Remove all emotion from decisions, but …
Editor’s note: This column contains excerpts from the book The Poker Mindset: Essential Attitudes for Poker Success, by Ian Taylor and Matthew Hilger.
The Poker Mindset discusses seven essential attitudes for achieving poker success. One of these attitudes is to “remove all emotion from decisions.” Many players let emotions affect their poker decisions, yet emotions should have no impact whatsoever on the decision-making process.
In some sports, emotion can be an advantage. For example, a football coach may try to motivate his players by stirring up emotions of anger, hatred, or team spirit, which may arouse them into working a bit harder or giving a bit extra.
Emotion can do little to help a poker player. Emotions do not understand pot odds or how to put your opponent on a hand. They do not help your starting-hand selection or your ability to get away from the second-best hand. Emotions will only cloud your judgment and divert your attention to things you should not be thinking about.
The negative effects that emotions can have on your game are numerous, and every player is different. There is a long list of emotions that you can experience at the poker table that will inhibit your success, including anger, frustration, misery, fear, happiness, pity, pride, and nervousness.
Very few players can completely switch off their emotions. We just have to accept and adapt to this facet of our personalities. However, you do have two defenses against your emotions:
1. Do not play when you are in an emotional state that may cause your play to suffer.
2. Acknowledge your emotions, but don’t allow them to affect your decisions.
The first defense is obviously easier to do, and is often the appropriate course of action to take, especially if you are in a particularly emotional state. However, we must not forget that emotions are ever present in our psyche. No matter when we sit down at the table, we will be feeling something, even though the level of emotion may be quite trivial. Even if we sit down in complete serenity, poker is a game that generates emotion in itself, so we will probably not remain serene for long.
Therefore, it is important to master the second of these defenses: accepting emotions but not letting them affect our decisions. In fact, this is the essence of avoiding and overcoming tilt. Whenever you are making a decision at the table, you must try to make that decision based solely on the cards and on your read of your opponent.
This “attitude” — to remove all emotion from decisions — leads us to the emotional paradox of poker. The problem is that emotions are one of the things that make poker fun. It should be exciting when a crucial card is coming on the river. You should be happy when you win a big pot, and disappointed when you lose. When you completely remove emotions from the game, you end up with a bland game that is more like an exercise in intermediate mathematics than the thrilling, adrenaline-pumping roller coaster that it can be. Whether or not this is a bad thing depends on your point of view, but it certainly removes an element of the game that some people enjoy.
The Poker Mindset discusses the stages of dealing with a lost pot, in ascending order of desirability: anger, frustration, acceptance, and indifference. Some may argue that indifference is the best stage to reach, the stage where your short-term results do not matter at all, and you are concerned only with making the correct decisions and learning from your mistakes. But you also could argue that indifference is a stage too far. Do you want to be completely indifferent to your results, or would you like to keep that edge of emotion in the game?
Would you like to play poker like a robot, or do you want the excitement of winning a pot and the disappointment of losing one?
There is no correct answer to this question, but therein lies what we call the emotional paradox of poker. You enjoy playing poker because it is an exciting game. It is even more fun when you win money, so you try to adopt a mindset that will give you the best chance of making money. However, go too far with this mindset, and you could lose the very thing that you enjoyed about the game in the first place. We are not saying it is wrong to be indifferent about your results. From a poker-results standpoint, indifference is an excellent place to be. Just make sure that you don’t become so detached from the game that poker is no longer an enjoyable activity for you.
So, while you ought to “remove all emotion from decisions,” that doesn’t mean that you should necessarily remove all emotions from your game. Imagine winning a major poker tournament and feeling indifferent because you consider the win to be just an upbeat in your long-term results of ups and downs. Wouldn’t it be more fun to be the guy who yells and gets emotional, hugging the crowd and showering himself with money? It is OK to get excited when you win a pot, and it is OK to be disappointed when you lose one — but just make sure that your emotions do not interfere with your decision-making.
Author’s note: It is World Series of Poker time as I write this column. This topic of the book was inspired by my deep run in the main event back in 2004, when I finished 33rd. Although I stayed focused through the ups and downs of that tournament, and kept my emotions in check, I often look back in regret that I didn’t enjoy the ride as much as I should have. I think it’s always important to remember at the end of the day that poker is just a game, and should be played as such.