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Photo credit: Rob Watkins/PafWhen I first started playing poker, the question of confidence never crossed my mind nor, for that matter, anyone else’s. We played by just playing. If we were in good moods, good; if not, not good. But ‘good’ meant our mood and how we felt, personally. The notion that mood might have an impact on the bottom-line wasn’t a consideration.

As time went by and poker become the national pastime, some folks started taking a closer look at mood, personal feelings and whether or not they were having a direct effect on one’s game and, by extension, one’s bankroll. I began noticing, not so much expert writings on mood and affect, but comments, sometimes off-hand, sometimes more directly stated. Usually they were from major players, professionals who were quoted saying things like, “Well, I’ve been working harder on being more confident about my game when I sit down.” Or, “I sensed I might do well in this tournament. I’ve been playing pretty good lately and my confidence was high.” Or, “The more confident I am, the better I seem to do.”

I found these remarks intriguing but puzzling. The gambler in me was skeptical. The game has a significant luck factor and, no matter how skilled you are or how good you feel about yourself and your game, you can still get your highly confident butt handed to you on an unlikely river.

The psychologist in me had an even stronger reaction. I doubted that being confident (or not) could have a real impact on how well one played poker. It’s a game of decisions, a game of analysis of circumstances based on partial information. How can feelings of self-assuredness or self-reliance make any difference in how you think these things through and on what decisions you make?

As I continued to play and learn about the game I began to get a growing sense that this confidence thing might be real. These pros didn’t seem to be just blowing steam. They were talking in serious ways about the importance of one’s emotional and motivational state.

It still didn’t make sense, though. I could imagine how confidence could work in a game that depended on physical skills. It seems pretty obvious that if you’re feeling down and doubt your abilities that you’re going to have trouble holding off a rushing lineman or driving hard to the basket or getting a tight spin on your curveball. But making a tough call? Making a big lay down? Running a bluff? It didn’t feel quite right.

I don’t know if you’ve thought about this stuff, but these are the circumstances that rankles scientists. We see patterns in the data, some of them seem to make sense, some don’t. Some of the time the evidence seems very strong but we find ourselves feeling skeptical; some of the time the evidence is weak but we are enthusiastic supporters. As a scientist, I can tell you that often how we feel in these situations depends on whether or not we have an ‘explanatory mechanism,’ some theoretical process that allows us to understand why something is real.

I won’t get wonky on you here, but here’s an example that’ll make my point. We’ve long had good evidence that physical exercise helps cognitive functions as we age. But, no matter how convincing the data, many scientists were skeptical simply because there wasn’t any obvious mechanism or process that could explain this effect. Why should doing something to your arms and legs have an impact on your brain?

Recently, it was discovered that exercise boosts the efficiency of glucose metabolism, especially in brain areas critical for memory. Glucose powers the brain and when we metabolize it more effectively our brains function more efficiently. Voila. We have our explanatory mechanism.

Are there mechanisms that link a sense of personal assuredness and success in poker? Ones with ‘explanatory’ power? So far as I know, no one has looked specifically at this question but I do have two possible candidates, aggression and trust.

Aggression: High levels of confidence increase aggressiveness which is why being confident works in physical sports like football or boxing. Mike Caro is known for many insights into poker and the one that rings true here is this nugget: “Aggression is rarely wrong in poker, and the times when it is wrong it isn’t wrong by much.” An uptick in the level of aggressive play is one likely reason why confidence empowers play.

Trust: When you’re feeling self-assured you tend to trust your decisions. You’re probably not making better decisions than when you’re feeling a bit down, but you don’t doubt yourself and are less likely to engage in destructive ‘double think’. You analyze a situation and you act, with confidence. When you’re in one of those periods of self-doubt you don’t really trust yourself. You feel muddled, confused and start questioning your decisions. ‘Think long, think wrong’ is an old poker cliché and when it’s right, it’s right for this very reason.

I think these two ‘explanatory mechanisms’ makes a certain amount of sense, but I’m still skeptical. There’s another wrinkle here. When you’re running good, your confidence level rises. You seem to be playing better, getting better results. Is this because you’re confident and making good decisions or is it merely one of those random swings, one of those periods where you’re getting a bit more than your share of cards or your opponents aren’t sucking out on you with their usual frequency or you’ve had the nuts a couple of times when your opponents were holding the second nuts instead of a busted hand and, well, maybe this is making you feel really, really confident? You know, the old ‘chicken or the egg’ cliché….

By the way, there are two take home messages here. The obvious one: work on developing confidence in your game. The other: exercise. I’ll say more about this in another column. Poker is a physically passive game and very few players get enough exercise.

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