Decision-making never ends in poker



One thing that amazes me is poker, in all its forms, always comes down to decision-making.

While people in the real world who have to make tough decisions might develop paralysis of analysis, poker players have to thrive on the decision-making process. Poker decisions are based on incomplete information in an environment filled with distraction, at a high speed, and without help.

How we go about the task of making all of these decisions is a product of style combined with training in peak performance. It is possible to train yourself to make better decisions.
The first step in any training is to be aware of your natural inclinations and determine which are effective and which need work.

In terms of styles of decision-making some people are “thinkers” and some people are “feelers.” I’m going to over-simplify by saying thinkers tend to rely on what they perceive to be objective criteria and tend to value logic; feelers make decisions based upon how they feel about the situation, their read on the table, their gut or intuition. Over-relying on either can be disastrous.

The thinker may get upset when trying to set up a well-executed bluff and his opponent doesn’t buy it; he might even say, “If you were a better player you would have folded,” or “If you knew my style you wouldn’t have made that move.” The implication is if you had played by the rules of logic you would have folded, and lost. The feel player may go on tilt when the loose-aggressive player gets K-K and busts him. The wrong read or perception can set off a tirade on how bad the other players played.

We teach people in leadership situations to follow a formula for good decision-making.
First, assess and identify the decision to be made and the outcomes desired; then gather and explore all the data, that is gather information and identify alternatives; then decide by weighing the evidence and choosing among the alternatives; and finally, act accordingly.

Now go apply this at the table, with the pressure, chips riffling, trying to incorporate a read and having little or no time, no consultation, no Internet, no lifelines, no help and do it fast. This model only works when the situation is controllable. Poker is a game of incomplete information in which many aspects are out of your control.

Instead, follow this set of seemingly paradoxical processes: be focused and flexible, be aware and wary; be objective and optimistic and be practical yet intuitive. This is an approach put out by H.B. Gelatt in Creative Decision Making Using Positive Uncertainty.
Gelatt developed the decision-making skills he thought people would need in the future to include:

• Ability and comfort with changing one’s mind
• Willingness to keep one’s mind open
• Ability and comfort with being uncertain
• Willingness to be positive about uncertainty

I believe this model works well in poker as follows:

1. BE FOCUSED AND FLEXIBLE: Know what you want but don’t be stubborn; be ready to change when the circumstance changes and stay flexible. You’re three bets in and a reasonably good and tight player comes over the top. Consider your options, including folding.

Decisions should be more like hypotheses; stay open to changing circumstance as needed. You are in a tournament and raise 25 percent of your stack from the cutoff in a steal attempt, only to get two callers. Your stack is equal to the pot, what do you do? Try to disprove your hypotheses.

Balance making decisions and discovering them. Always be open to incorporate new information. Sometimes let decisions emerge. Try to see the whole picture. Practice visualizations.

2. BE AWARE AND WARY: Recognize knowledge is power and ignorance is bliss; an open mind is receptive, an unreceptive mind is closed. When you admit you don’t know, you open yourself to new learning. Don’t get locked into thinking you know everything that’s going on; if you do you are more susceptible to the trap and bluff. Remember that first impressions of opponents are only hypotheses.

Memory can be a friend or an enemy; we remember the past better than we imagine the future. Memory is selective and only works backward and can block your openness to new knowledge. We need multidirectional minds.

Remember your mistakes and correct them; remember your good plays and capitalize; remember what your opponent does in other similar circumstances, remember how you played a hand and adjust. You can’t remember if you don’t take in the information — memory has to do with absorbing information. You have to pay attention; store the information and retrieve the information. You have to practice.
Balance using information with imagination. The more you know, the more you realize what you don’t know. Awareness of this opens you up to new use of your imagination.

3. BE OBJECTIVE AND OPTIMISTIC: Reality is in the eye of the beholder; everything begins with belief. And if you think you can, you might. If you think you can’t, you probably won’t. What is real is a matter of the information you have and how you perceive that information. Balance reality testing with positive projecting; visualize desirable future scenarios as if they were self-fulfilling prophecies.

4. BE PRACTICAL AND INTUITIVE: Learn to plan and plan to learn. Set your goals and practice. Remember there is right-brain intuition and left-brain logic. Intuition is neither luck nor superstition. Your right brain assimilates information in a different way. When you have all of the left-brain skill down pat, let your right brain go to work.
Balance responding to change with causing change; responding is reactive while causing is proactive. We need to do both: respond to the past and think and plan positively for the future.

Use all of this to help you 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

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