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Reading And Exploiting Your Opponents’ Emotions

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: Aug 15, 2018


My friend, Preston Oade, recommended this topic because:

1. Our readers need help. There are many articles about tilt because it’s so extreme and obvious, but not much about reading and exploiting less dramatic emotions.

2. It’s often easier to read emotions than thoughts. Ed Miller wrote: “As an opponent trying to interpret your bet-sizing, I’d much rather try to reverse-engineer your emotional state rather than try to decode a more deliberate, logical process. That’s because humans are subject to only a handful of emotions at the poker table, while players’ logic is all over the map.” (“Three Reasons You Should Take Your Time,” Card Player, 11/25/2015)

I completely agree with the first point, but only partly agree with the second. There are far more thoughts than emotions, but there are two distinct types of emotions: long-term ones, such as loving action and fearing risks, and short-term ones such as anger.

Long-term emotions have generally consistent effects. Action-lovers almost always play too many hands, and they play them too aggressively. Risk-avoiders nearly always fold too much and play their hands too passively.

Short-term emotions are much harder to read and exploit. They can occur suddenly, and their effects vary greatly. You’ve probably been surprised and confused when a Rock made a loose-aggressive play or a Maniac suddenly became cautious.

Ed discussed interpreting opponents’ bet-sizing, but both types of emotions affect almost everything they do: how many hands they play, whether they check, call, or raise, how they play made hands and draws, when and how much they bet, call or raise, and so on.

Emotions and thoughts are not separate. Emotions affect thoughts and vice versa. You can’t fully comprehend your opponents’ emotions if you don’t understand how they think and vice versa.

This series of columns will answer several questions:

1. Why should you study your opponents’ emotions?
2. Why is it hard to understand emotions at poker?
3. How should you study both types of emotions?
4. Which emotions have the most impact?
5. Which cues are most revealing?
6. How can you exploit emotional players?

Why Should You Study Your Opponents’ Emotions?

That’s easy. As Ed Miller said, it’s often easier to understand their emotions than their thinking. There are fewer emotions than thought patterns, and opponents usually won’t tell you how they think, but they express their emotions more directly. The more clearly you understand their feelings, the better results you’ll get.

In addition, emotional players make costly mistakes. If you read their emotions accurately, you can understand, predict, and exploit their mistakes.

Why Is It Hard To Understand Emotions At Poker?

Many people don’t read emotions well. They have filters, mental blocks to understanding other people’s feelings. My first poker book, The Psychology of Poker, discussed two of them:

“The Law of Subjective Rationality. The evening news gives examples of this law all the time… [My book was published before the most dramatic example: The Arabs who flew airliners into the World Trade Center. By American standards they were crazy, but they expected to go directly to Paradise, making dying very rational.]

“What does this have to do with poker? Everything. If you can … understand why they play poker, what they want to do, and how they see the situation, you can understand actions that are now utterly inexplicable. They may seem ridiculous to you, but they almost always make sense to the person taking them …

“To read people’s cards [and emotions] you must set aside your ideas about what people should do, get into their heads, learn how they think, and what they are trying to do.
“The Egoistic Fallacy. Everybody – you, me, Doyle Brunson, Sigmund Freud – falls victim to it from time to time. We … see his situation with our own eyes, not his.

“This fallacy can really hurt your card reading. For example, when trying to put a raiser on a hand, you might think of what kind of hand you need to make that raise, then assume that he thinks the same way you do. Since you would not raise without a certain hand, you may misread his hand …

“The subjective rationality and egoistic fallacy principles are closely linked, and they cause people to make all kinds of objectively foolish decisions: check or fold winners, raise with losers, play in games they can’t beat, and so on. To read cards accurately, you must understand this player’s motives and beliefs.” (pp 48-50)

Political Correctness is a third filter that my book didn’t mention, and there are certainly others. All filters distort your perceptions. Politically-correct people insist that we should pretend there are no differences between men and women, young and old, and various nationalities and ethnic groups. Ignore that nonsense and try to understand how this player really feels, thinks, and plays.

Even if you overcome those filters, reading emotions is much harder in poker games than in many other situations because:

You must relate to more people.
Your opponents change constantly.
You have less information.
Your opponents become more deceptive.

You must relate to more people. We usually relate to 1-3 people, but most poker games have 8-9 opponents.

Your opponents change constantly. Players frequently leave and are replaced by very different kinds of people.

You have less information. In many situations you can see why some people became angry, frightened, and so on. Since you don’t know your opponents’ hole cards, you frequently can’t tell why they feel anger or other emotions. Did they miss a draw? Have top set cracked? Make a successful bluff? Think about something unrelated to poker?

It’s easier to identify emotions in limit hold’em than in no-limit because you see far more showdowns. If someone hasn’t shown his cards, you don’t know whether his plays were caused by his cards or his feelings.

My poker buddy, the late Barry Tanenbaum, wrote: ”At no limit, you see many fewer exposed hands than you do at limit … even if you see a few hands in small pots, it still won’t tell you how a player will react when faced with a large bet in a large pot, which is generally rare. This makes reading players much more difficult.” (“Why I Love Limit Hold’em,” Card Player, 5/28/2010)

Your opponents become more deceptive. When people are angry or frightened, they often have an intense need to express their feelings. They may even say or do things that they know will cost them dearly. Relieving their tensions becomes more important than money, a job, a relationship, or even their own life.

When playing poker, people try to deceive you. “Poker Face” has been a common term for hard to read people for over a century because poker players hide their emotions. As David Sklansky put it: “Being devious and deceitful is precisely what one wants to be in a poker game.” (The Theory of Poker, p 129).

Final Remarks

We’ve seen that it’s both important and difficult to read our opponents’ emotions. My next column will tell you how to read them. ♠

Alan SchoonmakerAfter publishing five expensive poker books, Dr. Al,, now writes inexpensive eBooks. How to Beat Small Poker Games, Stay Young; Play Poker, How to Beat Killed Hold’em Games, and Business is a Poker Game cost only $2.99 at Please visit my website,, and get a free book.