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StrategyPsychology

Psychological analyses and concepts

Introduction

In this Article
  • Typical problems in a poker game
  • How to overcome these obstacles?
The psychological factor in poker is very important, especially in the No-Limit Hold'em game. It is important when considering the opponent, the judgement and control of their actions, or, even more importantly, in the context of your own behaviour and how to control yourself. The psychological factor is also decisive in persuading yourself to become a poker player who is always able to make rational decisions, and who is able to look at setbacks as what they are: part of the game.

Personal management, bankroll management, table selection, creating objectives, concentration during the game, being conscious even over small amounts of time, and the ambition to play your A-game in any situation, determines about 70% of your success.

Bad Beat

PROBLEM
When you seem to be the sure favorite, you put your chips in the middle and the opponent hits his lucky card after all, his Kicker, Runner Runner Draw or Gutshot: the Bad Beat.

CONCEPTS
  • Experience helps you to digest bad beats easier
Over time a poker player will see more and more hands in which the favorite loses and after some time he simply does not care. The chances to score six of a kind when throwing two dices is 2.8%, the chances to get a runner runner straight in poker are 4.9%. After playing for some time, the player learns that these occurrences are part of the game and therefore nothing unusual.

  • There is nothing more you can do when having an advantage other than putting your chips into the pot
That's how easy it is. If a person was able to accept things which are out of his/her control (meaning cards which are unveiled on the turn or river), the problem probably would not exist. But we usually think of it as unfair if we play a good game and still lose.

But poker is not fair. It is fair in the long run, but when you simply look at the few hands of one session, it is not. There are four cards in a deck which can complete a gutshot, and sometimes one of these four cards appears and you're not able to prevent it. Try influencing the situations which you can have an impact on, e.g. the pot odds, which you give your opponent for his/her draw, and which secure your long-term winnings. The other sort of situations, you should simply accept.

  • Good players suffer from more bad beats
Be sure to note that good players have to accept more bad beats since they are the favourites more often if a lot of money is in the pot. A bad player, who goes all-in with a gut shot, will never be favourite. All he can do is hand out a bad beat. He will have a hard time getting a bad beat himself, as he, being a bad player, will naturally slow play his sets in a tricky way. He uses the wrong moments to put his money into the pot, which is your gain. Maybe not in the hand in which he hits his lucky river card, but there will be many others during which you will be the favourite and the opponent does not get his four lucky outs.

Once you have played against stronger opponents and you go back to playing at your normal limit, you'll be happy to put your chips into the pot as favourite even if you have to accept a few bad beats and suck outs.

Cooler

PROBLEM
A cooler refers to the situation in which you have a strong hand, yet meet an opponent with an even stronger hand, and hence lose (all of your) money. A cooler is the little brother of a bad beat, but much more dangerous. While it's obvious that you aren't at fault for a bad beat, some players start doubting their decision of whether they should have thrown away an AK on an AK7 board, since a set of 7s is lurking.
CONCEPTS
  • Think about Ranges
Let's assume the above situation. You bet on the flop and someone goes all in (the stacks are rather short, so there is no big overbet). You call, and your opponent shows his set. While you are contemplating about whether you made the right decision, avoid thoughts that are only directed towards the outcome. Don't say:"Of course he had a set. I had to be behind." The situation was not certain.

The decisive point is that any player would have pushed his/her set here but the fact that you fell victim to a monster, does not give any information as to whether your call was good or bad. It is all determined by the range which you expected from your opponent.

When playing against an opponent who would have pushed every Ace and 77, and whose range would have enclosed A2+ and 77 (and maybe also AA/KK), there is only one hand which you are behind against. Which hand he really had, whether it was an AK, A4 or 77, is irrelevant. Decide in respect to the range of your opponent, and do not doubt your decision just because he shows a hand which beats yours. If your decision was mathematically correct, then it will stay correct. In other situations, you'll see an A4 or an AT instead of a 77. The question is not about which hand the opponent is holding, but about which hands he would have played the same way as you did way up to the point at which you had to make a decision.

You should follow the same thoughts in regards to bluffs. Let's assume you raised preflop and someone calls. The flop consists of a 754 and you make a continuation bet, which is also called. The turn reveals a ten and you and your opponent check. The river reveals a 2. You now decide to use a riverbluff, since you imagine your opponent holds a 65 or a small pair. But instead of folding, your opponent raises and after you fold, he shows a 22.

