Poker Psychology - Advanced Poker

Changing Pace

Note: This is only for shorthanded games (6 or fewer people) and to be used mainly against other good players.

One thing that most people do wrong, including myself at times, is play consistently. You may play your AQ differently sometimes preflop or when you hit an Ace or Queen. You may bet a different amount (in No-Limit) or choose to jam the pot at a different time (in Limit). However, most decent players will be able to identify you as a certain type of player: tight-aggressive, very tight-aggressive, etc.

One way to help your earnings is to simply switch up your play sometimes. This way, when they're expecting that you're going to bluff, you bluff rarely because they'll call you more. Likewise, if your bets are usually for value, you start to bluff at the pot a lot. People generally won't catch on if you do this discreetly, and it can add more mystery to your play.

This strategy is obviously more effective at No-Limit because it is much easier to bluff at NL. However, it can be used at Limit as well. Generally, the game must be 5 or fewer people (preferably 4 people total.) With stakes large enough, you can effectively bluff at the flop or turn if you played it tight at first, and you will receive more callers for big bets if you bluffed earlier.

For those of you who are mathematically inclined, I'll use some game theory to prove my assertions. Suppose you are playing a soccer match and you have a penalty kick. You predict that if you kick left, you will have an 80% chance of scoring if the goalie does not expect left, and you have a 60% of scoring if you kick to the right and the goalie does not expect right. However, if the goalie blocks left and you kick left, you only have a 45% chance of scoring, and if the goalie blocks to the right, you will only score 35% of the time. Here's a matrix to quickly summarize:

 Goalkeeper Blocks LeftGoalkeeper Blocks Right
You Shoot Left45%80%
You Shoot Right60%35%

As you can see, even though shooting left may be what you are best at, it is in your interest to shoot right from time to time because if the goalie always knows you will shoot left, you will score less than if you shot to the right sometimes.

Now, instead of percent chance of scoring, think of the numbers as hourly profit. Left means playing your standard tight-aggressive game and the right means playing a more loose game.

 Opponent Expects TightOpponent Expects Loose
You play Tight-Aggressive$45 / hr$80 / hr
You play Loose-Aggressive$60 / hr$35 / hr

Bad players may not 'block' at all or will always block the wrong way, so you can keep on playing your standard tight-aggressive game and earn $80 an hour. However, against good players, they'll quickly realize what you are doing and defend against it. Your profit drops down to $45 an hour.

Now, suppose you play tight-aggressive 70% of the time and looser 30% of the time. If they continue to just play against you as if you were a tight-aggressive all the time, you will earn $49.5 an hour:

(0.7 * $45 + 0.3 * $60) = $49.5

Now, if your opponents caught on to what you were doing and played you as a tight-aggressive 80% of the time and a looser player 20% of the time, your profit would actually increase as long as they don't know exactly when you were playing which way. Your profit would be $52.9:

(0.7 * 0.8 * $45) + (0.7 * 0.2 * $80) + (0.3 * 0.8 * $60) + (0.3 * 0.2 * $35) = $52.9

So, in order for them to defend against your changing pace, they need to know when you are changing pace. Obviously, if they treated you as a tight-aggressive 70% of the time and they were correct the whole time, your profit would drop. However, as shown before, predicting a change of pace when there is none will actually help the person who is changing pace, so people generally will treat you as the same even when you switch your style!

Thus, I recommend you change your pace some, but randomize it so they can't catch on and correctly predict when you vary your style.

Mind Games

Note: This article only applies to No-Limit Hold'em.

No-Limit Hold'em ring games require more psychological and bluffing skills than any other popularly played poker game. However, you should only use these tools based on the type of opponent you're playing.

If you are playing a lower stakes No-Limit game (with a buy-in of $100 or under), I wouldn't suggest using psychological tools much. An occasional flop bluff against few opponents may be profitable, but these opponents will frequently pay off their whole stack on hands as low as second pair. In these games, you should just wait, make a good hand, and then ream your opponents with pot-sized bets.

Once you play in a higher stakes game ($200 buy-in or more), mind games will play a larger factor, especially if people's stacks are deep (more than 100 big blinds). However, the first thing you need to do is categorize each of your opponents you are facing:

  • 1. Fish. These guys are just playing their hand, not yours. If you bet big and they have a bad hand, they will fold. If you bet big and they have top pair, they will call provided you do not do something scary like put them all-in. They will not bluff much at you.

