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Head Games: Learn How to Be Comfortable in Uncomfortable Situations

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Sep 01, 2013


The Pros: David Randall, Trevor Pope, Jeff Madsen, and Corwin Cole

Craig Tapscott: What is a situation that you used to feel the least comfortable being in at the poker table and how did you overcome it?

David Randall: I used to be very uncomfortable with dominant personalities that always demand to be the center of attention. They generally have to dominate all conversations and it normally bleeds into their playing styles as well. In order to combat this I got down to the root of what was going on. These player types were clearly insecure and had to desperately seek out reinforcement in order to pad their own confidence level. They would speak very aggressively towards me to try to make me uncomfortable (and I used to let it work) and get me off my game. In order to combat this I realized that it is most appropriate to meet their aggression with aggression and set a precedent that they would not be running the show. What it would show them is that if they decide to tangle with me they will only be getting negative reinforcement as with practice I have gotten pretty good at making this personality type feel inferior. While this personality type can often run tables and build up huge stacks by bombing their victims into submission, their Achilles’ heel is anything that can waver their confidence.

Trevor Pope: Bluffing used to make me feel uncomfortable. Since I play a lot of hands I tend to be bluffing more than most people. When I first started playing live poker my heart would always beat so fast and I felt everyone could see right through me and know I was bluffing. To fix this I would start to tell myself to be more confident in what I do, and basically use myself as a confidence booster, and in return I felt more of my bluffs worked and it calmed my heart rate way down. Confidence is everything in life, and it’s the same way in poker.

Jeff Madsen: I think earlier in my poker career I was less comfortable with making big laydowns or even semi-tough to standard laydowns in certain spots. It’s interesting because many players tend to have difficulty putting the chips in the middle and making calls in certain spots, but as a loose-aggressive type player, you play more hands and often give opponents less credit overall because of your own tendencies; so folding becomes more of a challenge at times. The problem with folding is that you don’t get any immediate gratification for making a correct fold or vice versa for making a poor fold, because obviously you won’t know what your opponent was holding unless he’s kind enough to show. Nowadays, those “close situations” are more familiar to me and I can look past the gratification that goes along with calling and make those correct folds. Really all it takes is repetition and discipline, and leaving curiosity out of the equation when your gut instinct is to fold. It’s all about staying confident in your physical reads on each opponent and your situational reads when facing a particular betting pattern on a particular board texture.

Corwin Cole: In the first couple years after I started playing poker, I consistently felt uncomfortable when I confronted opponents who didn’t “make sense.” Once I had developed a basic understanding of poker’s mathematics and game theory, it was easy to assume that everyone else knew the same things and thought about them in the same way. But this couldn’t be further from reality. For one thing, nobody has to obey game theory just because they’re aware of it. In fact, as I have learned in more recent years, it is often optimal to ignore game theoretical considerations, at least for certain periods of time. For example, it might be best to bluff in 100 percent of pots against an extremely conservative player. Although this strategy is easy to exploit in theory, it will not actually get exploited until the opponent catches on and stops folding such a high percentage of his hands. So, bluffing every single hand is totally viable in the right context, even though game theory shows that it is vulnerable to exploitation. It was even harder to learn that, a considerable percentage of the time, sensible people make nonsense plays. Even if I know my opponent to be a smart, thinking player and should know better, he still might employ a strategy that, in my eyes, seems obviously bad. In realizing both of these facts, I learned a big lesson: I can never assume that anybody else thinks the same way I do.

Craig Tapscott: What are some of the things you do to make your opponents uncomfortable?

David Randall: It depends on who is at your table. With some people you can just take on the role of the alpha male and verbally force them into submission. You guide the conversations and force them into certain thought processes which inevitably affects their play negatively. In some cases when you have one alpha at the table it is optimal to confront them directly in order to put them in their place. This shows not only them but also everyone else at the table that you are willing to stand up to any form of aggression. In situations where there are multiple alphas at the table (my favorite) I find it advantageous to pit them against each other by switching my reinforcement amongst them. Take turns creating conversation topics that let each one talk about themselves. Their desperate need to be center of attention makes them focus their aggression on each other and in some cases soft play me because they need my (and everyone else’s) approval. The best approach up front is normally to just be quiet and watch dynamics play out in front of you and then react accordingly.

Trevor Pope: I really like to stare down my opponent and watch every breath they take. I try to pick up on shaky hands, their heartbeat on the neck, the way they swallow, etcetera. Most players are starting to know what people look for and they are super self conscious about it, which actually makes them easier to see through I feel, because most people are terrible when under pressure. I also think that if you really stare people down they bluff you less, because they know you are trying to pick up on every little thing they can.

Jeff Madsen: There are various methods to make your opponent uncomfortable at the table. Being an aggressive player and using your position wisely are the most standard ways to this. Personally, I like to take my time with each decision and physically try to put my opponent out of his comfort zone by putting some doubt in their mind about my hand range. I tend to play a wider range than most players and I throw in some unorthodox betting patterns when necessary in order to take myself out of any box my opponent might put me in when it comes to my hand strength at any given time. Against a passive, tight opponent, amping up the aggression in various spots will naturally make them uneasy; they will want to get to showdown more than you will allow them. Against an aggressive, loose opponent, controlling the pot size and attempting to get to showdown in the right situations will actually make these players uneasy. This is because their hand strength will often be poor and they cannot win at showdown, and they may not want to show their hand unless necessary so as to not give information to the entire table about how wide their range really is; despite being loose aggressive they will still prefer more often than not to keep their hand range shrouded in a bit of mystery in order to maintain some respect for future pots.

Corwin Cole: I’ve always tried to make people uncomfortable by recreating the same situations that made me uncomfortable in my past experiences. For instance, every time I have encountered a player who was so aggressive and fearless that it made me queasy to play against them, I’ve tried to emulate that same aggression against other people in the future. But there are more tactics than general aggression that I use to make my opponents uncomfortable. Showing down a hand that seems out of place is one of my favorites. It’s a great way to make people second-guess their reads on me. It often comes up when I have the chance to play my hand in two different ways, one of which is the “standard” way while the other is highly unorthodox, but I estimate that they both have roughly the same expectation. A specific instance might be when I am facing a river bet and I just have one pair, so the default play is to decide whether I want to call or fold, but I actually consider raising and turning my hand into a bluff instead. If the bluffing option is probably slightly profitable but not great, and calling is slightly profitable but not great either, then I will often opt to bluff. If my opponent calls, he is likely to be confused by the choice I made, because it wasn’t a very profitable play and it was both stressful and high-variance. As he starts to view me as unpredictable and needlessly aggressive, I can use that to my advantage later on. ♠