In its raw form, psychology refers to the scientific study of the mind and behavior. It is an all-encompassing discipline which gives tremendous import to our cognitive abilities. The basis of all psychology is intensive study. Poker psychology covers the multi-faceted components of the game and the behaviour of players, subtle and overt, and the many interactions between different elements. 

Those with profound abilities in poker routinely attest to the psychological aspects of the game. While millions of people around the world thoroughly enjoy the engaging gameplay offered by poker, only a select few have truly mastered the game and entered the illustrious Poker Hall of Fame. This begs the question: Is there more to poker than meets the eye?

The mental game of poker is often discussed in great detail, and with gusto by the poker greats. What is it about the mind game of poker that makes it utterly indispensable to successful players? True to form, an understanding of numbers is essential in this game. It's all about calculating odds and probabilities with laser-sharp focus, while assessing the proverbial ‘ground game’ at the table. 

Many players pay homage to the art of deception a.k.a. the poker bluff with regards to poker psychology. However, in the poker psychology realm that is merely a soundbite; a much smaller component of a much broader field of study. Every player understands that an effective poker player has the ability to outsmart the others and steal the blinds, bully other players at the table, and potentially scoop up the pot.

Poker psychology has been studied and written about ad nauseam. It is a field that has fascinated psychologists, coaches, and players for eons. There is something magnificent about going head-to-head against great poker talent and emerging victorious. Some players rely on good fortune to get them through SNGs and MTTs. One day you're up, the next day you're down. 

The difference with great poker players is their relative immunity to the whipsaw behavior of happenstance. The quintessential poker rollercoaster syndrome is something that too many up-and-coming poker stars know too much about. The game is peppered with variance – that’s the correct term used to describe the uncertainty of the game. It details the differences between long-term expected outcomes versus short-term results. 

Sometimes players will refer to a ‘Bad Beat’ or ‘Running Bad’ when in essence it's just poker variance playing out before your eyes. Many people tend to focus more on bad luck than good luck, to their detriment. Only over the long term can a poker player truly appreciate the importance of variance as it pertains to win/loss ratios. With the right mindset, you can implement the most effective poker tactics and strategies to ensure your long-term success.

Creating a winning mindset in poker

Professional poker players know that there's a whole lot more to winning than experience, dedication, or mathematical abilities alone. Poker psychology encompasses all of these disciplines and more. Skilled poker players understand the importance of synergy in poker; individual components working together for the greater good. The mental game is sacrosanct. It's true in sport, in business, and in academia. 

With the right mindset, it's entirely feasible to expect a mediocre player to become an above-average player. Training the mind to understand the intricacies of the game is perhaps the greatest skill one can learn in poker. Many of the world's foremost experts detail the importance of envisioning goal achievement at the initiation of your learning process.

By working towards a preconceived notion and fostering a mindset of success, it is much easier to achieve objectives. A ‘can-do’ attitude already places you at an advantage over other players who are simply going through the motions at the table.

By planting a seed, you are allowing your mind to cultivate the notion that success is possible. Next, read up as much as possible on poker strategy. A game that has rules is a game that can be learned and mastered. Poker fits that description to a T. The rules don't always detail all aspects of the game however. more about poker rules >>

Poker psychology deals with that aspect of the game involving interactions between players at the table. It's vital to understand what motivates other players, and why they bet the way they do. The in-game mechanics of the cards are fairly easy to understand, but it's the mental game of poker – your own mindset and that of other players – that separates the experts from the rest. 

You don't know yourself until you are pushed into a situation where you risk losing everything on a call, or a bluff. When push comes to shove, will you be prepared to go all in? Fight or flight – what's it going to be? Fortunately, you don't need to sit on tenterhooks.

By learning the art of poker psychology, you can learn to see that which is invisible. You can learn to read that which is illegible. You can learn to feel that which is not tactile. Think of poker psychology as a ‘sixth sense’ which allows you to make the quantum leap from simply being present to being omnipresent.

Reading the unseen cards

The naysayers will pounce all over this one, but the poker pros will smile inwardly. Would you believe that with the requisite skill and experience, you can learn to see your opponents’ hole cards? Poker psychology teaches us to focus on the most intimate aspects of human behavior.

We are studying a multitude of interrelated components, including pocket cards, community cards, betting behavior, interpersonal behavior, risk versus reward, facial expressions and body language, presence and absence, focus and lack thereof, and multiple other elements. 

An expert poker psychologist has the capacity to process a seemingly infinite volume of complex data and make snap decisions. At the risk of stating the obvious, this very psychology must also be turned inward to evaluate personal motivations, fears, anxieties, aspirations, and information.

As players, we run the risk of believing our own half-truths, thinking that a specific play is the best decision for the given situation. Only experience, wisdom, and careful evaluation and implementation of poker strategy can teach us otherwise. Over the long haul, poker players learn to adapt their game, temper their emotions, and accurately assess the atmosphere at the poker table.

Poker psychology tips

Throughout this journey towards self-discovery and enlightenment, we will invariably become acquainted with many difficult situations in the game. One of them is known as ‘tilt’. This refers to a human tendency to act erratically with respect to betting behavior and decision-making processes.

If our emotions and poker acumen are balanced, there is no tilt either way. The betting behavior can be deemed rational and normal, albeit with calculated risk-taking thrown in for good measure. When a player is on tilt, their decisions are poor and the outcomes are negative. Misfortune is often misattributed to losing hands while in fact many of the plays that occur are the result of poor strategy. Many a skilled poker player has transformed a seemingly lackluster hand into a winning hand through calculated play. 

