Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist with decades of experience getting into people’s heads, plus he’s an avid poker player who just made a Columbus Day tournament final table at Foxwoods in Connecticut (He finished sixth). Recently “Doc” became a columnist for Ante Up, so we felt it would benefit you to learn more about him and the psychology of poker.
Can you give an overview of how poker and psychology interact together?
Sure. You know everybody’s talking about the psychology of poker and how important it is and how some people (feel) it’s even more important than knowing the cards and knowing the odds and the probabilities. For me there are really three ways psychology and poker interact with each other. First, there’s the whole issue of you the player (and how you play). … The second big issue is your opponent. Can you read your opponent? How is your opponent interacting? Can you pick up any tells or patterns? The third way, which is really advanced, is how do I manage the table using psychology. Part of poker is the art of deception, and part of psychology is understanding the art of deception. … really it’s just you, them and the game.
When you go to the poker room, what kind of exercises do you run through to put yourself in the right frame of mind?
It’s really simple. There’s a transition from wherever you were to wherever you’re going, so when you get to the poker room you need to start thinking about poker, you need to start thinking about what you’re going to play. … So when I get to a room, right before I sign up for a table, I’ll walk around the room and start listening to the riffle of the chips and realize that I’m in the poker room. On the way to the poker room I try to think of success-oriented positive thoughts, and when I get there I do what every peak performer does, I try to attune myself to where I am.
What are some signs our opponents aren’t in their right frame of mind to be playing optimally?
The things that I notice most are women and men who are watching the clock. … they’re there, but they’re there on a short time. They have to get home, catch the spouse, they have to do some shopping … so you see somebody like that and you know their whole focus isn’t on the table, and you can use that to your advantage. … In the poker rooms I play most locally are dog track poker rooms, Orange Park and St. Johns (in Jacksonville). I like to watch guys who are betting the dogs. If their concentration is on the dogs then I know that their full concentration isn’t at the table. The other things I count on are people taking lots of cell phone calls, business people who are getting called by their office and they have to stand up from the table. … so they’re losing their focus. Uh, people who are drinking. (laughs) I don’t want to advocate that you want to see someone drinking too much, but they start playing much looser and lose focus. … and of course the big, big issue is tilt. Any time you see someone going on tilt you gotta figure out is that bet being made because of tilt, are they playing looser or are they just playing? Are they tossing in that last short stack like a roulette bet? … Those are the kinds of things I look at.
We all know cards don’t have memory, but what can we do to convince our brain of that?
It’s called magical thinking. … It’s a matter of conditioning yourself and preparing yourself. You know it’s going to happen. Some people call it a gambler’s dilemma. We know it’s random; we know that it’s variance. There’s this whole issue of runs. Runs are true, but they’re not true because they’re magical. They’re true because when you win you start playing differently. You start playing more confidently. If you can get other people to think (you’re) on a streak or a run, even though statistically they don’t exist, perceptually they exist. So we have to rid ourselves of this gambler’s dilemma-magical thinking and hope that we can instill in our opponents the same thing we want to get rid of in ourselves.
We’ve all been in a situation where we’ve played a game that we know we shouldn’t have played, or played a hand that we know we shouldn’t have played. What is it about the brain that makes us do things that we clearly know that we shouldn’t be doing?
Sometimes we overestimate our own skill or sometimes forget this is a game of variance, that’s there’s probabilities. We get to a place where we just know that we’re gonna hit it. How many times have you seen someone stay in a hand and get runner-runner something? There’s a concept in psychology called intermittent reinforcement. It’s why slot machines work. If something hits predictably it doesn’t get reinforced as strongly as if something hits kind of randomly but hits enough to reinforce that it’s going to happen. So that’s what the brain remembers. It remembers, “You know I was playing this hand and I got runner-runner diamonds, or runner-runner straight.” … We trick ourselves all the time. The only way to avoid that is to really study the game, have a study group and work on your own self and how you approach these situations so you can do some thought-blockage.
Lee Childs, Ante Up’s strategy columnist, has a great slogan: Decide to win. It reminds us that we need to play with confidence. Are we able to “psych up” our brain even before we taste success?
Absolutely. “Decide to win” is a great phrase. There’s a whole thing in psychology called self-fulfilling prophecies. … I once interviewed about 100 people about slot machines. It was a bus from New York City to Atlantic City and I was doing some consulting for a casino. … We narrowed it down to two questions: What are you playing? And universally the people on the bus were going to play the slots. And the second question was: When do you leave the slot machine? And universally the answer was “When I lose all my money.” (laughs) And I said wow! Their self-fulfilling prophecy didn’t matter. They decided to lose. … I would suggest Lee’s slogan, or any other slogan that works for you, to literally write it down and paste it on your mirror. … When you’re feeling good, and you feel it in the zone, and you’re feeling confident, the cards don’t necessarily run better, but what you do with them runs better.