Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Psychology of Poker

Despite assuming a knowledge of basic poker strategy, Alan N. Schoonmaker's book The Psychology of Poker is based on the odd premise that the reader is not a good player. More specifically, it assumes that while the reader may be able to make himself into a decent player, he will never be able to develop the instincts or intuitions of the top pros. Dr. Schoonmaker feels that this has created a disconnect between the advice given in the existing poker literature and the advice that would actually help the readers. He provides a few examples of advice that is rather useless because of this problem, including the part in Doyle Brunson's Super/System where he explains that you should "stick to your first impression" because "... I get a feeling that he's bluffing or that I can make a play here and get the pot. But, actually my subconscious mind is reasoning it all out." While I'm not as pessimistic as Schoonmaker in assuming that such abilities cannot be developed, I will concede that having such "advice" in a book is not likely to help anyone improve.

The reason Schoonmaker begins his book with this analysis of existing poker literature is to explain the ommission of the aspect of poker psychology that the book does NOT address. Unfortunately, this omission constitutes what is by far the most interesting aspect of the psychology of poker. The ability to divine an opponent's thoughts and motivations in order to read his cards is precisely what is meant when people refer to poker psychology. In light of that, I suppose it was necessary for Schoonmaker to provide his disclaimer at the start of the book. However, it would have been appreciated if he went one step further and changed the book's title to something less misleading. Something like "Becoming an Introspective Poker Player and Sizing up Your Competition," would be more appropriate. Of course, not many people would bother buying that book, though.

Having confessed the true intent of
The Psychology of Poker, Schoonmaker describes the actual focus of his book: helping the reader to improve his style, choose appropriate games, and adjust to different players and games. Schoonmaker's main goal is to encourage his readers to honestly evaluate their own motivations in playing poker and to help them identify what exactly is holding them back from becoming better players. In most cases, what holds players back is simply a failure to concentrate and apply the basic strategic rules that most players already know. In encouraging his readers to be brutally honest with themselves about their motivations at the poker table, Schoonmaker exposes some discomforting (but potentially remediable) truths about what attracts us to poker. For example he asks his readers to put numbers indicating what motivates them to play poker. The numbers should add up to 100%. The options are:

Make money;
Socialize, meet people;
Get excitement of risk;
Test self against competitive challenges;
Sense of accomplishment from winning;
Pass time;
Other (specify).

Filling out this chart made it uncomfortably obvious that I have sacrificed at least some amount of earning potential for the sake of socializing, relaxing, and testing myself against competitive challenges. For example, I am compromising my win rate whenever I discuss strategy with an opponent (which I do rarely), relax instead of concentrate on my opponents, or play in a game without bothering to ensure that there are no softer games available. In other words, the book has forced me to admit that in order to make poker rather enjoyable, I routinely engage in behaviors that are deleterious to my bottom line. Does this mean I should strive to eliminate all these "leaks"? Probably not, but if I want to be honest with myself I should at least acknowledge that I'm sacrificing some earning potential for some enjoyment.

The bulk of the book is actually about how to play against certain styles of players on the two main spectra: loose-tight and passive-aggressive. Also, it strongly encourages the reader to focus on being a tight-aggressive player himself. This information is accurate, but for someone who has already read a lot of poker books and articles, there's not much new here.

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