Poker is a complex and multifaceted game whose central facets are sometimes called the three P’s: patience, position (with regard to your proximity to the dealer) and psychology. In this series of articles I will focus on the last of these P’s which focuses on how to read the behaviour of your opponent: the psychology of poker.
Zia Mahmood, the world-class bridge player, is quoted as saying, ‘One of the reasons I love the game of bridge is that there are no absolutely right answers to anything. Bridge is not a game that can be played mechanically, according to a series of rules. You have to use not only your brain and your memory but your imagination and your creative spark to avoid the traps that lie in even the simplest position’. The same description could just as easily be applied to the game of poker and the ability to analyse the behaviour of your fellow players is one of the subtlest and most difficult aspects of the game to master. In order to improve your game, it is important that you are able to observe closely how players behave and understand what, in percentage terms, these behaviours are likely to mean. Let’s start with a few very simple examples – how players stack and handle their chips.
All casino games and some home games are played using ‘chips’ instead of money. In these situations the player would exchange his money for the same value of chips. There are a number of reasons for this, of which I will just give you two. Chips are easier to handle and count than money. Players can see at a glance whether an opponent has got a few or a lot of chips in front of them, whereas with a bundle of notes it is often impossible to know how much someone has. There is also a deeper psychological reason, seldom fully articulated, why casinos prefer players to use chips rather than money. When you exchange your money for chips, you have literally and figuratively exchanged something of real value for a playing token, for something that is once removed from money. I have seen people bet considerable sums at roulette and at the poker table using chips and, although it is a moot point, I sometimes wonder whether they would be so keen to make the same bet if they had to use the same fold-up money they used to pay for their groceries. There is a well known saying heard often in casinos and card rooms, that the person who invented casinos made a lot of money, but the person who invented chips made even more money.
Later on, we will examine the importance of ‘stack’ size – the number of chips that a person has stacked in front of him. A big stack will depending on the monetary value or denomination of the chips, generally be more valuable than a short or medium stack. The size of stack you are playing and the size of the stack held by your opponents, are major factors to be considered when making a decision at the poker table.
Some players divide their chips into separate piles, each pile having chips of the same value, others make one or two very tall piles with the bigger denomination chips at the bottom while others try to build structures resembling the Great Wall of China. Players will also differ in terms of how they put chips into the pot and what denomination of chips they use in different betting situations. Mostly these behaviours do not have any meaning that are discernibly usefull but below are a few examples of chip handling behaviours which I contend either offer an insight into a player’s personality or give an indication of the value of the hand they are holding.
Example 1: Breaking the big note!
You may recall when you were younger, back in the days when to have a £5 note (or a $20 dollar bill for our American readers) was to be wealthy. In those days, if you had a big note, you did not like to ‘break it’ because once broken it tended to be spent much more quickly. The big note was something to be kept and prized. Some players treat their chips in this way. They are always wanting to give change, e.g. give you ten 100-unit chips for your 1000-unit chip and once they get the 1000-unit chip they like to hold on to it. (In contrast there are many players who are delighted to change big chips because a pile of small value chips looks more – see Example 4.) Watch this type of player closely because often, when they have a choice of putting small or large denomination chips into a pot the choice of chips can have a meaning.
They will often put their small denomination chips into the pot when they have a marginal or perhaps a drawing hand. Sub-consciously, they may consider that they are not breaking into their pile of valuable chips, so they can do no real damage and can afford to speculate on this occasion. To continue the analogy with the ‘big note’, in this case they are only spending their small change. When this same player ignores his low denomination chips and puts in large value chips, then beware – there is a very high percentage chance that the player has a strong hand. Their subconscious reasoning may be that ‘I will be getting these chips back anyway when I win the pot therefore I don’t need to put in small value chips. Also by putting in the high value chips the pot will be easier to count and the hand will be speeded up. I will get my reward sooner.’