Sign Up For Card Player's Newsletter And Free Bi-Monthly Online Magazine


Poker Training

Newsletter and Magazine

Sign Up

Find Your Local

Card Room


The Barney Stare

by John Vorhaus |  Published: May 30, 2012


John VorhausSome of you kids aren’t old enough to remember Barney, the annoying purple TV dinosaur who infected so many young minds with his inane song, “I Love You, You Love Me,” a tune second only in teeth-gnashing torment to Disneyland’s “It’s A Small World.” And while any experienced poker player might argue that ours, too, is “a world of laughter, a world of tears,” it is the mauve saurian upon whom I cast my attention today because, well, Science leads me there, and where Science goes, I follow.

Thus I bring to your attention what Science has lately brought to mine, namely a mental state known in the literature as “attentional inertia” or, more colloquially, the Barney Stare. The Barney Stare is a phenomenon first noticed to afflict fans of said saurian when they spend too many hours engaged in passive, repetitive activity, such as watching said saurian on TV. (Or, perhaps, promiscuously overusing the phrase “said saurian.”) In the grip of attentional inertia, Science notes, mental processes slow down, the physical body decays into something like a torpor and, quite possibly, drool forms at the corner of the mouth.

Okay, I’m kidding about the drool, but for the rest of it, well, doesn’t it sound like something that might happen to you at the poker table? It will, you know, if you play too long and fail to take heed and mind these Six Warning Signs of the Barney Stare.

Familiarity. At the start of a session, you’re sharp and focused because you know you have a job to do: figure everybody out. You need to identify the fish and the friskies, and hone your game plan for each. Good players do this effectively and quickly – and then keep doing it straight through to the last hand of the session. Others become too comfortable in their assessments, smug in the belief that they have all their foes dialed in. They start to relax, their minds start to drift, and the next thing you know, they’re wearing the Barney Stare. To defeat this sense of creeping complacency, remember that even were you to have a full file on each and every foe (which, by the way, you don’t) those files always need updating, hand by hand, street by street, bet by bet.

Arrogance. Along with the feeling of having your foes fully sussed comes the feeling that you have them bested as well. Now you’re not only familiar with your foes, you’re confident you can beat them on autopilot. So onto autopilot you go, neglecting to A) update the aforementioned files or B) notice key tells or other warning signs when you finally do mix it up with them. In an unguarded moment of hubris, you lose a ton of unprotected chips, and all thanks to the misguided notion that you don’t always have to think your best. You always have to think your best. Otherwise, you’re just a big Barney.

Fold City. If the cards are running bad, as cards will sometimes run, you can find yourself falling into a trance of fold, fold, fold, fold, fold. Go long enough between playables and you sort of start to dismiss the idea of playable hands altogether. They seem to be irrelevant to your current experience at the table, and you get locked into this mindset of “meet the new hand, same as the old hand.” I’m not saying it’s wrong to fold – sight unseen I can tell you that you don’t fold enough – it’s just that when the act of folding becomes habit, it’s harder to snap into focus when a good hand comes along. First you have to shake off the Stare…

Spellbound. When you spend hour after hour at the poker table, the never-ending cycle of big blind, little blind, button, late position, middle position, early position and then blinds again can contrive to put a certain spell on you, a slow hypnosis that takes you off your best game and puts you into, well, a poker rut. Take frequent walks and breaks to shake off the spell. The game will still be there when you get back.

Oxygen Debt Stupidity. Oxygen debt stupidity is the thing that makes a poker player keep playing long after clear thinking would have told him to quit. Sit long enough in one place and you’re bound to start feeling logy. This is kind of the physiological counterpart to going spellbound. Remember, the brain loves oxygen more than anything. It feels good when it has it, and bad when it lacks it. So keep yours well supplied. Even a few deep breaths every now and then will perk up your thought patterns, and hold the stare at bay.

Neurological Depression. This is not the depression that comes from taking a bad beat or going broke. Rather it’s depression in the sense of something being pushed down upon. In this case, it’s the neural pathways you engage when you play poker. Engaging those pathways repeatedly, over extended periods of time, causes them to lose their elasticity, so to speak, and become tired and worn. They’ll bounce back, take heart; but not until you’ve rested, and until you do, you won’t think effectively about your poker. So recognize when your brain is worn out on this task and go do something else. That’s how you’ll avoid that other, going broke, type of depression.

So how do you avoid attentional inertia? First, just monitor it. Recognize that as the game goes along you can become complacent, arrogant, distracted, tired, desensitized or just plain bored. Look at yourself in the mirror from time to time. If you see a stupefied gape, that’s the Barney Stare, and that’s your sign that it’s quitting time. Then the best thing to do is just leave. Go home. The game will be there tomorrow, and you’ll be able to attack it more effectively, without the Barney Stare slowing down your thought processes, clouding your vision and causing pools of drool to form at the corner of your mouth. ♠

John Vorhaus is author of the Killer Poker series and co-author of Decide to Play Great Poker, plus many mystery novels including World Series of Murder, available exclusively on Kindle. He has a new novel out, Lucy In The Sky, a coming-of-age story set in Milwaukee in 1969, available at He tweets for no apparent reason @TrueFactBarFact and secretly controls the world from