Our Poker Future Can Be Found In The Past

The subject of how we make decisions, the factors that influence the process and how we subsequently store such information for later use is a key area of cognitive psychology. Fortunately for us, we don’t need a degree in psychology or to exhaustively investigate the nitty gritty of critical thinking to properly approach decision making in poker. Indeed, this article touches on a pretty fundamental aspect of human nature that can be detrimental to the game of even experienced players.

In an ideal world, we would take note of a decision that led to a positive outcome and, when a similar situation subsequently presented itself, endeavor to adopt a similar strategy to again achieve success. Meanwhile, we should try to avoid the reoccurrence of negative outcomes by not repeating past mistakes. It follows that our most effective route to successful results in the future lies in making the most of the past. It should be quite easy; it’s not rocket science…

If only life – and poker – were that simple. The reality is that we have egos, emotions and desires and so on that combine to leave us susceptible to obscuring, manipulating and even manufacturing memories. Typically, we let the significance of past events take priority over whether the decisions and actions that led to those results were correct. We change history to suit. For example, we make the mistake of paying way over the odds for the chance of making a flush on the river and, after striking lucky when our draw hits, we go on to justify this dodgy gamble, to convince ourselves that there were other factors involved.

Accept your mistakes

This seems like such obvious advice that it’s almost too trivial to spend time thinking about, but that’s the problem – we tend to struggle being true to ourselves when that involves accepting we have made mistakes and, when faced with our own fallibility, seek to paper over the cracks rather than address errors in judgement. Such situations crop up constantly in everyday life, and most often the consequences aren’t worth even bothering about. We get away with mistakes with our egos and lives suitably intact.

But poker isn’t so forgiving. Failure to address this or that issue will have a cumulatively detrimental effect so serious that our game (and bankroll) could suffer significantly. By being unwilling to acknowledge our poor decisions, more will inevitably follow, and what started out as a few leaks here and there can lead to great big gaping holes that could sink us.

In the above example of paying too much for a flush draw and being saved when it hit, the correct and emotionally detached reaction would be to accept that we misplayed the hand, that we were very lucky to get away with it and to make a mental note to iron out such errors in our game and move on. However, an all too common scenario here is to be swept along by success and to let the result tweak reality so that we instead congratulate ourselves and follow the much more egotistically desirable course of justifying our original action. Far from being self-critical, we ‘find’ deeper, nuanced considerations that those not afforded our profound, existential understanding of the game simply wouldn’t appreciate. We’re too cool for poker school. Thus a precedent is set which in turn can form the foundation of future erroneous decision making. The next time such a situation arises, suitably emboldened by our past success, we again ignore the facts and deliberately repeat our past error.

Ironically, the short-term gain derived from hitting a flush a second time could be bad news in the long-term. Each successive slice of luck serves to reinforce the flawed thinking that preceded it. The more we feel vindicated by our unjustified actions, the more apparent the ‘proof’ that we really are a poker genius for whom conventional rules don’t apply, and the longer it will take for reality to register. A couple of missed flushes won’t be enough, and by the time we’re finally brought back to our senses to eradicate this weakness from our playbook, the cost will be far higher than had we been honest the first time our poor play was rewarded with a slice of luck.

Multiply the above example by the countless situations we find ourselves in over literally tens of thousands of hands (and more), and what might seem like the occasional deviation from the most optimal path can become a chronic problem of epic – and costly – proportions!

It’s this ability to not only re-interpret but also rewrite past events, and subsequently allow this to influence our future decisions, that all poker players should constantly keep in mind and seek to avoid. Whether it’s those new to the game who need to avoid drifting into bad habits, or more experienced players who allow their take on fortuitous successes from dubious plays to develop into recklessness, it will always pay (literally) to keep our proverbial feet on the ground and stick to the facts.

Don’t mistake bad play for a bad beat

If we’re in the habit of letting good fortune conveniently downplay or even wipe away poor strategy from our memory, it follows that we can also be guilty of using a perceived (but not actual) bad beat to cancel out mistakes. This is another bad habit that we must avoid. Anyone who’s reached a certain level of poker experience has heard their fair share of so-called bad beat stories and, usually, the storyteller is seeking sympathy rather than a potentially critical analysis of their questionable play. If we were to carry out a bad beat survey it wouldn’t be at all surprising to find that many aren’t bad beats at all, but in fact another way for players to absolve themselves of responsibility.

