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Neuropsychology of Poker (1) - Under the Hood
IntroductionIn this article
- How neuropsychology affects your game
- Why the correct handling of tilt is only meddling with symptoms
- Which negative and positive influences your brain is exposed to
Do you ever wonder why, even with the promise of riches and freedom, you simply cannot devote the time and effort necessary to excel in online poker? Why, despite the multitude of information, tools and support available, you still do not average at least $100k/year as a poker professional?
The answers to these questions are more objective then you might think: something you can be thankful for! Success in online poker today requires more than mechanical proficiency. The now commonplace technical knowledge you take for granted is only a small piece of the puzzle. It is becoming ever more important for poker players to master their psychological and physical health in order to rise above the competition.
In today’s landscape, the technical gaps between the successful and the very successful are much smaller than they were just a few years ago. This places more emphasis on the other dimensions of poker life which, up to now, have been virtually unexplored in comparison to the current information available on strategic awareness.
Factors such as resilience, motivation, energy, concentration and mood, are now, more than ever, paramount in achieving high levels of success in online poker. So how do you get there? To arrive at the solution to this dilemma, you will need three things: knowledge, focus, and discipline.
How (neuro-) psychology affects your game
As an online poker player, you delve deep into the mathematical core of a poker hand. Whether explicitly working with the numbers or not, most of your effort is expended attempting to decipher the profitability of your play. Message boards, books, blogs and DVDs flood the poker landscape with information to help you fine tune your technical awareness when making decisions on the poker table. The common level of proficiency and standard of players in the online poker environment today is outstanding. Yet, most poker players still make very fundamental mistakes in the other very important aspect of their poker careers.
The faults in the lifestyle choices and mental approach to the game are at a level akin to the simplicity of technical mistakes which were commonplace five years ago and would be considered rookie today. Online poker professionals interested in generating consistently high yearly incomes need to educate themselves about their lifestyle away from the table and improve it.
This series of articles aims to take a step towards achieving this. To dig into the current common threshold of psychological awareness and bring to light the neuropsychological constructs governing the life of a poker player.
Most of the content currently available on this subject attempts to help poker players overcome the negative, but not necessarily optimize their positive. There are countless forum posts, articles and videos on managing things like tilt, anxiety and negativity; yet this is only one step in the right direction.
Overcoming the common psychological obstacles we experience as poker players is like putting a band-aid on a wound. It may help it to heal quicker, but what‘s more important is to improve our mental health so that wounds occur less frequently and are less dramatic. By advancing our psychological awareness at a technical level, we can better control and enhance the mental characteristics which are so essential for achieving consistently high poker profits.
I know what you’re thinking. “This all sounds great Ali, who wouldn’t want to master their emotional and psychological well-being, both on and off the poker tables, but it‘s easier said than done”. Like most things, knowledge really is power. The goal of this series of articles is to present you with technical information and help you understand and apply it to your poker career. As with most things in this world, our psychological state, emotions and behaviour are all quantifiable. Poker hands can be broken down to numerical units and understood formulaically. Our brains and bodies operate in much the same way.
As we will explore later in this series, the brains cells (neurons), communicate by sending out chemicals (neurotransmitters). These neurotransmitters influence and control everything from our mood and memory, to our thoughts and actions. As we all now know, the brain is the control centre of the body. It initiates and governs every action and every thought. For example, when you take in information from your computer screen, think about the proper action and activate the signal telling your finger to click the mouse, your brain has just conducted a multitude of quantifiable operations.
Along the way, that sequence of events was influenced by umpteen other messages. Your mood, your memory and your health all altered the input and output that lead to that mouse-click. It is this interaction that this article series will focus on. By demonstrating how the individual parts and the mathematical nature of the phenomena work together to influence your decisions on and off the table, this series will not only increase your poker profits, but also give you the tools that will help you understand your overall health and happiness. Okay, enough promises, time for action!
The pot is $1200 on the river and your opponent instantly donk-shoves the remaining $1400, which you cover after check-calling the flop and turn. You have already lost the two previous hands, both of which involved your whole stack. With a frantic click you make your decision quickly and without thinking. Shocking even yourself, the decision making process usually employed seemed non-existent. It is as if something from the depths of your being took over and automated the response for you while you were tending to your scorned psyche. This is something all poker players experience.
It can occur because of losses and tilt, loss of focus and attention, or fatigue, to name but a few reasons. Regardless, the outcome is the same. The logical power of our frontal lobes, which allow us to dominate the animal kingdom, is trumped by our innate and emotional irrationality. Although we are cleverer than other animals, we are nevertheless very much psychologically feeble creatures.
The frontal lobes are the portion of our brain that is, unsurprisingly, at the front of the brain. Directly behind your eyes and your forehead is the part of the brain that controls your decision making. This area receives most of the signals before allowing you to think through the message and plan the output that will manifest in action. Not only for the short term click of a mouse, but figuratively speaking as well. Frontal lobes allow us to time travel so to speak, plan ahead in our lives, and envision our goals that will hopefully become reality.
We humans have very highly developed frontal lobes compared to other animals. They help us try to “rise above” the innate and automatic responses in hopes of better rationalizing through our nature.
