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Poker Strategy With Alan Schoonmaker: Playing With Fear

Schoonmaker Explains How Fear Can Affect Your Decision Making


Jason Zweig’s Your Money and Your Brain cites research that suggests that fear is much more common and has much greater effects than most poker players believe.

Poker players rarely discuss fear. It doesn’t fit our preferred image. We want to believe that we’re unemotional, rational decision-makers who objectively analyze risks and rewards, then make EV-maximizing decisions. That’s the ideal, but – because of our fears (and other emotions) – we often can’t do it.

You, me, the best pros, the tightest rocks, and the wildest maniacs are sometimes affected by our fears, even if we are unaware of them, even if the risks are trivial. The better players are less affected by fears, but nobody can completely escape their effects.

Subliminal Risks

Wikipedia defines “subliminal stimuli” as ones “below an individual’s threshold for conscious perception… functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies show that subliminal stimuli activate specific regions of the brain despite participants being unaware.”

These brain regions naturally react to powerful, conscious dangers, and the reactions to subliminal “threats” are generally the same, but less intense. You can be frightened by something and react to your fears, but not know how you feel or how you’re reacting. You think you’re being rational and analytic, but you’re reacting – at least partially – to your fears.

Because money is so important to us, “losing money can ignite the same fundamental fears you would feel if you encountered a charging tiger, got caught in a burning forest, or stood on the crumbling edge of a cliff.”

The fear of losing money is obviously less intense than the fear of dying, but all fears have the same general effects: They make us less objective, less concerned with our decisions’ long-term consequences, more concerned with escaping the pain of the fear.

Many fears are reactions of our primitive brain, not our rational one. My earlier articles said our primitive brain evolved hundreds of thousands of years before our rational brain, and it reacts much more quickly and can be much more powerful. The evolutionary explanation is obvious: If we didn’t react quickly to dangerous situations we would have died.

Today we rarely face life-threatening dangers, but evolution is extremely slow. Our brains operate essentially the way they did 100,000 years ago. Then life-threatening dangers were everywhere, and our primitive brain still affects our decisions, even when we are unaware of our feelings. Zweig wrote: “Of the most frightening aspects of fear is that we can be driven by subliminal fears without knowing that we are afraid.”

Trivial Risks

Who’s afraid of losing $1?

Far more people than you believe.

I didn’t believe it either until I read about an experiment that suggested that the fear of losing that $1 caused irrational decisions. I said “suggested” because the sample was small, and the subjects may not have known how to calculate EV.

“A team of researchers designed a simple game… Starting off with $20, you could then risk $1 on a coin flip (or pass and risk nothing). If the coin came up heads, you would lose $1; if it came up tails, you would win $2.50. The game ran for twenty rounds.”

“The researchers tried the game on two groups: people with intact brains (normals) and people with injuries to the emotional centers of the brain… (patients).”

The only rational decision is to bet every round, but the fear of a trivial loss caused the normals to bet only 58 percent of the time. The fear reaction was stronger if they had lost the previous round: They bet only 41 percent of the time. “The pain of losing $1 discouraged the normals from trying to win $2.50.”

The patients “bet their dollar ….in 84 percent of the rounds, and even when the previous flip had cost them $1, the patients took the next bet 85 percent of the time…” In other words, brain-injured people acted much more rationally than normal people, probably because they weren’t afraid.

Because it’s so easy to calculate the EV, poker players would probably bet more often than either group, but I’m confident that some of them wouldn’t maximize their EV by betting every time.

“The lesson? … The fear of losing always lurks within your normal investing [or poker playing] brain… believing that you are fearless is very different from being fearless.”

Inaccurate Estimates Of Odds

In that experiment everyone knew the exact odds, payout, and EV. When playing poker, we don’t know our opponents’ cards or what they will do. Our fears – at and away from the tables – are based, not on reality, but on our perceptions and beliefs.

When we have complete information, it’s easy to calculate EV: “take an average of all possible results weighted by the likelihood of each one.” (Miller, Sklansky, and Malmuth, Small Stakes Hold’em, p. 19). If we inaccurately estimate the odds, we will make bad decisions. Unfortunately, we often make huge mistakes.

Zweig wrote: “If we were strictly logical, we would judge the odds of a risk by asking how often something bad has actually happened under similar circumstances. Instead… we tend to judge the probability of an event by the ease with which we can call it to mind.”

Because airplane crashes are so scary and easy to visualize, millions of people are afraid of flying, but “the odds against dying in an airplane crash are roughly six million to one… adjusting for the distance traveled, you’re about 65 times more likely to die in your own car than in an airplane.”

He concluded: “We underestimate the likelihood and severity of common risks, and we overestimate the likelihood and severity of rare risks.” Because we estimate probabilities so poorly, ‘We are often most afraid of the least likely dangers, and frequently not worried enough about the risks that have the greatest chances of coming home to roost.”

Other Irrational Reactions To Fear

Zweig discussed only the average reaction to risks and fears, but these reactions vary enormously. We’ve all played with rocks and maniacs, extreme risk-avoiders and risk-seekers. You probably aren’t either extreme type, but even moderate amounts of either tendency will cost you money.

In How To Beat Killed Hold’em Games I explained why such different reactions are costly: “Both reactions are emotional, and poker punishes all emotional reactions. If you avoid or seek risk for emotional reasons, you will certainly make expensive mistakes. The best attitude toward risk is to treat it dispassionately, to calculate the odds and your EV, and then make the decisions that maximize your EV.”

Final Remarks

If you’re open-minded, this article should have suggested that you may, repeat may, have a problem with fear. No matter how much you’ve studied poker, no matter how well you compute the odds, your brain can’t act completely rationally. When it sees a situation that might be risky, it reacts at least a little irrationally, even if you don’t feel afraid or fully understand the risks.

The obvious question is: How can you reduce these irrational reactions to fears? My next column will answer that question.

My thanks to Preston Oade and Arthur Reber for comments that greatly improved this column. ♠

Alan Schoonmaker“Dr. Al” ( coaches only on psychology issues. For information about seminars and webinars, go to He is David Sklansky’s co-author of DUCY? and the sole author of four poker psychology books.