Books by Arthur

Social Networks
Article Index [A-Z]

Stress in the Poker Wars

Photo Credit: greenmelindaPoker is:

(a) A stressful game (b) A game people play to relax (c) Both

I choose ‘(c)’. Your answer will depend on a host of factors: how good a player you are, the stakes you play for and your own reasons for sitting down in the first place. Most poker players actually aren’t particularly skilled, but that’s okay. They are playing mainly for recreation. They play with friends in home games, they hit the local casino every once in a while, or fire up the old computer for an on-line game. The stakes are typically low and if they lose a couple of bucks, who even notices. If they win, cool. For these poker players, (b) is the answer and stress is largely absent.

But how about those who play seriously? Those with a measure of skill? Those who play at higher stakes? Even more interesting, what happens when you stir in a dollop or two of ego? It’s one thing to drop a couple of sawbucks to your buddies; it is a very different thing to find yourself stuck four dimes in a cutthroat $10/25 no limit game with a bunch of guys with insect shades, hoodies and baleful stares. You know; the ones who look like they just walked out of an audition for a remake of Rounders. Here, (a) starts looming as an answer.

Stress has been extensively studied in psychology. We know that it affects the body, the brain and decision-making ability. One of the commonest causes of stress is frustration. Now you can get frustrated just about anywhere but in poker there are situations that pop up regularly. A classic case is having your goals blocked, like when a bluff gets called. Another is having constant pressure applied, like when you’re at a table with one or more aggressive players who keep raising and reraising your bets. Yet another is when progress is thwarted, as when you have missed a number of flush and straight draws. Enough events like these and your biology goes go wonky; adrenaline levels start to climb, body temperature swings wildly, hypertension kicks in and thought processes can head for the Port-o-John.

But what’s psychologically interesting here is that not everyone reacts the same way. Some lose it —- the term used in poker is “tilt” and a player “on tilt” is a player on his way to losing all his chips. Others, however, find such events merely annoying, like a buzzing fly. The stressful events are still there but they have different emotional reactions to them.

In a famous study done some years ago, participants were given a moderate dose of adrenalin. They were, however, told it was a “memory” drug and asked to wait till it took effect. Some were left in a room with a very funny guy who told jokes, stories and clowned around. Others were put with a morose, depressive character. When quizzed later about their experiences, the students in the first group thought the experiment was a hoot; they loved it. Those in the other group thought it was depressing, unpleasant and reported odd side effects. Same drug, same biological impact, different emotional experiences.

Recall the last time you tried a stone-cold bluff at a big pot. Heart pounding at Indy 500 speeds, gut clenching as you wait for your opponent to make a classic lay-down. It’s a Zen-moment for some —- and a psychological nadir for others. You can often see the difference by the way in which the bluffer reacts after the lay-down. Those who handle stress well just rake in the pot; it’s just part of the game. But it isn’t unusual to see players react openly, exhale loudly, shake their heads or even laugh.

The game, by its very nature, requires that we take risks, risk involves stress and we vary widely in how we manage it. Some learn to modulate it so that its impact on their biology and decision-making is controlled. This group includes the solid pros whose careers have spanned decades and a few good recreational players. Others never learn; mostly you will find them in the lower limit games. Still others find the adrenalin rush irresistible. They become poker’s Icarus characters, the action junkies, the ones who soared for a time only to crash and burn and vanish from the stage.

If you play poker you can’t avoid stress; in fact, you don’t want to. You want to understand it, control it, keep it at nonmalignant levels. The easiest way to do this is to stay within your “comfort zone.” Even the very best do this. A few years back Andy Beal, a Dallas-based billionaire, challenged the top players in the game to go heads-up for staggering sums. Beal, with some of the deepest pockets in the world, had a singular aim, force the pros out of their comfort level. To counteract Beal’s gambit the pros combined bankrolls and played in rotation; thereby distributing the financial liabilities and stress amongst them. Eventually, they (well, mostly Phil Ivey) sent Beal back to Texas poorer by several million. There is a wonderful book that chronicles this extended poker battle, The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King, by Michael Craig. I recommend it.

But lest you get sidetracked by such tales, here’s another surprise: money isn’t the issue. Bill Gates, one of the few on this planet with deeper pockets than Beal, is a regular player. Gates could sit down in the biggest games in the world, lose all day long and it wouldn’t make a detectable dent in his bankroll. He is financially inoculated against all assaults. But he is famous around Seattle for never playing the high stakes games. He just doesn’t feel comfortable doing so. I doubt that he knows the psychological research here, but he is doing the right thing. He has found his comfort zone. His stress levels are kept manageable. His decision-making will be unaffected by emotional swings and his game will thrive. For Bill (b) is the answer.

If you’re a poker player or plan on getting into the game, there is some practical advice in this column. First, understand how you deal with frustration and its offspring, stress. Are you easily affected by it? Do modest levels, as the Brits say, “get your knickers in a twist?” If so, stick to the lower levels where there isn’t as much pressure; play limit poker rather than no limit. In no limit a single mistake can cost you your entire stack —- just the thought of which causes anxiety in many. If not, feel free to move up as your skill level improves. Move to no limit, where a single mistake from your opponent and you can win his entire stack!

Second, discover your comfort zone, the one where you feel at ease and don’t let anyone push you out of it. Don’t move up unless you can approach the higher stakes game with the same emotional stability as the one you’ve become comfortable with.

Third, be careful not get “addicted” to those adrenalin rushes. When they pop up, you can roll around in them like a hog in a muddy swale but don’t go out of your way to find them. You’ll last longer if you do —- in all possible interpretations of that phrase.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>