Fifty Things to Say - Who Knew?

Humberto Brenes

This is my 50th contribution to PokerListings.

When I started writing articles I didn't know if I had 50 interesting things to say. You may feel that I didn't and that's OK, I guess.

But I'm still having fun, and, as I have counseled many times over this past year, that really should be the goal of all of us who play this game.

I've been having fun largely because I've been given the freedom to go down some roads that haven't been traveled much, if at all.

Let's face it, not many academically oriented psychologists play poker seriously, and not many serious poker players really know much about the hard-nosed scientific foundations of the field. In today's fractured vernacular I guess that makes me "very unique."

Psychologists like to carve the mind up into domains. The main divisions are ...

  • cognition, which includes thinking, analyzing, deliberating, decision making - most of it conscious, although there are unconscious, intuitive aspects as well
  • emotion and motivation, where feelings, hopes and desires and their impact on thinking are examined
  • social psychology, where the role of other individuals impacts your emotional state and your thinking
  • neuropsychology, where the roles of specific brain areas and neural structures are explored

What I've been trying to do in these weekly essays is to take some aspect of this wildly complex science, pull it out of the laboratory, brush away some of the complications and see how it pertains to poker. Let me explain why I've taken this approach.

First, it's a truism that inside every good poker player there lives a small psychologist. On occasion, one of these tiny Dr. Freuds jumps out and makes an effort to impart what he knows.

A good example of this approach appeared recently in the form of a book and a series of lectures by longtime player and tournament veteran Charlie Shoten.

Shoten has come to the conclusion, correctly, that one reason why a lot of poker players don't play nearly as well as they might is because they are stressed out. They are overwhelmed by stress in life, at work, with their families and at the poker tables.

Shoten's "psychological" approach is to provide ways in which you can reduce stress and thereby (hopefully) improve your poker game and, as a side benefit, the rest of your life.

Layne Flack
If Arthur Reber had a self-help formula, here's one player who could use it.

There isn't anything wrong with this approach, other than the fact that it probably doesn't work quite the way Mr. Shoten thinks, but that's not really my point here.

Even if I had a "self-help" formula, I wouldn't present it in the way that Shoten has. The reason is that before I could put pen to paper (or fingers on the keyboard) the scientist in me would be hollering that, first, I need answers to some questions:

(a) Do these self-help programs really work?

(b) If they do, why?

(c) If they don't, why do people think they do?

Now, if I can get answers to these questions I can give poker players some serious advice.

Second, I try to do "applied" science. If I can find a basic psychological principle that looks like it can be applied to poker and improve how we play, I try to explain it.

So far I've been able to identify quite a few of these, from how rewards work ("Partial Reinforcement" parts one and two), to the role of intuition in making the right decisions in a hand ("Intuition: Can Your Subconscious Help Your Game?" and "Listen to the Quiet Voice: More on Intuition"),  to the role of memory ("Memory") and the impact of fear ("Monsters Under the Bed").

Jean-Robert Bellande
The definition of living like a millionaire: going broke before you go home.

Third, I've tried to find psychological explanations for dynamics that others have identified. This led to a rethinking of some pretty basic things like why players who've been having a rough session almost always go broke before they go home ("Beyond Pain" and "Beyond Being Beyond-Pain"), why it's so hard to quit a game ("The Last Word on Quitting") and why bots can play Limit poker but not No-Limit ("Bot This" one and two).

Fourth, I've tried to use what we know about psychological well-being and satisfaction to guide advice about poker. This approach has led me to conclude that it is better to have fun and enjoy the game than to make being a "winning" player the total focus ("A Little Riff on Zen" and "Good Players vs. Winning Players"). There's some deep psychology in here and, interestingly, a few readers didn't like what I had to say.

Fifth, I've made it a goal to encourage players to think in long timeframes, to view the game in the context of the rest of their lives and their goals. I find it lamentable, and psychologically unwise, to focus on immediate outcomes. It tends to distort reality and it messes up your thinking ("The Gambler's Fallacy").

If you take the long view, you won't think you're a better player than you actually are when you win, and you won't think you're worse when you lose ("Regression to the Mean"). It's a basic principle that without a sufficient data base, all conclusions must be treated as tentative.

Sixth, when appropriate I've done quantitative analyses, calculated expected value, worked out the odds and probabilities and looked toward statistical factors.

William Chen
Bill Chen: killing the quantitative analysis aspect of poker.

We've been able, using this approach, to get some novel insights into things like hot streaks ("Hot Hands") and rushes ("The Truth About Playing 'Rushes'"), and the role of randomness and why it is so often misunderstood ("On Randomness").

Seventh, I've tried to balance objectivity with subjectivity, quantitative analysis with intuition. Poker is a ridiculously complicated game, and there is no one best way to play it ("There Is (Probably) No 'Best' Way to Play Poker").

It's important to see that some approaches emphasize the quantitative factors, and they can work. It's equally important to appreciate that other poker aficionados play with little knowledge or even recognition of these mathematical elements and, you know, a lot of them do fine. Balance is the key, and I've tried not to fall too unfairly on one side or the other ("Poker Advice").

Finally, my real message is have fun. Really, isn't this what it's all about? For me this has meant balancing the serious scientist with the degenerate gambler, blending my love of knowledge with my affection for the soft underbelly of life, and feeling comfortable with the Nobel Prize winners and bracelet winners who are my friends.

Now, on to the next 50.

Author Bio:

Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and coauthor of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.

Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semiretired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

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