Was the river bluff the wrong decision? Not necessarily! It is understandable that the opponent does not fold after getting a lucky rivercard. But the question remains whether he would have folded the hands in his range enough times to turn the bluff into a profit. That is hard to tell. If he was not willing to fold A5o, then the bluff was wrong, since the opponent is only folding few cards in his range.

Think in hand ranges. Do not try to put your opponent into a precise hand, or question your game in retrospect because he is showing the one hand out of his range which beats you. It is only a mistake if you misjudged his range. This is very difficult and takes a lot of experience. Be careful that your assumptions are truly correct.

If someone thinks that his value bet of a middle pair/top kicker on the river will be called by all pairs of the opponent, he is able to bet "mathematically correct." But if your assumed range is wrong, and your opponent does not call with all pairs but only with top pairs, and then beats you with those, then you made a mistake, even if you tell yourself you were simply the victim of a cooler.

  • The better decision
A while back I played the following hand: I had a JJ and I raised after a raise before me. The person who raised called my raise and the board reveals an AJJ. We skirmish a little and then go all-in. He showed aces full and I had four jacks.

Here's a second example: I am in the big blind, the cutoff raises and I bet with 44. He calls and the board shows J54. We go all-in again and he shows QJ.

What's the difference between the two sample hands? In the first example I would have played the way the opponent did. I would have flat called preflop with AA and I would have gone all in with aces full. I was lucky to have quads and to become $400 richer. In this situation, your poker skills won't help you out since no one can get away from a set over set or quads over full house.

In the second situation I also won $400. But this time you can say that I was lucky to hit my set on the flop. Had I been my opponent, however, I would have folded preflop and I would not have gone all-in. If we had played the same game twice, I would have taken QJ once and 44 another time, and I would have still made $310-$360, just because I can fold my top pair earlier.

So whenever you are confronted with a situation in which you aren't confident about your move or whether it might have been a cooler, which pulled you down, think about what you would have done if you had been the opponent. If you make more money out of monsters with your opponent's cards, and if you lose less with bad hands, then you are better than your opponent and you will win in the long run.

It happens sometimes that your opponents receive better cards and make you lose all night. As long as you recognize the mistakes your opponents are making, however, which you yourself would not have made, then you are a winning player.

Another part is to recognize when you are simply lucky. I, for example, dared to take a shot at NL400. I was able to increase my $600 to $2500 in one session, and then leave the table. I felt like the king of high limits, but when I looked at the big hands later, I had to admit that my opponents made only few mistakes and simply ended up in unlucky situations against me. I noticed I wasn't the NL 400 Pro at all, but a general luckbox regular. This insight is helpful to avoid -EV limits.

Remember, not all mistakes you think you notice are actually mistakes. If you are a bad poker player, you will notice mistakes that aren't in fact real mistakes. Another problem appears because some situations favor a certain type of player. If you want to avoid mistakes by giving up good, but not excellent, hands, rocks make less mistakes than maniacs. Therefore, if good hands are playing against good hands, then, according to the above model, rocks make less mistakes than their opponents, even though they possibly are worse players.

Impatience

PROBLEM
It occasionally happens that you lose a few small pots or even blinds at the beginning of a session, and then start to become impatient and to put pressure on yourself to win a big pot. Or you try to break even or reach a self-determined goal (e.g. $5000 bankroll as an even number but not $4989).

CONCEPTS
  • The big pots are important
You have to understand that a few lost small pots are easily balanced. If you lost the last four pots because your conti-bets were raised, a single large pot is enough to bring back the money you lost. NL pots grow fast. A pot that was raised preflop consists of $12 in NL100. If you bet an additional street and someone calls you, the pot grows significantly and then reaches $40.

  • Its all one big session
These are words of wisdom by 2+2 which are very true. It means that it does not matter when you take a break or quit a session. Breaks are simply interruptions of the game, and it makes no sense to set imaginary goals for each break. It does not matter whether you interrupt your game for 5 minutes to visit the restroom, or whether you go skiing for a week. It's all the same. Wouldn't it be silly to try and achieve a winning session every time you take a restroom break?

It does make sense, of course, to end a session when you are tilting, if your opponents are better players, or if you want to do something else. Those are reasons which influence your profit. But don't end a session just because you gained $1.20 and don't want to lose money. You might lose money tomorrow and what's the point of having a bit more money on the online account over night?

