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To err is to be human: A brief look at mistakes in poker playing

One of the most psychologically interesting questions concerning poker is ‘Why do so many people play so badly?’ It’s clear that most players know better, but they appear to make the same mistakes repeatedly. Given the hundreds of thousands of poker strategy books that are sold every year, we can only reach the conclusion that just a small percentage of poker players apply the skills they have read about. My hunch is that most people understand what they have read but when it comes to playing a competitive hand it’s simply more ‘fun’ to play badly than to play well. I’m not saying losing is more fun than winning (because quite clearly it isn’t), but the pursuit of profit maximization forces players to do things they don’t like doing. On a psychological level, maximizing profit makes extreme demands. Therefore, only a few, extraordinarily disciplined people play their best game most of the time – and nobody always plays it.

Most economists claim that gamblers are primarily driven by the profit motive. However, the psychological evidence is overwhelming that other desires affect gambling actions. Put simply, for most gamblers, our actions contradict the desire to maximize profits. Whilst I am no Freudian, there appear to be a whole range of unconscious factors at play in gambling situations.

One of the basic mistakes is playing too many hands. All the self-help books warn players against it but it is a common behaviour. In general, poker players find it boring to fold hand after hand. Players become more reckless and instead of folding, risk all in an attempt to get themselves out of a boredom rut. Even after losing, the poker player may ‘congratulate’ their play by defining it as ‘courageous’ when in the cold light of day, it was stupid. This type of adaptive thinking is common amongst gamblers who lose and should be avoided. Poker players often chase with weak hands for the same reason. Players will throw good money after bad in an effort to get even. Occasionally the strategy will pay off, but most of the time it won’t. In these situations, gamblers will invariably focus on the few times that chasing has got them out of a hole – but conveniently forget the many times that it didn’t.

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Another common mistake is to playing too aggressively. Not only is this a male characteristic but is often the strategy of the game’s very top players. Again, such tactics occasionally pay off for the player in very tight games. However, in most gambling situations, playing aggressively is simply not called for yet players continue to do it. On the other hand, gamblers can sometimes play too passively. Gamblers constantly find good excuses to justify their playing styles. In these situations, gamblers simply remember the times they saved money by not betting or raising, ignoring the pots they lost by giving away free or cheap cards.

It’s also tempting to show your cards and most players will do it occasionally. If players make a successful bluff, it’s human nature to want to let people to know how smart they are. The golden rule in poker is never to give anything away but the human psyche works in such a way that we usually want to show off once in a while. Our psychological make-up also means that we let pride get in the way of minimizing losses. There are always games that should have been avoided but players end up staying in them long after they knew it was a mistake. None of us like to lose to who we think are weaker players, or admit that the game was too hard. How many times does a player continue playing because they want to try and get the better of a great player or show off because there is someone they are trying to impress? Although it’s a cliché, pride before a fall is commonplace. These short-term psychological satisfactions will almost always have a negative impact on long-term profits.

Because there are many non-financial types of rewards from many different sources while playing poker, some people view losses as the price of entry. To these players, winning may be a bonus. However, most of us don’t like losing – and we especially don’t like persistent losing, regardless of whether there are other types of reinforcement. In the cold light of day, we are all rational human beings. In the height of action, rationality often goes out the window. I’ve done it myself at the roulette table and standing in front of a slot machine. While gambling I have felt omnipotent (and wrote about this experience back in 1990 in an article on the dangers of doing observational research in amusement arcades). It is only after I walk away penniless that the non-financial rewards are short-term and not worth it.

Understanding our own psychological motives is clearly important while gambling. Most players know the strategies they should be adopting but fail to apply them in real gambling situations. Players do not lack the information. It is far more profitable to learn why we don’t apply the lessons we have already learned, then ensure that we apply them. Until we understand and control our own motives – including the unconscious ones – we cannot possibly play to our best ability.

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

Additional input from the writings of Alan Schoonmaker

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, 13, 19-32.

Griffiths, M.D. (1990). The dangers of social psychology research. BPS Social Psychology Newsletter, 23, 20-23.

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.D. (2018). Identifying risk and mitigating gambling related harm in online poker. Journal of Risk Research, 21, 269-289.

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.

Inter-bet gambling: The psychology of online sports betting

Until the early 2000s, there appeared to be a commonly held perception that consumers viewed the Internet as an information gathering tool rather than a place to spend money. The explosive growth in online gambling and betting shows this is no longer true. For me, one of the interesting questions is how gaming companies use the psychology of people who like to gamble on sports events to get them to access sports betting sites (especially if it is done in a socially responsible way that enhances the punter’s experience rather than exploits them).

