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Projection in Poker

Projection is a classic phenomenon in psychology. Most people have heard the word and may even have a pretty good sense of what it refers to. But for clarity and to make sure that we’re all on the same page, here’s the key line from the authoritative Penguin Dictionary of Psychology.

Projection: The process by which one ascribes one’s own traits, emotions and dispositions to another.

In the dictionary, the definition goes on for nearly a page giving technical details about refined elements of usage, but this single sentence captures the essence of the concept and gives us what we need to see how this principle plays out in poker.

There are innumerable times, while sitting at the table, where we have to make an educated guess about what is happening in a hand, what our opponents are likely doing and what message is being told by the various elements of the game in progress. As many have noted, poker is a game of partial information. We have data on betting patterns; we get to see some of the cards; we know the position of each player on a hand and, of course; we have what each of our opponents has provided for us by the manner in which they have been playing. But, still, we don’t know all that much —- indeed, if there were much more information available, the game wouldn’t be anywhere near as much of a challenge or as much fun as it is.

So, what do we do? Well, if we’re decent players we sift the information that we have. We read our opponents as best as we can, we calculate pot odds and guess at implied odds and make what we hope are the best decisions. If we are experienced players we’ve probably got a couple other arrows in our quiver. We can make decent reads on our opponents, try making moves by putting pressure on them and seeing how they react, and use whatever plays we have to try to make them make a mistake. But, in the final analysis, whether we fold, call or raise depends on the read we make, what we believe our opponent is holding.

Here is where projection comes in. Poker players, being members of this quirky species of ours, often make erroneous reads because they assume that their opponents are just like them. Assuming that someone is “just like me” is, in a rather primitive way, what all the fancy psycho-babble about projection comes down to.

In psychology, projection is considered to be a defense mechanism. This means that people use it to protect themselves from anxiety and other psychologically disturbing circumstances. We all use projection to defend ourselves from unhappy truths. Classic examples abound in every day activities. People often assume that other people are angry when it’s really them. Others insist that a friend of theirs is frightened about upcoming events when they themselves are the fearful ones. It’s a useful defense because it works. It is much easier to live your life if you think that others are wee timid beasties than have to admit that you’re the wimp.

But, as the great geographer of the human soul, Sigmund Freud, noted, all defense mechanisms have booby traps associated with them. If you consistently misrepresent matters and lead yourself away from truths that are known to others, you can end up with problems worse than the ones your defense mechanism was protecting you from in the first place. And so it is in poker.

Poker players who bluff tend to think that other players are bluffing when they bet. Those whose game is built around aggressive pushing of strong hands tend to interpret others as strong when they raise or check-raise. Players who like to make “moves” see others as making them. In short, they tend to project their own “traits, emotions and dispositions to another” just as the dictionary says. And, fascinatingly, all this takes place with little or no conscious awareness.

Okay, this isn’t terribly controversial, I hope, but is it bad? Is it good? Well, of course, it’s both, as good old Siggy noted. All defense mechanisms work to protect us —- provided that the circumstances are appropriate. And so it is in poker. Projection will work just fine if you’re right. If your opponent does, indeed, tend to bluff often, then you, the inveterate bluffer, are more likely than most others to catch him at it. If he’s going to blow off his chips, you’re going to get them. Same goes if your opponent plays in any of a number of other ways —- so long as they match yours. The trapper will be less likely to get trapped and more likely to detect a move by an opponent who is a bit of a trickster. But, you see the danger here, yes? There are so many ways to play, so many different kinds of moves to make, so many varied strategies to engage that it becomes less and less likely that your “projections” are correct. And when they’re not, you’re going to be in trouble.

I regularly play with someone who loves to bluff. He has become a fairly steady “contributor” in our games for two reasons. First, the solid players have all snapped this guy’s more obvious bluffs off on numerous occasions, and that is to be expected. But what a couple of us have noticed is that he often calls in situations where my read on the hand calls for “instant muck.” Why? Because he’s projecting his own style onto others. Because he bluffs so much, he thinks that others do as well. He’s not a “calling station” in the usual sense because his overall game isn’t that bad. But he sure has this one big leak.

So, how can we deal with this problem? Here are a couple of things to think about:

First, appreciate the sublime truth carved in the stone of the Temple of Delphi: “gnothi se auton” or “know thyself.” You need to appreciate what your game is and understand it, for its strengths and its weaknesses. And the key here is grasping deeply that this is your game. It is not necessarily anyone else’s even though they may play in ways that feel familiar.

Second, be aware of, not only the styles of others, but the extent to which they may project their own tendencies onto others. It is a cliché that the good players play the player, and an important part of this is recognizing who tends to project their own tendencies onto others and who has risen above this.

Once you’ve read your opponents’ tendencies, you need to get a sense of how self-aware they are. Then adjust your game to fit. If you’re facing a bluffer who is projecting his style onto others, don’t even try to steal, wait till you’ve got the cards. He’ll pay you off. Trappers who over-estimate the likelihood that others are trapping can be manipulated with well-timed raises and check-raises. These are the ones who can be bluffed off the best hand.

Finally, be careful of the strong players, the ones who know what their style is and do not assume that others mirror it. A bluffer who knows he is a bluffer, and appreciates that not everyone plays this way, is a lot tougher opponent that one without this personal insight. The same goes for every other classic style in the game.

The take-home message here: Follow the advice of the Oracle of Delphi, then judge how well everyone else at the table is listening with their own inner ear and make the appropriate adjustments. You will add a new and productive layer to your game.

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