Have you ever felt intimidated playing poker? If you answered ‘no’ then good for you but I’d wager you’re in a very small majority.
Most of us have either felt intimidated by the stakes you’re playing at, the event you’re playing in or a combination of all 3.
It’s a very human response to being out of your comfort zone either because you’ve never been in a situation before or because the play or manner of another person has affected you.
The thing is when you take a step back it’s a bit odd to be ‘intimidated’ at the poker table. It’s only cards and chips after all. The worst thing that can happen is that you lose … and really you should never be playing this fickle game of ours with money you’re not prepared to lose so why the intimidation?!
Unfortunately you’re always going to be vulnerable to it when you do something for the first time. Our brains learn through information and simple associations, once they’ve developed rules for something it becomes way easier as we feel that lovely reassuring feeling of comfort.
So the first time you play at a new stake or the first time you play your big live event you’re going to feel ‘intimidated’ and you’ll probably call it ‘nerves’ because that feels a bit less wussy.
There are two typical reactions to this. Most people end up playing very tight, worrying too much about making a mistake. A smaller group ends up playing way too loose – trying to compensate for their nerves by forcing the action.
My favourite example of group 2 is the guy who doubled up Phil Ivey in the first level of the WSOP main event a few years ago with two miserable pocket Tens to Ivey’s Aces after about 11 bets had gone in announcing, ‘I thought you were making a move…’
Over the years I’ve learned I have a very specific reaction to intimidation, it makes me go… well… a little bit mental.
When I was kid we had an awesome dog called Springer. He was incredibly badly named, Springer sounds cute, bouncy. He sounds like a bunny rabbit. If he’d been named for his personality it would have been Napoleon (after the diminutive French super-aggro general) or Rocky. He was a Beagle hound (google it – you won’t be intimidated) but in his head he was a Great Dane, or maybe a massive Bullock. If you were a pack member (our family) he was absolutely lovely but if you were an outsider you were basically fucked. He would pick fights with almost any other dog he saw that looked at him the wrong way or any adult that not formally introduced by 3 pack members.
The problem is I’m not far off Springer levels of mentalism when I know I’m out of my depth. It’s the only time it happens and luckily only in competitive endeavors… pretty sure I’d be writing this from a jail cell if it happened in bars!
I like to Box, for fitness but also because fighting is a great way to make sure you’re still alive in this pedestrian world. My trainer is waaaayyyyy better than me (not difficult). I think he boxed for a world title once which makes you really question why I pay him money to spar me (for ‘spar’ read use my head like an inflatable toy).
The thing is I know logically I’m outgunned but something in my psyche refuses to accept this when we’re actually fighting. After one session he said, ‘most people I spar, when I catch them clean (boxing talk for crack them clean in the face) they back off… you do the opposite… what’s that about?!’
Yeah… I don’t know … it’s not the smartest.
It used to be a huge problem in my poker. Both live and online if I had a player on my table that was obviously ‘good’ and maybe even better than me I’d actively go after him. I’d see their opening raises as a reason to attack and end up playing more pots against the best players than anyone else. Just for your future reference this is an incredibly effective way of losing money at poker.
It helped me in a few situations. I recall playing in a medium sized tournament in Newcastle years ago. At the final table with 6 or 7 left I was playing a local guy who intimidated everyone effortlessly. Picture someone who has definitely ‘done time’ and definitely done it for hurting people who owed him stuff… and you’ll be very close to how he looked. A lot of tattoos before they were normal, a lot of rings, not a lot of hair and a hard stare that made grown men do a little wee.
Now I need to make clear if he’d approached me in a bar and asked for my drink, my money and my girlfriend I’d probably have handed them all over and quietly walked away thankful not to be visiting A & E… but at the poker table I wanted to beat him more than anyone else.
We got into a preflop spot where I’d opened and he shoved for most of my remaining chips. As I started to think he put the hard stare on me. It was the ‘don’t you dare put your chips in the middle you little runt’ stare. Now anyone staring at you after betting is often weak and I knew this but this was a man who could look at you and remove all capability for rational thought. Luckily all I wanted to do was go to war with him… you know because of the mental thing. I can’t remember my hand, I think it had an Ace in it, but it really didn’t matter much. I called him, he flipped over J2 off suit and started laughing – we were best mates after that…. which was nice because I didn’t want to be on the other side of that equation.
Afterwards my friend said ‘I don’t know how you called him,’; I agreed, once I got away from the table it seemed like one of my bigger gambles.
Here’s the thing, if you find yourself in a situation or against a player that’s intimidating take yourself out the moment. See the action at the table in your mind’s eye as if you’re watching it in a hand replayer. Remove all the emotion and think only about the bets, the stacks and the cards and focus on just making good poker decisions. After all; it’s all just chips and cards.