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Old 11-12-2019, 05:27 AM   #1
Mason Malmuth
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The Four Psychological States of Losing Poker

The Four Psychological States of Losing Poker

by Mason Malmuth

It turns out that in most public poker rooms there are a large number of poker players who know how to play reasonably well. Yet, many of them have long term results that are negative. This seems to almost be a contradiction. If you play poker at least reasonably well, shouldn’t your long-term results be on the plus side?

At first, the answer seems to be yes. But there is an assumption being made here, and that assumption is that if you’re capable of playing poker reasonably well, you’ll always do so. But since many of these players are in fact long-term losers, it has to mean that this assumption is not correct and that something happens which at least at times will make these people play poorly.

The answer to this is that there are four states which poker players can enter into where their overall strategy will deteriorate. The first is known as “tilt” and this state is widely known and understood to some degree by even the non-poker playing public. However, the other three states, expectation bias, searching, and apathy (which can be classified under the heading of searching) are not well known. This paper will address all four of these states and what a serious poker player can do to avoid them.

State No. 1: Tilt. Tilt occurs when the player in question loses the ability to think rationally at the poker table, and when a player goes on tilt, it’s easy for other players to see that he’s on tilt. As an example, back in the 1980s when I first moved to Las Vegas, there was a particular poker player who I would occasionally play against who was a clear tilter. One of the things that this person would do when on tilt was to turn around in his seat so that his back was facing the dealer. Of course, he now wouldn’t know when the cards were dealt and would refuse to turn around to play his hands, and when he did finally turn around, his play was completely irrational and insanely aggressive. But when he wasn’t on tilt, he was actually a winning player.

So what causes tilt. Many so called poker psychologists, most of whom my opinion towards is negative, claim that tilt has something to do with the “fight of flight” mechanism that we all have. But if this was true, fights would be common in the poker rooms, and they only rarely happen, and occasionally we would see someone grab their chips and run out of the poker room, and I’ve never seen this.

In 2013, at the Fifteenth Conference on Gambling and Risk Taking, I gave a paper titled “A Mathematical Model of Tilt — Cause and Cure” which also appears in my book Real Poker Psychology. In this paper, using simple mathematical modeling based on discontinuous functions, I show that tilt is nothing more than a processing problem that is closely related to humor.

For instance, when Groucho Marx (as Captain Spaulding) said, “I shot an elephant in my pajamas, how he got in my pajamas I don’t know,” our brain is able to figure out that the elephant wasn’t really in Groucho’s pajamas, and this process of figuring out the mathematical discontinuity that occurs here produces humor and we laugh.

But what if our brain can’t figure something like this out? And using a poker example, what if our aces keep getting beat and our brain can’t understand why that happens since aces are clearly the best hand in hold ’em. Then it’s my contention that our thinking process gets stuck and our brain in a sense gets locked up trying to solve a problem that it has no answer to. Thus we lose the ability to not only think but to think rationally, and tilt occurs.

So what’s the solution? Well, the solution is easy to describe but for many players difficult to do. And all it encompasses is to improve your understanding of the game of poker so that in the future your brain is able to solve problems that are presented to you at the poker table which you currently can’t solve. This includes a better understanding of strategy, how your opponents behave, and the amount of short-term luck, both good and bad, that is present in a poker game and which statisticians like myself measure by the relationship between the mean, which would be the win (or loss) rate, relative to the standard deviation that is present in all forms of poker (and all forms of gambling).

State No. 2: Expectation Bias. Most poker players want to leave the table a winner when their session is over, and many of them will change their playing style to help achieve this, and this desire to leave a winner I called “pseudo tilt” in my book Real Poker Psychology. But pseudo tilt is actually a specific case of something that be defined more generally as “expectation bias” which is simply the idea of deciding that something else is more important than maximizing your expectation at the poker player.

When playing poker, most experts will tell you that their purpose is to win as much as they can, and that’s certainly a good reason to play poker. But this is the way experts think. But other players at times will decide that something else is more important than maximizing your expectation, and while this is certainly not the way that an expert wants to play, it’s not necessarily wrong if that is the way you want to play.