  • Don't try to force a winning
Poker is a game where boredom and excitement take turns. Just as variance changes your results, it also influences the flow of the game. Sometimes you experience only boring phases, but then you play various large pots right after. The fluctuation of the winrate as well as the phenomenon of dry spells (card dead) are completely normal and can be explained mathematically. The best you can do when lacking good cards is to minimize your losses. Don't try to win without good cards because it is simply impossible. Of course you can dare a few more moves with a tight image, but you are going to be walking on thin ice.

Extended Tilt

PROBLEM
Most experienced players can control themselves when they have to take in a bad beat or a cooler per evening. It also happens, however, that bad beats accumulate over the course of several weeks. These downswings tear at your mental strength and self-confidence which are necessary for playing poker. Many poker players become desperate, completely change their game and forget the characteristics and skills which initially made them successful.

CONCEPTS
  • For members of PS.com, poker is a large freeroll
You have a big advantage if you started poker through PS.com: You never invested your own money. Hence, every amount you win is profit without any risk. If you manage to build up your bankroll to $1000, and then fall down to $400, don't say: "I lost $600 during the last weeks."

Instead you should say that you found a hobby which you like, that you additionally own $400, and that you have prospects of wining much more. You made $400 out of $50, and the $50 was a gift. Where did you lose? Be aware that no matter what you do, you just cannot lose.

  • Do not try to change your style radically
When you have a bad streak, players usually try to improve their game and to calibrate anew. That is good and necessary. The problem starts when the player wants to change his game radically.

It is good to think about concrete changes in order to eliminate leaks or to make certain situations more profitable. Maybe you notice that you should complete less at the small blind, or you recognize that you should fold more often with a top pair on the flop because you have a hard time letting go of your hand and hence lose money.
But you should not change your entire strategy like "I should become more loose and raise at least 20% of my hands" or "I have to become much tighter and hardly make any conti-bets."

It is already bad to radically change your game under normal circumstances. Doing so during a downswing is a really bad idea.

  • Downswings are mathematically possible
Players who have never experienced larger downswings think that those are rather unlikely or that they happen to bad players only. After very good players have told me that they themselves have experienced large downswings, I can easily say: It is everyone's turn at some point, no matter how well or bad he is playing. It is mathematically unlikely to lose 10-15 buy-ins, but it is not impossible. If you accept this fact, you will not needlessly pressure yourself.

On the other side, it is only human and convenient to call losses downswings. If you cannot distinguish between downswing-losses and losses due to a bad game, then you're likely to lose even more money.

Note the following thoughts on this:

a) A beginner is more of a bad player than an unlucky player. No champion ever fell out of heaven and the majority of beginners are bad poker players. Poker takes practice, and as freshmen, you should never consider yourself a natural talent who simply got unlucky.

Instead you should try to improve your strategy and realize that it will take a great deal of experience (long hours in the forum) to become a good player. Good players, who are playing above their level, should also be aware of this fact.

b) If you have high expectations, you experience few bad streaks, and if you have a winrate right above zero, you have a very large variance. If you have dominated a limit over a long period of time (e.g. with 12 PTBB/100 over 60K hands) and then experience a downswing, you should not consider this bad luck. It is unlikely that such a large win falls this drastically.

On the other hand, if someone only has marginal wins (and this happens especially at high limits), he suffers from downswings quite frequently. If you are sure about your ability to beat the limit, preferably with a large sample size, then you can stay at the limit. Be sure to note that you have a high variance in this situation. If you do not want high variance, you should step down to a smaller limit, which you can confidently beat.

c) Many players increase their losses during a downswing. I believe that 2/3 of the downswings are not simply due to bad luck. Many people tilt and lose 14 buy-ins, while otherwise their loss would have only been 8-9 buy-ins.

There are very subtle forms if tilting. You don't necessarily have to be angry to tilt. Being a bit frustrated or having a larger willingness to call, leads to large losses and is many times not regarded as a tilt even though they hurt you immensely. Ending a bad session is an effective method of preventing tilts.

  • Remember your successes
The assurance that you are a winning player is important for keeping your self confidence. It is helpful to tell yourself that you still have a good winrate despite the downswing and that you are still managing your level well.

Conclusion

This article was written in order to teach you that downswings, bad beats, coolers and unlucky hands are simply part of the game. You cannot always win. You should not let bad streaks influence you, but you should ask yourself whether you played the hand the right way, whether you would play it the same way again, or whether there is something else you can learn from your experience.

Those are the ups and downs of poker. You can still win if you learn how to deal with setbacks and if you look at every hand as part of a larger session in which you sometimes win and sometimes lose. You can also win if you apply the above information and win more than you lose in the long run while concentrating on making the right strategic decisions. That will put you into an excellent position over all the players who are not able to heed this simple advice.
 

