The Psychology of Gambling

The Psychology of Gambling

Monday, 15 July 2013

With Johnny Hughes.

By Johnny Hughes

My personal psychological training came in two parts: my early training by West Texas road gamblers, especially Curly Cavitt, and my graduate school training at University for a PhD degree in Organisational Psychology. The gamblers taught me so much more because it was all about the practical application of intellect and emotion – how to think and how to feel. They were smarter than circus dogs. A gambler had a trained and developed attitude toward gambling and himself. That self-view was more important than his bankroll, suitcase or pistol – the only things he needed. The math part is linked directly with your personal psychology. Every wager must be based on the best of it, on percentage advantage. A true professional only bets with advantage.

Gambling comes in two simple parts, the wager and the outcome. You should have feelings about the first, none about the second. A true gambler trains himself inside not to care. I call that the Inner Poker Face or the Calm Spot. At Lubbock’s legendary game, The Shop, open to all road gamblers and outlaws, you tried to act the same whether you won or lost a big pot. You did not whine, you did not celebrate. An in-joke after a gambler lost a big pot was “he almost cares”. Celebrating, gloating or high-fiving would get you pistol-whipped if it did not get you shot.

Professional gamblers had mutual interests. We dressed extremely well. Doyle Brunson wrote that Tennessee Longgoodie, aka James Roy, recently passed away. He always wore the gambler’s uniform, wool shorts coat, fine slacks, dress shoes and a starched shirt with an open collar. Goodie often wore a tie. Bill Smith, Pat Renfro, and Goodie joined Curly in teaching me how to think and feel and act. Celebrating was extremely taboo because it might offend the producers. We competed on the felt but we were allies exchanging information.

All life and poker decisions contain a combination of rational and emotional elements. You move toward, but never totally reach, the pure Calm Spot where the fifth street card does not matter. The play before it does matter – you impact the bet, you do not impact the outcome. Care about the play, never the winning or losing on one day or month. It is all one poker game.

I visualise my Calm Spot as inside my head at the top. My emotion is secondary to my intellect at the poker table. This is practical for a gambler or anyone. Life is chicken in the pot one day, feathers the next. Learn not to have negative feelings about outcomes – all that matters is you made the right wager, with the best of it.

Poker players are better street psychologists than most folks, by far. They spend time in introspection and self-audits, assessing poker like a business. Their self-efficacy – how accurate they are in judging their own place in poker – is something they actively work on. Poker will spank your ass if you are wrong. She is hard but she is fair.

Poker players work on reading themselves and others, and all poker psychology can be transferred to business and office settings. Everyone is trying to read one another and send signals. Poker players try to read people they know are trying to deceive them and listen to such lyrical words of deception across that magic green felt.

Research basically shows you can develop a Calm Spot attitude. You have confidence in the wager and in the fact that, over the long run, a gambler’s income is the action he has faded multiplied by the percentage advantage. The easiest way to have an unreadable poker face is to have a truly calm Inner Poker Face. If you have eliminated as much emotion as possible, you can read others better.

The inside and the outside work together. To feel a way, act that way. Show that calm at the poker table. Be polite and show class by not celebrating. Show you are a well-mannered professional and it will add to your advantage. Life is a roller-coaster ride during which we are buffeted by storms, uncertainty and fickle fate. The best way to be ready for that is with a calm Inner Poker Face.

Johnny Hughes is the author of Famous Gamblers, Poker History, and Texas Stories which is available from Amazon.

Tags: Johnny Hughes, psychology, strategy