Learning to cultivate empathy at the poker table

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I always find it curious when a player gets upset that an opponent didn’t react in a way that said player hoped he would have. For instance, enraged player fires three bullets and gets called by a light but winning hand. Enraged player curses the calling station and asks how he could have made such a stupid call.

Now, this is just one example and maybe the opponent was a novice calling station here. But often in these situations, I find the novice to be the enraged player. No matter who you are or what level you’re playing, you’re going to encounter unpredictable play. Sometimes this is the result of a newbie having no idea what he’s doing. If a player doesn’t know what he’s doing, then there’s no way you’re going to figure out what he’s doing. However, you can adjust and play accordingly.

Often, however, we don’t give opponents credit for mixing up their play, thinking one or two levels deep or just plain outplaying us. The key thing is this: When an opponent doesn’t play the way you want him to, don’t get upset and blame your opponent. Everyone is entitled to play their hand their way. Poker is the ultimate capitalist venture. You pay to play and you’re entitled to play any way you want.

If you want to be a winning player, your job is to figure out how your opponent is playing, why he’s playing that way, and what his motivation and tendencies are. Once you figure that out, then you can find ways to manipulate and exploit that. Poker is not played in a vacuum. Yes, sometimes players will stay in line exactly how you want them to, but those situations are not nearly enough to feed your bankroll.

It’s human nature to project our frame of reference on others. That’s a big mistake. We’re all unique and poker is a situational specific game. The most important quality for a winning player to possess is empathy. One definition of empathy is “the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another.” Memorize this. Write it down if need be. Take it with you next time you enter a poker room.

Mastering empathy will take work. Study and probe. Ask questions. Discuss poker with friends and acquaintances. Learn to identify with others’ plights. Not just in poker, but in all aspects of life. Cultivate empathy consistently every day in and out of the poker room. You’ll soon find you’ll not only become a better poker player, but a better person.

— David Apostolico is the author of You are the Variable: Play Your Best Poker, ($5.99 for Kindle). Email him at thepokerwriter@aol.com.