Comments (21)

#1 chaim23, 24 Aug 08 09:50

And this is why i am 100% sure that poker is a SPORT... just like basketball or chess... you have to be mentally fit and on top level.. you have to practice practice and practice... so many people think its all just luck... well.. where in the world is not little bit luck involved !!! From 100 times Michael Jordan was throwing up game winning jumpers... did he win the game all the 100 times ??? Of course not... but he won it more then lets say if Scottie Pippen would took the Jumpers... and why.. ?? because he was more lucky then Pippen ? NOOO... because he was the better player... thats why HE got to take those game winners and not Scottie... the point is that its a professional sport... the player who works more on his game will be the one who stands out... POKER SHHOULLLD BECOME AN OLYMPIC DISCIPLINE !!!!!!!!

#2 mouse89, 06 Oct 08 14:31

ok

#3 Rap1d007, 12 Oct 08 20:49

Totally agree chaim...<br /> <br />

#4 andyb43, 29 Oct 08 09:28

Just one continuous session...............I like that

#5 Vicar888, 17 Nov 08 14:52

Good stuff, I have a lot to learn

#6 ukcoolcat, 19 Dec 08 11:40

quote 'It happens sometimes that your opponents receive better cards and make you lose all night. As long as you recognize the mistakes your opponents are making, however, which you yourself would not have made, then you are a winning player' unquote.<br /> <br /> that's the way i try to look at it, not always easy to see it like that though, good reading and something i will keep coming back to.

#7 SadisticNature, 02 Jan 09 23:21

Poker isn't a sport in the way basketball or chess is because at a fundamental level both of those games are pure skill. Things can happen that relate to luck, but skill is relevant in the SHORT TERM in those games. Skill being relevant only in the long term is not something that makes more a good sport.<br /> <br /> Put it this way if Kasparov is in a tournament with 100 randoms he's close to 100% to win it.<br /> <br /> Similarly if the LA Lakers are in a basketball tourney with 100 high school teams.<br /> <br /> Can you honestly make the same claim about poker?

#8 theboydave, 23 Jul 09 17:40

bad beats suck but in my experience the cooler can be even worse as it suckers you in at least a bad beat is due to bad luck and cant be avoided.

#9 looserbaby79, 28 Jul 09 07:01

POKER SHHOULLLD BECOME AN OLYMPIC DISCIPLINE !!!!!!!! <br /> +1 :-)

#10 whateverdude, 02 Aug 09 21:39

Poker should not be made an olympic discipline, because you can't say "this is the best player in the world for this year" in poker from one tournament as you can in sports. In the olympics usually the gold is taken by the player that was in best shape this year, while in poker there are many examples of bad players, who got a nice heater during a big event and won it. And then you are going to say "this is the best player for this year" ? It will be just wrong. Like saying that Jamie Gold was the best poker player for 2006? Could you say that? Because you can do so in REAL sports for pretty much every player that has taken the gold in the olympics.

#11 mancamanca, 26 Apr 10 17:54

awseome

#12 AleMantovani, 21 Jul 10 19:16

All the articles about psychology are great, keep up the good work guys!

#13 RazvanDan, 04 Oct 10 20:35

Sometimes it's too hard to quit a table that seems against your A game,it's hard to stop making continuation bets or make a bluff.You can make good decisions at one table but when at 4 tables you end up making more mistakes and lose instead of winning,so it's better to play at a single table till you make automatic decisions and then multitabling

#14 pogodon, 21 Oct 10 01:18

welll most people these days can play at least 3 or 4 tables with the same level of confidence and concentration as playing one

#15 Tarhonya, 21 Oct 10 05:38

Great article!

#16 andiperusko, 18 Feb 11 14:42

N1

#17 werall1, 15 Mar 11 10:19

great article indeed!!!

#18 SilverFace, 12 Jul 11 08:32

informative ^_^

#19 Pouserly2, 12 Aug 11 09:13

Still a good and interesting read.

#20 Qwetzalcoatl, 19 Aug 11 15:39

systematic, interesting and informative... but i think everything was said before :)

#21 ShawnlovesShawn, 29 Jul 14 05:18

True words! Poker is a game of variance. I cannot expect to win all the time. When I can recognise that it's just not my turn to win because the cards are not coming, or I'm making terrible plays, it's time to take the loss and go home!