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Psychology and Poker

Updated on June 22, 2010

Psychology and Poker

      There are a lot of physiological effects that an individual will experience when playing poker, as one would experience doing just about anything competitive. Our bodies have a reaction to everything that we do. Blood pumping, heart racing, vessels constricting making our muscles tight, players experience these effects when losing, but they can also experience them at any point. "The sooner that an individual can win or take down a big hand, the better, because then the mental anguish and the other physiological effects will subside" (Launchpoker 2006).

      It is no secret that poker and psychology go hand in hand, and if an individual can adjust to the way that s/he thinks, it can be very helpful in overcoming and even preventing physiological effects. Though poker is very influenced by psychology most of this psychological strategy takes place late in the game, when there is more at stake. This paper will discuss in depth three key aspects of psychological strategies (behaviors, betting and bluffing) to give an individual a greater opportunity of winning not only more hands, but as well huge pots.

      Spotting behaviors in others, and as well as in you, is a huge part of being successful in Texas Hold'em. No one individual has the exact behaviors as another, so awareness is important. When trying to identify other players’ behaviors or patterns, there are things to be aware of. Does an individual seem to be talkative, does the individual fidget a lot, does the individual make a lot of physical gestures etc. These may all be normal or routine behaviors for that individual, but they may be out of the ordinary. Identifying behaviors can help later in determining when to stay in a hand. If a players norm is not to show too much physical motion during a game, and then out of the blue a hand is dealt, and you notice that he is fidgeting a little or even seems a little shaken, the odds are he has been dealt two cards that hold the same value, or has paired the highest of the cards on the board (the board refers to the community cards, face up in the middle of the table) having given him what is likely to be the best hand. In this situation if you have a hand that is mediocre, this is most likely a losing situation and if the betting is high, this is a good time to fold.

      In a similar situation, you have been dealt two queens; the same individual raises the bet before “the flop” (this being the first three community cards dealt), it is only a moderate raise and s/he is not really showing any deviance in behavior. This is a scenario where you most likely have the best starting hand; however, the bet being moderate is representative of a player holding an “ace rag” or two face cards. In a situation like this, the thing to do is to make the call, and see the flop. If no aces or kings are dealt on the flop, the odds are good that you still have the best hand. For sake of argument, the flop reveals a two, a six, and an eight, all mixed in suits. Depending on your preferred style, you may choose to bet into the opponent (you are holding a pair higher than any card on the board); however, to check to the opponent will give you another opportunity to look for behavior, and will likely increase the pot (players that tend to raise pre flop also tend to continue betting throughout the hand, when holding high cards). In this situation you check, and the opponent then again makes a moderate bet this is done mostly because players do not expect to have a raised pre flop, called by low end cards, and expect a player to fold not having more than a mediocre pair. By making this call, and doing so in a slow or reluctant manner can be very deceptive to your opponent. “The turn card” is then dealt revealing yet another two. The board now showing a two, a six, an eight, and another two, the optimal thing to do here is to make a significant bet, and try to make the opponent fold his hand, and a “seasoned” player will. By not making a significant bet here, you are allowing your opponent an opportunity to catch an ace on the “river” (this is the last community card dealt), keeping in mind that you are holding a pair of queens, and an ace could cost you the hand.Knowing how to play this hand is certainly key, however it was the betting behavior of your opponent in this situation, that allows you to get the most out of this hand.

      Now we have gone over the awareness of others, but a player must be aware of his/her self also. It is very good practice to choose between being constantly consistent, whether you choose not to deviate in anything that you do from hand to hand or if you are constantly doing anything at all, this makes it very hard for other players to determine where you stand in any given hand. A player that sits quietly, does not play with the chips or does not look at the cards that are dealt until it is that individuals turn in play, is not giving away any information to the other players at the table. The one who talks all the time, is constantly fidgeting and/or making lots of physical gestures are also a tough read. Both styles can make successful players; it is all up to the individual.

      All of the gestures bring about the term “tell“. A tell is not the gesture itself, but rather the deviance of a certain gesture or lack thereof which you have deemed to be a trait of a particular opponent. A good example of this would be a player that has had little physical movement during a game, that is involved in a hand, and has not been very active. The player having been dealt a good hand and being certain of finally being able to take down a good pot may rearrange his/her self in the chair or maybe even let out a very slight gasp, or sigh of relief, at this point if the betting gets a little high, chance are you want out of this hand before vesting too many chips. “The trick is to hide your “tells” and recognize those of your opponents. This skill in and of itself is valuable enough, but it will also lead you into other skills that will help you win at any level” (Dietrich, 2006).

      An individual can as well use a “false tell” at times to lead the opponents to believe that the individual has not made a hand, when in fact he/she has a great hand or even possibly the best hand possible. The strategy here is to put the individuals opponents in a position where they believe that s/he is beat, that the individual did not make his/her hand or even sometimes making them try to bluff and steal the pot, committing a lot of chips. A good example of this would be a individual has been dealt a pocket pair ( pocket pair refers to the face down cards an individual is dealt) of jacks and the flop reveals an ace, a jack, and a nine, all mixed in suits. At this point in the hand having three of a kind (three jacks) is most like the best hand. By checking the bet here or making a call slowly, almost reluctantly, will lead the opponent/s to believe that the individual is only on a draw, forcing the opponent to bet high to protect his/her ace on the next round of betting. The board has come out and reveals an ace, a jack, a nine, a six, and finally a two. At this point, the opponent/s have been betting to protect any aces and have been led to believe that the individual holding the jacks has been doing nothing more than drawing, trying to make a hand. The pot has grown considerably and any player holding an ace is more than likely committed to them, especially if one or more players, have caught two pair. This is the perfect time to make a significant bet, it will be unexpected and will still be called more times than not, by anyone holding an ace. It will most likely be re-raised by a player with two pair and this is always a good time to push all your chips in, the only hand that can beat the individual now is if a player is holding pocket aces. Win or lose, it is a very solid strategy, and it will win more often than not.

