Have you ever considered the factors that make poker success more or less likely? Well, there are three main components:

  1. A solid strategy
  2. A proper bankroll
  3. A well-trained mental game

All profitable players would agree with this assessment. But the mental game piece of the equation gets the least focused attention. Yes, we all know that psychology is critical to poker success. But how exactly do we develop the psychological skills and mental approach to studying things like poker hand rankings and playing that can help us succeed?

That is the question we’ll answer in today’s article.

Firstly, here’s a straightforward definition:

  • Poker psychology is the scientific study of human behaviours and mental processes related to poker. It also includes the strategic application of psychological principles and skills.

Competing at poker requires more than just playing the cards. How the game unfolds often depends on the strength of your mental game and how well-versed you are in poker psychology.

But this is where the challenge lies. As the late Mike Sexton put it, “The name of the game is No-Limit Texas Hold'em; the game that takes a minute to learn but a lifetime to master.”

The psychology piece of this puzzle is an art form honed through experience, intuition, and continual learning. The good news is that using poker psychology effectively can help you gain a significant edge:

  • It’ll help you make good decisions.
  • Handle your emotions with finesse.
  • And even exploit your opponent's weaknesses.

Four Key Poker Psychology Skills

Four Key Poker Psychology Skills
Four Key Poker Psychology Skills

You must become well-versed in four primary psychological skills to capitalise on the psychological side of poker:

1) Self-Awareness and Emotional Regulation:

To be a winning player, you must increase your real-time awareness of your emotional state. Playing poker can be like a runaway rollercoaster of highs and lows. As such, managing your emotions can make or break your game.

And it's not just about keeping a straight face; it's about genuine emotional regulation. A player skilled at regulating emotions can stay calm under pressure, recover quickly from setbacks, and maintain a level of detachment from the outcome of each hand.

2) Reading Opponents:

If you want to take your game to the next level, it’s essential to understand the mindset of your opponents. Paradoxically, improving your self-awareness can help you better understand your opponents. It’s hard to figure someone else out if you can’t understand yourself!

Being more attuned to yourself and others will help you pick up on subtle cues and tells. These tells include body language, betting patterns, and verbal indicators. If you can get into your opponent’s head, you’ll also be able to figure out what they are likely to do next, which puts you in the driver's seat.

3) Decision-Making Under Pressure:

Poker is a never-ending game of decisions. To be a long-term winner, you must become proficient at assessing risks and rewards in a pressure-filled, limited-information environment, which is very challenging.

Just think of all the mental chatter in games like three card poker when you’re unsure about what to do. But if you are well-trained in using psychological strategies to calm yourself quickly, you can get through the decision-making process promptly and efficiently.

4) Mental Toughness and Resilience:

Mental toughness is a crucial poker psychology skill. Mental toughness can be a personality trait determining your ability to perform well under pressure - but it is more than this.

A mentally tough player can stay focused for long periods, remaining disciplined despite the temptations of tilt. They can quickly bounce back from losses and bad beats.

 Mental Toughness and Resilience
 Mental Toughness and Resilience

Poker psychology is more than staying off tilt or reading opponents. Yes, those things are essential, but developing a comprehensive understanding of the mental game is even more critical. 

So, let’s get into some practical poker psychology tips to help you improve your application of the four poker psychology skills.

Practical Poker Psychology Tips

You can increase your psychological skills and abilities in several ways.

Here are a few actionable steps to get you started:

  • Develop a Pregame Routine:

The easiest way to prepare your mind to play is to create a pregame routine that you use before every session. It could include a couple of mindfulness exercises, like the following:

  1. Meditating for a few minutes or simply taking a few deep breaths)
  2. Reviewing your goals for the session
  3. Or reviewing a hand or two from a previous session.

It doesn’t have to be super intricate or time-consuming. It just needs to get you focused to play.

  • Practice Emotional Regulation:

​​​​​​​Recognise the early signs of negative emotions like frustration, anxiety, or overconfidence. As soon as you notice a negative emotion developing, take action to stop it in its tracks.

Take a few deep breaths and then work to actively reframe unhelpful thoughts into something more useful. These tactics can be incredibly effective in helping you maintain emotional control.

  • Observe and Adapt to Opponent Behaviour:

​​​​​​​Pay close attention to your opponents' behaviours and adjust your strategy as needed. Look for patterns in their poker combos, betting strategy, emotional reactions, and overall gameplay. One or two instances of something don’t necessarily make a pattern.

So, keep a running tally of how often they do specific things. The more often something occurs, the more confident you can be in your counterstrategy. Remember, exploiting your opponents based on observations can give you a significant edge.