In addition to always trying to finish a winner, another common example of expectation bias is to get revenge on a player who for some reason you don’t like. Perhaps they bluffed you out of a pot and then showed their hand which humiliated you, or perhaps they said a few things at the table that you didn’t like. So, as a response to this, you altered your play by raising them more than you normally would in an attempt to get back at them.

An obvious result of expectation bias is that to achieve this other goal, you’ll often lower your expectation in the game and sometimes play in a way that will appear you’re on tilt (and this is why I used the term “pseudo tilt” in my book).

But expectation bias is sort of a personal thing. If maximizing your expectation is not that important to you, then playing in this alternate manner can certainly be fine. However, be aware that expectation bias can cause a winning player to turn into a losing player. Furthermore, if your standard deviation goes up by a lot, even though your expectation has gone down, it can be easy to deceive yourself as to how much damage you’re actually doing to your long-run poker results.

So the cure for expectation bias is similar to tilt. That is, if your long term goal is to maximize your expectation, do everything you can to understand the relation between it and the standard deviation, and to realize that when this relationship deteriorates, expectation bias can deceive you into thinking that you’re playing much better than you are.

By the way, another common example of expectation bias occurs in tournaments when someone decides that winning the trophy is more important than maximizing your expectation. I won’t give any specific examples here, but due to the percentage payback nature of the poker tournament prize pool, the strategy that maximizes your probability of winning the tournament may also be a strategy that lowers your expectation. This is why you’ll sometimes hear tournament players, especially late in a tournament where there are large differences in the payoffs depending on what place you finish, talk about how it’s better to “ladder up” than to try to win the tournament.

State No. 3: Searching. Poker has a cruel side. Specifically, suppose you and I were both tennis players, and since this is my paper, let’s assume that I play tennis a little better than you do. What does that mean in terms of our results. And the answer is, while we might enjoy playing against each other, I’ll win almost every time. That’s because the short-term luck factor in tennis is small. So if my expectation is a little higher than yours, that small difference will determine our results almost every time we play. But what about poker?

Well, in poker, the standard deviation, which is the statistical measure of the amount of short-term luck in a poker game is large when compared to the expectation. Typical numbers for a good player who doesn’t play too large would be something like a $30 per hour win rate and a standard deviation of $400. For practical purposes, this means that we’ll occasionally have an hour where our results can differ by as much as $1,200 (3 standard deviations) from our expectation.

Now in poker there is a type of player who when he’s playing at his best is around a break even player for the games that he plays, or perhaps a small winner. And when he sits down to play, if he happens to be on the right side of the standard deviation, which means that he’s winning, everything will be fine. He’ll play his normal best game, which still may be much weaker than that of an expert, but he’ll have no reason to make any adjustments in his strategy. But what happens when he gets on the wrong side of the standard deviation?

Specifically, when some players start losing, they’ll enter an interesting psychological state. In this state, they won’t be so focused on how they play, but they’ll begin to focus on how some of their opponents play, and these are players whose long term results are significantly better than our breakeven to small winner.

Now when this happens, we’ll often see changes in how these people play. For instance, it’s well known that in poker the best players play aggressively, but they only do so in the right spots. Now our breakeven player, because of his poor short-term results, will often want to emulate the strategies that these better players use, and they’ll begin to search for alternate strategies, usually more aggressive and looser than they normally play. Thus the term “searching.”

But unfortunately for these people is the fact that poker is a complex game, and any strategy changes that you make to improve your game often require a lot of thought, and you don’t have the time to do this type of thinking at the poker table. Consequently, while these breakeven type players clearly need to make some strategy changes in their game to have better long term results, when searching at their table, the results they achieve will usually produce a lower expectation, often changing their expectation to negative.

