Our Brains and Change

Daniel Negreanu

Humans in general like patterns. We like things to stay constant, and when things change, we become anxious.

Every part of our life has some sort of pattern to it. As soon as these patterns get broken, or something that we thought was predictable does something unpredictable, our minds start ringing alarms.

All people have a slight touch of cainophobia (fear of change), and it's this phobia that we're going to exploit.

For example, take people in a line getting onto a bus. You know they're there, but you aren't actively thinking about the people at all. It's a predictable behavior that you've seen enough times to know what's going to happen.

You don't see the events as they actually happen, but as your mind assumes they will play out in a certain way. Now, in this same line, take one person who starts walking backward in the line.

All of a sudden something doesn't fit with the standard script of this event. Your brain is now actively paying attention to what's going on.

Running Along Familiar Tracks

Poker is a game of patterns. We see a situation, and assume that the hand will play out as it always does in that situation. Take, for example, getting into a hand where you have an overpair.

You know the other player has a flush draw. Being first to act, you assume the action will be:

Street Scenario You Opponent
Flop They have flush draw Bet Call
Turn Miss draw Bet Call
River Miss draw Bet Fold

OMG Clay Aiken!!!1
Phil Galfond understands poker patterns better than almost anyone.

When the other player deviates from what was predictable, it sets off alarms. Instead of calling the turn, he now comes over the top. You commonly see players look shocked, and say something like "I wasn't expecting that."

Poker has millions of possible hand combinations. But there are only a few key situations that all other poker scenarios fall into. Either you have the best hand and are trying to get their money in, you have a draw and are trying to hit, you're bluffing, or you don't know where you stand.

When you play one of these scenarios a few thousand times, the majority of those times it's going to play out pretty much the same way. This becomes the constant for you.

Turning the Train Around

When your opponent acts, he's assuming you're usually going to do one of two things. He'll put you on a hand, and assume that when he acts, you're going to do either option A or option B. He's already planning his next move on the following street based on this assumption.

When you do option C, you've broken his control of the hand. He's now lost, not knowing what's going on. He now has to formulate an entirely new assessment of the situation and the hands in play.

You've made this person start thinking about the hand, and as a result he will act differently on the next street than he would have had you not broken the pattern.

How you use this in poker is very circumstantial. Each person deals with having a mental pattern broken in a different way.

But some things are constant. If you're trying to "hide" with a big hand, and let the other person feel that they're in control of the whole hand, then you want to keep all patterns intact as long as you can.

Brad Booth
Brad Booth's legendary bluff against Phil Ivey is a great example of breaking patterns to set up a bluff.

Making Change-Induced Anxiety Work for You

Breaking a pattern as a strategic move typically has a couple of purposes, the first of which is getting information. If you need more information on the opponent's hand, then breaking a pattern is a strong way to do just that.

You force him to make a play that was not preplanned, and you force him back into active thinking, where it's much harder to hide a tell.

The second use is as a scare tactic. If the other player is subjected to a broken pattern, the feeling of security they had in the hand will evaporate. It can force many players to play scared. Change scares most people. What the change is or why it's happening becomes irrelevant.

Forcing fear onto someone in a hand is the best way to keep a pot small, or set up a bluff.

One of the strengths online poker players will have over regular live players is pattern recognition and manipulation. As so much of the read-based element of poker is missing online, strong online players have learned to become much more in tune with poker patterns.

It's for this reason alone that very strong online players often play an equally strong live game, with little to no experience in the live context.


Remember this your next time at the felt, be it real or virtual: change up your playing style, and reevaluate your assumptions as to what moves your opponents are going to make based on what you've seen play out so far.

Doing both will enable you to capitalize on the all-too-human response to change - a response that afflicts us all on a subliminal level.

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