, he doesn't think about how he outran the raiser. He doesn't think he "outplayed" him. He doesn't think he sucked out or any other emotion. His adrenaline is just pumping with one single thought, "I won, I won!" While the tight raiser sits steaming, and the MP player with two pair shakes his head mumbling about rivering two pair and still getting beat, the big blind fish is just ecstatic and piling up his chips. He has a big, goofy, ear-to-ear grin. Sometimes he hears players grumbling about his bad play, but he can't really understand why, because he DID make the straight, didn't he? That means he MUST be doing something right. He didn't mean to hurt anyone's feelings, but this is poker, right? You're supposed to "play to win." That is what everyone has told him.

Okay, so now that you've put yourself inside the head of a new, loose player who caught a miracle runner-runner to suck out on you, how can you really be angry and upset? How can you steam and tilt? How can you scream at him about what a fish he is and 'how could he make that call?'

You can't. If you really, truly got into his head, you would understand what HE is thinking, and why you want him at your table, all day, every day. Especially if he is so easygoing and happy-go-lucky as this guy.

Don't chase your fish away. Don't make them play better against you. Don't hurt their feelings or yell at them. I'm not saying you have to lie and tap the table and say, "Good hand!" I'm not going to go that far. But at this point if you are truly angry and upset, you are the one with the problem, not the fish.

Be a man. Just buck up and smile. Think of this guy as someone you just made a short term loan to, with very high interest. And if he stands up to leave before you can get your loan repaid, then look at any one of the many fish still at your table, who will happily contribute to paying back your loan. Smile and be polite. Make it your duty to be a winner every day, whether you lose your stack, or take home thousands.

Felicia :)