You can gain a vital edge over your rivals at the in-person and online casino tables by gaining an understanding of their psychological makeup. Pursuing an astute poker strategy is important, but poker psychology could be your secret weapon. This guide will explain the various types of player you will encounter at the poker table, teach you how to read your opponents, and highlight the traits you must hone to become a better poker player.
Poker players can typically be divided into four broad groups: loose-passive, loose-aggressive, tight-passive and tight-aggressive. Some extreme players are difficult to pigeonhole, while others manage to craftily straddle multiple categories, but it is important to gain a thorough understanding of these four types of poker players.
Loose-passive poker players are renowned for playing too many hands, displaying a reluctance to fold and relying on luck. These players lack a thorough grounding in pot odds, and they generally lose over the course of a session. They are also referred to as fish and calling stations, and more experienced players will regularly take them to the cleaners.
You will sometimes come up against seemingly wild and untameable players known as LAGs – the abbreviation for loose-aggressive – at the poker table. They play a lot of hands, and they display a tendency to raise after the flop in an aggressive fashion. Successful LAGs adopt a poker strategy that sees them make correct decisions in marginal situations after the flop, and they often capitalise after opponents underestimate them. You might also find yourself up against a maniac, which is essentially an extreme version of a LAG. Maniacs are often weak players that go in hard on almost every hand, and it can be easy to vanquish them by playing tight and inducing bluffs. Experienced LAGs are much more skilled and harder to counter than maniacs.
Tight-passive players are among the easiest to read at the poker table. They are also known as rocks, such is their propensity to remain inactive. They sit back and wait for high-quality hands, often making sensible decisions before the flop. However, it can be pretty simple to play against a rock. They will generally only bet if they have a very strong hand, and they rarely bluff, so you can safely fold against them. If you sense a weak tight player, attack their blinds and display selective aggression at opportune moments.
The best poker players generally fall into this category, known as the TAG. They only play with the correct starting hands, and they will then dial up the aggression after the flop. You generally see them betting and raising instead of checking and calling, and they often have a lot of joy when playing against loose players and passive players. TAGs are often the hardest players to battle with, so you might want to focus your efforts on beating rocks, fish and maniacs instead of sitting at a table full of TAGs. If you do want to eke out a bit of money from TAGs at a table, seek out situations to steal their blinds, defend your button and raise their continuation bets.
You can gain a crucial advantage by understanding the manner in which the poker player types described above will react to each situation. However, poker is a lot more complex than that. You also need to learn how to read your opponent’s tics, understand when to bluff and how to bluff, gain an appreciation for the concept of tilt, and know when to fold. Understanding poker psychology makes you a better player, and these are the key areas to focus on:
Players often give away the strength of their hands by the behaviour they exhibit. Matt Damon’s character in Hollywood movie Rounders famously knew how strong Teddy KGB’s hand was by the manner in which Teddy ate his Oreo cookies. Andre Agassi knew exactly where Borius Becker would serve based upon where the German player’s tongue was positioned. Learning a rival’s poker tells can help you understand when they are bluffing, so it can be highly profitable.
Some poker tells can be contradictory and inconsistent, but there are some basic tenets to follow. For example, if a player is sighing, shrugging or appears glum, he could well be trying to conceal a strong hand. If a player suddenly straightens her posture, she could have a strong hand. An abrupt silence or an uncharacteristically verbose outburst can often indicate a good hand. A player that freezes after placing a bet is often bluffing.
If you are keen to apply poker psychology alongside poker strategy, you should focus on the sound of an opponent’s voice, signs of impatience, fumbling, glancing, shifting eyes, twitchy fingers, inadvertent grins, gulps and shaking hands. Watch how players buy in and handle their chips, as it often provides an indication of playing style and experience. Some players are obviously acting, exhibiting false tells, and if you recognise this, you can call their bluff.
