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Arthur S. ReberI’ve spent over fifty years living two parallel lives. In one I am a semi-degenerate gambler, a poker junkie, horse player, and blackjack maven; in the other, a scientist specializing in cognitive psychology and related topics in the neurosciences, the origins of consciousness and the philosophy of mind. For the most part, I’ve kept these tracks separate mainly because my colleagues in each have little appreciation for the wonder, the complexities and the just full-bore fun in the other.

But over time these two avenues of my life have meshed. There’s a lot that we know about human psychology that can give us insight into gambling, especially poker and, of course, there’s a lot that poker can teach us about human psychology. It is quite astonishing how richly these topics interlock. I’ll also introduce you to some engaging characters I’ve known – bookies, con artists, hustlers, professional poker players and perhaps an occasional famous scientist.

This site will wander about in both worlds with new columns and articles along with links to scores of previously published ones. Now that I’ve retired I’ve become something of a political junkies and will go on rants on politics and economics,  When the mood strikes I’ll share views on food, restaurants and cooking. Any and all feedback is welcome.



So, I was in my favorite game of $5 - $10 no limit hold ‘em playing with all the verve and grace of a guy who has been on a bit of roll. I got smacked around pretty quickly when a bluff got snapped off and a flopped set got run down but, no matter, I’m the best here, right? Right!

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Self Deception, Self-awareness

Try this next time you stroll into work, a bar, the family Thanksgiving fest, or your favorite poker room. Approach your buddies, co-workers, colleagues, spouses or significant others and ask them, in a candid sort of way, whether they think that they “know who they are” as people. I can guarantee you that they will all, to a man to a woman, say, “yes, of course” and then will proceed to tell you all about themselves.

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The Comfort Zone

Some years ago my wife and I found ourselves at a party with a number of couples, most of them somewhat less eroded by time than we were. It was a lot of fun. We sat there feeling very alive and drawn back into the earlier days when life had a different, somewhat sharper edge to it. After downing more than a few we found ourselves in conversation with a young couple who, as we soon discovered, had been married for about four years. A few more drinks later, and after I (stupidly) revealed that we were both psychologists, they wanted to know the answer to a question that was tearing them apart: “What did we do to stay together after that ‘zing’ was gone?

