By Alan Schoonmaker, Ph.D.¹
That term appears frequently in the psychological and popular literature, and it has even been a movie title. Many people use books, articles, training courses, and professional counselors to help them manage their anger. Anger is obviously a common problem, especially at poker tables.
We see angry players all the time. They throw cards, shout at people, and complain bitterly about everything. Their anger creates a vicious cycle: It harms their play and increases their losses, making them even angrier. Despite its importance, the term, “anger management,” hardly ever appears in poker conversations, books, or articles. Why is such a huge problem discussed so rarely?
DENIAL OF REALITY
We poker players like to see ourselves as analytic, realistic thinkers, but denial is everywhere, especially about emotions. Most people, including you and me, are not honest about our feelings. For example, I quietly told a bitterly complaining friend, “Don’t get mad at me. I didn’t do it.” She shouted angrily, “I’M NOT MAD!!”
Many angry people also deny anger’s effects. They may say, “I’m very angry, but it hasn’t changed my play.”
Nonsense! We aren’t machines. Anger negatively affects almost everything we think and do. Pretending that it doesn’t is just another form of denial.
ANGER’S DESTRUCTIVE EFFECTS
Going on tilt is the most visible and serious effect. When someone is acting crazily, almost everyone can see it, except, perhaps, the one on tilt. It is important, but for every individual who acts recklessly, several people quietly seethe, letting anger sabotage their game. “Tilt” is often defined as allowing emotions to affect our play, and I suspect that far more money is lost from quiet anger than from obvious craziness.
The line between winning and losing is very thin. The “standard” one big bet per hour is less than 10% of the total money wagered, and very few players win that much. If anger harms our game slightly, we can easily shift from winning to losing. Anger costs us money in several ways.
We acquire much less information. We may be so distracted that we miss signals, including quite obvious ones.
We misinterpret the information we do acquire. We may see what we hope or fear, not what is really there.
We give away too much information. Our need to express our feelings may make us say and do things that tell others how to beat us. For example, we may stare disgustedly at a missed draw, inviting a bluff. Or we may show our cards, hoping for sympathy, but telling others how we play.
We become impatient. We all know that patience is essential, but angry people don’t want to wait for good cards and positions. They need to ease that tension now.
We show our vulnerability, and the other players will exploit it. Poker is a predatory game; the strong eat the weak. When opponents sense vulnerability, they will take advantage of it. For example, they may goad us to make us even angrier and less effective, or they may raise to isolate us, knowing they can read us easily.
We may seek revenge. Revenge-seeking can make us give their chips to our “enemy” and other players. A Chinese proverb is very relevant: “When you set out for revenge, dig two graves, one for your enemy and one for yourself.”
Many people deny the causes for their anger. They blame bad beats, bad luck, stupid players, incompetent dealers, smoke, noise, or almost anything except themselves. Of course, some of them walk in angry and stay that way. They may even win the first pot, but complain that it was not big enough. Perhaps they are reacting to something that happened elsewhere; perhaps they are just mad at the world, but their anger is nearly overwhelming.
People like that shouldn’t play poker, but they do, and they often lose heavily and disrupt the game. Most other anger problems are caused by the following factors.
Low frustration tolerance: Some people blow up over events that others barely notice. Low tolerance is deadly for a poker player because our game is intrinsically frustrating. We often lose real money, sometimes more than we can afford. Because we play against many opponents, we lose far more hands than we win, and the best hand and best player often lose. In addition, losing is worse at poker than at craps or other games of pure luck because it says we don’t play well. Many people deny their weakness and say, in effect, “If the world was not such a rotten place, I would be fine.”
Bad Beats: Are often the immediate cause for anger, and for some people losing any hand – even when they are underdogs – is a “bad beat.” We have all seen people erupt because their pocket kings lost to pocket aces, or because they “never make a flush.”
When someone sucks out, anger is extremely common. Some people cannot handle such beats, even though they usually occur when other players make mistakes. Since most of our profits come from other people’s mistakes, getting angry about them is ridiculous. If nobody made mistakes, the rake and tokes would bust us all.
Unrealistic expectations: Many people have extremely unrealistic expectations. For example, they don’t know how hard it is to win because of the rake and tokes, especially at smaller stakes. Countless people – including some mediocre players –think they should win more than one BB per hour, and a few even expect to support themselves by playing. When they don’t get the expected results, they angrily ask, “How can I be so terribly unlucky?”
Many others can’t accept that poker is gambling, and bad luck, bad beats, and losing streaks are absolutely unavoidable. If you can’t accept that reality, you shouldn’t play, but many people keep playing and steaming.
Overestimation of our abilities: Most people do not play remotely as well as they think they do. They play in games they can’t beat and then get mad about their “bad luck.” It’s easier to blame luck than to accept the truth about themselves.
Selective memories: We naturally remember events that support our beliefs and forget conflicting evidence. For example, because we think we are good, but unlucky, we remember our bad beats, but forget the times that we played stupidly and sucked out.
Personalizing conflicts: Since we take each other’s money, our game is full of conflict. It’s just the nature of the game, but many people take losing very personally, and it costs them dearly.
Machismo: The tendency to personalize conflicts is particularly strong for macho men (and a few women). The psychology forum at twoplustwo.com has had two extremely long series of posts about whether “real men” should violently beat up people who suck out and then needle them. Such a childish over-reaction indicates how serious the anger management problem can be.
Vicious circle: Many of these factors reinforce each other. Unrealistic expectations and overestimation of our abilities increase frustrations because we expect to beat games that are too tough for us. Our selective memories reinforce both our overestimation of our abilities and our anger about being “so unlucky.” Machismo aggravates almost everything.
Anger management is a serious problem, and for some people it is a crippling one. Part II will discuss recent developments that have aggravated the problem. Part III will suggest ways to ease the problem, but it will never be solved. The forces creating it are too powerful to overcome completely.
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¹This post is based on a series of columns written for Card Player Magazine. Cardplayer.com has about 200 of my columns. At Amazon.com you can purchase my fifteen books in several languages.