Your ‘A’ game in poker consists of four styles


Poker is a complex game of luck and skill, people and probabilities. I want to throw another factor into the mix: Poker is about risk, and personality influences how you handle risk.

Some personalities try to manage risk; some enjoy freefall daredevil poker; some like the rollercoaster ride (as long as the car stays on the tracks); and some avoid risk altogether.
Each of us has what we call risk capacity and risk tolerance. These are products of our personality, our styles and the situations. Risk tolerance is the amount of risk you want to take. Risk capacity, on the other hand, is the amount of risk you need to take.

Poker means continual decision-making based on incomplete information confounded by personality and probability. Skill plays a significant part and those who say they’d rather be lucky than good are shortsighted risk-takers against whom I love to play. Making decisions in an uncertain environment is one of the hardest tasks we face, and poker players do it voluntarily, continually and enjoyably. The more proficient we get the more we understand we’re engaged in situational decision-making.

Poker risk-taking is different from investment, health care and even military risk (all of which have been extensively studied) because we take risk in a microcosm. We make continual decisions, and we don’t have the time for complex computer analysis or meetings. There are no life lines.

Colin Powell may have said it best when asked about how he made key military decisions. Even the most difficult, important and life decisions, such as sending troops into combat, are made using a two-part formula: Part 1: Use the formula P =40-70, in which P stands for the probability of success and the numbers indicate the percentage of information acquired.  Part II: Once the information is in the 40- 70 range, go with your gut. Powell understood many decisions are situational and based upon incomplete information.

I imagine that 40-70 percent of the information is about right, but going with your gut is often misunderstood (see previous column on grokking for a full explanation at Real gut risk-taking is not a wild guess, or impulsive, tilt-based decisions. It’s the culmination of experience, skill development and personality.

Everyone has styles, personality traits and comfort levels, which defines us as avoiders, adapters, adventurers or attackers. To play at your peak you have to be able to use each risk capacity/tolerance style and put your opponents in a style.

I have characterized risk capacity and tolerance into four styles. Each style is useful depending on different situations and the table. The percentages are just guidelines. Getting a handle on this will let you bring your “A” game.

All poker is situational. To achieve peak performance one has to be able to move through these personality styles and move outside their comfort zone. Each situation calls for a different style and the peak performer can play each style.

Know your risk-tolerance and capacity and 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


This is a weak style of play that’s been called tight–passive. This person is a rock who only plays premium hands and plays them weakly. This player is more concerned with preventing loss and protecting his stack than winning. Often this is a recreational player who enjoys the poker room; doesn’t work on his game and just wants to have fun. If this player gets a decent hand he can’t be moved off of that hand or be bluffed. Play this style against a table of attackers, and then move to a more aggressive style.

This was the traditional “best” style, advocated by more experienced players until the Adventurers swooped in. Typically a tight and aggressive player. This player is comfortable with adapting to the situation and not defining the situation. He plays a smaller range of playable hands but will raise and reraise and doesn’t stick to premium hands. This player calculates the odds and tends to try to read the table and adapt to the situation. This player misses some opportunities because of the tight range of hands and misses big pots because when good opponents are watching he doesn’t get called much.

Traditionally the loose aggressive player likes to gamble when the situation calls for it. This style has really taken center stage, fueled by aggressive Internet styles and much younger players, who by personality, tend to play more aggressively. Not adverse to taking chances and playing a wider range of hands, this player likes to dominate the table and define the situation, making the adapter meet his/her demands. This player is a proactive one that raises and reraises and doesn’t like to limp. This player controls with aggression. He knows the math and tries reads but would sometimes rather be read.

The player looks like a maniac and plays any two cards strongly until he loses and then retreats to a more passive style as he gets felted. He may look like he’s on constant tilt. Similar to the loose and passive player, but doesn’t see the risk, doesn’t weigh the risk factors. Attacks at the wrong time and tries to be the aggressor with very weak hands. Mostly calls with a wide, wide range of hands. Play this player tighter and look for opportunities. Play this style when the table is full of Avoiders.