Mixing it up

How important is psychology in a game of poker? Many of us underestimate this side of gaming because it's not something you can see, but any contest which challenges one human's intellect against another relies heavily on it, harmless as it is.

Psychology is used in poker as a means to gain the upper hand, using methods which range from controlling emotional reactions to hide the nature of your cards, deliberately causing confusion by mixing up play, and mastering the art of bluffing. Basically you're messing with the heads of your table mates, in a bid to gain the advantage at the table.

To play poker is not only to concentrate on your own cards and the possibilities, but also pay close attention to the competition, deciphering their playbook and defending yourself against tactical mind games. And then you've got to work out a way to use your acquired knowledge to disrupt their game plan. Phew! That's a lot to do when you're trying to maintain a poker face to hide the cogs turning in your own head.

Want to know how to turn luck in your favour? You need to learn the following lessons:

Break the norm

Your mother probably once asked if you’d jump off a cliff if your friends were doing it. You were probably indignant that of course you wouldn’t. And yet you might find yourself doing just that at the tables.

Ever found yourself raising twice the big blind because everyone else is? Or joining in the chat even when you don’t really want to? Then you’ve fallen prey to the power group.

It’s time to shuck off that sheep’s clothing and reveal the wolf beneath. Use the group against themselves by taking control. If you notice a pattern of the group raising twice the big blind, push it and start raising 3 times the big blind. After a couple of turns, you’ll notice that the rest of the group starts to follow suit, over-committing themselves and leaving them open to your premium hand pounce.

At the Sit & Go table, keep an eye out for middle-stack players who are waiting for the aggressive players to knock themselves out and for the bigger stacks to take care of the smaller ones. Force these guys out of their comfort zone and into Mistakesville by consistently raising their big blinds.

Just make sure to keep an eye out for the rest of the pack!

Causing confusion

If you can confuse the life out of your opponents, you’ve got a good chance of throwing them off their game. Money matters and your average poker player wants to know they’re on to a sure thing before the commit to the pot. If you can tip them into a world of uncertainty, you can disrupt their thinking and bring them down a peg or two.

A lack of information or conflicting information causes doubt and doubt is the enemy of the poker table. Upsetting a player’s internal ‘script’, their expectations of how situations will play out, is the perfect way to create doubt. Leaving your move until the last second will mean your opponent expects a fold, so jump in with a re-raise bluff. The time pressure on the other player will leave them scrambling to make a choice and prompt them to fold, handing you the pot.

Of course, this isn’t guaranteed so make sure you weigh up all the information you’ve gathered on the players at the table.

Go random

There’s a theory that raising by the same amount every time helps hide what’s in your hand. However, if you go completely random, you’ll likely have more of an edge over your opponents. Humans are terrible at random, so get something to help you. Generate a random sequence of raises in advance of playing with a random number generator, or rely on something ever-changing to tell you how much to raise by (like the second hand of your watch, for example).

Mixed signals

Sending out conflicting messages, whether subtle or outrageous, can unsettle your opponents. When you sit down at a Sit & Go, try opening with a ‘be kind to me, I’m new’ message. Even if no-one believes you, you’ve planted a seed that you just might be a new player. Or try taking a smaller stack to a cash game than you might normally. Playing like an inexperienced or irrational player at the beginning of your game will make your opponents susceptible to a squeeze play or more advanced tactics.

Hero calls

A hero call is one you make holding a poor hand because you’re sure your opponents have a worse one! It’s not about going all-in with a 7-2, that’s suicide, but calling with ace-high when someone’s raised you all-in on the river.

Working through a hand, you’ll get a feeling you’ve got the right odds with a mediocre set of cards. You can play poker all your life and never make a hero call so use all the information you can gather through the hand to decide whether a marginal call is profitable.

Example:

In this example the table is deep-stacked and everyone has limped round to the player in the big blind position who has made a big raise. The other players fold but you decide to call from the small blind with 6♦ 4♦. The flop is Q♣ 10♥ 2♦ so you could be forgiven for thinking you’re done with the hand.

But then the player who raised pre-flop decides to check. They’re either trying to get some value out of you or they’ve just missed out on the hand they were expecting from the flop. The turn gives a 7♦ and you both check again.

The river brings a 6♠ so you’ve got a pair, but it’s only the fourth-best pair on the board so you check again. Suddenly, your opponent bets just under the pot. This is confusing behaviour, as they could just turn over their hand for free if they are confident of winning the pot. If they had a big hand they could have raised you earlier and got more money out of you. You call and win the hand after your opponent shows A♠ K♥. You have just made a hero call!

Adjust your game

As with everything in poker, you have to adjust to the players, the table and the hand. If you’re out of position and have tried to control the pot, be aware that you look weak to your opponent and they might use that to their advantage. Be prepared to call a lot more on the river, even if a scary looking card appears. If a scare card appears on the river after you’ve called or checked your way through the hand and your opponent still puts money in the pot, you’re in a conundrum. They might have a big hand, trying to get you to give up some money, or they might be trying to force you out. Use the pot odds to decide if it’s worth taking the risk.

Be wary of players trying to make money out of you by tempting you to add your chips to the pot with a bad hand. There’s a fine line between making a good but thin call and paying off like a slot machine.

Remember: never make a hero call to show off – do it because it’s the right thing to do