The Art of the Poker Face

© 2006 Jeremy Myers

Competition and emotion go hand-in-hand. When a person wants something badly enough, every part of their being is involved in getting it. The spirit of competition can bring out greed, jealousy, pride, and anger, which can either fuel the fire of determination, or be detrimental to achieving the desired effect in any game: winning. And when the game you’re playing is poker, emotions left unchecked are bad news. After all, there’s a reason that the term “poker face” was coined; the ability to be – or at least, appear to be – unfazed by your circumstances is a desirable trait. Not only does it make the specifics of your situation less obvious to the other players, but it helps to keep your decision-making skills sharp.

Even the slightest bit of irritation can cloud your judgment, leading you to make decisions based more on feeling than on rational thought. In his poker dictionary, Daniel Kimberg, author of Serious Poker, says, “… even good players are often tempted to do things they know are bad ideas when they get frustrated, angry, or upset for any reason. They go ‘on tilt.’ Sort of like a pinball machine, except with pinball it only costs you a quarter. Typical tilt play is much too loose and often very aggressive, because a player on tilt wants very badly to win a pot, and isn't rational enough to wait for cards that are worth playing or situations that are worth attacking.”

Of course, it’s ridiculous to assume that we can do anything we are passionate about and be completely devoid of emotion. But it’s important to learn how to keep those feelings under tight control rather than letting them spill over and have a potentially negative effect on how we play. This is an art form that takes practice, but once you master it, you will notice a marked improvement in your game.

First things first: you must accept that you aren’t going to win every hand, and that in fact, you’ll probably lose more hands than you win. Setting unrealistic standards for yourself can lead to major disappointments, and eventually, a drastically decreased sense of self-confidence. Learn to keep things in perspective, and look at the big picture rather than analyzing each loss or victory independently; you’ll likely see a much better overall image.

The ability to keep a positive attitude, and not let losses and setbacks drag you down, is an essential part of being a successful poker player. If you do happen to take a beating – which, inevitably, you will – do your best to brush it off. Dwelling on it will only take much-needed focus away from the next hand. Don’t concentrate on things that have already happened, especially during a game; it’s a waste of energy to worry about things that can’t be changed, so simply accept the defeat and keep looking ahead.

Visualization can be a good technique to use. Though it may sound a bit silly, it’s worth a try; you may actually respond very well to such a method. If you’re having trouble shaking off a bad beat, take a second to visualize yourself in a boat sailing smoothly through rough waters, passing through turbulent waves (i.e., problems) as calmly as if you’re floating above them. Or mentally put your frustration or anger into a bubble and “watch” as it blows away. It may take a few tries to find an image that works for you, but overcoming disappointments might just be easier with a visual aid.

While the focus of these tips is primarily on dealing with and concealing negative emotions, it’s worth mentioning that you should be equally careful about handling your positive emotions as well. The definition of “poker face” is “A face lacking any interpretable expression” – not just “a face lacking any negative expression.” Always keep in mind that your opponents are watching you for the slightest signs that could inadvertently reveal what kind of hand you’re holding. If you’re really concerned that your facial expressions could betray you, try the popular method of sporting a hat and/or a pair of dark shades. A player’s eyes can reveal a lot, and the reverse psychological aspect of poker is tricky; if someone avoids your eyes, the universal symbol of low confidence, he probably actually has a good hand and is trying to set a trap. If someone stares you down, it’s likely that he’s worried about his own hand and is trying to intimidate you into folding. These subtle, seemingly contradictory gestures are obvious to astute poker players, and if you can’t keep yourself from doing them, wearing sunglasses may help alleviate the problem.

The importance of reigning in your emotions is summed up nicely by Mike Sexton, professional poker player and author of the book Shuffle Up and Deal: “You can’t control luck, but you can control how you react to it. That’s a skill in and of itself. Maintaining your composure at the table is a skill you have to learn.”

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