Also, a searcher can be somewhat easy to spot and there are two characteristics you look for. First, they won’t have many chips in front of them because they’ve been losing, and second, they try to make plays which in some sense will appear tricky but to an expert player they’ll also appear ill conceived. An example might be in no-limit hold ‘em, when you start with a pair of aces, to check both the flop and the turn in an effort to get your opponent to bluff or bet a hand that he normally would fold if you were to bet. But the down side to this is that the free cards that you give in the aces example may allow your opponent to draw out. Now you have not only cost yourself the pot, but cost yourself additional bets as well and in no-limit or pot-limit, since the bets tend to get larger as the pot grows, this error can be quite costly.

In addition, I believe that searchers are fairly common at the poker tables. That’s because the large short-term luck factor, which can often produce a negative swing, will frequently put a player in a position where he’ll be attempted to search. Even worse, sometimes when searching, the player will come up with a strategy that actually reduces their expectation but, again due to the large standard deviation that is present in most forms of poker, happens to win a nice pot for them. As a result, this new poor strategy gets incorporated into their game and their long term results deteriorate.

State No. 4: Apathy. When playing poker, you’ll sometimes hear a frustrated player make a statement in an apathetic manner like, “What the heck, I’m calling.” And in most cases, this player has entered the fourth state “apathy” where his play can deteriorate.

In many ways, apathy is related to searching and may even be a sub-set of searching. But since the mechanism is a little different, it gets his own category.

When searching, a player becomes focused on two things. First, his poor results, and second, the long term results and the playing strategies of some of the other players who he knows do well. Thus, he tries to imitate exactly how they play. But poker is too complex to quickly copy how an expert player plays, and thus the newly adopted strategies usually reduce expectation (and often increase the standard deviation).

When in the state of apathy, the player in question while also trying to find other strategies that will work better than what he currently uses, doesn’t really focus on how some of his opponents play. In reality, he becomes more concerned with how he plays and thus without any outside guidance will begin to search for different strategies, and he does this under the projected illusion that he doesn’t care about how he plays, but in my opinion he cares very much.

Another frequent difference between searchers and apathetic players is that searchers frequently, but not always, begin to play in a more aggressive manner, while the apathetic player will usually, but also not always, do the opposite and become a more passive opponent as he adds in additional hands to play.

For those not too familiar with poker, it’s a game that rewards aggression compared to passivity. Of course, you can play too aggressively and have poor long term results. But if you’re an opponent of one of these players, in most cases expect better results against apathetic player than against the searcher even though there are many similarities between these two states.

Final comments: There’s a common theme through these four states which I assume that many readers should have already spotted. It’s simply that these different states that can cause a poker player’s expectation to go down, only occur when that player is losing, and this creates an interesting dynamic that can happen at the poker table.

When winning, especially if the game is short-handed, it means that at least some of your opponents are losing, and as we have just seen, losing players can enter one of the four states which means that the game you’re in can be a good game to play from an expectation standpoint. On the other hand, when losing, not only might you be susceptible to entering one of the four states, your opponents are more likely to be winning and thus playing at their best.

This is an important idea for the serious poker player, especially one who plays high stakes where almost all his opponents know how to play reasonably well. It means that given the exact same players, a game can sometimes be good to play, and sometimes not so good, depending on who’s winning and who’s losing.

To finish, many poker players like myself recognize the late Chip Reese, who passed away in 2007, as one of the greatest poker players who ever lived, and he regularly played in some of the largest cash games ever played. But he had a characteristic which many of his competitors, in my opinion, didn’t fully appreciate. When he was winning, Chip was known to stay at the poker table for a very long session. But when losing, Chip was also known to quickly and quietly leave. I don’t know how well he had these ideas thought out, or whether this was something he just did intuitively, but this pattern certainly contributed to his long-term success against some of the best players in the world because when he put his time in, it was more likely that one or more of his opponents had entered one of the four psychological states of losing poker.
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Old 11-15-2019, 10:00 PM   #2
DwayneB
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Re: The Four Psychological States of Losing Poker

Thank you for posting this.
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Old 02-11-2020, 03:06 PM   #3
Erin1234
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Re: The Four Psychological States of Losing Poker