Trust and reliability: Let’s look at sports betting from an individual level. A sports fan has logged on to the Internet and is in the process of deciding which online sports betting website to make a beeline for. What kinds of things influence their decision? A recommendation from one of their friends? Advice from a gambling portal? An advert they saw in a magazine? From a psychological perspective, research on how and why people access particular commercial websites indicates that one of the most important factors is trust. If people know and trust the name, they are more likely to use that service. Reliability is also a related key factor. Research shows that many people (including sports bettors) still have concerns about Internet security and may not be happy about putting their personal details online. But if there is a reliable offline branch nearby, it gives them an added sense of security (i.e., a psychological safety net). For some people, trust and security issues will continue to be important inhibitors of online gambling. Punters need assurance and compelling value propositions from trusted gaming operators and operators to overcome these concerns.

Personalization: One of the growth areas in e-commerce has been personalization and most online commercial organisations now have a personalization strategy as part of its business plan. However, this practice is a double-edged sword that can prove to be a large logistical problem for companies who use such a strategy. Tracking every move for marketing purposes is one thing. Using these data for personalization purposes can sometimes prove troublesome. The amount of data is potentially enormous. Producing personalized pages for everyone is also logistically difficult and may even turn potential punters away. The key is knowing what to ask the punter. Those in the gaming industry have to think intelligently and creatively about what to ask their customers in a way that the information gained can be used effectively. Attracting customers and providing recommendations relies on the those in the gaming industry putting punters first. Integration can also be a factor here. The industry has to think of creative ways to make the website experience more personal.

Imprinting: One of the most important marketing strategies that companies engage in is “imprinting” new customers. Online punters quickly adopt predictable Internet usage patterns and evidence suggests that they don’t switch online allegiances easily. Smart gaming operators will work at becoming a starting point for the novice gambler and capitalize on this opportunity for capturing player loyalty. The emerging post-teenage market is a key consideration although from a social responsibility perspective thought needs to be given so that teenagers are not exploited. There is a whole Internet generation of people coming through who have a positive outlook on online commercial activities. They may be happier to enter credit card details online and/or meet others online. This has the potential to lead to major clientele changes as the profiles of these people may be radically different from previous punters. The problem is that the young don’t tend to have much disposable income and are less likely to own credit cards. Therefore, another market segment that operators need to target to are the over-50s who are starting to use the Internet for shopping and entertainment use. Early retirees have both time and money. This is why gaming operators need to strategically target the ‘grey pound.’

Contextual commerce: So what can operators do next? Contextual commerce may be one avenue that gaming operators will need to go down. In most retail outlets, shoppers notice what other people are buying and this may influence the purchaser’s choice. Companies are now using software that allows customers to do this online including interacting with other like-minded people. Seeing what everyone else is betting on may influence the decision process. There is also the potential to bring in techniques used on home television shopping channels. Presenters tell viewers how much of a product has been sold with viewers to instil a sense of urgency into the buying process, along with an element of peer review. This could be applied by gaming operators if people are gambling as part of a sports betting community.

Getting the balance right on the chance-skill dimension: All forms of gambling lie on a chance-skill dimension. Neither games of pure skill nor games of pure chance are particularly attractive to sports gamblers. Games of chance (like lotteries) offer no significant edge to sports gamblers and are unlikely to be gambled upon. While games of skill provide a significant edge for the gambler, serious gamblers need more than an edge – they often need an opponent who can be exploited (which helps explain the popularity of online poker). Serious gamblers gravitate towards types of gambling that provide an appropriate mix of chance and skill. This is one of the reasons why sports betting – and in particular activities like horse race betting – is so popular for gamblers. The edge available in horse race gambling can be sufficient to fully support professional gamblers as they bring their wide range of knowledge to the activity. There is the complex interplay of factors that contributes to the final outcome of the race.

Inter-gambler competition and the exercise of skill: Over the last few years I have often been asked by the media about the increasing popularity of online sports betting, particularly in relation to betting exchanges. Psychologists claim that male gamblers are attracted to sports betting because they love competitiveness. Sports bettors clearly feel that gambling via betting exchanges provides value for money and an opportunity to exercise their skill. Another important factor that I feel is really important in the rise of sports betting is not just the inherent competiveness but also the inter-gambler competition. Obviously there is an overlap between competitiveness and skill but they are certainly not the same and operators need to show how the sites they recommend feed into the psychological needs and desires of the sports bettor.

I’m sure many people’s view of psychology is that it is little more than common sense (and to be honest, some of it is). However, I hope that some of what I had to offer in the rest of this blog was more than just common sense.

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

Further reading

Auer, M. & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Behavioral tracking tools, regulation and corporate social responsibility in online gambling. Gaming Law Review and Economics, 17, 579-583.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Online betting exchanges: A brief overview. Youth Gambling International, 5(2), 1-2.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Brand psychology: Social acceptability and familiarity that breeds trust and loyalty. Casino and Gaming International, 3(3), 69-72.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Social responsibility in gambling: The implications of real-time behavioural tracking. Casino and Gaming International, 5(3), 99-104.

Griffiths, M.D. & Whitty, M.W. (2010). Online behavioural tracking in Internet gambling research: Ethical and methodological issues. International Journal of Internet Research Ethics, 3, 104-117.

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. & Irwing, P. (2004). Personality traits in pathological gambling: Sensation seeking, deferment of gratification and competitiveness as risk factors, Addiction Research and Theory, 12, 201-212.

