Net advantage: Another brief look at the psychology of online poker

From everything that I’ve observed over the last decade in the gambling world, the one thing that has caught my eye more than anything else is the number of online gambling stories – particularly about the rise of online poker. Clearly, online poker and traditional poker are not synonymous. As I outlined in one of my previous blogs, a very useful psychological tool in poker is to ‘read’ a player through their body language and their verbalisations. When playing online poker, a gambler is denied this advantage. Poker players must therefore seek to manipulate their poker-playing opponents by using the psychological tools at their disposal. One of my colleagues who has researched this area (Dr. Adrian Parke), believes that in a ‘SunTzu’-type way, an online poker player must take their weakness (in this case, not being able to physically see other players) and turn it into a positive strength. Put simply, a player must use the non-transparency inherent in the situation to their advantage.

Online poker permits players to create a false identity. As a player you could portray the façade of being a young attractive novice female player when in fact you are actually a very experienced recognised pro. On a psychological level, the key to a ‘hustle’ or manipulating other players in poker is by projecting a character and hiding your identity. Essentially it is about representing a façade, whether it is for one hand or the whole of the game. While playing poker online, a player can adapt any ‘character’ they wish to suit any game in which they engage in. For instance, if you are playing with novices it may be profitable to portray an experienced professional in order to intimidate players into submission.

Using the messaging systems provided, it is easier for online poker players to develop their persona(s). The tone and pitch of what a player “says” is not revealed in the text on the screen. At a fundamental level all players are acting with their most unemotional ‘poker face’. In these situations, players can exude confidence as they go all in on a psychological bluff, when in reality they may have shaking hands and be sweating like a pig. The key to winning on a psychological level is by inducing emotional reactions from other players, so with knowledge of the opponent, it is possible to ‘tailor’ interactions to induce the desired response.

Social interaction at the online poker table is not confined to adversarial chastising. It is also possible to develop amiable relationships between players. Online poker – particularly at low stakes tables – is often more about entertainment than making profits. In poker it is not necessary to reveal your hand if nobody calls (i.e., pays to see it). Without seeing cards it is more difficult to understand player behaviour. However, at more sociable tables, players will reveal what they had to opposing players, if nothing else but to indulge the observers. Creating false ‘alliances’ is a way of ascertaining more information about your opponents and improving your ability to ‘read’ them.

From a psychological perspective, there are also some things to be aware of in the online gambling world. At a basic level, what separates professional gamblers and novice (or problem) gamblers is the factor of self-control. The rule of thumb is to avoid becoming emotionally involved in the game. Inducing emotional rather than logical reactions from gamblers is what makes the gambling industry so profitable. By remaining unemotional gamblers can protect themselves from recklessly chasing losses and avoid going on ‘tilt’. People gambling online are particularly at risk from engaging in chasing losses for the simple reason that they have 24-hour convenient access from their home or workplace and have the potential to be constantly subjected to temptation. What’s more, in this asocial world, they often lack friends acting as a “social safety net” to give objective appraisals of the player’s behaviour.

The best ways of avoiding becoming emotionally engaged online is to have (i) reflective time outs and (ii) an objective attribution of outcomes. Having reflective time-outs simply refers to playing slowly, making gambling decisions with accrued knowledge (for example, knowledge of probability and of opponents). It is advisable after a ‘bad beat’ to be disciplined enough sit out one or two hands to regain composure before playing again. Determining objective attributions of outcomes occurs at a psychological level and concerns the gambler’s locus of control. For the gambler, this means having an external locus of control when assessing the cards they have and an internal locus of control regarding what they do with the cards available.

The mantra of poker players is that ‘You can only play the hand you were dealt’. All players will experience streaks of both desirable and poor hands, and it is how a player responds to these streaks that will determine their success. It is very easy to become frustrated while in a negative streak. Likewise, it is easy in a positive streak to become narcissistic and complacent. It is the knowledgeable player that understands probability and who realises that over a continuous playing period, positive and negative streaks are inevitable and transient.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Biolcati, R., Passini, S. & Griffiths, M.D. (2015). All-in and bad beat: Professional poker players and pathological gambling. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, in press.

Griffiths, M.D., Parke, J., Wood, R.T.A. & Rigbye, J. (2010). Online poker gambling in university students: Further findings from an online survey. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 82-89.

McCormack. A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). What differentiates professional poker players from recreational poker players? A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 243-257.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Poker gambling virtual communities: The use of Computer-Mediated Communication to develop cognitive poker gambling skills. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(2), 31-44.

Parke, A., Griffiths, M., & Parke, J. (2005) Can playing poker be good for you? Poker as a transferable skill. Journal of Gambling Issues, 14.

Recher, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). An exploratory qualitative study of online poker professional players. Social Psychological Review, 14(2), 13-25.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2007). The acquisition, development, and maintenance of online poker playing in a student sample. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 354-361.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths. M.D. (2008). Why Swedish people play online poker and factors that can increase or decrease trust in poker websites: A qualitative investigation. Journal of Gambling Issues, 21, 80-97.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on April 16, 2015, in Addiction, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Online gambling, Poker, Psychology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Daniel William

    Online Poker websites have ended up being more and more prominent nowadays as a gambling option. They are a hassle-free way of playing a range of poker games in the convenience of your own home. Online Poker websites make digital poker games readily available to the novice as well as experienced casino poker gamer alike. Nevertheless, there are a few points one must take into consideration when attempting to choose the perfect poker website.

  2. Great read and a great blog in general:)

    In my opinion, online poker creates an equal playing field. There are still countless strategies to research and master. Also, with hand histories so readily available, the learning process is simplified. Of course, online players will find that they can’t do as well in brick-and-mortar poker rooms and vice versa.

    I might have missed it but you didn’t mention video poker. It’s not as good as sitting at the same table and not every site offers it but most do or will by 2016. Can’t really get any closer to the ‘real deal’ in the comfort of your home. Just a thought.

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