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.
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
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