Psychology of Poker
Poker is a game of maths, skill and gambling, but it's also a game of understanding how human beings tick.
The psychology of poker can include knowing when to bluff with the worst hand, how to put someone on tilt, and working out what they're holding just by reading their body language.
Understanding the psychological side of poker is what makes the game so appealing, and handling it is as important to your bankroll as working out the pot odds.
So, how can you quickly get a handle on the psychology side of poker? Here we outline a few key areas for you to study.
1. Handling Tilt
Tilt is a poker term which describes the frustrations when you suffer a bad beat or have been riled by an opponent at your table.
Tilt can affect anyone, especially if you have suffered several bad beats in a row. You start to make poor judgments (even though you know they're poor judgements) and start to gamble more and take reckless decisions.
Handling tilt is a multi-layered process, but it begins with understanding two things: why the tilt is happening and accepting that poker is a game ruled by odds.
Yes, poker is a skill game, but it's also a game governed by the turn of a card. The sooner you accept that the luck of the cards can turn against you, the better you will handle tilt.
2. Spotting Poker Tells
In a live poker setting, everyone gives off psychological clues to their hands, however subtle.
It's your job to spot the markers: it could be the way your opponent sits, the way they look at you (or don't look at you) when they're holding a premium hand, or the way they try to induce a
You can read a list of top poker tells in our dedicated page. Understanding the subtle clues players give off, both live and online, is key to winning more pots.
3. Learning Resilience
If you're a strong player who regularly makes the right decisions, that's what you have to concentrate on to maintain a positive outlook. You have to have the confidence to keep on doing what you're doing as you know in the long run it will pay dividends.
This can be particularly useful online where you have the benefit of hand histories. Go back through hands where you lost big pots but did the right thing, only to be outdone by poor play from an opponent or a bad beat. Record these key hands and keep revisiting them; they will help you improve and remind you that you're on the right path.
4. Mastering the Art of Trash Talk
Some players never shut up at the table. They will constantly tell you what you did wrong, they will force you into folds when you should be calling, and they will rile other players at the table with their insults.
If you find yourself up against someone like this, turn the tables and try some trash talk yourself. This can be in the form of gloating over a big pot, questioning an opponent's strategy during a hand, or trying a verbal bluff as they debate calling you.
While trash talk can be seen as bad etiquette and may result in you getting sour looks from other players at the table, it can seriously throw other players off-balance. Using some careful, friendly, trash talk can be enough to unsettle a player; add it to your psychological arsenal.
5. Bluffing and Image
Assessing a table and finding weak players is key to becoming a long-term winning player yourself.
While it's not wise to become an aggressive player who raises every single pot (unless you're comfortable doing this) it's good to throw in the odd bluff here and there.
Once you've successfully bluffed an opponent, show your cards as you scoop in the pot (or click the 'Show and Muck' button online). This will achieve two aims: annoying your opponent as you've shown you can win with inferior starting hands, and portraying an image that you will raise with any cards.
Conversely, if you've built up an image as a tight player, folding most hands, other players will assume you have a strong hand when you eventually do raise. If that's the case, you can try bluffing with poor hands as your 'image' says you only play with very strong hands.
It's a good idea here to "prove" your tight image by only showing your premium hands like K-K and A-A. This will show the table that you like to re-raise with premium hands and aren't afraid to show them. Learn more in our guide to bluffing in online poker
6. Taking Your Ego Out of the Game
Self-image is important in poker. On the whole, players care about how others perceive them. After all, your skills are on show for everyone to see. You want to come across as this world-dominating Phil Ivey when in reality you're a recreational player who's betting their weekly $30 bankroll.
However much you avoid it, poker is a game full of machismo and it's easy to let your ego into the game. Don't: don't take bad beats too seriously and don't be riled by a player who has beat you up with their outrageous bluff.
If you handle the trash talkers, the bluffers and those opponents who love giving you math lessons after a hand, you'll be a much stronger player.
7. Understanding Metagame
As you become more experienced at poker, you might start to employ 'metagame' into your strategy
Metagame is a strategy that "thinks outside the box" of the usual math and odds side of poker. It is the external facts you know about a set of players or a particular situation.
For example, it could be an in-depth knowledge about the psychology of an opponent or an understanding of what they will do in any given situation. It can be shaped by past hands or whether several players are on tilt, but essentially it's about getting inside your opponents' heads.
Metagame is useful if you've been at a cash game or tournament table for a long time and playing against the same opponent for hours. Over time, the context of a hand against that opponent will be very different had you played the same hand against a player new to the table.
Playing the Long Game
The key for every poker player is to constantly be improving. While it's possible to make long-term profits without ever really becoming a great player, improving your game means you will reduce the chances of variance and therefore decrease the chance of going on tilt.
The most important part of happy poker psychology, however, is enjoying the game. If you love sitting down and playing a session (win or lose) your long-term benefits of the game will be both psychological and financial.
Of course, having a clear objective is key to a happy poker life too. Write down your goals, and be happy achieving them, whether it's making a million dollars, regularly crushing a .02/.04 cash game, or learning a new variant to the best of your abilities.