How to combat mental poker errors

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Manny Pacquiao is knocked out and says he lost concentration; the Patriots lose and the coach says they need to focus more. The message is clear: Even at the highest level, mental error separates winning and losing.

We all make mental errors. Hopefully, they don’t come at important moments, such as the Super Bowl. Luckily, you can learn to reduce them by using head games.

Some mental errors players have discussed with me:

• Overvaluing your read of someone.
• Overvaluing your ability to read tells. I’m skeptical when people talk about tells. First, you have to identify a specific tell; then you have to figure out what it means. Sometimes scratching his nose means he’s bluffing, and sometimes it means his nose itches. Be careful.
• Falling in love with your hand. This mostly happens with a high pair.
• Bluffing a player who can’t be bluffed.
• Playing tired.
• Being distracted.
• Playing with sacred money.
• Assuming everyone plays the way you do.
• Playing too long when stuck.
• Not playing long enough to make a significant win.
• Creating action because you are bored.

Send in your mental errors for inclusion in a future column.
Two related mental errors I’ve been talking about with players are calling when you should fold and bad bluffing.
The first one is a real killer. You have a good preflop hand, a big pair; the betting goes well. The flop doesn’t look like it hits anyone and certainly not you, but you think your preflop pair is still the best hand. You invest another round of betting.

The turn comes and a big bet from an opponent who rarely bluffs. You call with what you consider a bluff-catcher: all-in on the river; Do you call or give up? Too much ego involved? What if he is bluffing me? I love my big pair. But you know the expected value is low. You call anyway; you want to catch him in a bluff, and you want to see his hand. But your read tells you a bluff would be rare and you can really only beat a bluff. Don’t just call to find out if you’re right. Sit back, think about your opponent’s play, his range, his patterns and trust your informed read. If you think you’re beat then you probably are and you don’t have to make the error of throwing good money after bad money just to prove something.
The other side of the coin is the bad bluff. Two rules to remember: Your bluff has to tell a story that makes sense and your opponent has to have the skills to read the story. A corollary: A semi-bluff is better than a full bluff, having a long shot winning hand gives you more opportunities than a full bluff will.

Most players can get to the point where telling a story makes sense. Hero is a consistent and fairly tight player, not a nit, but tight and can be aggressive. Hero reads Villain as a solid player. Our hero has Q-10 offsuit; the flop comes {10-Hearts}{9-Spades}{5-Spades}. Villain bets; Hero calls. Turn comes blank. Villain bets, Hero calls. River comes {j-Spades}. Villain bets, Hero pushes all-in, suggesting a straight or flush. Hero thinks his 10s may be best and that he told a good story and that Villain will tank; Hero thinks that is good sign. Eventually he thinks, “I am probably wrong,” but seems to understand only error one. He then says, “I’ve got to call with my kings.” He wins, but reinforced an error. He caught a bluff.
Keep your head in the game by fixing these psychological leaks.

— 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.