Forget the poker face…get the poker brain
Picture this – you’re at the poker table with a couple total strangers – how do you react to their game? Is it by watching their bets, bluffs and timing, or by watching their behaviour?
As a poker player, you’d think that ideally, it should be both. But since your brain can only store up this information over time, you need to be at least a few hands in before you can get a proper read. So, there’s only one option – you have to play your own cards first – right?
Well according to scientists, maybe not.
Recent research published in PLoS One claims that your own hands and how your opponent plays don’t actually count as much as you think. Apparently, it’s all about your opponent’s face.
Now, before I have a riot on my hands, this is science, not my own theory. See what you think…
According to researcher, Erik Schlicht, your initial impression of your opponent’s trustworthiness influences your decision making throughout the rest of your game – and this impression is made within the first tenth of a second.
Schlicht reckons that if an opponent looks trustworthy from the start, you’re more likely to fold your cards more frequently than if your opponent has a neutral expression (aka a poker face).
This conclusion was based on Schlicht’s study of a group of newbie poker players, playing a simplified version of Texas Hold ‘em (I know what you’re thinking – I’d like to see how the rules of Texas Hold ‘em can be diluted any further. What were they playing, snap?).
Anyway, their opponent’s faces – digitalised images of more than 100 real faces wearing standardised trustworthy, neutral and untrustworthy expressions – were visible on a computer screen and changed every round.
The research worked like this: if the player folded he automatically lost 100 chips, but if he continued, he could either win or lose 5000 chips – depending on whether his hand stood up or not. After 300 rounds had been played, the winnings were calculated.
Now, the findings were certainly not what I expected for two reasons…
1. Apparently, you shouldn’t be watching out for those with downturned mouths…they’re untrustworthy, but you’re less likely to make mistakes when playing against them.
2. No matter what else happened in the game, the rapid assessment of the opponent’s face stayed with the player throughout the rest of play: what people initially thought about their opponent influenced all their other moves.
Now, I’m an arrogant player, so this is scary stuff to accept – I like to think I’m on the ball of the time and the choices I make are completely informed decisions.
But in this study, the players seemed to assume that trustworthy-looking opponents weren’t bluffing and as a result, folded more often, playing less hands and coming out with less winnings overall.
Of course, more hands doesn’t necessarily mean more cash – but players made more mistakes and trusted their own hands less when confronted with a trustworthy face.
Yes, this research was based on newbies playing a simplified version (ahem!) of the world’s most beautiful game…but it certainly provides food for thought. and it could tell you something about your own approach; especially if the research is right and the (probably inaccurate) judgement your opponent makes about you really is within the first tenth of a second.
Now don’t be going and ditching all your Harrington on Hold ‘em advice and going out on a limb using less than a second’s worth of decision making – that would be nuts. In a real poker game, players have to take into account each other’s strategies, building up a mini mental “player notes” section to be stored for ever more – so you need to keep doing the same.
But if you’re playing against new opponents who don’t know your game…make sure you put on a happy face! Appearing trustworthy (as opposed to appearing threatening or keeping a poker face) could help make your opponents misread you, giving you an extra bit of an edge.
And so, if poker is so good for the brain, why isn’t everyone jumping on the bandwagon to get a piece of the action?