How to Psyche Out Your Opponents Without Psyching Yourself Out Too
In a psychologically demanding game like poker, winning involves outthinking, outwitting, and outplaying your opponents. It’s a far cry from force-of-will sports like weightlifting, where a desire to push weight always wages war with a countervailing impulse to let go of the damned thing before gravity destroys you.
Selectivity and aggression are polarities on poker’s continuum and player usually has to take a position somewhere between those two extremes to optimize her chances for success. “Do I push, pull, or fold; or do I simply wait and see what develops before committing my chips to the pot?” That’s the always the question, isn’t it?
Lines of strategic thinking can vary dramatically depending on the skill, sophistication, and psychological makeup of your adversaries. That’s an important point, and one that vexes some very bright players who become frustrated when their psychological ploys fail against shallow opponents who are not even aware that something’s going on.
The worst of your opponents won’t even think at all. There’s no use trying to induce them towards a certain course of action when they won’t take notice what you’re doing. Even if they were aware of your moves, they might not care. This is the “Dumb and Dumber” school of poker, and these players are going to play their own hand. Period. End of story.
But let’s look at how that story begins. Suppose you raised before the flop with A-Q suited and came out betting into a K-9-7 rainbow flop. Dumb-and-Dumber will call your raise with 5-4 and keep calling until he wins by catching the four that pairs his hand on the river. The hand you held never even entered his mind. He’s looking at his cards and never sees anything else. Or worse yet, he sees it but chooses to ignore the message that’s staring him right in the face. And why not? He’s having way too much fun bucking the odds and trying to draw out.
This is not the kind of guy you want to bluff, or even semi-bluff, and can be frustrating to a player who enjoys poker’s psychological aspects because it takes an arrow out of her quiver and snaps it into twigs. Mr. Dumb-and-Dumber can turn an otherwise exciting game into a repetitive game of showdown, with strategic options reduced to betting for value with the better hand. All the cat-and-mouse elements of psychological manipulation have been removed from the contest.
But most opponents are not totally clueless. Some will put you on a hand, although their methodology often leaves much to be desired. Many players lock in on a single hand, never considering the range of possibilities one might infer from your betting action. This can work to your advantage. Suppose you raised before the flop with A-Q suited and flop J-9-3 with two of your suit. If your opponent has locked you in on a pair of jacks, he may never realize you’ve made the nut flush if a third suited card falls.
The truth of the matter is that it’s almost impossible to put someone on a single, specific hand on the flop, and skillful players prefer to narrow down possibilities as the hand develops. Whenever an opponent confesses that he put you on a single hand rather than a range of equally likely possibilities, you can assume that your opponent is thinking about your hand in a very simplistic manner.
When trying to think your way into your opponent’s hand, you won’t be able to pinpoint the precise cards he’s holding initially, but you will be able to assign a likely range of holdings and boil them down to a precious few based on his betting patterns, the texture of the board, and the actions of any other players involved in the hand.
A sharp player will not only be sensitive to the relative strength of his own hand, he’ll think about your hand too. If he’s really sharp he’ll even go one step further, and think about what you think his hand might be. That’s three levels of thought, which is pretty deep, mind you. And you can go deeper too. There’s really no end to the possibilities, but beyond three levels it’s a game of wheels within wheels, and once you’re thinking beyond level three, you run the risk of going one level too deep and faking yourself out of the pot.
When the game becomes that cerebral, perhaps the very best thing you can do is find an easier one, or simply play your own cards for whatever inherent value they have, add a dose of game theory for the required deception, and save yourself the migraine you’ll probably wind up with after a few hours at that table.