Poker is a complex competition we try to simplify to achieve peak performance; one of probabilities and people, of luck and skill, of mathematics, game theory and psychology. It is a process of continual decision-making based on incomplete information.
My next couple of columns will focus on personality types of poker players, starting with different takes on types we’ve read and talked about. I recently researched the scientific literature and found only one study that looked at poker personality and poker play. At the same time a tremendous amount has been published on probability and game theory. This means much of what is discussed as poker psychology is simply people’s observations.
Starting with Level 1 thinking and expanding it to be useful to you in achieving peak performance we’re going to take the classic styles of poker play and get deeper into how to really use them. I want to provide you with a different way of looking at the basic or one-dimensional typing that has been done in poker: tight vs. loose or passive vs. aggressive playing.
I say this is simplistic because it is a way to typecast players without a basis on actual personality. In psychology we call this face validity, which means something is described as it looks. It is a good quick-rule, but we know poker is a complex and multi-dimensional endeavor.
Before you can judge a player more thoroughly, though, you need a basic understanding of personality theory. People are defined by personality, which is anything that helps us predict what a given person will do in a given situation. It’s the consistent set behaviors, thoughts, feelings and perceptions that are based on internal and external factors and define the person. Personality doesn’t just influence our response set; it defines our responses by causing us to act in certain ways in certain circumstances. Personality affects your game and your opponent’s personality affects how they play as well as how you play them.
Psychologists and other students of human behavior have been trying to figure out personality since the beginning of time. So you might legitimately ask how you’re going to be able to apply this at the poker table without an advanced degree in psychology. Well, you don’t have to know it all, just enough to help achieve peak performance.
My goal is not to make you a behavior analyst but to help your poker game by understanding your personality and how it affects your play and how your opponent’s personality can be read and used for your benefit.
Any personality can win in poker.
Poker personality leads to what we call table image, which is useful if your opponents are paying attention. Table image is more useful in cash games than in mutlitable tournaments. In a big tournament you can spend two blind structures establishing a table image and then get moved to another group.
Phil Hellmuth wrote about animal analogies in regard to poker personalities. In psychology we talk about continuums and normal curves. We believe all events and behaviors fit under the normal curve and that all personality is dynamic, not static. A rock can become a maniac when on tilt and a maniac can become a rock after losing his stake. A weak player can become strong after winning a couple of hands and a strong player weak after getting rivered too many times.
We also believe all behaviors and people fit under the normal curve. Here I’ve taken the four classic styles of poker play and show how they would fit under the normal curve. The aggressive-passive continuum defines how a person plays: bet, raise, reraise; the tight-loose continuum defines the range of hands a person plays.
This tells us that about 34 percent of the players are tight-aggressive, about 34 percent are loose/aggressive, about 16 percent are tight-passive rocks and 16 percent loose-passive maniacs. This is pretty much what you can expect to see at the poker table.
But, more important, the continuum and normal curve analogy suggests about 68 percent of the time you should be playing somewhere between tight-aggressive and loose-aggressive and you should only use the outlying styles when the situation calls for it. You should be a rock or maniac about 2 percent of the time and about 13 percent you should loosen or tighten your game. But mostly a consistent player is going to be in the middle 68 percent.
Does this mean you’ll always win and not get sucked out on? No. It means if you want a steady way to play poker, you have to adapt your personality to the situation. Learn to be flexible within this particular framework.
There are strengths and weaknesses to each style and pros and cons to changing styles. First, you have a natural style: the one with which you normally feel comfortable. But to achieve peak performance you’ll have to learn to move through this flow based upon the situation. So take your basic personality and fit it to the situation and decide what style is the best situational style to play. Sometimes it backfires: My table image is usually tight and aggressive, so in a cash game, if opponents are paying attention and I make a big move, I usually have the nuts and folks fold. If I continue this play I won’t get a lot of action and once I realize my opponents have adjusted to my play I have to shift to the looser end of the continuum. This usually works, except when I flop two pair and the villain, who I have typed as a loose-aggressive maniac, flops the nut straight, I bet, he raises and I come over the top because I didn’t believe him. Does that invalidate the play? No, it just means the deck hit him and his loose-aggressive image worked. It happens.
Based upon the situation, your comfort zone and your grokking of the table, you have to be able to change your style (See last month’s issue at anteupmagazine.com for my column that addressed grokking). Situational poker play calls for you to understand your style and how to change when it suits the situation.
Your style of play may be a product of your overall personality. Low risk-takers may never be able to be become competent loose and aggressive players. To be successful, the poker player has to know his personality.
Future columns will look at how to manage these styles and how to read opponents’ styles, how to change your style and how, by knowing about this aspect of poker, you can keep your head in the game.
— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. His column will give insight on how to achieve peak performance using poker psychology. Email questions for him at firstname.lastname@example.org.