Countless times when we see poker on TV the hero shows nerves of steel to pull off a fantastic bluff, or convinces over-eager ‘baddies’ that they have the best hand, only to reveal the nuts. This is poker played by unflappably cool types with the ability to read minds and get into the heads of rivals to the point that they can’t think straight.
Of course, these examples are far-fetched and seem quite unrealistic, but are they? Is it beyond plausibility for us to have such an influence on another’s frame of mind? Can we literally cause our opponents to lose coherence and thus induce errors?
The answer is a resounding YES. And it’s much easier than it might seem because it’s simply a matter of messing with an opponent’s equilibrium, pulling them out of their comfort zone, forcing them to question a strategy or line of thought that they had hitherto taken for granted.
A good example is being able to rock the boat for those opponents in a Sit & Go who are sitting comfortably on a middle stack and following a sit and wait policy in the hope that those around them knock each other out. Whatever the size of our stack in relation to theirs, we can throw a proverbial spanner in the works – and cause them to have to act – by ruthlessly, relentlessly raising their Big Blinds. This might not seem like a significant problem we’re causing them, but with the Blinds increasing level by level, the BB alone can represent a sizeable proportion of a player’s stack. As long as we make sure that we’re not losing sight of what other players are doing, and our tactic doesn’t backfire, then by bullying our target we put them in a very difficult position. They must choose between the simultaneously ‘easy’ but nonetheless unattractive option that means letting us continually steal their BB, or to make a stand. While neither is at all desirable, with the latter there’s a bigger risk of elimination.
It helps to be able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes so that we can take advantage of this or that situation in a way that picks away at a player’s psyche with maximum effect. This could mean taking a scenario in which we feel uncomfortable and doubt ourselves and make mistakes, and turning the tables so that our opponents experience such a problem. One such instance is the mixed emotions and the rollercoaster ride their confidence takes with each second that goes by as they wait for us to act when the pot has reached critical status. There are a lot of chips in the middle and they might be hoping for a fold that would save them from making a tough decision but, literally at the very last second, we re-raise, suddenly throwing them in at the deep end after it looked like we would be folding. This can be a very powerful tactic (and is a popular bluff weapon) because it causes mental mayhem, the result often being that, under intense pressure, the player decides to live to fight another day and folds.
There are countless ways to undermine and even derail an opponent’s thought process. Despite poker being the ultimate in psychological warfare, many players get into the habit of almost functioning on auto-pilot, not even bothering to contemplate any kind of mind games. Perhaps this is a result of too much emphasis on volume of hands, multi-tabling leading to a quantity over quality approach. With this in mind, I would recommend playing on just one table with the sole aim of approaching a session purely from a psychological perspective. The more we get used to thinking about psychological aspects of the game, the more flexibility this gives us in all sorts of situations.