      Another good example of a false tell is when a individual is dealt a high pocket pair, such as aces or kings. The individual makes a significant pre-flop raise. Doing this is to make most of the players fold, leaving only one or two that may call the bet. If the individual has the opportunity to bet first after the flop rather than his/her opponent/s, and the flop shows all lower cards than the pocket pair, a very small bet will lead a lot of players to believe that the individual did not catch anything to make a hand, thus enticing them to bet big on a pair they might have, or in some instances even try to go all in on a bluff with no hand at all, not realizing it was a set up all along. It is the big bet pre-flop followed by the small bet that will set this all up, and in most situations will result in winning a big pot, quickly and painlessly.

      Awareness in mind, and having touched on betting, brings together another very important aspect of poker. “Position betting” is not just the act of betting itself, an individual must be aware of his/her position after the dealer. Not every poker game is the deal passed around the table. In most tournament play there really is only one dealer, however there is a button or token(representing the dealer) moved around the table to actually mark the spot of where the deal will start. Betting goes around the table clockwise, starting to the dealers left, or to the left of the button representing the dealer. The first three positions (players) to the left of the dealer, at a nine player table are referred to as early positions, the fourth through sixth positions are middle, and seventh through ninth are late positions. An individual aware of his/her position and of the other player’s behaviors, their betting habits at the table, and how many that are “short stack” (short stack meaning, an individual is short on chips or money), all come into play when betting. An individual in an early position should not enter betting too strong if there are a few short stacks following his/her bet unless the individual is relatively sure that player is going to respect the bet and not just make a desperation call. Players that are low on chips tend to look for the best opportunity to double or triple up, they will play all in on any two cards if the pot will bring a significant return, this is called “pot odds”. If the individual in first or second position bets big on an ace and a king, and there is one or two short stacks following him/her, that individual risks getting called by one or both short stacks, lessening the odds of winning a hand, but also putting a player back in the game with a big pot. The same scenario in late position, if no one has raised the bet, the individual will have the opportunity to see if the short stacks fold before placing a big bet on his/her pocket cards. If the short stacks are out of the hand the individual can bet the cars appropriately, in turn pushing out of the hand players that are just limping in with mediocre cards and being called by a hand that has some strength as well, leveling the odds. However, if the bet is strong, it may very well force all of the remaining players to fold, thus the individual takes all of the blinds (blinds are the minimum antes put into the pot to play).

      Having the knowledge of awareness and learning players behaviors, tells, betting techniques, and the individual being aware of his/her own traits, not only will make for a strong poker player, but having all of this knowledge will help the individual develop one more important aspect of the game. There is nothing easy about bluffing successfully, even if an individual gets away with a bluff (betting with a weak or no hand), and makes everyone fold, this does not mean that other players weren’t aware of the play, it only means that their hands were weak, they weighed the risk with the reward and opted to play it safe. To pull off a successful bluff is almost impossible if there is more than one or two other players in the hand. “The worst thing that can happen when you start trying to throw people off your scent is to get caught bluffing. Don’t get caught and don’t get beat. If you see this coming, fold. Don’t show the cards” (Dietrich, 2006). The more an individual wins hands straight up the better. Winning with solid hands tend to make other players think twice before calling huge bets, more times than not they fold unless they are sure that they have the best hand, or they suspect the individual has deviated in his/her own behavior.

      There are millions of people that play poker all around the world, and since no two individuals are the same, there are millions of different strategies, truly they are very similar, but it is how they are integrated that not only makes them different, but can also make a individual a very successful player. An individual who learns to watch for certain behaviors and is aware of his/her own behaviors, learns different techniques of betting, knowing when to bet and how much, wins hands straight up, and practices an occasional bluff can be a very dangerous player, and a very successful one. There really are no absolutes in poker, no perfection, and although there are too many styles of play to count, it is integrating key psychological strategies like these that will start to bring about consistency in any individuals game, bringing them more wins, and much bigger pots.


Works Cited:

Dietrich, R. (2006, September 05). Poker Psychology. Retrieved March 26, 2010, from LaunchPoker:

Launchpoker. (2006, November 09). The Psychology of Losing Poker . Retrieved March 29, 2010, from Launchpoker:


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    • davidlaw2 profile image


      6 years ago

      I have been playing in casinos for 28 years. I have made a profit every month except two for the entire 28 years. The only psychology I use is letting people know that I only play hands that have the best odds of winning against the number of players in the pot. I want the good players to muck if they don't have a good hand and the, "get lucky," players to call me down.

    • billyaustindillon profile image


      8 years ago

      I have bookmarked this site on psychology and poker. It is an excellent poker tool but also an excellent description of using psychology elsewhere in trading and deals. I am not a big poker player so this will help for those whip around games with your mates. :)


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