You’ve been warned…

A great deal of how successful we can become in poker comes down to how effectively we interpret and then use information gleaned from experience. With this in mind, it’s imperative to approach the game with an honest analysis of the factors that led to past events rather than being emotionally distracted by the outcomes themselves. The poker quest involves a certain level of introspection if we are to progress, and only by making the most of each and every learning opportunity, by putting our egos to one side to better appreciate the big picture, will we get to enjoy the rewards of each new improvement plateau.

To show or not to show

When poker features on films and TV, it’s not unusual to see a hand play out in tense fashion, and the winner finishing proceedings with a flourish by revealing their cards. The point tends to be to unsettle the loser in some way with a view to putting them on tilt, or to give them misleading information that will later be erroneously used in a massive, crucial pot. Or, simply, it’s an ego trip.

However much a scene like this might seem unnecessarily dramatic, voluntarily showing our hand can have its uses. Yet it’s something that rarely happens in online poker. One reason for this is that once we’ve enabled the auto-muck option when we first start playing on this or that site, we want to get on with playing lots of hands, and our impatience and eagerness means we don’t even consider the effect that showing our hands can have.

Another reason is understandably that, in a game where information is key, why on earth would we volunteer to share with the opposition what cards we just played and, in turn, provide a possible insight into our thought process? Why not make it a point never to show, and therefore never to give away information unnecessarily?

Well – poker is not that simple! In fact, it’s precisely because information is such an important part of the game that we DO want to occasionally show our cards.

(Mis)information

During the course of a cash game session or a tournament our opponents try to piece together the puzzle that is how we play (at least they should be). By revealing our cards there will be opportunities to throw players off the scent, the point being that the information we give them can be tailored to suit our needs, not theirs. For example, we might have been successfully bullying – even bluffing – people for a while and, after actually winning with a genuinely strong hand, decide to show. This suggests that we do indeed tend to be betting with strong hands, and it can be enough to ‘reassure’ naturally passive players that they’ve been making good folds all along when in fact we’ve been stealing with trash! Moreover, it also reinforces their faith in folding and encourages them (perhaps when they might have started catching on to our strategy) to continue with their mistaken ‘safety first’ approach. It’s all about (relative) perception.

Mind Games

Note that the example above serves a specific purpose – we’re showing our hand to try to manipulate an opponent into following a narrative that steers the game down a particular path. There’d be no point revealing a big hand if what just happened was typical of how we play – the aim here is to plant misleading information in the opposition’s mind.

Having said that, just as a boxer might change their stance from orthodox to southpaw, we might want to switch styles, in which case a couple of well-timed reveals of the style we’re about to stop adopting might help us get the desired result from the upcoming new approach.

Bluff

Showing a bluff is one of the more common cases of cards being voluntarily revealed for everyone to see. Often it comes down to nothing more than someone finding the temptation to show off a bluff too difficult to resist – the justification is purely egotistical. Of course this is fun, and nicely massages our ego, but we’re discussing here the actual benefits of revealing our cards.

However, such a scenario can absolutely have the desired result of unsettling opponents psychologically. Perhaps the simplest example is if someone has shown they are intent on throwing their weight around, or a tendency to be reckless, susceptible to tilt. In such cases it’s perfectly within the rules – and totally accepted – for us to contribute accordingly. Consequently, opportunities will arise to affect a player’s frame of mind by showing a bluff, which has a good chance of considerably messing with their approach to the point of stifling their play or, conversely, causing them to be reckless. If we can manage to pull off another bluff, then revealing that, too, is likely to elicit very tilty behaviour. Note that this bluff-revealing strategy also introduces the possibility of setting up a player for calling off for their stack when we actually have a monster hand and their patience runs out.

Conclusion

Revealing our cards should be a part of our armoury. Not availing ourselves of the potential advantages afforded us by the implications of such a tactic makes no sense, so we should be on the lookout for appropriate opportunities. Those players with less experience should obviously be careful not to get carried away, and a useful ‘rule’ here is to apply enough consideration to make sure that we show our hand only when there’s a legitimate reason.

Have fun!

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About the Author

AngusD

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.

Latest changes

The last changes of the page “Poker Psychology” was made by AngusD on November 17, 2020