Decision fatigue affects everyone in poker


Decision-making is not an effortless task; it requires effort and depletes resources. In poker, there are constant decisions to make. A cash-game session or a tournament may require more decisions to be made than the average person faces in an ordinary month.

There’s a psychological hypothesis that centers on what has been called decision fatigue: the notion is that making choices is effortful and can therefore deplete resources. Once resources are depleted, impaired decision-making may kick in: decisions may become impaired because of long hours and lack of sleep, being physically out of shape, not eating properly, too much caffeine and drug taking.

This theory suggests our resources are depleted simply by the number of decisions we have to make. People outside the poker arena have shown dysfunction because of decision fatigue; imagine for a moment how few decisions you would be making if you didn’t come to the poker room.

In poker this may mean one makes better decisions at the beginning of a cash session or in the early stages of a tournament. It also means one should evaluate decisions much more carefully in the later stages of a tournament or late in a cash session.

Watch your play and see if your decision-making process changes as the session moves along. Some people become less confident in their decision-making and start playing too passively. Others get overconfident in their decision-making, their reads, their analysis and play too loosely. Observe yourself and see if these scenarios fit or if there is another scenario. If the pot comes limped to you and you hold K-Q you probably typically raise with this hand in many situations. But thinking about calling the limp and knowing that’s the passive play, as a player aware of decision fatigue you might take the extra few seconds to realize a raise is the best move, though you feel like calling.

A number of researchers have found this depletion causes numerous behavioral problems: prejudicial responding, inappropriate self-presentation, impulsive decision-making and intellectual underachievement.

Recently the New York Times looked at this issue and found “good decision making is not a trait of the person, in the sense that it’s always there.” Dr, Roy Baumeister said. “It’s a state that fluctuates.” His studies show people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.

Back to poker: You’re engaging in an activity that requires continual decision-making; it would be wise to reduce all non-poker decision-making to save your resources:

• “The best decision-makers,” Baumeister said, “are the ones who know whennotto trust themselves.” So learn self-regulation and honest self-analysis.

• Learn the precursors to poor decisions: extreme passivity or impulsivity; crankiness; tilt.

• Set routines for non poker-related activities. Don’t decide if you’re going to eat; set a time to eat; the days you play, make a schedule or a list; don’t be bothered by excessive, extraneous decision-making and choice; making decisions each hand, each street, sometimes several times each street, is enough.

• Accept that you can’t control everything, but realize others are going through the same process, they just might not know it.

• Remember a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity while an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. Optimism is necessary to successfully compete in the poker world; stay optimistic, even after a good decision goes bad.

• Get up from the table when you need to, there are no chains. Eat something healthy, stay hydrated and add health supplements to the water. Remember you can miss a hand or two and it won’t be the hand that wins the tournament or triples you up, more likely if you are experiencing decision fatigue it will be the hand that felts you. Tell yourself it is OK to take the break, that the consequences of not breaking are more problematic than missing a random hand. Be optimistic about this decision and give yourself permission to put yourself in position to make the best decisions. In a cash game, get away, change tables and virtually start a new session by moving.

• If you make a mental error, move on. People say, “I should have known he had the ace, or the nuts.” Really? Are you really that good?

• Making a bad decision can throw you off and can create a downward cycle. You may feel like you have to make up for that bad decision. That, in and of itself, is a bad decision. You’re in a tournament and donk off half your stack on a mental error; reassess and figure out how to move on with the stack you have left and not the stack you “should” have had.
Working on combating and controlling decision fatigue is important and will 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