Playing poker, or at least playing poker successfully, requires players to understand and at least try and master the three basic cornerstones on which the game is built. Those are: the rules; different strategies and how and when to employ them; and finally, the psychology of the game. All three are equally as important, but though players of all abilities know the rules like the backs of their hands, and spend hours poring over and perfecting strategies, more often than not, they give psychology only a cursory glance at best.


This is down to either not appreciating how important a part psychology plays in the game, or not understanding what it actually is. Many players think they are good at “working people out” in the office, so can transfer that ability to the poker table. Psychology however, especially when it comes to poker, is a lot deeper than that, and if you want to take your game to the next level – or three – ignore it at your peril.


The importance of the link between poker and psychology is demonstrated by the fact that it isn’t just poker players who study it, but doctors and professors of the science too, who look at it from an academic perspective to further their understanding of the way the mind works. When it comes to poker psychology it is usually split into two – understanding your opponents’ mind, and understanding your own. There is also a third type, one that is often ignored completely, and that is where we will start.


The Psychology of your Surroundings


There are many many things that influence our state of mind at any point in time. One of those is our environment. Everything from the chair you are sat in, the view you have, the temperature, smell and ambience of the room can have subtle but demonstrable effects on your ability to operate in a rational manner. Much of the time, these will all be to a certain extent out of your control - for example when you go to a casino. There will be times however when they are very much under your control, like when you host your own poker night. At these times, you are obviously not just in charge of your own environment, but also that of your opponents. Those little advantages that can be gained could very well be the difference between an unsuccessful and a successful night.


Understanding your Opponents


To give yourself a chance of being able to predict what cards your opponents are holding, whether they are bluffing, and how they are likely to react to your own strategy, you need to know what type of player they are. As a rough and crude start, all people - and players, can be labelled as either aggressive or passive. Aggressive people tend to be forceful, loud, attention seekers. This is borne out in the way they act, dress – and play poker. They will try to bully and intimidate other players. Passive people/players on the other hand will go out of their way to avoid conflict.


Added to that are two further characteristics: tight and loose. Tight players will act deliberately and conservatively. Their chips will be stacked immaculately, they will rarely engage in the table banter. The other end of the spectrum is the loose player. These are more impulsive and impatient. They will be talkative, not always attentive on the game in hand, and untidy with their chips.


Putting those personality types together will give you the four basic poker players:


- Tight-passive

- Loose-passive

- Tight-aggressive

- Loose-aggressive


Of course, humans tend not to be that easy to pigeonhole. Think of each label as a sliding scale running from 0 to 10. By learning the tell-tale signs for each type of player and the playing characteristics of each of those kinds of players, you are a long way to understanding the psychology of poker.


Understanding Yourself


As important as it is to understand your opponents, it is equally essential that you understand your own mind. Playing poker at any level brings out, or at least exaggerates, several aspects of your personality that are normally hidden from view. We react differently when there is competition, when there is pride, ego – and money involved. Understanding those emotions, and being able to deal with them is vital to becoming a good player. A phenomenon that you will always hear people talk about when discussing poker psychology is tilt. Knowing what it is, and how to overcome tilt are the first steps to doing this.


Tilt is simply when a player – normally a rational, decent poker player – starts to play well below their usual levels because they have become emotionally involved in the game. Instead of using their tried-and-tested strategies, they are guided by anger, revenge – a whole host of negative and destructive emotions that always result in the same thing – defeat.


To tackle tilt in your own game and make-up, you need to discover what your personal triggers are, what symptoms you suffer from during tilt and how you can deal with it. The answer to the last one of these is often to just to walk away from the table for a little while to get your mind back on a regular footing.


You will never fully understand poker psychology, simply because we will never fully understand the human mind and how it works, but we can all go some way to learning a lot more about it. The good thing about that is that it is also the most fascinating and intriguing part of the game itself, and once you’ve scratched the surface you won’t want to stop.