Psychology in Poker & Table Presence

31 years ago, or so, I remember vividly being told I had to go to bed and that the adults (and my older cousins) were going to play a serious game of bridge. I had a temper tantrum and stormed off to my room crying.

I was five years old, and couldn’t fathom why I wasn’t allowed to stay up, while my seven and nine-year-old cousins were allowed to join the adults at the card table. Despite my young age and struggling to hold on to all 13 cards, I had been learning the rules of bridge and had already had a knack for card games.

The following summer, and in all the summers that followed, I was given the opportunity to participate in those bridge games. Over time, I earned a reputation within the family as one of the more aggressive players. In bridge, a team that successfully buds and achieves a grand slam or a small slam (where you and your partner win all or almost all the 13 ‘tricks’) is awarded a significant number of points.

While there was a penalty for failing to convert to a slam, I often believed that the potential reward outweighed the risk, much to the dismay of more cautious family members. And so, a gambler was born.

A GAMBLER WAS BORN

Alex Livingston with his family holding hands

Growing up, playing bridge for countless hours during each summer and competing in national chess tournaments played a significant role in shaping my childhood identity.

“Before considering myself a poker player, I identified as a card player, and even before that, I saw myself as a lover of games. I was always drawn to games that involved strategic thinking, and what fascinated me the most was the psychological aspect of the game.”

When playing bridge, I found myself just as intrigued, if not more so, by observing how my opponents played and their unique style, rather than focusing solely on the conventional theories of the game. While reading books on bridge theory tended to bore me, I never grew tired of discussing potential moves with my teammates or opponents.

I constantly sought to understand their perspectives and reasoning, always curious about what approach they would have taken in certain situations. For instance, I would often ponder why aunt Laura didn’t choose the finesse option when an aggressive move was necessary.

When I discovered poker years later, this psychological curiosity played into the way I approached the game. I’ve always been fascinated by outliers of the game, players who are impossibly tight, or impossibly loose – those with seemingly total disregard for positional awareness, and those whose extreme caution has likely been formed by factors that existed in their lives before they even learned how to play cards.

I always tried to understand and assess a person first, from the perspective of their humanity, and then figure out how that “character type” would play cards.

The Growth of The game

Several factors have contributed to the recent surge in popularity of live poker in recent years. The first notable factor is the sense of boredom that many experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic. Additionally, the emergence of poker streamers and the availability of high-stakes streamed games have captured the attention of enthusiasts.

Furthermore, poker operators have been engaged in fierce competition, striving to offer superior tournament series with larger guaranteed prizes. It’s also worth considering the influence of the crypto boom, which has provided both professional and recreational players with increased financial means.

As a result of this poker boom and the proliferation of the game on social media channels, there has been considerable discussion surrounding the role of professional players in creating an enjoyable table atmosphere. They are expected to have a positive table presence, engage in action, play at a brisk pace, possess good conversational skills, and contribute to the overall social dynamics of the game. 

THE SOCIAL GAME of Poker

Alex Livingston laughing with Dario at the Main Event Table

While many argue that these qualities are imperative to the long-term growth of poker, others argue that poker is a zero-sum game, that not all personalities are necessarily drawn to small-talk or socializing at the table, that some people (pros included) need more time to think, or even that a lot of pros who socialize and give action are actual being fake and/or manipulative.

As someone who has always been drawn to the social and psychological aspects of the game, I am definitively in the camp that believes that making the game more fun (whatever that means for you) will make poker better long-term.

“For me, my long-term goal is certainly to make a living playing the game, but I’d certainly rather enjoy my surroundings while doing so.”

This does not necessarily mean I think every professional has a responsibility in this arena – and I know that for some introverts or those coming from an online background, much of this will not come naturally. At least for me though, I find that giving action and having an amicable personality at the table is a win-win. For many nonprofessionals, they don’t expect to win long-term, and one of their primary objectives is to have a good time.

How I succeed Incorporating Psychology in Poker

The core enjoyment lies in participating in games where players are not only engaged in the gameplay but also actively fostering a social atmosphere filled with laughter and camaraderie. Irrespective of my financial investment in the game, I find great satisfaction in the sheer act of being sociable.

Additionally, from a strategic perspective, the biggest reason I enjoy these sorts of games is that it allows me to harness and grow what I consider to be the strongest part of my game – my psychological understanding, and my ability to adjust to different opponent types.

Through engaging my opponents in conversation about their everyday lives, pushing their limits with consecutive 3bets, and employing a range of bet sizing techniques such as under-betting and over-betting, as well as showcasing both bluffs and strong hands, I can effectively extract valuable information from their reactions.

I’ve always been open to revealing a lot about my own playing style during a hand, placing trust in my ability to swiftly counter-adjust or utilize the acquired information to my advantage.

Life Lessons From the Poker Table

I understand and respect that some pros won’t feel this way, and they have the right to play their own way and conduct themselves at the table. But while I personally hate the politics of private games, I also understand the reason live cash has gone that direction, as if I were a losing player, I’d want to at least be enjoying myself with the crowd I’m with.

Leaning into the psychological aspect of the game and realizing the edges that can be gleaned simply by understanding your opponents’ personalities better can serve the purposes of both improving your win rate and making the environment at the table more fun for everyone.

See Alex’s thoughts on the world of poker after placing 3rd in the 2019 WSOP Main Event:

Conclusion

As someone who grew up immersed in card games, I developed a fascination for the unique styles and approaches of fellow players. This curiosity carried over to poker, where I discovered the significance of understanding opponents on a deeper level. I firmly believe that fostering a fun and engaging environment can contribute to the long-term growth and enjoyment of poker.

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