Poker Psychology: Superstitions, Rituals & Habits 

January 12, 2015 by  
Filed under News

It’s strange how some of the most logical, rational people are prone to superstition. Even during my days as a pro chess player it was not so unusual, in a vast hall full of people engrossed in arguably the most testing game around in terms of there being no luck element, to see superstitious types. Lucky shirts are common (despite causing certain sartorial challenges), as are pre-game rituals and even placing (and moving) the pieces in a very specific manner, and without exception. A Dutch International Master, for example – also a fan of loud shirts, funnily enough – deliberately positions knights facing backwards which, from the opponent’s point of view, can be quite disconcerting…

Poker players are no different. Anyone who plays ‘live’ for the first time might initially be surprised to see people around the table almost obsessively stacking and rearranging their chips in a particular fashion. Some like the sight of giant stacks, others multiple small stacks which, in turn, will be arranged according to a player’s taste – all ostensibly meaningless but, in reality, often providing the player with a confidence-boosting familiarity.

Lucky charms (usually as card protectors) abound, which might be more understandable when our fate can be cruelly determined by Lady Luck but, of course, has no influence on which cards will next appear. Some male players believe they’re ‘unlucky’ against women, others have one or more starting hands (not necessarily trash hands) that they simply never play. This last one perhaps best explains how we might succumb to superstitions, which are (in this context) essentially a subjective construct founded purely in hindsight, and emotionally driven. We might experience unusually good (or bad) results – or perform with a certain level of success – which we attribute to a change in circumstance and, subsequently, consciously endeavour to reproduce (or actively avoid). We see a pot ‘stolen’ from us two or three times after calling a pre-flop raise with this or that hand, and will be loathe to repeating the same play. Poor results against women, incidentally, might well be a genuine problem for lots of male players, but this is due to poor luck or – more likely – good old-fashioned chauvinism obscuring the decision-making process (or simply being an inferior player).

Of course results-led irrational thinking can also have its upside if it means scaring us away from poor strategy but, in the main, we are far better off having nothing to do with superstition and instead focusing on facts. Poker is, after all, a matter-of-fact game that continually delivers psychological blows, and if we were to succumb to the notion that all manner of circumstance and condition can contribute to our fate, then it would never end.

Ritual and habit, on the other hand, can be quite different if it means adhering to certain types of behaviour that are beneficial to our game, such as sleeping properly, good diet and the general aspects of health that aid concentration and help us maintain psychological stability. We’re going to have more luck in the long-term if we avoid alcohol before sitting down to play. Listening to ear-bursting thrash metal isn’t something we should associate with bad luck after noticeable losses – it’s a distraction we should associate with producing poor concentration.

Good luck at the tables!

Angus Dunnington
32Red Poker Ambassador

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