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Jedi Mind Tricks


by Oliver Butterick
 Copyright © 2006 

On a very basic level, No Limit Holdem is all about making the best five-card hand out of the seven available cards.  The best players in the world all but disregard this fact; they insist that No Limit is all about “playing the player.”  This means that it doesn’t matter what cards you have, it matters who you’re playing against.  This is most certainly true.  When you’re playing against the best players in the world, it’s like a complicated game of chess, where you have to out-think your opponent and have your next several moves planned before you make the first one.

The Bicycle Casino is the place to play poker.This is not true of the game I play:  the $200 “restricted buy-in” game at the Bicycle Casino.  Restricted buy-in means that all new players must buy in for exactly $200.  This means that you don’t have people with tens of thousands of dollars on hand, who can buy in for a lot and use their chips as leverage.  Consequently, the restricted buy-in games are the perfect venue for people who want to move from limit holdem to No Limit.  If No Limit Holdem is the Cadillac of Poker, then the restricted buy-in game is the Camaro of Poker--it doesn’t have the prestige, but it’s still fast (and appeals more to blue-collar types).

Regardless of the type of poker, here are three (among many) types of mind games that are going on at the table:

1)  Mind games you play on your opponents.

Today, I picked up A-J offsuit in the big blind.  Several players had limped in, so I would have had to make a big raise in order to thin the field, so I decided just to check, but when I did, I said something that is commonly said by the person in the big blind when no one raises, “Hurry up before someone changes their mind,” indicating that I was thankful to see the flop for free.  This way, if an Ace came on the flop, I can check-raise because it is very likely that someone with a bigger ace would have raised before the flop.

Before the flop, one of the regulars told me to call for my deuces.  You see, occasionally, I will call for “deuce, deuce, deuce” before the flop comes.  Sometimes I have a two, but most of the time I don’t.  So, I called for the deuces, just to be entertaining.  The flop came:  9-6-3.  The small blind bet into the pot, and I called with two over-cards, saying, “The deuce is coming on the turn,” keeping up my act.  The turn was an Ace, and the small blind bet again.  Again, keeping my mind game up again, I called, saying, “The deuce is coming on the river,” hoping that the third player in the hand would call again, but he dropped out.  The river was a Jack, and the small blind made a big bet at the pot.  I raised all-in and she folded.  After the hand, several of the players at the table tried to guess what I had, and they were all wrong--no one even thought that I had an Ace, much less Ace-Jack.

The key to this mind game is misdirection.  It’s the same trick that the magician plays on his audience.  You divert your opponent’s attention away from your play (calling on the flop and turn), and suck them into believing that you actually do need a two.  This was most certainly the case here, as the small blind, a strong player, made the mistake of bluffing on the river.  I made an extra $120 because of misdirection.  It was as if I waved my hand and said, “I don’t have an ace in my hand,” like Obi-Wan at the Spaceport on Tattoine.

2)  Reading your opponents minds.

Shortly after winning that hand and another large pot, I had about $700 in chips in front of me, and I was by far the chip leader at the table.  I ordered my lunch, and started eating.  I was still playing, so I’d stop to check my hand, fold, and then return to my meal.  This went on for a few hands until I picked up pocket Kings.  I made the standard raise and went back to my meal.  I knew that a few people would call my bet since I had been raising a lot in the previous hour (it seemed like every other hand I was dealt Ace-King, Ace-Queen or a big pocket pair).  Two opponents called me, but I had position on both of them.

Meanwhile, still eating, I glance up to see the flop:  J-6-2.  I took another bite, looked back, and placed my hand on the table, waiting for the other players to check or bet.  Suddenly, the dealer burned and turned another 6.  I exclaimed, “Whoa!  What happened here?  I didn’t check yet!”  A small argument ensued, with one of my opponents claiming that I checked by putting my hand on the rail.  I, of course, didn’t know if my opponents had checked yet, so I didn’t realize that it was my turn.  A floorperson was called to decide whether or not the turn card would stand (if I were allowed to bet on the flop, the second 6 would now be reshuffled back into the deck, and one of the remaining cards would be dealt at random.  The dealer claimed that he had stated, “Everyone checks,” and then paused before opening the turn card.  This being the case, even though I didn’t hear the dealer say that, the turn card stayed and we would be allowed to bet.  Both players checked and, somewhat upset, I pushed all-in, betting $700 at a $45 pot.  The player who argued that I had checked-called, as he had a third six in his hand, and I lost a big pot.

The first mistake that I made here was not reading my opponent’s mind.  He was saying, “He checked!”  However, he was thinking, “I just got to see the turn card for free and I made my hand!  I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure that it doesn’t get reshuffled back into the deck!”  Meanwhile, I was thinking, “This loud, obnoxious player is always complaining and talking trash.”  The lesson here is to listen to what people are thinking, not what they’re saying.  Just like a Jedi, you must determine when your opponent’s thoughts betray them.

3)  Mind games you play on yourself:  Going on Tilt.

The second mistake I made in this hand was to over-bet the pot on the turn.  That bet was made by my emotions, not my mind.  I had taken my mind out of the game when the floorperson’s decision did not go in my favor.

“Tilt” is the term used when a player is upset and their emotions take over.  Often, a player on tilt will begin raising with sub par hands in an attempt to win back lost money.  There are two ways to combat tilt:  1) Never go on tilt, and 2) Leave the game when you’re on tilt.

Only a poker player with great hubris claims that they never go on tilt.  There may be one or two people in the world who are actually capable of never going on tilt, but I have yet to meet any of them.  Chances are, what really happens, is that players who claim to never go on tilt actually recognize immediately that they have gone on tilt, and then use relaxation techniques or other measures to regain their composure and allow their brain back into the game.

Or, what they do is leave the game when they recognize that they are on tilt.  This is exactly what I did today, and it was probably the most profitable decision I’ve made in a week.

Recognizing that I was upset, I left the table and took a break for a few minutes.  I decided that I was upset and that I did not want to return to play against the person who had just won my money.  Plus, I was still up almost $300 for the day, and I knew how upset I would be if I started playing poorly and ended up losing today.  So, I returned to the table, told a friend of mine that I was on tilt and so I was going to go home.

Tilt is like the Dark Side of poker.  Yoda said it best, “Fear leads to Anger.  Anger leads to Hate.  Hate leads to Suffering.”  That may have been what he said, but what he was thinking was, “Losing leads to Anger.  Anger leads to Tilt.  Tilt leads to losing a lot of money.”  You have to listen to what he was thinking, remember?

Oliver can be reached at oliver@babblog.com.

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