Aggression, Testosterone and Confidence

Mike Caro

One of my touchstones for poker wisdom is Mike Caro. Over the years he's said so many wise and wonderful things.

My favorite is this beaut, tossed off some years ago: "Aggression is rarely wrong in poker. And when it is, it isn't wrong by much."

This line goes right to the core of the game and, not surprisingly, has received a lot of analysis. In terms of standard poker strategy the gloss is straightforward.

Aggression works because it can win "immediate" money two ways: (a) you force an opponent to fold a better hand or one that might improve to beat you; (b) you win more when you're best and get called.

Checking and calling only win when you're best and don't affect pot size. But there are other reasons why Caro is right, ones that involve "future" money, money that will be won in hands to be played later down the road.

The elements that underlie this implied revenue are primarily psychological and are best seen not as specific strategic moves in particular hands, but as factors that are part of what Dan Harrington calls the "metagame" - those elements that characterize the game as played over extended periods of time and among a host of different players.

The Connection Between Testosterone and Aggressive Play

The concept of a metagame is important and was discussed at length in an earlier PokerListings column.

The role that aggression plays in the metagame has a lot to do with the hormone testosterone, its impact on our physical and mental selves, the role it plays in self-confidence and the importance of experience. With your indulgence, I need to shift into professor mode for a short lecture.

Testosterone is an anabolic steroid derived, as are other steroids, from cholesterol (and you thought that stuff just clogged your arteries). It is produced primarily in the testes in men and, in much smaller quantities, by women in the ovaries.

It has a host of effects on the body including increasing muscle mass, enlarging body parts, stimulating sexual arousal and increasing bone density. It also affects cognitive functions, contributes to mental alertness and, under certain conditions, increases aggression.

Many have assumed that there is a direct relationship between testosterone levels and aggressive play in poker.

There may be; in fact, there probably is, although I don't know of any controlled scientific studies.

But if a relationship does exist, it is likely complex because we know that hormone levels interact with a host of other factors, one being learning. Here's a classic study done several years ago - and, yes, it holds a message for poker players.

Science Comes to the Rescue

Scientists selected a young monkey, one low on the dominance hierarchy and with relatively low testosterone levels; let's call him Max. This poor sod was routinely beaten on by his more aggressive troop mates.

But science came to the rescue. The researchers rigged his next encounter by drugging the monkey just above him in the troop's pecking order. Max won his first fight and replaced the other monkey in the chain of command.

The research team, however, was just getting started. Through a succession of fixed fights (the way some boxers get their shot at a title) they engineered a climb up the monkey version of the corporate ladder.

Max prospered. As he climbed, his testosterone levels went up. He gained weight and strength and behaviorally he seemed to show more swagger and confidence. Monkeys who once intimidated him were now cowed.

The message was clear. Testosterone levels are not fixed by biology. They are malleable and can be shifted about by experience.

So, back to poker. Everyone knows you win when you play better, but it's also true that you play better when you're winning. You take down a couple of pots; hormone levels take a tick upward.

You start building a stack; your confidence rises. You felt a couple of opponents; your modal level of aggression moves upward. You feel strong, assured, and importantly, your opponents sense it too.

If you come to the table with a good sense of self, a feeling of self-affirmation and a (realistic) belief in your abilities, you have a leg up on your opponents.

Self-confidence breeds aggressive action which wins that "immediate" money but, more importantly, like Max's case, it changes critical features of the metagame. Your sense of confidence is reinforced, your self-image is promoted and these emotions feed into your alpha male stance.

On the flip side of the coin, if you let a bunch of losses get to you, you're in danger of sliding down the dominance hierarchy at the table. The Maxes at the table, who are moving upward, will see what a wuss you are and beat on you mercilessly.

The Downside

Indeed, a series of bad beats is, from a psychological perspective, a lot like being on the wrong end of a bunch of rigged fights.

Of course, this link with testosterone hasn't gone unnoticed. Several companies are touting products for poker players that they claim are testosterone boosters.

Gamma Labs, manufacturer of a compound derived from rice bran and pomegranate (called Gamma- O) recently signed an agreement with Harrah's to be a sponsor of the WSOP.

Because this compound is listed as a "nutritional supplement" it falls outside the regulatory umbrella of the FDA. As such, it has not been subjected to rigorous, scientific tests. Paint this old professor skeptical. Caveat emptor.

Is there a downside? A small one. Too high a level of testosterone is associated with inappropriate aggression.

This isn't terrible since, as Caro noted, when aggressiveness is wrong it's not all that wrong. However, more aggressive players have larger swings and higher variance. No problem with this if your bankroll and psyche can handle it.

Finally, a question to ponder: Does the link between testosterone and aggression have anything to do with the gender issue? I suspect it does, but the issue is complex and I'll have a column on it in the near future.

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 co-author 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 semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

More strategy articles from Arthur S. Reber:

Best Poker Sites - Editor`s Pick

Latest Blogs »