Clinical Psychology Can Help Prevent Tilt, Says Professor Of Poker Course At IUSB
Dr. Daniel DeBrule Addresses Mental Makeup Of Those Who Play
The poker player is a complex animal. For Dr. Daniel DeBrule, an assistant professor at Indiana University South Bend, the mind of the grinder has turned into a popular class.
Once a year, DeBrule teaches a course titled “Poker: Behavioral, Clinical, Cognitive, and Social Concepts” to about 30 undergraduate students.
Other academic institutions have also put poker on a syllabus in the past, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California, Berkeley, Susquehanna University and the University of Richmond.
According to the 34-year-old clinical psychologist, talking about poker in an academic setting might help legitimize the game. DeBrule, also a part-time player, has had numerous guest speakers in his class, including poker players Steve Albini, Brandon Shack-Harris, Chris Grohman and Jason DeWitt, who owns a WSOP bracelet.
DeBrule’s course utilizes many academic articles, some of which cover how people deal with moods and what motivations exist for playing. The course also covers how gambling can be a rewarding endeavor for the vast majority — a point that has relevance as some Internet gambling opponents use addiction as one weapon in their fight against legalization efforts.
According to DeBrule, there has been years and years of research on how psychology is important in poker, but there isn’t a lot that speaks to exactly what that means.
“It’s a tricky thing because psychology is so multi-faceted,” DeBrule said. “You have biological psychology, clinical, social, experimental, developmental. There are so many layers to it.”
Here, DeBrule provides some insight on the intersection of poker and clinical psychology.
Brian Pempus: It’s common for people to find poker because they don’t want a 9-5 job. As a psychologist, what do you make of this? What type people are drawn to poker?
Daniel DeBrule: It suggests that players who take the game seriously want a lot of autonomy. Many players are thrill-seekers, and perhaps they enjoy having more experiences in life. They like to travel a lot. They also like a challenge. Part of what makes the 9-5 job mundane in a lot of cases is that early on people are doing the same things over and over again. While this is common at the poker tables, at least people have the option to find different games. Also, maybe part of it is that people feel like their skill set isn’t really fit for the job they’re in.
BP: A common maxim in poker is to not be results oriented. In a nutshell: If you make the right play, you shouldn’t truly be concerned about the outcome of the hand. Is this something that serious players have a tough time dealing with?
DB: It’s challenging in particular for players who don’t have as much emotional balance and can easily be swayed in a given hour of play. That challenge becomes minimized when players spend time away from the table, and they reflect on hands. Not being results oriented takes a lot of experience, and that’s going to be more common in people, based on the personality type work that we do, who are more on the logical side instead of the emotional and sensitivity side of things. In the long-run, of course, many players will keep spread sheets to make sure the results are good.
BP: Do you think a sense of being in control is part of what drives people to the game?
DB: Having some amount of control over one’s life and where one can be, and how much time one puts in, can be valuable. Interestingly enough, when it comes to the actual outcome of the game, we find from reviewing the gambling literature and a lot of empirical data-driven studies on that topic, players who think that they can control and have mastery over the outcome of the game tend to fare worse than those who don’t. There have been a number of studies by a group in Canada, where they used group therapy to help people with various forms of gambling addiction. What they found is that the concept of randomness — that your outcome at the table is going to be mitigated not only by how well you play, but also by random factors — helps players, in general, perform better. While control over your life and what you’re doing with your career are major motivations, you should maintain a realistic assessment over how you can control the outcome [of hands].
BP: Talk about the role of superstition in poker player psychology, with regards to having control.
DB: Superstition in poker might be attributed to a personality trait. Also, it may have to do with style of play. People who are generally superstitious tend to be more introverted. That’s the finding we have, based on some of the empirical literature. These behaviors provide a way to feel like your controlling the outcome, which can be a little bit dangerous if taken too far.
BP: What kind of research have you seen on how downswings affect moods?