As you may have guessed, this is a pretty important area to understand and optimize as a poker player. In fact, so much so that part 2 of this series will be dedicated to this region. For now it’s important to note that the frontal lobes are part of what is called the cortex, or cerebrum. This is basically the more evolved portion of our brains, and beneath it you will find what’s called the subcortical region. A more detailed view of these mechanisms will be available in Part 1 of the video series which complements these articles.
Going back to our tilt example, the primary reason for this loss of control are the structures beneath the cortex, as mentioned, the subcortical region. Automatic and emotional processes take place or stem from this region, including memory storage. The limbic system is one such very important part of this subcortical region. This is a collection of structures involved in emotional creation, sequencing, and understanding.1
Diagram highlighting the structures of the limbic system as a cohesive unit.2
The diagrams below illustrate the relationship between the limbic system and our decision making, as influenced by both positive and negative states of mind.
Positive initiatives that foster subcortical and cortical health include exercise, nutrition, meditation, and the elimination of all negative influences. Living a happy and successful life requires a healthy lifestyle, especially when your job is to outwit and outperform other highly trained competitors in a game of cognitive skill. Your attention, focus, motivation, awareness, intellect and mental dexterity, all have to be functioning at an optimal level for long periods of time. In upcoming articles within this series, the relevant attributes will be separated and analysed at a physiological level to better understand their role in the decision making process.
Positive and negative influences
At this stage in the game, it’s not enough to simply know that tilt is bad and exercise is a good way to lower your potential for (as well as your negative reaction to) tilting stimuli. Why does exercise help neurologically? How does physical health help the frontal lobes make rational decisions? These are the questions we will explore. Our goal is to optimize the positives and eliminate the negatives.
Negativity is one of the biggest obstacles to success. If you are sitting at the poker table dreading upcoming decisions, wary of the player sitting to your left, sweating the money you might lose, you may as well get up off the table and spend your time more wisely. This level of fear and anxiety will hinder your poker success and may in fact render you a losing player. Negative emotions such as these can be the product of your lack of preparation, which is an important factor of your success. More importantly they are often the result of your mood and overall psychological health.
Psychological health does not refer only to potential psychological impairment and illness. Rather, the aim is to highlight the importance of optimizing cognitive ability. Unfortunately, many poker players do suffer from depression and anxiety, and understandably so, especially if they are not aware of why these disturbances might occur. There will be an article devoted solely to understanding these psychological disturbances at a chemical level, and how optimizing our mental health and understanding it can help protect us from these afflictions.
Online poker players have to face isolation, immobility, uncontrollable results, being penalized in the short term for making the right play and other emotion inducing obstacles in order to succeed. Each one of those phenomena can be understood, provided you maintain a positive outlook.
Isolation while working fosters greater concentration and focus. The control a poker player has in deciding when and where he/she will work allows for a freedom and flexibility seldom experienced by other adult humans. In fact, poker players have more potential for new, exciting, and diverse social interactions. You are not bound by a clock, you are not chained in to one location, and you can go wherever you please at any time and attempt to meet whoever you like. This level of control can be scary and difficult to master, but doing so will not only enrich your life, it will also improve your bottom line.
The fact that you sometimes get penalized for making an incorrect play also factors greatly in your potential profitability. Many poker players, some pros but more frequently recreational players, continue to play even though they are in fact losing players, because they sometimes get rewarded for making the wrong play. Although lots of skill is required for consistent and long-term success, poker is still a gambling sport and thus a game of chance. Of actual importance is the relationship between the play you make and its reflection in nature, by which I mean the long-term reality.
If the EV of your hand after all your chips are in the middle is $500, then it does not matter in the least bit in which direction that pot travels, be it your pocket or your opponents; you have just successfully generated $500. To put it more precisely, we should acknowledge the mathematical relationship between our range versus that of our opponents. Regardless, what’s important is that once the chips find their way to the middle and assuming you made the right play, you should already be thinking about the next hand you are involved in on another table, this one was already a success.
This level of emotional control and dexterity takes knowledge, practice, and a healthy body and mind. Exercise is paramount in achieving this state of being. Consistent physical activity has the obvious advantage of strengthening your cardiovascular system to help regulate your blood flow and resting heart rate. More relevant for this series, future articles will indulge in showing you all the ways exercise influences the chemical balances in your brain. And yes, there will be a section on sex: who said learning couldn’t be fun!
In Part 2 of this series, you will get a closer look at the role of the frontal lobes. Expect elaboration on the physiological influences both positive and negative factors can have on your poker playing ability. Mood, fitness, nutrition and their role in infiltrating or boosting your concentration, focus and discipline will be of primary importance.
Have you ever begun a workout regimen and felt an urge to follow through with the schedule? The more you stuck with the program the greater your energy levels and happiness became, but when you stopped, you found it very difficult to start again? Don’t beat yourself up over it, you are only human, and this is the reality of the Dopaminergic Pathway. It works like a snowball, barrelling down a mountain, and you will get an in-depth look at how it functions next time. Until then, stay active, stay happy, and stay profitable.
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