The Psychology of Online Poker

In my recent discussion of the problems associated with most online poker games, I commented that the biggest hang-up I have with most online poker services is that they fail to mimic the real mechanics at play in poker. I used an analogy to a simulated game of football in Madden: a real NFL coach would never go for it on 4th and 20 (except in very specific situations), but when the game is fake and there’s nothing at stake, why not? Why not go all-in pre-flop on a pair of 8s and hope to just get lucky, it’s not like there’s anything to lose anyway.

Some free games get past this issue in a variety of ways. The best way I’ve seen is to create some actual in-game value that the player does not want to lose. This is accomplished through having the player store up value over time that, later, they would exhibit a lack of willingness to put at risk. For example, in an MMO with permadeath, a player is far less likely to take extreme risks with a character they’ve raised and nurtured for several months than with a player they just started out with. Similarly, a player is far less likely to take stupid gambles with an in-game fortune they’ve built up over a long time than with one they’ve been handed at the beginning of a game. By rewarding players that have demonstrated success over time with higher-stakes tables to increase their fortunes, online poker games can start to mimic the mechanics at work in real live poker games.

But that’s only half the equation. The other half of the equation is the fact that there are numerous signals that players send about the strength of their hands or the meaning behind their bets, and most of these are lost online. Hesitation is a big thing, but online, you don’t know if a player is hesitating because they’re thinking or if they’re hesitating because they’ve gotten up to get a cup of coffee. When a player makes a big bet, there’s no body language to read. Similarly, when you make a big bet, you can’t use your body language to send a message.

That doesn’t mean psychology can’t be used in online poker, however; it just means that the channel of communication is far more narrow. It can still be read, however, as even the littlest moves that players make in online poker can be used to read their hands and intentions. With the rise and rise of online poker, players are having to look out for different ways to spot tells in their opponents and bully players out of pots. There are many online ‘grinders’ playing solid by-the-books poker, often at many tables at once to the point where their play style almost can be described algorithmically. By knowing this and by picking out the patterns in how other players play, it can be possible to turn psychology on opponents even in online games. What’s more, it’s somewhat fascinating to see how psychology can still be leveraged when the channel of communication can be summed up in little more than a collection of bytes.

I’ve chatted with a few friends about this to get their thoughts, and while many online poker players are rather oblivious to this depth, some of my more successful and earnest friends have some interesting feedback. Here are some of the more interesting ideas they gave to using psychology even in a game as narrow and deliberate as online poker.

The Online Slow Play
One good way to use bluffing in your online poker strategy in games is to use the “slow play.” If you have an excellent hand, use up as much time as possible when making a decision to make it look like you’re struggling to know what to do (most online sites have a ‘time bank’ which you can run down like a clock). Other players will see this as a sign of weakness and pounce, but they’ll simply be drawn into your trap.

The Check Box
Whenever you play poker online, you will notice that there are a number of boxes that you can check in the table window to predetermine the play you intend to make before the action reaches you (Check, Fold, Raise to Bet, etc).

It is fairly easy to tell if an opponent has used one of these check boxes because they will instantly check, call or raise as soon as the action is on them. If you notice a player is frequently using these check boxes, you can tell that they have decided their play even before that action gets to them.

Why is this helpful? Well, if a player instantly checks, you can be fairly sure that they are disinterested in the hand. More and more these days, online players are multi-tabling a few games at once, and don’t have time to focus solely on one hand. If they’re ‘auto-checking’ they’re probably not paying attention. And if they’re not paying attention, their hand is probably fairly weak.

Disguising Your Hand
So, we know that the speed of your decisions can give away signs to your opponents online. How do you avoid giving anything away?

One way is to always take a few seconds before making a decision at the table. As long as you have at least a small delay before each decision you make, your opponents will have difficulty picking up timing tells on you. Even if you know well in advance that you’re calling a bet, take a moment to give the illusion that you have a decision to make before you act.

All players – whether they deny it or not – experience tilt at some stage of their playing career.

‘Tilt’ is basically decision-making based on emotion instead of sound poker logic. Players often forget that luck plays a huge part in poker, and if luck isn’t shining on players, and a player suffers one too many ‘bad beats’ it can lead to anger, frustration, and ultimately, bad decisions.

Anger Management And Online Poker
Tilt can manifest itself particularly badly online as many more hands are played, and therefore the swings are much greater. If you’re playing double the number of hands online as you would live, that means double the number of bad beats, but also double the number of times you get lucky against other players.

Not that that matters to losing players. They merely highlight the times they got unlucky, blaming everything from how ‘bad’ they perceive the other players to be to blaming the Random Number Generator governing the shuffling of the cards, to the overall integrity of the poker site itself.

Dealing With Tilt
Recognizing tilt is the very first step in eliminating tilt from your game. By making sure that you leave the tables when you are tilting you can guarantee to save yourself money in the long run.

Jared Tendler is a mind coach and co-author of The Mental Game of Poker and The Mental Game of Poker 2.

“Tilt is one of the most confusing concepts in all of poker and a big reason why it is because it had always been defined too broadly by poker players,” says Jared. “It is important to note that tilt is only a problem because our brain is designed to shut down the higher brain functions that control logical thinking, decision making, planning, organization, etc, when anger (any emotion really) rises too high.”

Losing Is A Part Of Winning
Understanding and handling tilt (a purely psychological affliction) is key to becoming a better poker player, live or online. Recognizing that luck plays a big part of poker – even when you win – is the first thing to do when playing, and coaches like Jared also recommend taking a break from the game altogether if things aren’t going well, or starting to focus on how other things in your life are going, like maintaining a happy home or good health.

Here are Jared’s Top 3 Tips For Handling Tilt:
1. Anger is the most common reason players tilt. When emotions rise too high, higher brain functions shut down. You can’t think clearly when you’re pissed off, because your brain won’t allow it until you’ve calmed down. Taking deep breaths is the quickest and most subtle way to become less angry. Subtlety is important because you want to give away as little information to your opponents as possible. Just a few slow, deep breaths, can go a long way to ease back your anger and get you thinking again. It also works a lot better when start doing it at the first sign you’re beginning to get angry, rather than waiting until you’re raging.

2. Avoid thinking in a way that’s going to only add more fuel to the fire. Instead of saying, “How can I be so dumb,” after making a mistake, instead say to yourself, “Mistakes are bound to happen and I can’t allow myself to make bigger ones. Right now I have to focus on playing well, and afterward I can think more about it.” Or, if you just got sucked out on by a ‘fish’, rather than saying to yourself, “Are you JOKING! How can this possibly happen AGAIN!?!” change your thoughts to something like this: “Fish have to suck out in order for me to make money long term. It has to happen. All I can control right now is how I play, and that’s what I’m going to do.”

3. Realizing that your decline in performance is a direct result of your brain’s natural functioning is crucial to the idea that tilt is not entirely your fault.

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