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Which Help Should You Get?

Part III: Help with guilt feelings

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: Dec 24, 2010


Poker players and writers rarely discuss guilt feelings. They don’t seem relevant to our macho game. Besides, most writers rarely feel guilty about poker. We accept its predatory nature, gladly exploit our opponents’ weaknesses, and urge readers to do the same.

A coaching client (“Bill”) taught me that some players need help with their guilt feelings. It’s not my first lesson from a client, and it won’t be the last. Strategy coaches may not learn much from their clients, but I’ve learned a lot from mine.

Sensitivity Helps and Hurts

I once regarded understanding how opponents think and feel as a huge, unadulterated asset. Bill taught me that his sensitivity to people’s feelings both helps and hurts him. The help is too obvious to discuss.

But the negative side was surprising. He wrote: “I don’t want to feel their pain … I noticed that when I beat someone in a hand, particularly when I drew out or made a trick play, I kept my head down and couldn’t look him in the eye.”

A Vivid Example

Bill once recognized that “Charlie” was nearly on tilt. If he pushed him over the edge, Bill would gain from ITF (Implied Tilt Factor) by winning more on future hands. ITF converted an apparently negative-EV [expected value] decision into a good one.
Bill wasn’t getting the right odds, but he realized that Charlie would go on tilt if he made a “dumb play” and drew out. So, he check-raised the turn, caught his card, and bet the river.

Charlie blew up. His face got red, and he angrily asked, “How could you play so badly?”

A less sensitive player couldn’t make this play. He either wouldn’t recognize the ITF or couldn’t exploit it. He would just think, “The odds don’t justify calling, so I’ll fold.”

After making this brilliant play, what did Bill do to exploit Charlie’s tilt?
He quit! “I was happy about winning the pot, but felt terribly uncomfortable about making him so angry. I just couldn’t stay there and face him.”

He essentially manipulated Charlie into painting a target on his forehead and giving Bill a gun, but he couldn’t pull the trigger!

Do You Have a Problem With Guilt Feelings?

You never may have considered the possibility that you have this problem. When I told my friend and noted writer Jim Brier that I was writing about guilt, he asked, “What does guilt have to do with poker?”

I replied, “Much more than you think.”

Because Bill had opened my eyes, I realized that these feelings are more common and more destructive than I had believed. Sensitive people like Bill are more vulnerable, but many apparently “tougher” players let guilt reduce their profits.
Guilt feelings are rarely the sole cause for bad poker decisions, but they do combine with other factors. To see if they are affecting your decisions, answer a few questions:

1. Have you ever just checked a big hand on the river? You flopped or turned a big hand, bet aggressively once or twice, but checked on the river. If so, why did you do it? Did you feel, “I’ve won enough, and don’t want to be greedy”?
To preserve your “macho player” image, you may have rationalized that you weren’t being kind. You were outsmarting an opponent who wanted to raise or check-raise. Afterward, you may have criticized yourself for checking, but probably didn’t even consider guilt as a partial cause.

2. Have you ever made too small a bet with the nuts? This mistake occurs frequently in no-limit and pot-limit. You had the nuts and made a smaller bet than would probably be called. Your opponent may have been pot-committed and nearly certain to go all in, but you bet much less.

You may have rationalized that you wanted to get something, and thought he wouldn’t call a larger bet. Perhaps you were partly right, but guilt feelings also may have affected your decision.

3. Do you avoid cash games? The late poker author Andy Glazer said that he avoided them and preferred tournaments, because he couldn’t win much in cash games unless someone lost heavily. “I feel guilty when someone keeps buying chips, and maybe even going to the ATM.” Would you rather play tournaments than cash games? If so, is guilt one of your reasons?

4. Do you chop tournament prize money? Guilt feelings frequently cause negative-EV chopping decisions. I don’t mean deals that give more money to the chip leaders; I mean that everyone’s share is about equal.

Sometimes, everyone agrees to chop when a few short-stackers will soon bust out, increasing the survivors’ shares. The larger stacks chop too soon because they feel guilty about busting the short-stackers.

Because the chip leaders lose the most, they frequently oppose chopping. Since the vote must be unanimous, the others may then gang up on them. This “collective guilt trip” often works. Players with more than half the chips have chopped the prize pool into five or more equal shares.

Chopping usually occurs in small tournaments, but large prize pools occasionally have been chopped. In one recent case, 23 players divided about $250,000, and the chip leader got only $2,000 more than the No. 23 player.

Have you ever chopped when you should have gotten much more than you actually received? If so, you may have rationalized: “The blinds are so high that it’s just a crapshoot.” You were partly right, but the more chips you had, the higher your EV. Guilt feelings may have made you accept less than you deserved.

5. Do you chat more than you desire? Some players dislike distractions, but if a chatterbox talks to them, they reply or even have extended conversations to avoid feeling guilty about “being rude.” If you chat when you would rather concentrate on the game, you are yielding, at least partly, to guilt feelings.

6. Do you bluff enough? Guilt feelings often make people miss good bluffing opportunities. Card Player columnist Barry Tanenbaum discussed this mistake in “Bluffing When You Don’t Feel Like It” (, Aug. 1, 2003).

“Lots of players let feelings … get in the way of bluffing correctly. They think bluffing means taking something that does not belong to them, like shoplifting or embezzling. … People hate this terrible sinking, guilty feeling. And the easiest way not to experience it is to avoid bluffing.”

Some players deliberately increase and exploit this guilt. They may say something or “pout” to communicate that “stealing” their pot is immoral.

Nonsense! Bluffing is both legitimate and strategically essential to winning poker. Not bluffing enough costs you money by reducing the number of pots that you win and killing your action when you have a winner.

Final Questions

If you still think that you don’t have a problem with guilt feelings, ask yourself a few more questions:

1. How many of these mistakes do I make?
2. How often do I make them?
3. Why do I make them?
4. How much do they cost me?
If you have a problem with guilt feelings, my next column will help you solve it. ♠

Dr. Schoonmaker ( coaches only on psychology issues, such as controlling impulses, coping with losing streaks, going on tilt, and planning your self-development. He is David Sklansky’s co-author of DUCY? and the sole author of four poker psychology books._