The following article was written by Dr. Jaclynn Moskow. It’s an interesting look at some psychology studies that have involved poker and poker players. It was originally published on Cardplayer.com. Jaclynn has given me permission to post it on my site, which I am honored to do.
Jaclynn is a mid to high-stakes cash game specialist who lives in South Florida. She’s also adjunct facility at NSU-COM, where she’s conducted research in psychiatry, internal medicine, and public health. She was recently featured on the poker TV show Poker Night in America (and you can read about her experience here.) You can follow her on Twitter at @DrJaclynnMoskow.
What Scientists Have Learned From Studying Poker Players
At any moment during any given poker game, winning players are simultaneously thinking probabilistically, attempting to out-level their opponents, maintaining self awareness, avoiding tilt, seeking balance, constantly adjusting, and much more. Playing poker puts the human brain into turbo gear. Over the past several years, researchers in a variety of different academic fields have recognized this notion and turned to poker as a model for understanding complex decision making. In other words, poker players can make phenomenal lab rats. While a rat running a maze will probably never benefit from the result of such an experiment, poker players can in fact learn from studies conducted on them (and maybe even improve their game). So what exactly has studying poker revealed?
For Most, Tight is Right.
The first study I will discuss was made possible by the vast amount of data collected by poker tracking software. Twenty-seven million hands played at 6 max no-limit holdem were analyzed in this study by a PhD student in sociology at Cornell University.1 This analysis showed that as players moved up in stakes they tended to become more tight aggressive in playing style. Across all stakes, tight aggressive players were the biggest winners when measured by the average number of big blinds earned per hundred hands. Overall, loose passive players were the biggest losers with the lowest average in BB/100 hands. The overwhelming majority of loose aggressive players were also significant losers. Very few players were capable of implementing this inherently complex playing style and also beating the game. That is to say, players who tend to win the most pots also tend to be losing players, as winning a large number of small pots can easily be offset by losing just a few large pots. To quote the study’s author: “The optimal tradeoffs between aggression and restraint can be difficult to reach, given the contradictions between the two elements.”
Tilt May be Exacerbated by Being Watched.
In a quirky 2014 study conducted by cognitive scientists in Finland, poker players were given one of two stories to read and instructed to imagine that they were the story’s narrator while reading them.2 One group read a story in which they discovered that their significant other was cheating on them with their best friend, while the other read a story about spending a “nice and normal” evening with their significant other. After reading, both groups were asked to calculate their equity in several specific heads-up NLHE scenarios, then, using this calculation, decide whether to call a given bet or fold. So here’s the kicker: some players had an animated pair of human eyes following their cursor while they completed these tasks, while others had a moving black box instead. Those who read the story about infidelity and then completed poker tasks with the presence of the animated eyes performed the worst, leading the study’s authors to conclude that tilt is worsened by the perception that someone else is watching. So the next time you ponder your own tilt control, make sure to consider the effect spectators may be having on you. (And also, the next time you privately use your computer, be grateful that there are no creepy floating eyes watching you.) The good news is that the more poker experience a player in this study had, the less the perception of a social presence affected their decision making. This is consistent with several other studies that I found that also demonstrated that experience in poker is linked to superior tilt control.
Mature Self-Analysis Comes with Experience.
In another study conducted by the same Finnish group of cognitive scientists, online poker players were asked to calculate their EV in various poker scenarios, make hand decisions based on those calculations, and answer a series of questions about themselves and how they view losses.3 The researchers found that of the players who performed the best on the poker tasks, those who were more experienced players participated in “self-reflection” while less experienced players participated in “self-rumination.” In psychological terms, self-rumination involves dwelling on negative experiences and their consequences. Self-reflection, however, is defined by a distanced, often emotionally neutral, perspective taking. It involves a genuine curiosity in understanding one’s emotions and behaviors. Take-away point: as you mature as a player you should find yourself beating yourself up less after your losses while analyzing those losses more effectively.
We Err on the Side of Overestimating Our Own Strength.
Holdem players were the subjects of this study on probability estimation conducted by researchers in the Psychology Department at The University of Essex.4 Players were given hole cards and asked to predict the probability that their cards were stronger than any two cards held by various combinations of 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 opponents in different scenarios, some without community cards and some that involved specific or random flops. Responses were compared to those of a computer program that calculated probabilities by simulating each hand 10 million times. Players made the most mistakes when there was a moderate to low possibility that they had the strongest hand. In these cases, players tended to overestimate their own hand’s strength. But overall, researchers reported that they were very surprised by how well poker players were able to estimate hand strength across all tests. In fact, when compared to the outcomes of previous studies, poker players proved to be more skilled in probability judgments than most meteorologists, physicians, and even probability experts. (Feel free to quote this study the next time you find yourself convincing a friend or family member of the merit of playing poker, or the next time you want to heckle a meteorologist.)
Subcultures Emerge Online.
I’ve encountered tens of thousands of research studies in my career and I can’t say that I’ve ever burst out laughing at the topic of a study quite like when I discovered this one. Researchers at the University of Limerick Kemmy Business School spent two years studying the content and the posters of online poker forums, including Deuces Cracked, High Stakes Database, and of course 2 + 2.5 My laughter at this topic was in no way a judgement of the actual merit of the research, but rather because I instantly recalled the many times I found myself on a poker forum wondering, “WTF are some of these people thinking?” I was amused that someone decided to investigate this very topic. The study concluded that collaboration and cooperation are the main values that drive users on these forums. Additionally, there is a forum hierarchy in which the individuals elevated to the top are those who have been posting the longest, along with those who post the most often. Another conclusion: forum posters must conform to the views of the collective in order to achieve status, while those who do not conform are generally ostracized. The researchers even cited several specific posts that demonstrate these notions, including these responses to one hand history: “dude are you serious?!!!”, “what is it with all these newbies with no clue”, “Luck box braggin about being a luck box….. good job. Prob broke soon or already.” Yes, trolling poker forums was quoted in a peer reviewed academic journal.
- Siler, K. Social and Psychological Challenges of Poker. J Gambl Stud (2010) 26:401–420.
- Laakasuo, M., Palomaki, J., & Salmela, M. Emotional and Social Factors Influence Poker Decision Making Accuracy. J Gambl Stud (2014) [published online ahead of print publication date].
- Palomaki, J., Laakasuo, M., & Salmela, M. ’‘Don’t Worry, It’s Just Poker!’’-Experience, Self-Rumination and Self-Reflection as Determinants of Decision-Making in On-Line Poker. J Gambl Stud (2013) 29:491–505.
- Liley, J. & Rakow, T. Probability Estimation in Poker: A Qualified Success for Unaided Judgment. J. Behav. Dec. Making (2010) 23:496–526.
- O’Leary, K. & Carroll, C. The Online Poker Sub-Culture: Dialogues, Interactions and Networks. J Gambl Stud (2013) 29:613–630.