“What in the world were they thinking?” I’m sure I’m not the only poker player who has asked this questions literally hundreds of times at the poker table. What drives players to play the way they do, especially if they play badly? What drives each of us to do things at the table that we know are costing us money? In The Psychology of Poker, Alan N. Schoonmaker, who holds a PhD in psychology, attempts to understand what motivates poker players and to understand how they think and why.
After an introduction, Schoonmaker asks the reader to examine their own game, looking at one’s own motivations and skills critically and honestly. Of course, if one isn’t truly honest, much of the rest of the book won’t help, but the author does a good job of guiding the reader toward understanding their true motivations. Poker skills are covered next, including reading hands and game selection, with a discussion about how one’s personal tendencies influence these skills. Next, Schoonmaker introduces a grid system on which players can be rated. Tightness vs. looseness and passiveness vs. aggressiveness are discussed, and the reader is guided through the process of rating oneself and other players on this scale.
The problem is that this doesn’t cover the whole picture. As one example, a Slot player can be tight and aggressive, playing few hands but playing those strong, but if these hands are garbage, they won’t go very far. There’s at least a third axis (and probably several more) that includes good and bad decision making. Counting the number of hands and the proportion of raises to calls can be useful, but it still gives an incomplete picture, and this may lead to an improper strategy. The author does mention the possibility that a player may be of a mixed type, for example, tight and aggressive before the flop, but a calling station from then on. However, the book doesn’t give us a lot of information about why these people might play the way they do.
The next four sections cover various types of players focusing on the corners of the grid. We are told what the characteristics of players in each of the zones are likely to be, and some suggestions are made as to what motivates them. This is done from the perspective of analyzing the play of other players in each of these categories, as well as coming to terms with our own game if we fall into any given classification.
After this, the book presents some analysis of ways in which players self-destruct in their games, and what can be done to avoid it. Then we have the conclusion, and finally there are three appendices: A quiz covering whether the reader has the “right stuff” to play poker well, an article on why an aspiring poker player should think again if they’re considering turning pro, and quick summaries of the previous chapters.
Schoonmaker claims that he’s not a poker professional by any means, that he is a moderate winner in low limit games. He says that the purpose of his book is to analyze players, not give strategic advice, and that’s fine by me. However, I see a great deal of strategic advice in this book. Some of it is quite good, for example, I don’t recall seeing the concept of “buying outs” explained better. Some of it I have some minor disagreement with. The fact that David Sklansky reviewed the book from a strategic angle probably explains the generally good quality of this information. However, there isn’t nearly as much information about examining the motivations and methods of other poker players as I would have hoped, which is the author’s field of expertise, although what’s there is fairly decent.
Another deficiency is that almost nothing is said about the less extreme, “average” players that don’t have tendencies near the edge of the author’s grid, which is where we would probably locate the majority of players. While it may not seem interesting to cover the average case, I honestly don’t know what a “5,5” player in a local 3-6 Hold’em game might be thinking about, but I’d like to. I was hoping this book would tell me, but it doesn’t.
Overall, we probably get a better grounding of the psychology of the people who play poker, both our opponents and ourselves, than we do in any other book. However, the book has more advice on how to play against these people and how to alter our play than it has information on why people play the way they do. I was hoping for more of the latter than I got. However, it is a good book, one that I found worth reading, although the true masterpiece on poker psychology has yet to be written.
While The Psychology of Poker is probably the best book written on the mind of the poker player, there is more strategic advice and less psychology than I would have expected or liked. The book is certainly worth reading, not just to understand our opponents, but also to understand ourselves. However, the ultimate book on poker psychology has yet to be written. I do recommend it, however.