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Bluff and Brains: Psychology of Poker

Updated: Apr 30

Poker is not simply a game of odds, moves and calculations. It is a game of controlled and exploited emotions including greed, fear, over-confidence and anger – Steven Lubet

Poker has evolved significantly from its humble beginnings in early 20th-century saloons to today's high-stakes World Series of Poker. It challenges players not just with its demand for numerical skills but also requires strong mental resilience. My interest in poker springs from its deep life lessons about unpredictability and control. Unlike chess, where the best move guarantees success, poker mirrors life's inherent uncertainties despite one's best efforts. This blog deep dives into the Behaviour Science principles that can help you make rational decisions when faced with a hand to play. 

Overconfidence in Poker 

Overconfidence Bias is something we fall prey to quite often. People tend to overestimate their abilities and knowledge which leads to irrational decision making. In poker, this bias makes players frequently believe they have the best hand. This causes them to underestimate their opponents and bluff unnecessarily. 

Moreover, players with this bias often believe that their opponents are less skilled than them. Consider online poker. Most online poker platforms allow you to view a player's profile throughout the game, which also displays the player's winnings. Players tend to rate another player based on how much money they have gained on the site. If the money is low, players assume that the other player is not skilled and becomes susceptible to overconfidence bias. Awareness of this bias can encourage more rational play and a respect for the abilities of opponents, helping prevent costly mistakes.

The Poker Face Fallacy 

Poker legend Doyle Brunson once said – “I make decisions by analyzing the player and not based on mathematics”.  This insight from Doyle relates that reading the opponents’ body language provides information that helps us in making the optimal decision.

While analyzing the emotions of players is a good strategy, sometimes players give too much emphasis to this which leads to bad decisions. This fallacy underestimates the importance of the mathematical aspects of the game and gives more weight to the player's emotions. Players need to understand the importance of balancing body language analysis with mathematics, betting patterns etc, i.e, using a hybrid of objective and subjective methods.

Recognizing this fallacy can help players focus on developing a comprehensive set of skills and becoming better poker players in the long run.

Gambler’s Fallacy

This fallacy states that if an event happens more frequently than normal, then it will happen less frequently in the future. 

Let’s take the example of Stock Markets to understand this, in stock markets many people tend to sell stocks which have appreciated as they feel that they might crash soon and that will cut into their profits and at the same time investors keep accumulating the stocks which are falling as they feel that a particular stock will bounce back. Investors here are trying to find a pattern in random events which are not related.

This is a classic fallacy to which I have fallen prey to as well. You get premium hands (Hands which have a higher chance to win at showdown before all the 5 community cards are revealed e.g. AA, KK, AK, QQ, JJ ) but it doesn't guarantee you'll win every time. I remember receiving 6 pocket pairs in 10 hands (The probability of getting a pocket pair is around 6%). However, I lost all hands with the pairs. This frustrated me a little, it also reinforced my belief that I would undoubtedly win with the next pocket pair, and to top it off,  I got AA (This hand has a win rate of 85% against a random hand) a few hands later. However, I lost that as well. I later realized that the 6 pocket pairs I received previously had no impact on my winning with AA. 

Players when they win a lot of hands, they may believe it is unusual and miss out on other opportunities to win, and vice versa. It is important to recognise that simply because a less probable event occurred, it does not affect the future probability of another event, and that all players need to do is focus on the hand they are playing currently.      

Prospect Theory 

This theory suggests that people often give more value to losses than to gains of an equal amount. This behavior is seen in Poker when players are winning a lot of hands. If players are winning, they tend to become more risk averse (Less risk seeking) and start protecting their chips more frequently than necessary, and going on to missing opportunities to earn more chips. 

This phenomenon becomes even more salient at the final table. Players at final tables value their chips a lot more than they should according to the Independent Chip Model. At final tables it is observed that players play the game extremely cautiously and if they lose any chips, they feel frustrated and make poor decisions, despite having won the same amount of chips a few hands before.

Players should understand that they should play their best game and look for ideal positions to put their money in and win the hands, regardless of whether they lost some chips in the previous hand.


This bias indicates that people tend to rely heavily on the initial piece of information they encounter. The effect of anchoring can be seen when players have premium hands like AA, KK, and so on.

Consider an example:

Assuming a player has AA, this piece of knowledge is a major anchor for them because they have the best beginning hand. However, they fail to realize that at the end it’s just a pair, and the outcome of the hand will be decided when the dealer reveals the 5 cards. Assume the board reads  7 8 9 10 2. Now we can see that there is one card straight out there and if the opponent bets a significant amount the best option is to fold. However due to the anchor, many players find it very hard to let go of the AA pairing, and call the bet, resulting in a considerable loss. 

There are two ways anchoring bias is incorporated in poker -:

  • Unskilled players might rely too much on the previous bet sizes and therefore fail to analyze the current situation.For example, if an opponent makes a large initial bet, this amount can serve as an anchor, influencing the player to base their decision to call the bet on the size of this early wager.

  • Skilled players use this to their advantage as they strategically plan out their bet sizing which forces the other player to call the bet and make bad decisions. Understanding this bias can be a secret weapon

Herd Mentality

This bias states that people often follow the behaviors of a larger group, and end up making non optimal decisions. 

This is often seen in the low stakes (Stakes where the blinds are smaller like Rs 1 and 2) game. In low stakes one discovers extreme players – the players who only bluff or the players who play extremely tight.  Players may feel compelled to modify their playing style based on the table, but this can lead to poor decision-making since they may begin bluffing in weak positions or play tight and miss clear bluffing opportunities.

Players need to understand that at the end, their individual decisions are more important since they are based on unique circumstances that the player faces, and following what the table is dictating might not be profitable in the long run.

 Hot Hand Fallacy

The Hot Hand Fallacy arises when a player believes their winning streak will continue indefinitely, leading them to overestimate their chances and take greater risks. This fallacy misconstrues independent events as interconnected. It's often confused with the Gambler's Fallacy, which expects a change in luck after a losing streak. Such fallacies demonstrate how humans naturally seek patterns in random events, which can skew judgment and decision-making in scenarios like poker. Thus, conscious effort to construe seemingly interconnected events as disparate can lead to more rational decision making

Mental Accounting

According to this bias, people frequently associate mental values or significance with money based on specific circumstances. 

There have been several times at the offline poker tables that when a novice player wins ‘X’ amount of chips he/she separates their stacks into the profit pile and initial investment stack (For Example you started with Rs 500 worth of chips, this will be your initial investment stack. Now suppose you won Rs 250 and you only play with this stack then this becomes your profit pile). This separation leads to an intriguing playing style. They begin to take greater risks with the profit pile because they believe that now that they have won these chips, it is acceptable to take risks with them, and they do not feel bad even if they lose them. . However, when they lose the profit pile and start playing with their initial investment, they become wary . This is because they now believe that their own money is getting invested in the pot and thus better to become risk averse.

Players assign higher weightage to higher denominations of chips and they play and wager on those chips with caution, despite the fact that the chip's value is fixed.

To overcome this player should understand that all chips are fungible and also separate any emotions that may have been attached to their chips.

Wrapping up

In conclusion, behavioral science permeates all areas of life, including strategic games like poker, which isn't just about math or emotion alone. Players must integrate both, recognize their biases, and strive to mitigate them to enhance their gameplay. With an understanding of these biases, you're now better equipped than many competitors. Remember, when you're faced with tough decisions at the poker table, relying solely on the cards and numbers is not your only option. Good luck!

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