How is this possible you may be asking? It's not a clear-cut answer. Confidence is one thing, the ability is another. One cannot discount the impact of skill, nor can one write off the importance of good fortune in the game of poker. Just like the perfect storm, all the right elements need to coalesce to create the ideal fusion for success.

There is a lot of bravado at the highest levels of poker, with big-name characters competing for monster-sized paydays. Championship poker events like the WPT, WSOP, Aussie Millions, and the ANZPT are but a few of the mega-money championships. Once you are seated at the Main Event of one of these tournaments, you are virtually assured of a life-changing payday so it's only natural to expect a testosterone-fuelled contest of epic proportions.

Battling the confidence delusion

It's a conundrum of sorts. You can't win a contest if you don't believe you can win a contest. Yet how do you balance self-confidence and prevent it from being perverted into arrogance or egomania? The best poker players understand that greatness is always one step ahead of them. Learning and understanding are ongoing disciplines. Much like perfection, perfect knowledge is always just out of reach. 

Yet, it's precisely this pursuit that drives the best poker players towards greatness, aspiring ever closer with each and every hand. Once we recognize our inherent weaknesses, strengths, and abilities, we can focus our energies on fortifying our mindset in pursuit of victory. Sure, defeat is painful. It dissuades many people from pursuing their true passion. But were it not for defeat we would not be able to savor victory, nor would we know the difference.

The game of poker requires players to outwit one another at every possible juncture. It's a war of attrition that whittles away the competition until just two players remain in a showdown. Getting to that point is easier said than done. As human beings, we are prone to all sorts of problematic behaviors. Sometimes we get a rush of blood to the head and we simply have to shove all-in against the competition to try and muscle them out of the game. 

Sometimes we act in anger, or out of fear. Many a capable poker player has been left hopelessly wanting even while holding the best possible hand at the table. Why is this? It's a testament to many interrelated elements working against one another creating a confusing morass of information that a poker player is unable to decipher at that precise moment in time. 

There has to be perfect harmony between our thought processes and our actions. We need to understand as best we can what the cards are telling us based on how the players who are holding them are behaving. If it sounds complicated, it is.

Poker psychology cannot be learned from a cursory reading of this article or another article. It's not even something you can grasp from reading a book written by an expert – you have to play the game and feel the pressure, understand the rules, and truly know yourself.

Quit before you lose

It seems silly to suggest that you should quit if you feel that you are a little unsteady, but that's precisely the right decision you should take. Think of all the superstars in the sports world who have suffered career-crippling setbacks and made tremendous comebacks in the process? Tiger Woods is one example, Serena Williams is another. Poker greats like Doyle Brunson, Daniel Negreanu, Phil Ivey, Eric Seidel, Phil Hellmuth, John Juanda, and Bryn Kenney have amassed a fortune over the years (the operative word being years) because true poker greatness is measured over the long-term. 

There is a reason these folks have retained the mantle as poker legends – they've put in the time, they've learned from their mistakes, and they understand the value of poker psychology. They have the mental acuity that is needed to forge ahead when the chips are down. They understand that you've got to fold more than you've got to hold. To sum up the requirements of mental toughness, one would have to pay tribute to the following elements:

•    Calm under fire
•    Emotionally balanced
•    Motivation to succeed
•    Responsible and focused

By now you understand that mental sharpness is about a lot more than having the right attitude and the right emotional mindset. It's about being present in the moment in the game. It's about understanding the inner mechanics of your mind and the minds of other players at the table.

It's about playing your A-game and bringing it every time. Success and poker psychology are inextricably intertwined. At times you will be required to change your style of play from loose aggressive to tight passive, from loose passive to tight aggressive, or any combination thereof. 

Be brutally honest with yourself and your abilities throughout your poker playing sessions. Ask yourself why you're playing poker. Is it for the thrill of the game, or is it to crush your opponents and emerge victorious? The way you play oftentimes reflects your motivations for playing.

Reckless and childish calls indicate that winning is less important to you than acting emotionally. You owe it to yourself to inculcate your mind with all the information that is needed to make informed decisions. But beyond the academia, the number-crunching, and the expert advice of other players, you need to really know what's going on.

Poker face psychology

Shakespeare’s Macbeth said it best when he wrote, ‘There is no art to find the mind's construction in the face’ and this is apropos in high-stakes poker contests too.  Your opponents are likely doing exactly what you are doing at the table. They are scrutinizing your every move.

They are watching your facial expressions. Your table image must project what you want them to think, not what's really going on. Even if you are uncertain about your next move, maintain a stoic presence at the table. 

When you're confident, appear nonplussed. When you are ready to pounce, don't let them see it coming. Poker maniacs – players who bet excessively – tend to put a lot of players under pressure. This is typical of younger players who don't understand the intricacies of the game. They will play aggressively and they will try to dominate proceedings, even though their understanding of poker is limited. 

Never underestimate a maniac, but don't fall victim to their emotionally-based play. Remember, rather fold and live to play another round than shove all-in and lose your stack. There is no shame in sitting out multiple rounds as you wait for the dust to settle around you. Aggressive players burn red-hot for a short time and then like a supernova they are no more. 

If poker is likened to a race between the hare and the tortoise, be slow and steady when you need to be and switch roles when circumstances dictate. At times you will need to master the art of deception with the highly-vaunted bluff, but do so sparingly to maintain its poignancy and effectiveness. With that said, you are now ready to tackle an entirely new dimension in your poker game. Your mind is now receptive to the X-factor in poker!

About the Author

With digital marketing strategies in his blood, Louis Wheeler has traveled around the world, exploring gambling cultures and gaining experience in casino games from 2003. If you are in a casino anywhere around the planet, you may find him right next to you, playing blackjack, roulette or texas hold'em. 

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