Why You Call When You Told Yourself to Fold

Craig Crivello
I could have sworn I was going to fold that last hand.

You're in a tough $5/10 NLH game. You know the guy in the checkered shirt in seat 8. Solid, unimaginative, with little trick in his game.

He's just pushed a stack of greenies at you on the river. You missed your draw; you've got middle pair and, basically, can only beat a bluff.

So you sit there looking at your cards, at the board, at your opponent.

You've got a good read on the situation and know precisely what you should do with your hand. In fact, this is exactly the situation you've been warning yourself about over and over again in recent weeks.

Do NOT make marginal calls in situations like this one because they have long-term negative EV (indeed, very negative).

Yet you feel an odd twinge deep below the surface of your mind. You know that you should fold. You plan to fold.

The cards are almost in the muck, you're going to slip quietly away when you see an ethereal hand, one that looks a lot like yours, though acting like it belongs to someone else, grab a bunch of chips and you hear a voice that has a fretfully familiar tone to it and seems to be coming from your mouth say, "I call."

Erik Cajelais
This extremely muscular hand looks like mine, but I did not say to reach for the chips.

And, of course, he wasn't bluffing and you've just shed another buy-in on a truly idiotic move that felt like it was made by some demon inside you, for you would never have been so stupid.

From my psychologist/poker junkie perspective, the really interesting part of this tale is not that you just did something moronic but that you did exactly the thing you've been trying to banish from your game.

If the word "irony" comes to mind now, it should. If the name Daniel Wegner comes to mind, I'll be really surprised.

Dan is a psychologist at Harvard. He's an old friend and even though he's not a poker player, I'd like to tell you a bit about how his research applies to our game and how, if we can work this out carefully, his insights can help reduce the number of silly and financially damaging actions we take.

Wegner studies irony. He's been fascinated all his life with those situations where we tell ourselves that we should do X and avoid Y like the plague then, bingo, we end up Y'ing.

Dan's research is slowly yielding an understanding of why these situations arise and why we keep doing the very wrongest things.

Here's his analysis, in simplest terms:

When we consciously suppress the thoughts about the thing we do NOT want to do, we don't actually banish them from our minds.

Phil Hellmuth
Loves him some poker irony.

They take on a life below the surface and sit there, unnoticed, in what is technically known as "implicit memory" (if you want to call this your "subconscious" that's okay).

It takes a certain measure of mental effort to keep these unwanted thoughts in their mental jail.

If I ask you to NOT think about white bears or NOT to spill any red wine as you carry your glass across the carpet or NOT to think about calling a pot-sized bet from the tightest player at the table, two things will happen.

First, you WILL think about those things. Second, you will manage, most of the time, to suppress that thought ... for the moment.

But what Dan's research has shown is that this suppression doesn't always hold.

When it does, fine. You won't waste time imaging white bears on (vanishing) ice floes, dumping a glass of Merlot on someone's beige wall-to-wall or donating a stack of greenies to the rock in seat 8.

But what Dan has also found is that when stress levels go up, when pressure is put on us, or we are distracted, these unwanted thoughts and actions become surprisingly likely to occur.

Ask someone NOT to use a particular word in conversation and, if they get distracted or stressed they are far more likely to blurt that word out than if the initial request was never made.

If you sit there and think something like "calling pot-sized bets on dangerous boards is something I will simply not do anymore" you run the risk of making it more likely that you will do the very thing you've counseled yourself against, if you're under stress or distracted or are put under heavy mental load.

Gavin Smith
We're all familiar with settings that are likely to produce these unhappy ironic outcomes.

We're all familiar with settings that are likely to produce these unhappy ironic outcomes. You've been losing. You're on tilt because you've been bluffed twice and both times the bozos showed you.

You're in the cash game because you bubbled the MTT. An old girlfriend just walked in the room hanging on the arm of some idiot with a shaved head and his shirt unbuttoned down to his belly button.

You just realized you forgot to pick up your wife's prescription ... whatever. All invite bouts of terminal irony.

Is there a cure for this affliction? Not really. Just take your time when stressed. Think through the situation.

And, of course, practice helps. Experienced players usually handle stress better and are able to suppress thoughts that might leap up and take control of your hands or your vocal cords.

Poker isn't an easy game. But you can make it less painful if you work on combating this ironic tendency - the one that Edgar Allan Poe called the "imp of the perverse."

More psychology articles from Arthur S. Reber:

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Arty Smokes 2011-06-14 23:20:49

The theory that we are more likely to do something irrational as stress increases (allied with "curiosity killed the cat") has been tested and proven many times in psychological experiments. If you give a jack-in-a-box to a child and say "Look after this for 10 minutes. Do not press the button," 95% of kids will press the button, often just before the 10 minutes is up, because pressing the button relieves the stress that has been building exponentially for 10 minutes.
The psychological illusionist Derren Brown did a great stunt involving a kitten in a box. He told a volunteer that if she pressed the button on the box, the cat would get electrocuted. He also said, that if the woman could last 10 minutes without pressing the button, she'd win £500. You could see her getting really stressed as time went on. She really didn't want to press the button, lose £500 and kill the cat, but with exactly one second left she couldn't stop herself from pressing the button. (As it was a trick, the kitten wasn't really electrocuted).
What we should learn from this is that the longer we think about a crucial decision, the more likely we are to make the incorrect call. Since snap decisions are also prone to error, when faced with a bet on the river, we should generally go with our gut decision, but wait ten seconds to be absolutely sure we haven't failed to see the nut flush or a disguised straight on the board. The longer we take to question our gut instinct, the more likely we are to make a bad call.

Clips 2010-01-18 07:21:55

Negative suggestion is a term I've heard bandied around regarding this concept. Another way to circumvent this is to replace the negative suggestion with a positive alternative. Rather than thinking "Don't look down," we can think "keep looking straight ahead." Try telling a child he can't have something, and guess what he wants more than anything in the world?

So, rather than thinking "don't call in X situation with Y opponent," we can instead think "FOLD in X situation with Y opponent." Subtle difference, but it allows you the context of making a choice rather than avoiding a trap. The joke's on the other guy -- he didn't get your money!

Thor 2009-11-11 13:19:00

Haha I think it's kind of funny that you call yourself "POKERGOD" and then admit you have a serious calling station weakness :)

I do this too sometimes though, although it manifests itself a little differently in me. I have a problem that when I think too long (usually on the river) I usually end up making the bad decision.

POKERGOD 2009-11-11 01:47:00

good stuff. now I know why i'm doing this but
I still feel helpless.

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