DB: Being a clinical psychologist, who sees clients for therapy on a weekly basis, and based on what we know about how people deal with failure and negative outcomes, the most typical response is to sort of go into a downward spiral. Their thinking starts to become more negative, and they engage in more negative behaviors. They might start to appear a little frustrated at the table, and so other people might be more aggressive toward them. They may play hands differently than they normally would. That feeds into the whole ‘This isn’t my day’ type of mentality. So, it just becomes a vicious cycle. People who have the emotional balance and don’t let those negative thoughts become a cascade might be able to withstand a few bad beats and not be as affected. On the other hand, for some people who are really susceptible to it, they might not only fare worse at the table, but they might take that negative mood off the table.
BP: Sometimes it seems that some players become more timid after suffering a string of bad beats — anticipating a poor outcome again, no matter how improbable. Do people become gun shy, in a way, after getting brutalized for awhile?
DB: Absolutely. They might start to become less aggressive, and more risk averse. The only exception to that would be if the player goes on tilt. For certain people that might manifest as being utterly reckless and throwing chips around. This is where psychology has tremendous value for poker players, in that we now know of a variety of approaches and techniques that can really help people, even if they have severe forms of not being able to maintain emotional balance at the tables. There is a certain treatment called dialectical behavior therapy, which might be an antidote to tilt. Hopefully, as time goes on, there will be more research into how some of our approaches in psychology can be helpful to players, because it’s not as if one needs to be clinically depressed or just sort of out of one’s mind to benefit from the therapeutic process. For example, many golfers have sports psychologists. Even many poker players hire a life coach. Clinical psychologists can really be helpful to prevent tilt.
BP: Talk about the common ‘get unstuck’ mindset that tends to keep a player in the game longer than he or she should.
DB: There was some research that was done decades ago that found people will generally take greater risks to avoid loss, but they will not take greater risks to gain. So, the overall finding was that human beings tend to be risk averse, or loss averse. Losing $50 hits us harder and is more of a negative response than winning $50 is positive. Many of those who play the game sort of know that. When you run well it’s great and you enjoy it, but that mood doesn’t really stick with you. If you have a horrible run and you lose way more than you normally do, that’s the kind of thing that might be difficult to shake off. People who are experiencing this should focus on changing the mindset or just take a break. We very rarely reflect on the times when we won. Also, keeping the long-run in mind is helpful to avoid the ‘I have to get unstuck’ mentality that for most players is destructive.
BP: It’s very common these days to see players using things like an iPhone or iPad to pass the time while waiting for the next hand. It seems like some have a problem with the pace of live games, especially if they have an Internet poker background. Can you address this desire for constant stimulation?
DB: The best way this fits in with the field of psychology is with one of the more significant concepts we’re seeing in a lot of treatment these days — and that’s the concept of mindfulness, or being present. If people aren’t capable of doing that at the tables, they may not only cheat themselves of picking up on tells, learning patterns, reflecting on how they are playing and their own moods, but they are also, more importantly, failing to maximize the overall experience. Mindfulness is this concept we try to train a lot of people on, whether or not it’s playing in the World Series of Poker, being out on a boat in the ocean, or having a dinner with friends and family. It’s in order to get the most out of that experience. This problem is much more common in younger people. I know today we are heavily technologically based, but this is something people are able to get better at over time. If they’re valuing the experience, they’re able to put everything else away. Generally, if players aren’t able to put their phones away and attend to what’s in front of them, it might be an indication that they aren’t as focused as they should be, or don’t have the patience for the game.
BP: Do you think one having so much experience with multi-tabling online plays into lacking this ability to concentrate on the experience in a live setting?
DB: Absolutely. That’s probably one reason why people feel that they need constant stimulation. That’s one area where behaviorism comes into play. Many people who have cut their teeth playing online have almost been conditioned to always playing several tables and a barrage of hands. They have been reinforced for doing that so far. Much like animals, or any other organism, they find that to be what they expect and what they gravitate toward. It makes sense that we’re seeing that a lot these days since some people got used to online before they started playing live. We’re seeing a lot of initiatives to regulate online poker. Maybe there are a lot of people who can multi-task, and that’s just a better format for them than playing live poker.
Follow Brian Pempus on Twitter — @brianpempus
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