Dear Poker Counselor: I have been playing poker for about 2 years. I play online when my schedule allows, which is usually on weekends and some late evenings during the week. I play in 2-3 home games with $20 buy-ins and stuff. I took a work trip to New Orleans and was planning on playing my first live casino poker in a cash game. At the end of the trip, though, I realized that I had never played any poker! I played craps and blackjack, but never made it onto a poker table. The waiting list was sometimes too long, other times the games would be short of players, and other times we just got busy seeing the sites and having fun. My home games buddies are razzing me, saying I was too scared to play in a live action casino. I guess I am wondering if they are partially right. What do you think? -Emailed by Hehsasane
Although I've studied psychology and counseled many individuals, I can't read your mind. This is especially true via a few sentences in my email inbox. My best hunch, though, is that your poker buddies have certainly struck a nerve. Their suggestions that you were intimidated and scared to play seems to have you doing some deep self-inspection. Your inspection looks like it is producing some discomforting results. Judging from the question, it seems that you may be discovering that your psyche may have been working overtime to make up suitable excuses to keep you away from the tables. Our minds are very good at protecting our sense of pride and self-esteem by justifying our actions. If we get a speeding ticket, we easily blame the police who set the "speed trap," the traffic flow that was leading us to move so fast, or a street that does not have enough signs. If we miss a deadline at work, we can simply blame a hectic home schedule, an unsupportive boss, or a need for more secretarial assistance.
When you missed out on the New Orleans poker rooms, you easily justified it by filling in extra activities and happenings. You have to ask yourself why you really chose to stay so busy during your trip. Deep within you may indeed find that your poker insecurities led you to find a way to avoid the game. Being a newcomer, your personal psychology is still riddled with self-doubt, question marks, and an overall uneasiness. Before you set off for your trip, you thought you were able to face and overcome these anchors that were holding onto you. In the moment of truth, though, it was easier to hit a familiar blackjack table than wander into the unknown of the poker room. Don't take my response as a complete criticism, though. There is no shame in such reservations when facing something new. In fact, it is supremely common and is often healthy. What we have to gauge is whether the caution is holding us back from greater things, or it is protecting us from something dangerous or damaging.
In this case, it seems that you may be being held back unnecessarily. Your emotions may be keeping you from taking the next natural challenge in your poker ladder. Something in your mind has you doubting yourself and your abilities in the live games. That lack of confidence is tough for your psyche to process, so it works to cover the gap with defensive thoughts. Move past that unhelpful hurdle and ease into a live game or two at the local casinos in your area. Stay near the rail and watch for some time before getting on the list of waiting players. Buy into a low limit game, and the same sense of comfort that you feel at your buddy's home game will sink in.
Poker Counselor:My friend watched the National Heads Up Championship on TV. Now he is organizing a home tournament with 16 guys for a head's up style tourney. I am used to playing with 8 or 9 other players. My friend says that you have to be super-aggressive in head's up. Is that accurate? - Emailed by Kevin M.
Head's up poker is wildly gaining popularity online with amateur players, and it makes for great television when the pros lock horns. With that in mind, I suspect that we will all be getting more and more familiar with this exciting variation of the game. Many pros really revel in the one-on-one version of poker. It may be one of the most pure forms of psychological poker, as you are playing against your opponent's weakness & tells more than the actual cards. I caution you not to misinterpret your friend's advice on super-aggression, though. Just as with all poker, you must be playing using position, the cards, the chips, the blinds, and the read on your opponent. Mindless hyper-aggression may lead to a quick and foolish demise if a sly opponent allows you to walk into a slow play or two. Just remember that you are playing against only one hand of 2 random cards. An Ace-3 off suit in an 8 handed game might go in the muck, but it is probably great in one-on-one.
Psychologically, head's up provides a unique challenge. You want to be able to feel out your opponent, but you don't want to get wrapped up into a spiteful duel. Emotions such as anger and disgust can arise when all of your focus is on one solitary opponent. While this sort of burning emotionality may positively fuel a NFL linebacker when preparing for a snap, it can be a negative distraction during the intricate game of poker. Keep your mind clear and your thinking sharp. A good head's up poker match should look more like a contest between two chess masters than a trash-talking boxing match. Likewise, don't allow your confidence to wane if you are outplayed on a hand or two. Even the best lose plenty of pots to savvy plays. If you ever start to feel inferior to your opponent, it is all over. Lastly, I advise you to listen to your instincts more than ever when head's up. More than ever, head's up provides your mind a great opportunity to get a solid read on your opponent's rhythm, demeanor, attitude, and overall play. When your instincts are telling you that something is different or suspicious, it is probably accurate. And of course, be sure to end our sessions by thinking through your play, your thinking, and how you might improve. Playing head's up is such a great exercise for poker improvement; I encourage you to play in that style even more!
Keep Those Questions Coming!!! Carlisle14@hotmail.com
Ed Note: Heads up is the purest form of poker. Great heads up action always at Doyle's Room