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Poker Psychology

Despite being based in math, poker has a nearly unparalleled psychological aspect.  Many people who play poker for a living focus a majority of their time on psychological aspects of their game.  There are even coaches who offer poker psychology lessons.

Poker can drive even intelligent people completely nuts.  The cause is often multi-faceted, and some of the poker psychology concepts discussed here will help explain why and how this game makes people crazy.

Poker psychology is a vast and often mysterious realm.  Many books having been written that delve into more advanced poker psychology.  What follows is a very brief intro along with a few poker psychology tips.  It is meant to be a guide and is not all-inclusive.

Levels of Thinking

Levels of thinking are the in-game psychological warfare associated with poker.  In theory the levels go on forever.  Shown below is a listing of the first few applied to poker.  

  • Level 0:  What do I have?
  • Level 1:  What does my opponent have?
  • Level 2:  What does my opponent think I have?
  • Level 3:  What does my opponent think I think he has?
  • Level 4:  What does my opponent think I think he thinks I have?

Levels of thinking in poker

At each level we are thinking about what our opponent thinks on the level before.  In most poker games the thinking will not even get to level 4.  The key is to determine what level your opponent is on and think exactly one level above them.  Thinking too far out is irrelevant.

If your opponent is thinking on level 1, you cannot think on level 3 because being able to think on level 3 requires your opponent to think on level 2.  Thinking too far ahead, called "outleveling ourselves",  can actually cause mistakes because our opponents end up "accidentally" playing better than us despite being on a lower level.

Applications of Levels of Thinking

Overthinking in Poker

This type of 'leveled' thinking is usually applied to hands.  Ie., I have pocket aces (level 0), I think my opponent has a flush draw (level 1), I think my opponent thinks I am bluffing (level 2), I think my opponent thinks I think he has a monster (level 3).  

However, it can be applied to other situations.  

For example, maybe you just took a bad beat, but because you have solid tilt control you are completely unfazed.  However, your opponent thinks you are tilting (level 1).  Now you pick up a monster hand and make bets that make it seem like you are bluffing because you think your opponent thinks you are tilting (level 2). Because your opponent thinks you are tilting he calls, and you thwart him by being on level 2 while he was on level 1.  

It is possible for him to think on level 3 and thwart you back.  Perhaps your opponent knows you are a good player with solid tilt control.  When you make the bluffy looking bets he may surmise that you are only pretending to be tilting to get paid off.  In other words, he thinks that you think that he thinks that you are tilting (level 3).  As a result, he folds and wins this battle of multiple level thinking.  

This can get wordy on paper and often comes more natural in-game.  The important thing to remember is to try to think exactly one level ahead of your opponent.  


Image as it relates to poker psychology refers to how other people view our play or how we view theirs.  Players will often use their image to their advantage or even create a specific image for themselves.  Image is often the subject of aforementioned multiple level thinking battles.

Play Style

Some players like to play a lot of hands and make a lot of raises because they know when they make a big hand they will get paid off.  Their opponents will remember all the aggressive actions that player has taken in the past and call with weaker holdings.

Poker Player Types

Other players will use their natural images to their advantage.  For example, a very tight player may attempt a big bluff on occasion if he knows his opponent views him as tight.

Physical Appearance

In live poker, physical appearance is a big factor of image as well.  Old players are generally thought of as tight.  Young players are usually assumed to be aggressive internet players.  Someone wearing a suit and tie is perceived to be a fishy businessman.  

There are a slew of similar poker stereotypes relating to age, race, sex, clothing, and anything the eye can see.  

Winning vs Losing

An often-overlooked aspect of image is winning versus losing.  Someone who is currently winning can get away with more because other people think they have the hot seat and will stay out of their way.  On the flip side, players who are losing often get called down lighter because opponents think they are just unlucky that day.

Because the cards are random, none of this actually exists, but it is important to be aware of how you may be perceived.  If you have been winning you may be able to get away with a few extra bluffs, but if you've been losing you likely won't get away with any.  

Psychology of Tilt

What is Tilt?

When people think about poker psychology, tilt is often the first thing that comes to mind.  Tilt is commonly thought of as when a player gets visibly angry and begins playing crazy, making suicide bluffs and just generally putting money in the pot unwarranted.  

However, tilt is much more than that.  Tilt is better defined as someone playing worse than normal for any reason.  Because tilt exists mostly inside a player's psyche, this is not always easy to decipher.  A player who is playing higher stakes than he is used to may be afraid to put money in the pot when the situation calls for it, and will as a result be playing too tight.

While not visibly apparent, this is still a form of tilt by our definition.  There are also countless more forms of tilt.  Players can tilt as a result of running exceptionally bad or good, having too high or too low confidence, making mistakes, getting beaten in a pot by a rival, or a myriad of other reasons.  

Dealing with Tilt

Whether they admit it or not, every poker player tilts.  The key to reducing the effects of tilt is to learn to recognize when it is happening, determine the cause, and either snap out of whatever irrational thoughts are causing the tilt or quit.  

