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[Culture] The Psychology of Poker by Dr Paul Seager

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Dr. Paul Seager

Played at its finest, poker is an art form replete with subtle nuances. To be good you have to understand them, to be great you need to master them.

The intricacies of a good poker strategy are based on knowing your opponent, anticipating how they will react to your actions, and understanding how to outwit them.

A good poker strategist will know that the best way to defeat your opponent is to try and unbalance them. This is done by implementing the concept of deception – making your opponent think one thing when you actually do another.

Deception is characterised in poker by various different aspects. A player might conceal their thoughts and emotions at the table, change their playing style from passive to aggressive or from loose to tight when necessary, or by continuously varying their betting pattern. All of these actions have the same purpose and that is to unbalance an opponent.

This article will help you try and identify when your opponent is trying to make use of deceptive manoeuvres and how you can take advantage of their weaknesses’.
behavior

Baseline behavior

If you want to be successful in poker you not only need to understand your own strategy but you need to be aware of your opponents’.

Dr Paul Seager, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire and expert in the concept of deception, says: “It is important to remember that in poker you are not only playing the cards that are dealt but your opponent too-”. Concentrating purely on the cards will only take you so far in the sport, even if you are playing mathematically correct poker.

In poker this approach is commonly known as playing the Meta game (the game within the game). If you are able to dominate in the Meta game by predicting or unsettling your opponent’s strategy, you will always hold an advantage over them.

Identifying whether or not your opponent is telling the truth or lying can be extremely difficult, however Dr Seager believes that “observing an opponent’s behavior away from the table can have a telling effect when you begin to play.”

“When you are studying your opponent’s behavior you are attempting to interpret a psychological principle known as the ‘honest baseline’. This will give you vital information about your opponent that you will be able to use later.”

Observe your opponents natural behavior and ask yourself how are they conducting themselves; can you tell anything about their temperament or their demeanour.  Are they an extrovert who is loud, verbose and animated or are they an introvert who is shy, quiet and reserved?

Baseline behavior
“Comparing an opponent’s behavior away from the table, their ‘honest baseline’, with the way they present themselves in game can be very enlightening. If you have observed your opponent being very talkative and animated before the game and then all of a sudden when the cards are dealt and they are quiet, you can quickly draw upon what you have previously learnt. This in turn will alert your suspicions and allow you to assume that your opponent is holding a monster hand.” Dr Seager says.

To learn how to master this technique, begin by choosing one player to concentrate on, for example if you are at the cut off analyze the behavior of the person on the small blind. This way you can directly analyze how your opponent reacts to the way you are playing. 

Dr Seager tells us that exposing the way our opponents react to certain situations is the best means of picking up on their personality traits.

Ask yourself how your opponent reacts when they raise, fold, or call. Did they do something that was not in keeping with what you observed earlier? Can you identify any particular mannerisms or unique idiosyncratic movements that become apparent when they preform specific actions?

These mannerism or idiosyncrasies are subconscious behaviors that are more commonly known in poker as a ‘tell’. Being able to detect a tell is advantageous but a poker player should always be wary when interpreting generic tells that are well known within the poker community.

Dr Seager states that “what you think may be an abnormality in your opposition’s behavior can often in fact be misleading. There are many misconceptions regarding body language and this can often lead to a contradictory thought process. For example, if you see that an opponent is attempting to avoid eye contact with anyone at the table they could be perceived as having a good hand, on the other hand if your opponent is attempting to maintain eye contact some players would misconstrue that for the same thing – a good hand.”

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“It is more important to observe an individual’s unique personal traits and mannerisms rather than trying to apply collective knowledge. analyze what their specific personalities are like away from the table and this will act as a better indicator of the deceptive techniques they are trying to implement.” Dr Seager advises us.

The more you play the easier it becomes to pick up on different personality types at the tables. Always remember that a great poker player will change up their approach at the table so identifying baseline behaviors can be especially effective in these situations. When you feel comfortable with the knowledge you have collected on one opponent you can expand your perception of the table and try to analyze the behaviors of more players.

“The ‘honest baseline’ can be a reliable method for detecting deception. However, to be able to utilise this psychological method effectively you need to be extremely observant.” The more hands you play the more you will learn about player behavior.

Online Poker

Detecting dishonest behavior in online poker can be much more difficult because you are unable to physically see your opponents and so are therefore unable to gauge their emotions or mannerisms.

The best way of understanding deceptive online behavior is to learn how to effectively unbalance your opponent, this way you will be able to both implement it and identify it.

Dr Seager advises us that “A great way of unbalancing your opponent in online poker is by varying your approach and sending out inconsistent messages.

“This can be done by consistently varying the size of your raises. This unbalances your opponent because they will not be able to interpret your betting pattern, reducing the chance of them exploiting a perceivable weakness.”

Dr Seager advises a wary approach when conducting this method because “humans can find it difficult to be truly random. Subconsciously there will also be a pattern to your actions. To avoid this trap, generate a random sequence of raises in advance of playing, or rely on something else to generate the size of the raise for you.”

Another great way of unbalancing your opponent in online poker is by utilizing the chat box. “There is a psychological principle that states if you are overly friendly to someone it will make them perceive you as friend rather than competitor and they will therefore be less inclined to do bad things to you. In online poker you can play this to your advantage because players will not associate you as a threat and underestimate your hand.”

“This principle can also be said to work in the opposite way. Act obnoxiously, insult your opponents or boast about your winnings and it will put you at risk of angering your opponents. This is something that could be detrimental and put you in a difficult situation. It could conversely put your opponents on tilt and make them enter into a showdown when their emotions are running high.”

By understanding these online behaviors you will be able to not only implement them yourself but prepare you for when they are used against you.  If you sense your opponent is using one of these techniques you will know they are not to be trusted.

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