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Identity cards: The psychology of online personas in poker

In my role as research consultant for an online poker company, I was involved in a survey of 2000 people on poker names. The results revealed that around 45% of men and women are using (or would use) alternative names when playing online poker to give them some kind of advantage. I found these results somewhat predictable as (a) many people use alternative names in online activities, and (b) most people will adopt strategies if they feel it has a material advantage for them. As online poker grows, more people will use bluff tactics (such as changing their gender online) that they couldn’t do in an offline gambling environment.

There are many parallels between playing online poker and other online gaming activities such as online computer gaming. However, online role-playing computer gamers by definition, take on different online social personas. In online activities, online social personas are created purely by what is typed on screen. These are known as ‘text-based virtual realities’ and the name that a person chooses to play under is just one strategy that people can adopt when playing against opponents if they believe it offers them an advantage.

The survey found that 11% males and 25% females would use a name that suggested they were members of the opposite sex in order to give themselves an advantage. In most online arenas, females are more likely to change their gender or use masculine versions of their real name (e.g., ‘Chris’ instead of ‘Christine’ or names like ‘Charlie’). There are good reasons for this. In male-dominated chat rooms, it is not uncommon for females to receive lots of unwanted male attention the moment they log on. Many females adopt male personas as a way of avoiding the unwanted attention. In online game playing arenas, females often adopt male personas as they usually feel less psychological intimidation and/or alienation by doing so. Our own research has also shown that females have more positive attitudes toward online gambling because the Internet is a gender-neutral environment unlike the more male-dominated offline environments like betting shops and casinos.

Online poker permits players to create a false identity. For others it allows players to retain anonymity. As a player you can pretend to be a young attractive novice female player when in fact you are actually a very experienced recognised professional. 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 adopt 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 Internet relay chat (IRC) band 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.

Image has become all-important in the commercial arena and for some online poker players it is no different. One of the most important things about poker names is that they may help players define their self-image and who they are – at least on some psychological level. For some people, this ‘personal branding’ may be more important than their social identities within a playing community. What you gamble on and what name players choose can be an extension of this. At the very least, names are important in initial impression formation. However, whether they have any longer lasting effect remains speculative and questionable.

Some people do clearly think about the name that they use and the image it projects. For instance, one well-known player who has worked with our research unit used to go under the online name ‘Dostoyevsky’. Dostoyevsky, of course, was the famous Russian novelist who wrote the semi-autobiographical book ‘The Gambler’ based on his own experiences. The use of the online name suggests an air of intellectuality and knowingness. Whether it actually makes a difference to the playing behaviour of Dostoyevsky’s opponents is highly questionable.

Having said that, our own research at Nottingham Trent University suggests the names that people choose has a minimal effect online. It appears to be given more credence by amateur players. Experienced players say that because of the micro-limits and mass of novice players, the bluff of name change and/or image makes negligible difference to their playing behaviour.

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

Further reading

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.

Hussain, Z. & Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Gender swapping and socialising in cyberspace: An exploratory study. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 11, 47-53.

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, in press.

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.

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.

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.