For example, say you just made a bad call and recognize that you're on tilt.  Now you determine that the reason you're on tilt is because of a bad beat taken recently in the session.  Ideally at this point you'd be able to remind yourself that bad beats are part of the game and there is nothing to be mad about.  However, beginners dealing with tilt may need to quit their session.

This basic outline can help with nearly any form of tilt.  With experience, the less obvious forms of tilt become easier to recognize, and players can all but eliminate tilt from their game.  The most important step is learning to recognize your tilt so that it can be fixed.

For more tips and an anti-tilt software program, check this Rakeback.com article on how to stop tilting.

Poker Psychology and Ego

Nearly everyone that plays poker thinks they are better at the game than they actually are.  No one admits to being a losing player, and winning players often claim they win more than they do.

This is a result of ego.  Ego-driven players want people to think they're good and will try to prove it.  Because of the variance involved with poker, there is no absolute scoreboard, so players end up having to prove their skill in other ways.  

Talking to Boost Ego

Berating other players and talking strategy at the table are two obvious manifestations of ego.  Players need to prove they are good at poker so they berate someone for making a perceived bad play or brag about all the advanced strategy they're using.  

Not only is this annoying, but it may make someone else play better as a result of you sharing information on poker in general and on your specific thought process. 

Refusing to Quit

Another manifestation of ego is refusing to quit, either in a hand or a session.  Some players simply cannot "admit defeat" and fold their hand in certain situations, despite logical thought dictating a fold is optimal.  Similarly, some players can't leave a losing session because they consider it a failure.  

These ego-based actions lead to playing poorly in hands and chasing loses while not playing our best.  Profitable poker involves folding and booking losing sessions.  Neither is fun, but refusing to do them because of ego will get you into trouble.

Poker Ego:  Just say no.

Ego and Tilt

The ego causes many forms of tilt as well.  Believing we are better than someone else may cause us to try to "outplay" them in a bad situation.  Losing to a lesser player may make us angry because "hey, I'm better than that guy, he shouldn't be winning my money".  

In these situations, our ego is causing us to ignore the realities of poker and play bad.  The reality is we can't win every pot and sometimes bad players beat good players.

Leave Your Ego at the Door

Ego has no place in profitable poker.  Winning poker is about making good decisions.  Sometimes you will win, and sometimes you won't.  There is no room for proving how smart you are and you do not deserve to win in any hand or session simply because you are better than someone.  Leave your ego at the door.

Results-Oriented Thinking

Being results-oriented involves basing one's opinion of the way they are playing on how a hand or group of hands turned out monetarily.  

When analyzing a hand in question, a player may falsely believe they made a mistake simply because they lost the hand.  This may cause a player to tilt because they believe they made a mistake when in reality they just got unlucky.

Conversely, a player may think they played a hand well because they won, despite making the incorrect play.  Players will often use results-oriented thinking in this scenario to protect their ego.  Instead of admiting they made a mistake, they will use the results to "prove" that they are a good player.  They can likewise say they just got unlucky when they make a mistake and lose, again protecting their ego.  

Examples of Results-Oriented Thinking

If you get pocket aces all-in pre-flop against pocket kings and lose, you of course didn't make a mistake.  Nearly everyone understands this.  A bit less obviously, its very likely the player holding pocket kings in this situation also did not make a mistake, but they will lose roughly 80% of the time.

Even less obvious, if you make a bluff and get called, that doesn't mean a mistake was made.  Its possible your opponent simply had one of a small set of hands that might call.  

Or if a player calls a raise pre-flop with small pocket pair against a tight raiser without the proper implied odds, hits his set and scoops a big pot, that doesn't mean his play was correct, or that the pre-flop raiser's play was incorrect.

These examples could go on forever, but the point is that losing a pot does not mean the hand was played poorly, and winning a pot does not mean the hand was played well. 

Removing Results

A technique many players use when discussing hands with each other is that they do not divulge the results of the hand until after each participant has given their analysis.  That way the results-oriented bias is avoided and the hands are simply analyzed using sound poker reasoning.  

Results-oriented thinking may also creep in when looking at longer periods of time rather than a single hand.  A player on a winning streak may have an inflated view of his skills because of his recent wins, while a player on a losing streak may lose confidence because of their losses.  It is again important to ignore results and analyze the poker side of it to determine how you are actually playing.  

Summary of Poker Pychology Tips

Poker can be a brutal game, and poker psychology plays a major role in that.  Using this guide and remembering the poker psychology tips it contains will keep you one step ahead of your opponents.  Shown below is a summary list of the poker psychology tips covered here.

  • Try to think exactly one step ahead of your opponent.
  • Know how other players view you and use that image to your advantage.
  • Learn to recognize your tilt so that it can be addressed.
  • Leave your ego at the door.
  • Ignore results when thinking about poker hands and strategy.