AngusD switched from pro chess to poker two decades ago and has been professionally involved in the game on numerous levels since the very beginning of online poker, including playing as a poker ambassador both online and at major festivals around the globe. He has written much about the game over the years, and brings to YPD a wealth of experience in all aspects of the poker industry. Meanwhile, his many years on the pro chess circuit (he’s an International Master and prolific author) afford him an interesting perspective on the psychology of poker.

· Published 14.12.2020 · last updated 14.12.2020

Should we be self-conscious when playing poker?

Is it more important to avoid being thought of as a fish or an idiot than it is to sometimes simply do our own thing? We live in what can be a superficial, image-conscious world where the importance we put on appearances and how others perceive us has become so extreme that such things even define us to some extent. And it is interesting that even poker has fallen foul of such shallowness nowadays, leaving so many players feeling unable to make this or that play because it’s not the done thing; it’s frowned upon – as if we have no right to do what we want with the chips that we have paid for…

Take limping in, for example – it’s a veritable poker sin to ‘just’ call, as if we’re doing the rest of the table an injustice by having the temerity to not play along; like there’s a script that’s been written in advance, and we need to play our part accordingly. The modern game is shaming us into not doing certain things because of how we’ll look. The potential embarrassment factor has seeped in to our decision-making process.

Personally, I find this quite a sorry state of affairs – that even in online poker people can be so self-conscious and so influenced by how they fear they might be perceived, that they might not, after all, reraise out of position with their 67s. Nobody seems to dare even limping into a hand if it means going against prevailing theory and convention, in case they get ridiculed in the chatbox!

And – lest we forget – this is online poker, where we’re supposed to be making the most of our anonymity, using silly aliases and playing, unseen, in our underwear (I should add that I’m speaking generally here, and not from personal experience). Translate the same scenario to a live situation, where we’re literally in the physical company of our opponents, scrutinized, and the pressure to conform is even greater … no wonder that inexperienced players on their first visit to an actual poker room will never dare put a single chip over the line unless they have a premium hand as evidence to defend themselves! In fact, those of you who play both bricks & mortar and online poker should be aware of how the speculative plays you might occasionally try online, you wouldn’t dream of doing live.

But we shouldn’t be afraid to do our own thing regardless. It shouldn’t matter what others might think if we try this or that. In fact, if reraising in the cut-off pre-flop with 72o and then having to show our hand gives the opposition the false impression that we don’t know what we’re doing, that we’ll thoughtlessly play any old rubbish – perfect! Such misinformation could pay dividends later.

So-called golden rules and guidelines, learning the odds, studying, trying to adopt a specific strategy, becoming acquainted with Game Theory Optimal (GTO) poker and other fancy meta game theories, and all the rest – of course, that’s a must. But these should help serve as reminders of how to play generally, rather than stifle us and clip our poker wings. Moreover, occasionally going against the grain and doing something unusual is anyway a good way to mix things up a little, serving to put opponents off balance, throw a proverbial spanner into the works…

The mere fact that we are willing to think for ourselves rather than only play the right kind of hand, or at the right time, or in the appropriate position and so on is in itself a good thing. Guidelines are so called for a reason – they guide us, rather than decide for us. Poker is a complex game that can’t be conveniently reduced to only what cards we and our opponents hold, and where we’re sitting in relation to each other. If that were the case, then mastering the game would be as simple as knowing the odds and understanding the concept of position.

Of course, these are fundamentals and need to be appreciated and respected. I’m not advocating recklessly breaking sensible rules hand after hand, rather not being afraid to make an exception when we think it’s justified for one reason or another. Some people never allow themselves to think outside the box, instead of limiting themselves to the constraints of convention. Others make too conscious an effort to make the occasional, deliberate foray outside the box. I think the best approach is ‘what box?’…

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