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The Rhythm of the Game

There will be a moment in a basketball game where you will hear the cry, “Get Scotty the ball, feed him, man, he’s got the hot hand. He’s on a roll.” Listen to the announcing crew at a baseball game and you will get the classic analysis, “Roger’s really in a rhythm now. He seemed to be off-tempo earlier, but he’s settled into a groove now.” In football the same chant will be heard, “Man, Peyton’s really on his game; his rhythm’s right and everyone can feel it.” “What,” you are certainly free to ask, “are they talking about?” What is this tempo, this roll, this rhythm thing? Is it timing? Pacing? Is it psychological? Physical? Biological? Is it real or merely a statistical illusion? And, if it is real, does it apply to poker? We certainly know that there are rhythms to life. There are daily cycles of wakefulness and sleep, of keen-eye sharpness and slogging drowsiness. There are weekly cycles of work and play and the yearly romp through the seasons. A lot of has been written about these, some of it insightful and wise, much nonsensical and misleading. Some of it is relevant to our game, much of it is not. A good deal is known about cycles based on the predictable astral path of this planet of ours. These are the ones that produce the seasonal changes, the days that drift from the long and leisurely to short and dreary. We also have learned a good deal about those that are dependent on our biology. We go through daily cycles, with predictable ups and downs. Most of us are alert, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the AM, start feeling a bit weary in the afternoon and zone out soon after —- time for a serious cup of Joe and, for what it’s worth, Starbucks does heavy business in the late afternoon. In the past couple of decades scientists have begun to unpack the evolutionary reasons for these rhythms, their underlying biology and, for our purposes here, the psychological factors that enter in. Our bodies run on their own internal time clocks and our minds (being but a very important piece of our bodies) do too. We have psychological rhythms and we are sensitive to pace and temporal cadence in all we do, including poker. Is there anything we can learn that will help our game? Absolutely. First, we need to pay attention to our daily rhythmic cycles. In the previous column we discussed fatigue and the unhappy impact that being zoned out can have on your game. A key factor in determining just how sharp you may feel at any given moment is where you are in your “circadian” cycle. Circadian means “about a day” and our biological and psychological functions wax and wane over the course of the 24 day. Everyone will have butt-weary “down” periods and for most of us these will occur in the late afternoon, most often between 4 and 6 PM. We typically recover from these and feel more alert in the early evening. When I was still in the classroom, I used to dread teaching late afternoon classes. I would look out and see half of my students nodding off —- and on really bad days, I worried about falling asleep in front of them! By the way, if you do an “all-nighter” you will discover the other half of this cycle. There will be another one of these downers hitting around 4 AM and followed by a return of alertness a couple of hours later. If you make it through the trough of fatigue and weariness, you will find yourself surprisingly alert in the early morn —- but, of course, it won’t last. Second, we need to appreciate our own individual rhythms. Each of us has our own rhythmic style, our preferred personal tempo, a measured manner that we feel comfortable with. If you watch tournament poker on TV closely, you will notice how consistently patterned the play of the top pros is. When Howard Lederer plans to pay a hand, he always slowly places a chip on his cards. He then stops, leans back slowly and thinks before making a move. Chris Ferguson sits there motionless until it is his turn to act. Then he looks at his cards with that awkward elbows-out style of his, makes his bet and then puts his hands to his jaw and does not move a millimeter —- no matter how long it takes for his opponent to act. These personal rhythms don’t have to be slow and labored. Phil Laak jumps around like a total nut, falls on the floor, pulls his sweatshirt hood up over his head, talks constantly —- they don’t call him “The Unabomber” for nothing. Varied as they are, their patterns help them maintain a sense of ease and ensure that nothing that the other players do will force them out of their own rhythm. On the very other hand, if you look closely at the amateurs who occasionally make the final table you will typically see a distinct lack of rhythmic discipline. They move about; they shift positions. Sometimes they act quickly, sometimes not. If you think they are “mixing up” their game, you’re wrong. They rarely have this level of sophistication. They are almost certainly not sensitive to the rhythms of the game and it is unlikely that they appreciate their own. They are vulnerable to pressure from the pros and their games invariably suffer. How important are these rhythms in ordinary cash game play? Very, far more than most players appreciate. It is critical for each of us that find the pace in our game. Do you feel most comfortable with a patient, measured style? Do you feed off a juiced-up game with split second reactions, rapid fire bets and hair-trigger raises? It really doesn’t matter which, just so it is something you feel is “yours.” You also need to learn to pay attention to the rest of the table. If the game is fast-paced and you prefer a more leisurely game, slow down a bit and try to pull the others back to something more akin to what you like. Finally, do not let someone else’s play or antics put you off your rhythm. In all sports, a key element of defense is to try to disrupt the opponent’s tempo, to get them out of sync. You will see this in virtually every sport played at a high level; it doesn’t matter if it is a team sport like football, a one-on-one game like tennis or an individual sport like golf. And, of course, you will see this strategic ploy in poker. One of the psychological arrows in a good pro’s quiver of tricks is the ability to force the action, to get others to act in ways contrary to their preferred style. They will bet fast if they see that you favor a slow, measured game. They will take a long time to act if they sense that you prefer an up-tempo game. It is important that you are aware of this ploy when it happens and resist it. I have a distinct preference for a moderate, consistent game. One of the worst sessions I’ve had in years came when I let a very shrewd player get me off my game. He was a mid-level pro with a very fast pace. He’s had a lot of experience and makes decisions quickly. He started catching cards and bullying the table and got under my skin. I make the fatal error of shifting over to his style of play in an effort to “get back” at him for his antics. A rack of greens later and I left the table, about as angry at myself as I could be. In retrospect, the proper course of action would have been to work against his preferred style, not try to match it. I should have gently slowed down my play, become more measured than usual. Thought more, not less —- even if some of the “thinking” was merely a ploy. I look forward to sitting down with this guy again and seeing just whose rhythm method works best. Lastly, a word of caution. A lot of junk has been written about rhythms. The most egregious nonsense has come from snake oil salesmen who offer schemes for discovering your personal “biorhythms.” The standard claim is a promise of a method for discovering your personal biorhythms and using them to find success in love, business, poker …. whatever. These are scams with no scientific basis for the claims. If approached, keep your rubber band around your bankroll.

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