Poker and Emotion

“The advantage of the emotions is that they lead us astray, and the advantage of science is that it is not emotional.”
–Oscar Wilde
Aloha loyal readers… I’ve spent the last three weeks recovering from a vicious cold, although I did play quite a bit of live poker. The homegame has taken on a near-mythical quality, after the invention of a new game and some ridiculously improbable occurences. I’ve been using my live play to try to hone my people-reading skills, and every once in a while have been able to enter the poker zone where “the cards don’t matter,” and my confidence in how a player will react to a bet is high enough that I’ve been able to steal some big pots.
Luck has been on my side as well– I was able to win my first tournament at the Golden Nugget a couple weeks ago (a 57 player tourney at midnight) after getting all my money in early with A9 and spiking a 9 after my loose opponent called my re-raise with AQ. After that I played some of my best poker and won enough coin flips to make it to the final 3 players, where we chopped the prize money evenly 3 ways.
After the tournament I thought about how many coin flips I had to win and just how lucky a person has to be just to make it to the final table of any tournament. I also thought about how different I was than players like Mike Matusow and Phil Hellmuth, who wear their heart on their sleeve and play poker with extreme emotion. The connection between emotion and the way we live our lives has intrigued me for a long time– in high school some of my friends called me “the computer” because they said it was rare that I showed any outward sign of emotion. But someone who knew me pretty well believed that I was far more emotional than your average person. I’m still not sure what to believe, but I do know that for better or worse, there is relatively little emotion in my poker game. So I thought an exploration of emotion in poker might warrant an attempt…
Emotion and Poker
Main Entry: emo‚ÄĘtion
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle French, from emouvoir to stir up, from Old French esmovoir, from Latin emovEre to remove, displace, from e- + movEre to move
1. A mental state that arises spontaneously rather than through conscious effort and is often accompanied by physiological changes; a feeling: the emotions of joy, sorrow, reverence, hate, and love.
2. A state of mental agitation or disturbance: spoke unsteadily in a voice that betrayed his emotion.
3. The part of the consciousness that involves feeling; sensibility: “The very essence of literature is the war between emotion and intellect” (Isaac Bashevis Singer).
Traditional poker wisdom has said that emotion has no place in poker. Frustration, anger, and other “negative” emotions that can lead one to a mental state outside the one designed to make logical poker decisions can be harmful for the bankroll.
So how can one of the most successful poker tournament players in history be one of the most emotional players on the circuit? How can Phil Hellmuth consistently perform well in tournaments, despite consistently achieveing a “state of mental agitation” whenever the cards do not fall in his favor? How can Mike Matusow, who puts Hamlet’s insanity act to shame every time the cameras are rolling, be one of the most successful tournament players in the past two months? Is it possible that “emotional poker players” have an edge in tournament poker?
In order to answer this question, we need to break down the most common reasons people get emotional at the poker table.
1. Frustration with results
The most common display of emotion among poker players occurs when they encounter a negative result (not surprisingly, positive results are more often welcomed by relative stoicism, unless your name is Mattias Andersson). When a player makes the statistically correct play and loses the pot, there is a greater amount of frustration than when they fail to suck out on a better hand. This type of frustration most likely results from the fundamental belief that if you make the right decision, you will be rewarded with a positive result. While this belief holds true in many situations in life, it does not take the role of luck into account. Pocket deuces beat pocket aces nearly 1 out of every 5 times, so the underdog is going to win a lot more times than one would expect if they don’t know the odds.
Those that become frustrated when a result doesn’t match performance have a fundamental misunderstanding of gambling theory. The thing that baffles me is that some of the best players in the world still get angry when the cards don’t fall their way. If “there was no luck in this game,” it wouldn’t be much of a game– a bunch of professionals pushing razor thin edges until the house ends up the only winner.
One would think that someone who has an emotional connection to a bad result might be more likely to avoid risks that would end in frustration or anger. In other words, emotional players would be more likely to sit and wait for the nuts, as they have been negatively reinforced to avoid bad beats. This would suggest that emotional players are more likely to survive than those who see no emotional downside to losing their money when they are a favorite.
Personally, I think that survival is overrated in a tournament– even the best players have a relatively small chance to win a tournament, so players like Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu achieve success by pushing thier small edges at every chance they have. However, it seems that the greater the number of players capable of making hopeless plays, the greater the advantage for the player who focuses on “survival.” No need to take weighted coin flips when players will bluff their chips off to you with Ace high.
2. Frustration with performance
The second most common display of negative emotion among poker players is frustration or anger at their performance. This most frequently takes the form of the statement “I know better” or “I should have known,” and frequently occurs when a player goes against his or her instincts, or the opposite case, when the player lets odds win out over instincts and makes the incorrect play. This one hits closer to home for me, as I tend to be pretty hard on myself for mental mistakes. Example (limit poker): loose player raises in middle position, I defend my blind with Q9o or the like. Flop comes AQ4, and by the odds our second pair is probably good against loose guy, whose hand range is pretty wide. We check and call, resolved that we are way ahead or way behind, and he’ll bluff off his chips with a hand like TT. Turn comes an Ace, making it less likely that he is holding an Ace, but when he bets the turn our gut tells us he’s got the ace. I’ll usually be Math guy here and call him down, and usually end up frustrated when loose guy shows me the ace.
While this form of negative emotion seems more productive than results-based emotion (you can correct your incorrect decision, but you have no control over the way the cards fall), it can still make for poor play. People tend to remember emotional experiences, and remembering when a player outplays you might cause one to overcompensate for a previous call or raise, and make the incorrect play. Following the above idea that players who have strong negative emotion based on poor performance, the emotional player will attempt to play their best at all times, and avoid the negative emotion that comes with making an incorrect decision.
Using the above line of reasoning, it’s possible that negative emotional experiences based on performance can help one to remember the bad plays and improve upon them in similar future situations.
3. “Injustice”
Most bad beat stories end in a punch line of, “You’ll never guess what he had” or some similar phrase summing up the unbelievably bad play of the fishy bad beat administrator. A common source of frustration and anger is the injustice of the poker gods: the unlucky protagonist will lose on the river when he is a 90% favorite, and become frustrated when his clueless opponent achieves better results than he does. The mighty protagonist has studied for countless hours and considers himself a very good player, and when his opponent makes a poor play he feels the injustice of the game– knowledge and skill cannot defeat luck in poker, and this leads to frustration on the part of the player defeated by luck. This type of emotional response is similar to the two responses described above, but the frustration experienced by the “good player” is often directed at the poor player (“you can’t even spell poker”) or perhaps the poker gods (“I can never win a race”).
This frustration may lead to self-doubt, or questioning the value of the game of poker. An understanding of gambling theory can help deal with this type of frustration, but I think that emotions that force introspection and questioning usually end up being productive.
It’s hard for me to identify with guys like Hellmuth and Matusow, but their results argue that emotion doesn’t seem to have a negative impact on tournament finishes. On a personal level, I try to take joy in good performance, and try not to beat myself up too much for poor performance. Without some measure of emotion, you might as well be a poker bot.
In answer to the question, “Do emotional poker players have an advantage in tournament poker?” I think the jury is still out. Plenty of players who don’t outwardly display emotion (Lederer, Greenstein, Ivey) have had better results than anyone, but “emotional players” have had their share of victories as well. My gut tells me that emotion might give a player a little edge somewhere, but I can’t quite work it out. The emotional player has more at stake in a way, and higher stakes may result in better play.
Or maybe they’re just goofballs who catch cards.