There are certain poker tells that can indicate a strong hand. Some players will take a deep breath, their nostrils will flare, their pupils will dilate, their cheek muscles flex and their breathing becomes more rapid. They display impatience, they look at the flop and glance intensely at players and their chip stacks. Others look increasingly relaxed and suddenly sit back with an involuntary smile.
Poker tells that could indicate a poor hand include unnatural speech, checking hole cards post-flop, lips tensing, biting lips, blinking, nail biting, breathing through the mouth and putting chips into the pot with excessive force. Experts in poker psychology will try to read these signs and make decisions accordingly.
Mastering the art of bluffing is vital for any aspiring poker champions. Making a weak hand appear strong and causing your opponent to fold can be exhilarating and lucrative in equal measures. It can also give you a loose image and put your opponents on tilt. However, you need to pick and choose your moments. First, you must understand the type of players you are up against in order to calculate whether a bluff would be successful. For example, a poker bluff against a maniac that always calls might not be the best idea.
Gain an appreciation of your own image – are you perceived as a rock or a maniac, or are you seen as a player that makes terrible bluffs? – and use it to your advantage. Analyse the betting history of the hand, your position, the strength of your hand and the size of the bet too. Understanding the dynamics at your table essentially makes it easier to determine how frequently you should bluff. There is no such thing as optimal bluffing frequency, because it depends upon all of those factors.
Only bluff when it makes sense from an expected value perspective, and when you are reasonably confident you can force your opponent to fold. At a basic level, good poker bluff situations include being in last position, if you raised pre-flop, against small stakes and when you are on a draw. Some players like to place a light 3-bet before the flop, follow up a pre-flop raise with a bet on the flop more often, 3-bet the flop with big draws, float the flop and bet the turn, or place a double float by calling on the flop and the turn. However, bluffing is a tool, not a game plan, and there is no need to focus your poker strategy on it.
The next step is learning how to bluff. At a fundamental level, you have to credibly represent a strong hand. If you can make people think you are a weak, fearful player, or a maniac, you will stand a great chance of successfully bluffing them. Try to prevent yourself from giving off tells, either by keeping your actions consistent throughout the game or varying them up to a maddening degree, and work on that poker face.
Tilt is a state of mental confusion in which an angry or frustrated player makes incorrect decisions in the heat of the moment. The best poker players have learned to avoid tilt, while also causing opponents to experience it. To avoid tilt, make sure you vent your frustration internally, take a few deep breaths and visualise something relaxing. Meditation can help.
Poker psychology naturally dictates that you can use tilt to your advantage. If you see a player breathing heavily, nostrils flaring and scowling, he could be primed to make some bad decisions. Players on tilt may grow looser and more aggressive, so you can tighten up and exploit that player’s mental state.
The sunk cost fallacy is a reluctance to abandon something that you have already poured time, money and effort into. Some poker players are unable to let go of an initial investment, and feel the need to fight for every chip thrown into the pot. They throw away good money chasing hopeless long-shots, because they “have already come this far”. It’s like sticking with a bad movie or book even if the first half was dreadful. The money you have put into a pot before the flop should never impact your decision once the flop arrives. Learning to spot the sunk cost fallacy and knowing when to quit is essential in any successful poker strategy.
The best poker players share a number of key traits:
A solid grounding in poker psychology makes you a better player. It is imperative that you study your opponents in order to discover the types of players you are facing, their tells and how receptive they will be to bluffing. Poker psychology can help you exploit tilt and understand when your opponents are bluffing too. When used in tandem, advanced poker strategy and poker psychology can prove extremely lucrative, so it is important to study both in detail.
Ziv Chen has been working in the online gambling industry for over two decades in senior marketing and business development roles. Ziv writes about a wide range of topics including slot and table games, casino and sportsbook reviews, American sports news, betting odds and game predictions. Leading a life full of conflict, Ziv constantly struggles between his two greatest loves: American football and US soccer.Read Full Bio