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. (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.

Punter gatherer: What is the role of competitiveness in gambling and problem gambling?

Over the last decade, I have been asked by the mass media on countless occasions about the increasing popularity of online gambling. The two biggest successes appear to be the use of betting exchanges and online poker. Gamblers clearly feel these types of gambling provide value and an opportunity to exercise their skill. This is coupled with increasingly sophisticated gaming software, integrated e-cash systems, increased realism (in the shape of “real” gambling via webcams, or player and dealer avatars) are all inter-linked facilitating factors. However, another factor that I feel is really important in the rise of online gambling is the inter-gambler competition. Obviously there is an overlap between competitiveness and skill but they are certainly not the same. What’s more recent research has suggested that being highly competitive may not necessarily be good for the gambler.

I’m sure many people’s view of psychology is that it is little more than common sense (and to be honest, some of it is). For instance, psychologists claim that male gamblers are attracted to sports betting because they love competitiveness. There has also been North American research examining the high participation in US college basketball. The researchers found that above anything else, males were attracted to the competitiveness of betting on teams and games. Professor Howard Shaffer, a psychologist at Harvard University, claims that men are more likely to develop problematic gambling behaviour because of their conventionally high levels of aggression, impulsivity and competitiveness. Clearly, the idea of the competitiveness of the activity being one of the primary motivations to gamble is well supported.

Based on the fact that so little research has systematically examined the links between gambling and competitiveness, my own research unit published some research into this area in the journal Addiction Research and Theory. Dr. Adrian Parke and myself speculated that a gambler who is highly competitive would experience more arousal and stimulation, and be drawn to gambling as an outlet to release competitive instincts and drives. We also speculated that competitiveness may be linked to problem gambling. For instance, being highly competitive may help in explaining why in the face of negative and damaging consequences, problem gamblers persist in their potentially self-destructive habit. Psychological research in other areas has consistently shown that highly competitive individuals are more sensitive to social comparison with peers regarding their task performance. Applying this to a gambling situation, it is reasonable to suggest that competitive gamblers may be reluctant to stop gambling until they are in a positive state in relation to opposing gamblers, perhaps explaining why excessive gambling can sometimes occur.

Psychology is not the only discipline to suggest that competitiveness levels can be associated with problem gambling. Sociologists have speculated that factors of the human instinctual expressive needs, such as competition, can be temporarily satisfied when engaging in gambling activities. Evidence exists supporting gambling as an instrumental outlet for expressing competitive instinctual urges. The US sociologist Erving Goffman developed what he called the ‘deprivation-compensation’ theory to explain the relationship between gambling and competitiveness. He suggested that the stability of modern society no longer creates situations where competitive instincts are tested. Therefore, gambling is an artificial, self-imposed situation of instability that can be instrumental in creating an opportunity to test competitive capabilities.

In the published research study that we carried out, we hypothesised that problem gamblers would possess higher levels of competitiveness than non-problem gamblers. Using a competitiveness scale, gamblers were asked to rate statements about competitive reasons for gambling (such as ‘I like to gamble to show others how good I am at it’, ‘I like to gamble to beat the system’, ‘I like to gamble to see how good I am at it’) and general competitive tendencies (such as ‘I am competitive’, ‘I enjoy taking risks’, ‘I am abitious’). We found that problem gamblers scored significantly higher on the competitiveness scale. Put simply, we concluded that having a highly competitive streak may in fact be a potential risk factor for problem gambling.

It is not hard to see how a highly competitive person would be attracted to gambling by the competitive and challenging nature of the behaviour. However, why are competitive people at particular risk of developing pathological gambling behaviour? It could be the case that highly competitive gamblers are less inclined to ‘throw the towel in’ or accept a loss, and, as a result are more prone to chasing behaviour. Chasing behaviour – that is, increasing frequency and stake of bets in an attempt to recoup losses – is self-perpetuating. When gamblers chase losses it is highly probable they will lose more and the need to recoup losses increases as time passes. What’s more, chasing losses has been shown to be a major risk factor in the development of gambling problems. At the other end of spectrum, winning is potentially more rewarding for a competitive gambler as they are more inclined to perceive gambling as an internal and external challenge than a non-competitive gambler. In addition, winning will be much more rewarding after incurring losses. Put very simply, the competitive person feels greater triumph by defeating unlikely odds and emerging from what appeared a hopeless situation.

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

Further reading

Goffman, I. (1972). Where the action is. In: Interaction Ritual (pp.149–270). Allen Lane, London.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gambling addiction on the Internet. In K. Young & C. Nabuco de Abreu (Eds.), Internet Addiction: A Handbook for Evaluation and Treatment (pp. 91-111). New York: Wiley.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012).  Internet gambling behavior. In Z. Yan (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Cyber Behavior (pp.735-753). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

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.D. & Irwing, P. (2004). Personality traits in pathological gambling: Sensation seeking, deferment of gratification and competitiveness as risk factors, Addiction Research and Theory, 12, 201-212.

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. (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.