Friday, December 05, 2008

Ian Taylor and Matthew Hilger’s The Poker Mindset

'The Poker Mindset' by Ian Taylor and Matthew HilgerMentioned a week ago how I’d been going back to Barry Greenstein’s Ace on the River to reread short chapters now and then. Another book that is good for such occasional rereading is Ian Taylor and Matthew Hilger’s The Poker Mindset: Essential Attitudes for Poker Success (2007). Wrote once before not too long ago about the chapter on tilt, and yesterday found myself again looking through The Poker Mindset, reviewing other short chapters and reflecting on how the ideas related to my own game.

As the title indicates, the book is primarily focused on the psychology of poker, and does a nifty job treating several of the many unique challenges to one’s mental health one faces at the poker table. The book is well organized and well written, and I would characterize its advice as especially practical in nature, offering genuine courses of action one can take consciously in response to various issues (e.g., risk aversion, bad beats, downswings, tilt, bankroll issues, thinking clearly, controlling emotions, etc.), rather than strictly discuss such things in the abstract.

The book begins with an explanation of that title, defining what “the poker mindset” is and how developing such a mode of thinking can help one with all of the other stressors poker presents us. A lot of that has to do with understanding the relationship between luck and skill in poker. Both are part of the game. That’s reality. Thus the “poker mindset” (say Taylor and Hilger) is one that understands and accepts reality, and from there one can make decisions that are grounded in what is really going on when one plays poker.

Not intending to do a full-on review here, but mainly wanted to pass along one of the bits of advice I reread last night which struck me as particularly insightful and of use -- a section in Chapter 4 (“Bad Beats and Losing Big Pots”) that talks about how players tend to deal with losing big pots.

As someone who plays mostly pot-limit Omaha, I’m involved in big pots fairly frequently. Such is the nature of PLO. And as is to be expected, I will lose my fair share of them.

Just a couple of days ago I had a session start out with a wild hand in which I managed to lose my entire buy-in in the first hand -- flopped top set, got a flush draw to put it all in on the turn, and his card came on the river. I rebought, and as it happened the very next hand (my second at the table) saw me turn a nut straight and win back half of what I’d lost to the very same dude. Things were happening too quickly, really, to talk much about “image” here, although I think on the second hand my opponent certainly thought I’d instantly gone on tilt and thus stuck around to the river, giving me back some of my cabbage.

In any event, like I say, the big pots aren’t that uncommon at the PLO tables, and I’d like to think I’ve learned to deal with losing them somewhat better over the time I’ve been playing.

In their discussion, Taylor and Hilger suggest there are different “stages” a player goes through when it comes to dealing with losing big pots. The “journey” through these stages is not “linear,” they explain (we go back and forth), but each nevertheless “represents a better response (and a better underlying attitude) than the last.”

The first stage is anger. The main focus here is upon the money lost, for which the loser looks to blame someone else. The loser searches for a target, usually the opponent. If a live game (the authors explain), the target sometimes becomes the dealer. Or one might blame “the poker gods, or whatever deity they believe in.” I think we’ve all been there.

The second stage is frustration, a stage which the authors say is characterized by a lot of thoughts or statements that begin “if only.” For instance, in the hand I recount above my response falls in this stage if I’m thinking “if only the flush hadn’t come.” Like the first stage, this one also finds the player looking to the past, i.e., failing to move on in one’s mind to the next hand.

The third stage is acceptance, wherein the player has “learned to put short-term results in perspective” and subsequently play without being affected by having lost the big pot. Such players can still respond emotionally to losing and feel bad about what has happened, but they don’t dwell on it in such a way that it affects them moving forward.

The fourth stage is indifference, a stage which Taylor and Hilger suggest few players ever reach. At this stage, the player possesses such self-control he or she actually is able to avoid all feelings of “anger, frustration, or even acceptance of the hand,” and instead is able to remain “focused entirely on how his opponents played and what can be learned from the hand.” Thus does such a player strike a nice, healthy balance between looking back and looking ahead, using the past to inform the future.

I’d like to say I’m usually above the “anger” stage, although I know occasionally I’m there. Whenever I’m tempted to type a snarky response in the chat box after losing such a hand (a temptation I normally am able to resist), I am surely stuck in the first stage.

More often I’m in the second stage (“frustration”), saying to myself “if only.” Sometimes after a hand like the one described above, I’ll open up a window, go visit Two Dimes, and run the numbers just to show myself that yes, indeed, I was a heavy favorite when the money went in. I suppose doing that is somewhat instructive (helping me recognize certain odds), but the exercise is mostly just to satisfy doubts or make myself “feel better.” Not really looking forward at all.

When I am playing particularly well, I will occasionally have moments where I am conscious of operating in the third stage, “acceptance.” That comes and goes, though. And I know for certain I’ve never experienced the detachment of “indifference” when losing a biggie.

Like I say, I think the book is quite good at spelling out certain issues with which we are mostly familiar, and offering practical advice -- like simply acknowledging and being conscious of these different varieties of reaction to losing big pots -- that can be helpful at the tables.

So, in which stage do you find yourself when losing big pots?

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Blogger Vince Rex said...

Awesome post.

Having been a live player for most of my poker-playing days, I've struggled with this a great deal over the last couple of years.

Or, ever since I started playing online poker, a lot.

Online poker is da evil when dealing with emotions related to the game.#1: It's pretty common to see a player berated, for instance; in 95% of my live experience, no one berates anyone. It's pretty obvious why.

#2: The hands happen so fast, you're dealt in before you can even begin to "experience" the loss. There's nothing like watching the other guy scoop "your" pot to put things in perspective. You also have a chance to realize that you don't really have cards the next hand, and you're dead man walking.

#3: Online games are just more anonymous. Sure, at the high stakes, there's a fair bit of profiling going on. But, at our stakes, it's a new game every day. If you play live often, you know a lot of the players, and if you're a poker player, you know a hell of a lot about the players. If you're in a big hand with them, and haven't deciphered something about their game, you're just not doing your homework. By this I mean, you should know what you're getting into in a live game; if you don't, it's because it's a new game to you(acceptable) or more likely because you're not being serious when you know, for instance, dude across the table is a roofer and drawing unemployment through the winter months, and don't take that into account.

Last point a little vague, but you get the picture I hope.

Basically, I think it's much more difficult to do these things online. I'm thinking of Tuff Fish, for instance; imagine his antics live? I mean, really.

Good post. Love your topics and treatment.

12/16/2008 8:10 PM  

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