Some years ago I participated in a study on optimism; specifically how did an optimistic attitude affect the results of various tests and games. Lately, I have wondered how these results might apply themselves to poker. Let's look at just one of the results of that study and then apply it to the poker table.
College students were asked: "Are you likely to score in the top half of your class on this test?" Then the students who had said they were going to score in the top half were told the test had been written to be very difficult and they were asked again if they would score in the top half. A full 75% of the students now said they would be unlikely to make the top half. Even though the test was going to be more difficult for everyone, the students felt they would do worse. Change the question around and tell the students who felt they would not score in the top half that the test had been made very easy and sure enough, nearly 75% of those students felt they would now score in the top half.
In the face of a shared adversity (harder test) or a shared benefit (easier test) the students rated their chances without considering that everyone was taking the same test. Their own chances should not have changed at all but their perception was that the shared benefit or adversity was affecting only them and not the entire group. Let's take that reasoning to the poker table.
You have been playing in a tournament for several hours at the same table. The players at your end of the table have been there the whole time with you and there has been a fair amount of conversation. The knockouts all came from the other end of the table and so there was a big turnover down there. A very large stack gets moved into one of those seats. This new player (X) is aggressive and talkative (loud) and a bit drunk. He immediately begins running over the table and while he is distracted with the cocktail waitress or one of his buddies at another table, the quiet conversation at "your end" of the table is about him. "A good place to double through" and "gotta be lucky to play that hammered"; you know the conversation and you know the situation.
The new player represents either a shared adversity for the table or a shared benefit. But poker is not a team game. Yet time and time again, we see players underestimating their chances of winning against "X" when in a hand alone against him and overestimating their odds when up against "X" and one of their long term table mates. Somehow an individual game becomes a team game, almost always with unintended and bad results for any player who loses sight of their individual goals. Inadvertent soft play can occur against the "friendly" players and over or under aggressive play against player "X".
The simply answer is human nature. The more complete answer is that poker is not life. Despite all the poker metaphors ("they should have folded that offer", "that relationship was never going to be the nuts"), despite the language of poker being used in everyday situations—poker is a game of individual play. Cooperation is almost never a solid poker strategy. Letting shared benefits or even civility at the table change how you play is nearly always a losing strategy.
Studies have shown time and time again that the average optimism of a set of competitors increases in the face of a shared benefit and decreases in the face of a shared adversity. But poker does not have a "set of competitors"; everyone at the table is an individual. To the extent that any "community" feelings at the poker table change your play in the slightest, you have a leak in your game. Optimism at the poker table should be part of your game and making the other players pessimistic about their game should be too.
Ed Note: Sign up at Full Tilt, sit down to play, be optimistic, and see what happens. We think you will like the results.