The Psychology of Poker: FOMO

The Psychology of Poker: FOMO

Have you ever been in a situation like this: You’re playing some Live Poker, either with your friends or in a tournament, and you get a new Hand: 8-5. Of course, you’re going to fold – no sane person would play that hand, right? The flop comes: 8-8-5. Oh well, you think, as the pot is raised into oblivion and the bluffs are coming left and right, only for the hand to be won by a Pair of Kings. You get your next hand: 7-3 suited. You don’t even have to think, this is unplayable. And as you see the flop, 4-5-6, all in your suit, you’re trying not to sigh loudly and let anyone know that you just folded a straight flush. Of course, the Pot is inevitably won by an Ace-High and once again you’re missing out on around 200 Big Blinds worth of chips. Now as you get your next hand... 9-7... do you play it? 

If you do, you are experiencing FOMO. FOMO is an acronym for the “fear of missing out”. It is essentially the regret of a choice you made – or possible more accurate: A Choice you didn’t make. 

Today we’re taking a deeper dive into the Poker Psychology of FOMO, what it is, why we have it, why it’s relevant to Poker and what you can do to minimize or prevent it.

When Do We Experience FOMO?

FOMO can occur almost any time during our daily lives.  

Imagine sitting at home, wearing your PJs and reading a book or watching your movie after a long day of work, being absolutely happy and snuggly warm, when suddenly you get a message from your friend. As your finger presses the unholy button to play the video, you hear loud music and see your friends going crazy at a house party, having the time of their lives. And as the video is playing, you feel bad about sitting at home on a Friday night - your best-case scenario just a minute ago. 

You are experiencing the fear of having made the wrong choice.  

Another example would be a football fan in 2014. Let’s say your friend asked you to see the new movie – Transformers, Age of Extinction. You’d miss out on the game of Germany vs Brazil. Theoretically speaking, both Germany and Brazil both had very defensive teams, so chances were, the match would be mostly boring, and Marvel had always delivered on their movies, so it would have been a reasonable assumption, that the best course of action were to watch the movie and just see the few minutes of highlights after the match. In case anyone hasn’t heard yet the match turned out to be one of the most spectacular matches in the history of football and the movies was generally reviewed as garbage – at best.  

Knowing the outcome, was the decision that you made wrong?  

Why Do We Have FOMO?

As we established, FOMO is the fear of making or having made the wrong choice, triggering your anxiety.  

To fully understand the concept and what that means, we have to look at the human brain and its decision-making process. Generally – you may have heard of this – it hurts more to lose something, than gaining something makes you happy. It is mostly agreed upon, that the pain of loss is about twice as strong as the happiness of gain. However, the anticipation of loss is also much stronger than the anticipation on gain. So, put together, the anticipation of making a decision that may lead to loss is an absurdly strong emotion consequently.  

In a “wild” environment, this would make sense, as it would generally avoid making stupid decisions and as loss could rapidly lead to “loss of your life”, this would be a very powerful tool to have. 

In our current society however, in the age of smartphones and social media, this effect keeps being amplified all the time by seeing a picture of a friend having fun without us, seeing a picture of an ex that has lost 10 kilos or seeing a poker tournament 2 cities over on the same day as your friend’s party.  

Being constantly triggered by this emotion can be exhausting and draining. 

But How Does This Relate to Poker?

It’s important to understand that our brain doesn’t just go into “Poker-mode” as soon as we sit down at a Poker-table. Yes, we may be focusing on the game, but our brain does have the same structure as before, including the same flaws and the same patterns of fear.  

In the story from the beginning, we gave you one example of FOMO affecting your gameplay.  

The answer of whether or not you should play the 9-7 in Texas Hold'em is very obvious: No! It’s still a horrible hand. Even if by some miracle you hit something on the flop, chances are you’ll still get beaten by almost every other hand commonly played.  

The issue our brain has with processing this scenario is the same pattern recognition that usually helps us, for example at catching tells on our opponent or categorizing a player as tight or aggressive. That same pattern recognition “software” has spotted the pattern: “Our hand may be garbage, but we hit stuff on the flop.” This gets paired with the expectation of losing out on a lot of money and next thing you know, your FOMO sets in, and you see yourself throwing absurd amounts of money at the pot despite only having a less than mediocre hand.  

The worst part is, that people that are being asked about how they feel about their FOMO decision, usually don’t feel too bad about them. In fact, some actually experience signs of relief – successful or not – due to “having taken the opportunity”.  

Dangers of FOMO

“If I’m having a stroke of luck, why shouldn’t I go for it?” 

This is the same misguided question as the famous roulette-question: 

“You’re spinning a roulette-wheel and the ball has landed on red 4 times in a row now. If you wanted to bet on red or black, which one should you bet on? Black, right?” Wrong. 

The chance here is still 50-50. And it will be every time you spin the wheel.  

Coming back to poker, the same is true for our example: Even though the flop might have given you the nuts twice in a row, that is by no means any guarantee for it to happen again. In fact, one might even argue that you might want to skip a couple of hands to let the statistic balance out – though that is about just as wrong.  

