The Psychology of Poker

Psychological Plays

One of the great poker game players and gamblers of all the time was the late John Crawford. His favorite games were bridge and backgammon, but he was also an expert gin rummy player. The legendary games expert Oswald Jacoby and he use to play gin rummy games against each other quite often. They were similar in skill, but there was no question Crawford had the psychological edge. He would provoke Jacoby, taunt him even smile at his play, until Jacoby sometimes became so angry he could almost not see the cards placed before him.

On the other tracks, Los Angels backgammon pro Gaby Horowitz is renowned for his pat, sometimes reproachful talk during a game, which is estimated to put his rival on a roll. Similarly, seven-card stud poker pro Danny Robinson is famed for his nonstop patter during a hand, which helps to distract and bewilder his rivals.

These are all psychological tricks and there is infinite number of tricks. Some people even consider them. But, some doesn't. Though they have a specific place in poker, they are not what we mean by the psychology of poker. They are just psychological tool that pertains to all games or, for that situation, to all mode of competition. Chess champion Bobby Fischer used them in his prominent match against Soviet master Boris Spassky. Manager like Earl Weaver and Billy Martin use them on the baseball diamond. And the late Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was famous for using them as poker tricks of cold war diplomacy.

The Thought Procedures of Poker

Psychology of poker is nothing but getting into your rivals' minds, scrutinizing how they think, making out what they think you think and even ascertaining what they think you think they think. In other words, the psychology of poker is expansion of reading rivals' hands, and it is also an expansion of using deception in the manner you play your own hand.

A friend of mine came up and said," I made a great play in seven-stud last night at the Castaways." We were just talking about using deception by betting a second-best hand to make a rival think you are stronger than you actually expect he will fold if you improve.

"Low card brought it in, and I called with a pair of kings," my friend continued. "One of the kings was showing. The guy behind me was steaming and almost all in called with an ace showing. He could have anything. Another guy, A.D., the best poker player in the game raised with an ace showing. We all called.

"I chased a 5 on the fourth street. I had a king, 5 showing still a pair of kings. The guy who was steaming has ace, 10 and he bets. May be he was having a small pair. The good player called. Now I was 100 percent sure that the good player had aces because he would never call another ace unless he had ace himself, especially with me sitting behind him with, maybe, two kings. He played with me often and he knows how I play." I said, "So you might have folded with your pair of kings." But, he said." No, I raised!" That would have been very dangerous to that position in poker." I exclaimed. He continued saying," I was sure that A.D. had aces and I knew he knew I knew he had aces. So when I raise, he has to figure that since I know he has aces, I must have made kings up. The guy who was steaming calls and A.D. unwillingly calls. Then I was fortunate. I make an open pair of 5s on fifth street and I bet out. The guy who was steaming goes all-in, but A.D. shakes his heads and folds his two aces because now he is nervous I have made a full house - 5s full of kings. I finished winning the hand with kings and 5 against a pair of 10s. A.D protested that he was the who should have been raising."

My friend was fortunate when he paired the 5s. Moreover, in playing the hand he demonstrated the type of thought procedures that is the key aspect of this chapter. He went three steps ahead what he saw on the board. The first thing he thought of was what his rival might be having. He hesitantly put the steamer on a small pair and with much certainty he put A.D. on a pair of aces. Then he moved one step further. He thought about what A.D. thought he had that is, a pair of kings. Then he moved again one step beyond that. He thought about what A.D. thought he thought A.D. had and he knew A.D. knew that he thought A.D. had two aces. After reaching to this third stage, he decided to raise with a pair of kings to make A.D. think he had kings up. It was also very obvious that A.D. was a good player to think on a second and third stage himself. Without it the play would not make any sense. Since you cannot put a weak player on a hand, you cannot put him on a thought either. A weak player may re-raise with two aces, without considering the possibility that the other player may have kings up.

An advanced poker play can relatively go beyond the third stage. For example, the play came up at the Sahara in Las Vegas in a critical seven-card stud game. The first player had:

And the second player had:

The pair of 6s bet on the end; the A, K raised with aces and kings; and the pair of 6s called with 6s up. In a sense, it may look like as if 6s have made a sucker play in betting that the aces and kings took the opportunity in raising a possible flush or trips and the 6s up made another sucker play in calling the raise. In a standard game, the two pair would surely check on the end and the aces and kings may also check behind him to prevent a check-raise. However, both the players thinking in this game is very much obscure.

The first player with 6¨4 was betting all the way which the other player knew, thus, his rival put him on a four -flush. Therefore, with two small pair, he bet for value on the end because he knew his rival has thought he had a four flush and he figured the rival would call with one pair to blow a bluff. The player with A, K moved a step further. He thought the pair of 6s may be betting two pair for amount because he knew the player with two 6s thought he put him on a four -flush and that hence the first player with two 6s would bet two pair to get a call from one pair. Therefore, the player with A, K raised for amount, thinking his rival may think he was about raising with only one pair. The player with 6s up was expecting that, based on the size of the pot, he made his hand enough of a chance to justify calling the raise. The aces and kings would never have raise the bet on the end if the pair of 6s' first two up-cards had not been the same suit. At the best, he would have had a yelling call because with two small pair the other player would possibly have checked as he couldn't represent a flush draw. However, with those diamonds showing each rival was attempting to outwit the other, and the aces and kings finished by making the best situation. The first player with 6s did not raise, representing a bluff because he knew that at that moment the pot was so big enough that his rival would definitely call with something like aces up.

At the best stage of poker, the dialectic of trying to outwit your rival can sometimes expand to so many stages that you must eventually put psychology altogether and depend on the game theory. The game theory becomes essential when the judgment clearly fails to succeed. On the other hand, in a normal play against good players, you should a least think up to the third stage. The first thing to think about is what your rival has. The second thing to think about is what your rival thinks you have. And last thing to think about is what your rival thinks you think you have. Only when you are playing against weak players, who won't care to think about what you think they have, does it not necessarily pay to go through such thought procedures. Against all others it is vital to successful play poker , especially when deception is a big aspect of the game.