  • 2. Weak-tight. These guys also just play their hand, but will call less than the fish. They are not willing to lose all of their chips on top pair unless they think you are a maniac. Bluff these guys out of a good number of pots (but not much so that they will attempt to trap you later on).

  • 3. The Sheriff. These guys are similar to fish but understand the game enough to where they know when the only thing they can beat is a bluff. However, they often think you are bluffing and will call you down.

  • 4. Tight-aggressive. These are your tactically sound players. However, their No-Limit ability differs largely based on how well they read their opponents. In general, they are much more eager to bet at the pot than call. Against these players, changing pace is necessary. You should occasionally trap these players with strong hands and occasionally go over the top at them. By continually changing pace, you may be able to bully them into becoming too 'weak-tight' or by becoming a sheriff. Notice which direction they are going into and then take advantage of that strategy.

  • 5. Hyper-aggressive. These guys like to bet and raise. It's almost impossible to tell if they are bluffing or have the nuts a lot of the time. These players can be dangerous, but you need to make an effort to trap them. While it is good to 'test' them by raising them, do not always do this with a hand because it will become a clear signal to them. Do not let these guys know what you have by raising. Play your hands differently and certainly trap them sometimes when you have a strong hand like a set.

  • 6. Tilting players. Whatever set these guys off, these guys are on tilt. They're going to bet all of their chips in. Best strategy here is to just let them do the betting because they may fold if you do it and they have nothing.
  • In general, you should only play mind games with tight-aggressive and hyper-aggressive players. These other players act predictably, so there is no real reason to change them. However, you do not want to be bullied by hyper-aggressive players, and you do not want to live in fear if a tight-aggressive player bets because this is what these players want. You need to consistently change your image to these players. You want to make it difficult for them to think you are tight-aggressive or a hyper-aggressive. When changing your pace, you should also pay attention to several small, important things such as:

  • 1. Where you bluff. If you always bluff at the flop, they will begin calling you on the flop in the hopes that you will reveal your strength on the turn. So often it is best to switch up where in the pot you bluff.

  • 2. Your preflop play for certain types of hands. You shouldn't always gear your preflop play to what is just 'technically' sound. Even though you want to see the flop for the cheap with small pairs or suited connectors, you should sometimes raise just for deceptive purposes. This is especially a good idea with a medium pair in late position.
  • However, perhaps the most important mind game is how much you bet. You should not bet based on how much your hand is worth, but how much your opponent's hand is worth. Bad opponents will let you know what their hand is worth by betting its value. However, good players will bet how much they think you value your hand. To bluff someone out, you generally must bet more than how much they value their hand (if someone is smart though, they may realize this and call you if you have been bluffing a lot). However, to maximize the value of your made hands, you should bet how much your opponent will be willing to call given their hand. Examples of this in play:

  • 1. If you have a high full house, you should especially bet hard because there is a good chance your opponent has a smaller full house

  • 2. If you have a flush and the board is paired, you should bet 1/2 to 2/3 of pot because you want someone with trips to just call. Betting very hard in this situation will only lead you to be called by someone who has a full house.

  • 3. Leading into your opponent. If your opponent is raising (and you don't think he is bluffing). A good strategy is to bet small, have your opponent raise, and then reraise him all-in. This is especially strong if you hit a weird straight and you are certain your opponent has a set or two pair.

  • Poker Tells

    Tells are traditionally associated with people's physical twitches in which one gives away the strength of his or her hand. Tells exist both in the brick and mortar and the online world. Here are some common tells:

  • In limit, a quick call with two flush or straight cards out generally means a draw.
  • In limit, a quick raise on the flop generally means top pair.
  • A poor player who is thinking generally has a weaker holding and is debating a call.
  • Generally if someone thinks for awhile and then raises, it is not a bluff.
  • Someone who is frequently raising the pot preflop and then folds at the flop if someone bets at him is likely to be on tilt.

  • Live
  • When a poor player puts a hand over his mouth, it generally means he has a strong hand. Generally he is concealing a smile.
  • Shaking hands means the player is nervous. However, this can mean he is bluffing or that he has a very strong hand.
  • A player reaching for a drink also is a sign of being nervous.
  • When a poor player 'stares you down,' generally it means he is bluffing.
  • When the flop comes and a player quickly looks at his chips, he is likely to have a strong hand.
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