Internalizer or Externalizer: Which Are You?

Jerry Yang

Reading through the vast piles of poker literature out there, you'll occasionally encounter the notion of "control."

Usually it refers to situations where a player, by virtue of a combination of skill on his own part, a lack of it among his opponents and a dram or two of luck, manages to dominate a table.

He or she pushes people out of pots with well-timed bluffs, draws them in when holding the nuts and acts pretty much like a director on a movie set.

Most discussions focus on how to establish this enviable position and how to maximize wins when it occurs. Most of the advice is pretty straightforward and typically turns on the use of selective aggression as a potent weapon.

I have no problem with this analysis. But I do have some things to tell you about the psychological issues that lurk behind the strategy. And as usual, when we probe the psychological we find solid poker principles.

Money Supports Control

Control is, indeed, an intriguing concept. It looms significantly over our everyday lives, particularly when we contemplate the degree to which we have (or don't have) control over events.

If we're the boss, we have control over our employees. If we're the underlings on the production line, we don't have a lot of it.

In some relationships all the control and power resides in one partner. In others it gets shared. Often money supports control. Money is power, power grants control, control garners money.

In poker it's particularly messy. We can control the decisions but not the outcomes.

Generally, it feels good to have control over the events in our lives. It is satisfying to be the master of one's fate, the captain of one's personal ship.

It also feels distinctly unpleasant when the tide is turned, when we sense that we have little or no control over things.

But the notion of control is, in reality, a lot more complex and a lot more interesting. And one reason, as we'll see, is that we often don't know where the real control, the real power, lies.

Have You Ever Asked For a New Seat?

Here are a couple of questions I'd like you to ask yourself. If you don't like answering them from a personal point of view, that's okay.

Just think of them in terms of how you've seen others act in a poker game.

Question 1: Have you ever changed seats because you just can't seem to catch a card?

Question 2: Have you ever groaned in despair when the guy who moved into the seat you abandoned got hit in the head with the deck?

Question 3: Have you ever asked for a new setup?

Question 4: Have you ever thought that a particular dealer was "lucky" or "unlucky" for you?

Question 5: Have you ever returned quickly to a table because your "lucky" dealer sat down, or refused to play for a full shift because the one who never deals you a winner just sat in the box?

Question 6: Do you have a "lucky" charm or "lucky" hand or "lucky" seat?

If recognizing yourself in any of these makes you feel a tad uncomfortable, that's okay; a lot of regulars do these things on a semi-regular basis.

They are "magical" gestures that give them a vague sense that they are, in fact, exerting some measure of control.

But, of course, all is illusion. New decks aren't going to be different than old ones, and dealers aren't lucky - they just distribute cards from a shuffled deck.

Locus of Control

Having or not having control turns out to be a lot less important than whether we believe we do.

If you really think that you would have got those big hands had you not changed seats, you just don't grasp the random nature of the game (Hint: you would have played the hands differently, the dealer would have begun shuffling a few milliseconds earlier or later; nothing would have been the same).

So why engage in these empty rituals? Well, for one thing, it turns out to be tough to determine just when we do and do not have control over a situation.

And, for another, having or not having control turns out to be a lot less important than whether we believe we do.

There's a concept called "locus of control." It's a personality dimension that runs from an "internal" pole to an "external."

People at the "external" extreme believe the factors that control their lives are located in the external world, the world outside themselves. Those who lie at the other end believe that control comes from within; it is "internal."

High internalizers tend to take responsibility for their actions, accepting the blame for those that go awry and taking credit for those that go well. High externalizers tend to blame outside forces for the unhappy events in their lives and credit luck or circumstance for the good.

Perhaps not surprisingly, high internalizers tend to be more successful in life. They make more money, win more contests, live longer, have lower incidences of depression, alcoholism, drug abuse.

You name it, they're better off than their externalizing cousins.

Control Takes Back Seat to Belief

This may seem straightforward but it's not because, as noted, real control takes a back seat to belief.

In studies of people playing fair, competitive games, "externalizers" who won because they made the right decisions often thought that they just got lucky. When "internalizers" won such games they tended to take credit for their play.

And here's the fun part: In studies where the games were fixed so that the players' decisions had little to do with the outcome, the same patterns appeared.

Whether they won or lost, whether the games were honest or rigged, internalizers typically thought that it was their decisions and choices that determined the outcomes.

Externalizers showed the opposite tendency, whether they won or lost or whether the games were fixed or honest. When control was controlled, belief crushed reality.

This is powerful stuff, and the lesson for poker should be obvious. If you take responsibility for the choices you make, accept the blame for poor decisions and the credit for the right ones, you're on your way toward becoming a solid internalizer.

And remember, they do better at just about everything - no matter where the real control lies.

And, finally, those questions? Well, internalizers practically never answer "yes" to any of them.

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

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