Observe and Adapt to Opponent Behaviour
Observe and Adapt to Opponent Behaviour
  • Focus on Decision-Making, Not Outcomes:

​​​​​​​Too many players get wrapped up in thinking about the results of a particular hand. Instead, concentrate on making the best possible decision with the available information. Poker is unique in that our outcomes do not always reflect the quality of our decisions. So, focus your mental energy on the process of making good decisions.

  • Implement a Post-Game Review Process:

​​​​​​​Review your critical hands and decisions after each session. Reflect on your thought processes, emotional state, and strategies.

  1. Were there any apparent mistakes or areas for improvement?
  2. Do you see any patterns that you need to address?

Taking the time for post-game analysis is crucial for continual improvement.

  • Cultivate a Growth Mindset:

​​​​​​​Players with a growth mindset embrace challenges and see setbacks as opportunities to learn and grow. Studies also show that having a growth mindset fosters resilience, confidence, and motivation - all critical components of mental toughness.

These poker psychology skills and strategies are the foundation of a solid mental game. So, you should practice them until they become second nature.

Once they do, it’s time to incorporate more advanced strategies that you can use in world poker tournaments

Advanced Tactics in the Psychology of Poker

In this final section, here are a few advanced psychological ideas to improve your mental game even more. Please note that these strategies require a deep understanding of the game and a nuanced grasp of psychological principles.

  • Understanding Cognitive Biases:

​​​​​​​You should be aware of several cognitive biases that impact decision-making. One of the most common is confirmation bias. This premise is the tendency to favour information that confirms your beliefs/reads while dismissing contrary evidence. An easy way to avoid this bias is to actively seek evidence that falsifies your hypothesis instead of looking for evidence that proves you right.

Another common cognitive bias in poker is the sunk cost fallacy. This bias involves being reluctant to abandon a strategy or course of action because you’ve already invested a lot of money/time/energy into it - even when it is a bad strategy. This action is like throwing good money after bad, and it’s never a good idea! 

Train yourself to look for biases in yourself and your opponents. Use the information gained to make more rational decisions while exploiting opponents' irrational tendencies.

Exploiting opponents' irrational tendencies.
Exploiting opponents' irrational tendencies.
  • Managing Your Table Image:

Your 'table image' is how other players perceive you. Consider how your opponents likely see you (e.g., nit, maniac, fish) and how to use that to your advantage. Skilled players actively manage their image, projecting strength or vulnerability when advantageous.

It’s a widely known truism in poker that playing the opposite of your natural style can lead to increased profits. Misleading opponents about your typical playstyle can be incredibly profitable and fun.

  • Mindfulness in High-Pressure Situations:

​​​​​​​In psychology, mindfulness is a mental state achieved by focusing on the present moment while calmly accepting one's feelings, thoughts, urges, and bodily sensations. That’s a fancy way of saying we notice our thoughts, feelings, urges, and sensations without getting wrapped up in them.

We can have thoughts and feelings without doing anything about them. Reacting to our thoughts and feelings distracts from the game, which is not good.

Staying fully present and mindful, especially in high-stakes or high-pressure situations, is crucial. Mindfulness techniques like focused breathing or regular meditation can train you to maintain a sense of calm. This mental state can prevent tilt and hasty decisions.

  • Strategic Adaptation:

​​​​​​​The highest level of poker psychology involves a skill known as dynamic adaptability. Players who can do this can adapt between games and within a single game or hand. It requires an excellent read on poker hand rankings, game flow, opponent psychology, and an ability to shift strategies seamlessly.

If you can do this well, you can exploit your opponents maximally. This advanced skill comes after a great deal of training and experience, but it is worth striving for.

There are many areas of poker psychology for serious players, giving you an edge over your competitors. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the mental game differentiates good players from great ones.

Your mind is your most powerful asset.

If you put some time into training it, you will reap the rewards!

Poker Psychology Conclusion

Poker psychology is a multifaceted subject. While learning how the mind works is fascinating, putting this knowledge into practice is how you'll benefit most. Whether managing your cognitive biases or increasing your mental toughness, poker is as much a mental game as it is strategic.

Mastering poker psychology is a long-term endeavour that requires learning, adapting, and growing.

However, integrating these ideas into your game will improve your poker skills and enrich your understanding of yourself and others.

Dr. Tricia Cardner is the author of Positive Poker, Peak Poker Performance and co-author of Purposeful Practice for Poker. She podcasts at Poker on The Mind with her co-host Gareth James. You can find her at peakpokermindset.com where she teaches poker players the most effective psychological strategies for optimal poker performance.