You must have emotional intelligence at the poker table


In 1990, Yale psychologists John D. Mayer and Peter Salovey coined the term emotional intelligence, which refers to the ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions. Some researchers suggest it can be learned and strengthened, while others claim it is an inborn characteristic.

I believe some people develop EI easier than others because of inborn characteristics, life experiences and personality. I also believe everyone has EI and it can be worked on and improved.

This is important for the poker player because we have to deal with our emotions all the time, in a much-encapsulated environment. The intensity of emotions and our reactions is unique to only a few endeavors; poker, with constant decision-making and lack of complete information is one of these.

To some people, the poker table is a pressure cooker. To some, it is a task to be solved. Some of us are detached and analytic; some emotionally involve, but there are just times when the emotions get the best of you. Here’s an example: A player has {k-Clubs}{q-Clubs} and the flop comes {j-Clubs}{10-Clubs}{7-Hearts}. All the money gets in. The turn is the {3-Clubs}, and the river is the {6-Clubs}. His opponent has the {a-Clubs}. Our hero smiles, says good hand and doesn’t show emotion. He goes home, fights with children, wife or kicks the dog. The emotion is there. The key is to deal with it. Why? Well, we need more information.

Emotions in this scenario are complicated. The feeling level could be because of feeling stupid, embarrassed or, as the case here, the player had too much emotion invested in the hand and was taking a step up from $2-$2 to $2-$5 and this was going to be “his” hand. Playing over your money limit takes a toll. Trying to get even takes a toll. What attributes you place on your game may take a toll. Combine all of this with too much emotion and the result can be disastrous.

One has to have self-awareness; you have to recognize your emotions and how they affect your thoughts and behavior. You also have to know from where the emotion is coming. You have to develop the ability to control impulsive feelings and behaviors but not lose the ability to act aggressively in the right circumstance. You also have to have what has sometimes been called social awareness and what we calling reading ability.

Stress is known as tilt in poker. As part of your arsenal, you should be able to quickly reduce stress and the first step is recognizing and managing tilt at the table. Some quick tips:

• Separate life emotions from poker
• Realize and acknowledge when you’re stressed
• Learn stress-reducing techniques that work for 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