How to Play Mind Games in Poker

How to Play Mind Games in Poker: Why Poker Psychology is Harder than you Think

What’s the hardest skill set to learn in poker? Are the very basics the toughest hurdle to clear when you’re new? How about some of the mathematical concepts you need to know to improve your win rate? Maybe it’s the game theory aspect of poker that stumped you?

Well, as tricky as those things are, many would argue that the hardest skill to master at the poker table is by far psychology. “But surely that’s just a load of theoretical mumbo jumbo?” you may ask Not quite. Yes, a lot of psychology is “theoretical” in the sense that one situation can have multiple answers, but it certainly isn’t mumbo jumbo. No, the reason this is a harder skill to master than any other is because there are no defined answers and no absolutes.

For example, when you’re learning about value betting, it’s simply a numbers game. Like a mathematical equation that has a definite answer, the process of making an optimal bet requires analysis of the pot size, your opponent’s stack size, your stack size and their potential range. If you can accurately assess these factors and piece them together, you should be able to come up with a bet that has a positive expectation for that situation i.e. it will be perfectly sized, so a weaker hand would be able to call.

Mind Games Can Work in Your Favour

When it comes to poker psychology, things aren’t as clear-cut. For example, let’s say you’re setting up a home game with your friends and you want to give yourself an edge before the game even starts. Unlike playing poker online, where you don’t have the option to control the setting, a home game gives you scope to tailor the environment to your favour. Take, for instance, the lighting. According to 2010 study by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, dim lights can trigger moral transgressions.

If we put this in the context of poker home game psychology, you could use this to put your opponents in a certain mental state. Using this, you could then manipulate them in a subtle way i.e. if the lights are dim they may be more inclined to be transgressive and bluff. Knowing this, you could simply let them bluff and wait to pick them off when you’ve got a lock on a hand. Naturally, this tactic won’t work every time – but this is not such bad news, because it means you’ll need to carefully study your opponent to gauge whether they may be susceptible to such manipulation.

This, in a nutshell, is why poker psychology is a tricky skill to master. Knowing the “theory” isn’t enough to give you the right answer. If we go back to the value betting example, the equation you perform will have a black or white answer at the end of it. However, with something like turning down the lights, the answer typically is: it depends. Because of this, you have to know your opponent/s before you pull the trigger.

You Can Only Manipulate People You Know

But how do you get to know your opponents? Well, the easiest way to determine someone’s potential moves is to assess their personality type. A helpful starting point would be to familiarise yourself with the common personality “types” as identified by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator instrument. For example, the person might be an extrovert – which could mean they’re more likely to try a huge bluff in order to be able to show off when they get it through. Or maybe they’re more about “feeling” than “thinking” – which may mean then dim lights do have an effect on their mood.

Once you can answer these questions, only then can you start to employ psychological tactics at the poker table. However, be warned: learning how to get the mental edge on your opponents isn’t easy. Although the theory might not sound as complex as a mathematical equation, there are a lot of hidden variables you need to try and identify before you make your move.

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