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Head Games: Psychological Warfare – Get Your Head in the Game

With Jason Somerville, Alex Bolotin, and Dan Flower

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Jul 08, 2015


Craig Tapscott: What are a few ways you burrow into an opponent’s head and wreck havoc during a session?

Jason Somerville: I think psychological warfare is one of my biggest strengths. The key to all successful psychological warfare tactics is going to come down to paying attention at the table. The players that are paying the most attention to the game are going to be the ones that are most accurately able to come up with strategies that exploit their opponents.

When you look at a player like Phil Ivey, he is able to implement such high level strategies because he’s so good at paying attention, watching an opponent’s eyes, mouth, neck, hands and how they bet their chips, etc. He then takes all those things and processes that into tangible information, and weaponizes it to exploit opponents.

I love heads-up poker, as that is a great arena to exercise these skills. I pay hyper-attention to things like how my opponent bet previously and looked a certain way, then it’s cataloged in my brain to be used later. It becomes a game of psychological chicken so to speak, especially versus a highly skilled player. Without paying a lot of attention to the game and your opponents you are not going to be able to compete on a very high level. It is all about understanding game flow and getting a feel for your opponent. This is something that all the very best players do.

Alex Bolotin: The best way I find to get into an opponent’s head is relentless aggression. One of my favorite methods of sick torture is massive overbets, usually two to three times the pot, all done with a mixture of bluffs and value hands. It is very tilting to face a bet three times the size of the pot holding something like top pair, tank-folding it, then seeing your opponent muck his cards with a nasty little smirk on his face.

This overbet strategy usually works preflop also. You can open A-2 suited from late position, an opponent three-bets from the blinds, and you ship it all in for 100 big blinds. He might say before folding, “Show. It’s good for the game.” You can reply, “You don’t want to see this one. Trust me.” But of course he does, and you might say you had 7-2 offsuit and ask if he will show you a hand next time. Perhaps he agrees and you show him the deuce. The next time versus this opponent, you can move in with garbage again, because he is not ready to call you yet. And, of course, now you don’t show your hands anymore. The third time you do this, you can still be pretty weak, but I tend to like to do it with a suited connector. Then the fourth time you move in on him, you should have it, because he has had enough, most likely. Unless you are doing it again because your read is he can’t call. The point is to stay aggressive, that is the key for me.

Dan Flower: The best way to get into an opponent’s head is by preying upon any sort of fear in our opponents that we are most able to get inside of their mind and exploit. This fear manifests in a couple of ways depending on the type of game you are playing in.
There is a common dynamic online when a player moves up stakes or is taking a shot, and therefore out of their comfort zone in terms of the money that is at stake and the perceived quality of play. Our opponent may also feel inferior to us, which can mean that their desire to ‘not make mistakes’ and ‘not look stupid’ overrides their capacity for rational thinking.

I can remember a Phil Ivey bluff on High Stakes Poker some years ago that took advantage of this dynamic versus Andrew Robl. Phil had raised preflop, and it was five way to the flop, and he continuation bet a very dry ace-high board. Robl called with a medium-strength ace. The turn was a blank, and Phil bet again with a total airball. Now Phil obviously knew that Robl had at least an ace after calling the flop, and yet he was betting again. Why? Because he knew that Robl was out of his comfort zone, on television, and his desire to not do anything stupid over-rode the rational part of his brain that probably told him that Phil could be wildly unbalanced there and that he should call. Instead, he folded.

Online, you can use stats to quickly categorize players into ‘risk-averse’. High ‘fold to continuation-bet’, ‘fold to three-bet’, and low aggression stats shouldn’t be used simply in a vacuum, but as a pointer to a weak mindset. Against such opponents I’m much more inclined to bluff-raise early streets, and apply maximum pressure to capped ranges on the river in the form of overbets.

The mindset of online, robotic, multi-tabling grinders is easily messed with by making unconventional plays. Their strategy is predicated on us playing somewhat ‘normally’, for which they have preplanned and almost programmed responses. Against such opponents, being creative is very important to disrupt their rhythm. Small three-bets, turn underbets, and min-flop raises are all conceivable weapons whose value is derived from the unconventionality and ability to disrupt their computer-like minds more than anything else.

