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 24.07.2021 · last updated 24.07.2021

One could be forgiven for assuming that poker players are inherently optimistic people with a positive mindset. Indeed, while it’s clearly not good to have too much confidence to the point of being so arrogant that our sense of danger escapes us, a certain level of optimism is ideal – in poker as in life, a happy medium is a desirable balance.

But it’s easy to allow ourselves not only to think negatively but also to adopt a negative, pessimistic frame of mind that can be harmful in small doses and disastrous over the long-term if it takes hold. The presence of luck – more specifically, bad luck – presents us with a ready-made supplier of bad outcomes that we can be constantly fearful of if we’re susceptible to feelings of pessimism.

Then we have our own weak play to throw more fuel on the pessimist’s fire. This is arguably worse than poor fortune. If Lady Luck and the Poker Gods keep placing us on the losing side of a big pot, we know that at some point the pendulum will swing in our favour; it’s just a matter of time, and there’s no reason to get bogged down worrying about phantoms. But if we’re playing badly we don’t have the prospect of luck evening itself out in the long-run. We have only ourselves to blame, it can be difficult to address problems with our play, and this in turn can set us on a vicious circle that ultimately leads to a prolonged feeling of pessimism and even an expectancy that things just won’t go well.

This is a serious problem, and it can manifest itself in ways that can render our performance in tournaments and cash games effectively like playing tennis with a damaged racket. When in pessimist mode we start to shy away from situations that risk losing more chips. For example, maintaining aggression after raising pre-flop and missing the Flop entirely is something that we should ordinarily be prepared to do, but if we feel the world is against us we become apprehensive and start to lack the courage to execute what should be a classic, standard plan of action. We imagine that our opponents have us beaten; any action from them that even hints at confidence is interpreted with a big dose of pessimism. And this can happen when we have good hands, too! Statistics, probability and a good understanding of feasible ranges goes out of the window and, unless we have the nuts, there’s a tendency to talk ourselves into taking our foot off the accelerator (and firmly on the brake!) through fear of someone having an ‘even stronger’ hand than us.

And the problem spreads. That value bet on the River that’s screaming out to be made we decide against because we might be walking into a trap. A big bluff from an opponent that completely goes against the line they’ve followed thus far is believed because we’ve lost confidence in our ability to analyze how the hand has played out. And if we’re afraid of value-betting, we’re terrified of throwing in bluffs!

If any of this resonates, then you need to drastically change your mind-frame. There tend to be quite a number of ‘correct’ ways to play poker, and these remain the same – the numbers and odds and classic, specific, situationally common patterns don’t change. Whatever mood we’re in won’t alter reality, so we need to get used to maintaining a level of emotional stability that rules out irrational negativity.

There’s no room for pessimism in poker…

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