In reality, the true danger of FOMO is not playing a couple of hands more or less or trusting your guts on a couple of hands.  

The True Danger in Poker Is FOMO Leading To Tilt.

Considering the patterns that our brain tries to establish, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to follow our brains advice and risk playing a bad hand once or twice. The danger here is two-fold: 

  1. You start gambling 

This part is extremely dangerous, because not only do you make objectively worse decisions, but you also get occasionally rewarded for them. This includes the thrill of bluffing, the underdog-hands that are still being won and the activation of the reward-system in your brain, combined with the avoidance of loss – a truly powerful feeling, in fact, the feeling that gambling-addicts are after. 

This may work for you once in a while. Hell, you might even win a whole tournament if you’re lucky enough. But your chances are very high that your opponents will see though your “poker strategy” and just place you in the extreme “Loose-Aggressive” category and play accordingly.  

You need to remember that Poker is all about maximizing your chances and your odds. If your opponents do that and you don’t, there’s a high chance your “luck” will run out very quickly. 

  1. You lose focus 

While not exclusive to the part about gambling, these two are not necessarily the same thing. While you can be extremely focused, even when gambling, not gambling still does not guarantee your focus. 

The reason for your loss of focus here is the aforementioned “pattern recognition system” of your brain: You keep seeing those alleged patterns and once you try to act on them, they may work, or they may not work. It starts feeling like you’re missing something, so you try different hands in different styles, bleeding money all the way and eventually completely abandoning the strategy you have worked so hard to master.  

Once frustration sets in, tilt is inevitable. 

What Can You Do About FOMO?

You may think it’s strategy and knowledge of the game that makes some players truly great, but those things are not that hard to learn. 

The true factor that separates the Masters from the inevitable Quitters is their mental fortitude, specially under pressure. 

Just like any other training of fortitude, this one takes time, energy and self-awareness. 

Look Out for the Signs

Essentially, the signs you’re looking for to look out for FOMO are somewhat similar to the signs of tilt. Here’s is a non-exhaustive list of possible signs to give you an idea: 

  • Getting agitated for not doing something: Is it becoming harder to fold your hands even though it’s objectively the right decision? 
  • Anxiety: Does it seem like everyone is winning more hands and more money than you all the time? Does that make you nervous or anxious? 
  • Rash decisions: Do you find yourself making decisions with less and less thought behind them, some of them even questionable? 
  • Increasing Dissatisfaction: Does it feel (increasingly) bad to keep folding hands and/or make the right decisions? 
  • Lack of confidence: Are you starting to doubt your strategy? Should you maybe just play a few more hands? Maybe raise a little higher? Or lower? Maybe give the bluff another go? Asking these questions may very well be a sign of FOMO. 

It’s important to keep watching over your own mind and not let it slip into a bad state without noticing. It’s very essential to make rational and calculated decisions in Poker and letting your mind drift into a state of chaos and emotions will quickly lead to inconsistent plays and - in the long term at least – a blown bankroll. 

How to Deal With FOMO

Now that you have identified the issue, you need to put yourself back into a good state of mind. There are things you can do when playing and things you can do as preventive measures. 

Take a Break 

The first thing you need to do is take a deep breath. 

By realizing that you’re under the influence of FOMO, you have already taken the first step to counteract it. Now you need to give your brain some space to get back to its regular rational. If you’re playing cash games, this may be a good point to take a break or even call it a day. In Tournaments, this may not be as simple. Try to get up, even if it’s just for a few minutes – go to the bathroom, get a glass of water or a quick snack, listen to your favorite song or just take a couple of minutes to relax.  

The goal here is to give your mind the chance to reset and shake of your strong feelings. Keep cool and make smart, calculated decisions. 

Prepare Your Poker-Space

Yes, the pun might be bad, but nevertheless, it’s important to prepare before playing, especially if you have caught yourself being influenced by FOMO before.  

As FOMO is an insecurity about whether you’re making the right decisions or not, it’s important to remind yourself of your strategy, your reason for using that strategy and your previous successes with it.  

At the same time, it’s equally important to boost your confidence in that sense. You know what you’re doing, you have practiced it and as long as you stick to your strategy, you will do just fine. 

Just Your Lifestyle

Being in a good state of mind doesn’t only refer to the Poker table. If you’re having problems outside of the game, there’s a good chance it may come back to bite you at some point, while you’re trying to make decisions at the table.  

So as always in our Psychology of Poker Series, we need to give you rundown of the basics: 

  • Get enough sleep: Don’t let your mind play tricks on you! Get enough sleep to stay sharp and spicy. 
  • Balance your diet: Don’t pump your body full of sugar, it may agitate you or lead to a crash. 
  • Get some exercise: Prepare your body for the mental stress. 
  • Meditate: There are many different forms of meditation, but make sure you get to properly relax mind and body once in a while. 

The last thing we need to mention is somewhat self-explanatory, yet very essential and yet sometimes ignored: Always ONLY play with money that you can afford to lose. 

There is no way to completely keep your emotions out of the game if your win decides whether you can eat or pay rent this month. You should never let yourself get into a position like that. Even professional Poker players always have a budget and managing that payroll is critical to keep a cool head during their games.

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