Craig Tapscott: Please share how you switch on the Jedi mind tricks to protect your own centeredness and concentration at the table and stop an opponent from messing around with your head. 

Jason Somerville: It is very important to try to remain as logical as possible when you play poker. If you get your money in as an 80/20 favorite and lose there is nothing you can do. We are all going to have the same amount of times we lose with A-A vs. 2-2. We have the same experiences and get the same cards effectively over the long term. All we can do in these scenarios is to learn to react to the negative situations better than our opponents will.

Let’s say you and I go down to a casino and we are both going to have a very bad session. But perhaps because I am able to stay on my A-game better than you, I might lose three buy–ins while you lost five. Over the course of a year, if that happens once a month, that is a significant amount of difference in terms of earnings.

I think that same situation can be applied to an opponent. Let’s say we are playing at a table where there is a somewhat boisterous, aggressive, and annoying player. I think that everyone is going to be impacted by that player. The question is are we going to allow it to impact our game and our decisions or are we going to be able to put that out of mind and stay centered, tranquil, and continue to make as logical decisions as possible. We have to control our emotions in that situation better than our opponents would. Treating it as a competitive thing is how I have always approached those types of situations. I always want to outperform my opponents. It works for me.

Alex Bolotin: Personally, what works best for me are two very simple things. First, I do my best to try to avoid distractions that I can control (like my cell phone), and to tune out distracting opponents (I actually haven’t encountered that many) by really focusing on the game.

I also make sure that I am well-rested and fed (but not overfed). For me eating healthy certainly helps me to stay centered, because when you’re tired, cranky, and hungry it’s much easier to snap and go on some degree of tilt.

I went to yoga once recently (twice in my lifetime so far), and crushed poker later in the day. The experience felt very calm and Zen-like, so I’m planning on going again soon.
I think if most players cut down on distractions at the table from the game and simply relax and zone in on what is happening, their experience and their results will be greatly enhanced.

Dan Flower: First off, we can take actions that ensure that we are in or close to being in ‘the zone’, which means that our energy levels, motivation and confidence are all very high. The book The Mental Game of Poker by Jared Tendler is a very good resource for this. Secondly, in my videos on Ivey League Poker, I often talk about how we must have absolutely no fear present in our decision making. If a superior opponent is trying to get in our head, it will be by preying on our fears. By just knowing this it is a powerful weapon in countering it. These fears are overcome by facing them, accepting them, and realizing that they do not help us in any way, shape, or form.

For example, when moving up in stakes, we might be facing frequent flop raises or three-bets. The emotional fear response to this might be to fold every time, overadjust, and spew wildly to “prove” we’re not afraid, or just play really nitty preflop, which makes us too predictable. Facing this fear means we say, “Okay. Our opponent might be exploiting us, that’s fine. but what can we do about it?’ In a vacuum, this might mean continuation-betting less and checking a little more.

A crucial jump though in poker strategy, which negates all fear, is to move from a place of ‘caring’ what our opponent might be doing to us, and instead approaching poker from the viewpoint of making certain we can’t be easily exploited, whatever our opponent might attempt. Taking the above example regarding frequent flop check-raises, then our technical and mental problem stems from the fact that prior to c-betting we didn’t think about our whole range. Doing so would ensure that of those hands we continuation-bet, there are a good percentage that are able to continue the aggression, meaning we are never folding too often and thus never getting exploited.

This idea is very powerful, leading to a supreme confidence that we ourselves are close to unbeatable, and whatever our opponent tries to do will lead to them banging their heads against a brick wall. From this mindset flows a sense of well being, centeredness, and a complete lack of fear. ♠

Jason Somerville is the master of ceremonies at He is a World Series of Poker bracelet winner with more than $6 million in lifetime tournament earnings. You can follow Jason’s adventures on at jcarverpoker. Jason is also a PokerStars Pro.

Alex Bolotin counts a WSOP bracelet win as one of his favorite poker experiences. He has cashed for more than $2.2 million in career earnings.

Dan Flower is a very successful high stakes cash game player and a respected coach on Ivey League Poker. Flower considers concentrating on the mental side of poker his favorite part of the game.