Decisions at poker table are crucial to success

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Making decisions under uncertain conditions is the essence of poker play. Mental preparation, learning the math, game theory, reading opponents; bluffing, creating a table image, tells and position are all elements of informing one’s decision-making.

As rational humans we try to make sense of this by creating strategies, relying on game theory, learning the probabilities and psychology of the game. But at the end of the day we make continual decisions with incomplete information and with a great deal of uncertainty. Those who succeed “get it” and accept, adjust and accommodate. They understand a good decision can result in a bad outcome. There are no truly correct decisions, since you can’t control the opponent. There is only the best decision you can make at the moment.

One of the most frequent causes of tilt is that the person believes because they made the right decision and they should have won, only to lose the hand. The person gets upset that the “correct” decision did not result in the best outcome. This cognitive distortion is based upon the irrational belief that poker is a rational game and if the correct decision is made the outcome is assured. Wrong! This is a game of incomplete information and uncertainty.

However, making the best decision, based on the information you have, is what needs to be done for the long run success of your game.
A logical and rational perspective is to develop a strategy to make the best decision, work to fight the internal and external forces against you, live with the decision and if it was the correct decision it will win in the long run. Don’t focused on immediate results.

There are numerous variables that must be taken into account when each of the many decisions is to be made: your table image, your read of opponents, stack size, betting, cash vs. tournament, likelihood of opponent bluffing, your range, their range, what you will do next, game theory, probabilities and much more. Just as important is that these analyses are made quickly.

Game theory is how strategic decisions are made and should be studied. Strategic decision-making means how the actions of others affect your decision-making.

If everyone acted rationally and had the same information, it’s likely the only winner would be the house. It’s likely if such were true, we would not play for long. This is true even in the best pit game at the casino. You can minimize the house advantage in blackjack and craps, but over the long run the house can’t be beat.

There’s also an inherent truth: Not everyone plays with the same information and not everyone behaves rationally. So the solution seems obvious: Have more information about the game and the table and understand your emotions. Poker is different; it’s a parimutuel event (everyone’s bets are pooled). Develop an edge, exploit it and come out ahead.

My work has shown me that most decisions are made through a combination of rational logic and emotional logic; making decisions is an outcome of personality, sometimes rational and sometimes emotional. In the simplest form this is the feel/math-gut/head debate.

At the extremes of decision-making styles there are people who are intuitive: they don’t normally spend a long time searching for data; they tend to think that new information will confirm their gut beliefs, so why bother? They believe information-seeking is too slow and without enough reward and that the new information will only confuse their decision-making process.

On the other extreme are people who like to think of themselves as rational and logical, only to be stymied by the paralysis of analysis.

Don’t be an extremist.

Can you assume all of your opponents are rational? If not you have to figure out a way to play against them. Intuition comes into play. You have to trust your right brain as much as your left.

In addition to all the preparation one needs to be successful, having a set of decision-making guidelines proves useful.

So, consider developing some risk-strategy decision-making techniques, which can serve as guidelines:

• Dismiss remote or unrealistic possibilities. When you decide to drive to the poker room, you may get into a traffic accident; when you buy food at the poker room, you may get food poisoning; and when you think everyone hit the flop or that all six limpers are bluffing, you’re wrong most of the time. These are extreme, but you get the point.
• Avoid catastrophes as much as possible. Decide the reasonable cost of your decision and reasonable catastrophic outcome. You are medium-stacked on the bubble, do you play to win and risk busting or play to make the money? What is the possible outcome of making the money? Will there be a chop? Does it get me to the next level? The difficulty of applying this principle comes from the uncertainty of what is a real risk and what is a reasonable cost. Those are your decisions.
• Know the tradeoffs. Each decision we make at the table involves incomplete information, uncertainty and risk. How much is enough? And remember a fold is as much a decision as a raise, reraise or call.
• Maximize return and minimize loss.
• Understand you can learn from losing when you make a good decision as well as winning when you make a bad decision.

And remember, at all times, 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 editor@anteupmagazine.com.