State No. 5: Bloodthirsty

Last edited by Erin1234; 02-11-2020 at 03:20 PM.
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Old 04-21-2020, 03:43 PM   #4
Yeodan
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Re: The Four Psychological States of Losing Poker

Very interesting!
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Old 08-05-2020, 04:23 AM   #5
nucleardonkey
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Re: The Four Psychological States of Losing Poker

Apathy is the root of all my crazy risk taking. I'm bored, so why not.
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Old 09-03-2020, 06:48 AM   #6
CoachBahman
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Re: The Four Psychological States of Losing Poker

Beautiful read. I love the part about apathy, resonated with me a lot. Incredibly insightful, thank you.
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Old 09-05-2020, 10:21 PM   #7
JeeeroyLenkins
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Re: The Four Psychological States of Losing Poker

Great post, lots of great insight into how we can sometimes be our own worst enemy at the poker table. I imagine the "apathy" stage is what destroys bankrolls.

The part about Aces getting cracked over and over and our brain not computing why reminds me of the psychological concept of "cognitive dissonance." Cognitive dissonance is actually part of the brain's defense mechanisms to make whatever is happening to the person "make sense" to the brain's preconceived belief/notion in that situation. I imagine in poker playing this presents as when one just says "this can't be so , how could my Aces get cracked AGAIN in 5 minutes!" which creates dissonance: "reality is they did get cracked twice in 5 minutes" but "this can't happen , it never happens" thinking counters it. Rather than accept it, the brain tries to figure out how to make it's narrative fit the reality. So "the site is rigged," "no one runs as bad as me, " that guy never loses," "that's the last time I go all in with Aces pre flop!" and so forth. Take that reality! We may even know deep down we're wrong but the dissonance fades a bit and we've convinced ourselves of the lie.

But you've highlighted these states, now players reading this can begin to recognize when they start to slip into these states. I can definitely relate to the "changing strategy" on the fly stage then having to "reset" and realize what I'm doing.
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Old 09-05-2020, 11:24 PM   #8
Mason Malmuth
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Re: The Four Psychological States of Losing Poker

Quote:
Originally Posted by JeeeroyLenkins View Post
Great post, lots of great insight into how we can sometimes be our own worst enemy at the poker table. I imagine the "apathy" stage is what destroys bankrolls.

The part about Aces getting cracked over and over and our brain not computing why reminds me of the psychological concept of "cognitive dissonance." Cognitive dissonance is actually part of the brain's defense mechanisms to make whatever is happening to the person "make sense" to the brain's preconceived belief/notion in that situation. I imagine in poker playing this presents as when one just says "this can't be so , how could my Aces get cracked AGAIN in 5 minutes!" which creates dissonance: "reality is they did get cracked twice in 5 minutes" but "this can't happen , it never happens" thinking counters it. Rather than accept it, the brain tries to figure out how to make it's narrative fit the reality. So "the site is rigged," "no one runs as bad as me, " that guy never loses," "that's the last time I go all in with Aces pre flop!" and so forth. Take that reality! We may even know deep down we're wrong but the dissonance fades a bit and we've convinced ourselves of the lie.

But you've highlighted these states, now players reading this can begin to recognize when they start to slip into these states. I can definitely relate to the "changing strategy" on the fly stage then having to "reset" and realize what I'm doing.
Hi JeeeroyLenkins:

Adding a bit to this what is often happening is the struggle of living in the real world versus living in the probabilistic world, and poker is a game based on probability. One of the things that this difference causes is that it makes some of the events related to poker seem counter-intuitive to many players, and this of course leads to what you have addressed in your post.

From page 26 of my book Real Poker Psychology:

Now if you’ve been playing poker for a while this is something that you probably already know, but what you may not realize is that events from poker strategy to your overall results can be counterintuitive, and when this is the case and the result is bad, it can trigger tilt, both short and long term if your understanding of what is actually happening is lacking.

Best wishes,
Mason
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