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Pandemic Poker Adjustments

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: Mar 24, 2021


The pandemic and lockdowns have had devastating effects on the entire world. Millions of people have died, gotten sick, lost their jobs, or had their businesses go broke. Nobody knows how long the pandemic and lockdown will last, nor do we know how much economic damage it will cause.

Many of us feel frightened, isolated, and angry. We know we can get sick, perhaps even die. We worry about the terrible economy and how it will affect our futures. We feel isolated and lonely because we can’t go to schools, religious services, restaurants, conventions, or sporting events. Many of us are so angry that we overreact to frustrations, including trivial ones.

Health professionals know that stresses are additive. Each one increases the overall effects on our minds and bodies. The combination of all these stresses has made the rates for homicide, suicide, domestic violence, and alcohol and drug abuse skyrocket.
Extremely Different Playing Conditions Increase Stress

In most of the world there is little or no live casino poker. People are playing online, in home games, and in illegal “casinos.” Online poker is so different from live games that Card Player had a recent article about adjusting to it.

Home games and illegal cardrooms have a different and very scary problem in that you can get cheated. Worrying about cheating greatly increases the stress.

Las Vegas is one of the few places with live, legal casino poker games. It also has open restaurants and bars. People come from all over the world to play poker and other games, eat in restaurants, and live a closer-to-normal life than they can live at home.

But the games have changed. Tables have fewer players, the dealers and players must wear masks, and there are Plexiglas screens between them. The masks and screens drastically reduce the amount of information exchanged. We can’t see other people clearly, nor can we hear everything the dealer and players say. These changes make most people uncomfortable, and we make mistakes because we have less information.

“The Whole World Is On Tilt”

My friend, Dr. Nick Colon, summarized the current situation with that short sentence. The stress level is so high that most people feel it, and it affects everything we do, including the way we play poker. When you’re worried about dying, sickness, unemployment, and economic disasters, you can’t play your A-Game.

There are two exactly opposite reactions, plus many intermediate ones. Some people play more hands, more carelessly. They hurt so much that they care more about easing their pain than they do about their bankroll. They are too upset to play a solid, patient game. Others are so worried about the future that they become scared and weak-tight.
If you don’t understand and adjust to your own and your opponents’ emotions, you will cost yourself a lot of money.

Self-Analysis Is The Top Priority

Most players are much better at analyzing other people than at analyzing themselves. To protect our ego we deny our fears, weaknesses, and leaks. We pretend that we’re stronger, smarter, less emotional, and more controlled than we really are.

It’s a huge mistake. Understanding yourself is immeasurably more important than understanding your opponents. You play only a tiny percentage of your hands against any one opponent, but your emotions, motives, and mindset can affect every hand you play.

Take A Hard Look At Yourself

How do you feel about the pandemic, lockdown, and economy? How do your feelings affect your poker? Are you on tilt? Which kind of tilt?

Get An Independent Opinion

Because it’s so hard to be objective about yourself, ask a coach or trusted friend to observe and analyze your play. An independent observer can see things that your ego prevents you from recognizing. Make sure you tell the other person not to worry about hurting your feelings. You need and want honest information.

If you look hard at yourself and get honest criticism, you will probably find leaks you didn’t suspect you had.

Test Your Assumptions

Even if you have played with people many times, don’t assume that they will play their usual game. Carefully observe how they are playing now. You will often find that they are playing much differently than usual.

Don’t just observe passively. You may feel reluctant to probe, but many people are so upset that they want to talk about their feelings. A few open-ended questions can suggest how they feel and will play.

What do you think of the way the government is handling the pandemic?

How have the pandemic and lockdown affected your industry or city?

How have they affected you?

How long do you think the pandemic and lockdown will last?

I’m really worried about the future. How do you feel?

I really dislike wearing a mask. How do you feel?

These Plexiglas screens feel like a cage. Do they bother you?

I really dislike playing short-handed. How about you?

I can’t hear what the dealer says. Can you?

Choose Your Games More Carefully

Game selection is always your most important decision, and it is much more important now than usual. Pick games that minimize stress, especially the kinds of stress that really bother you.

For example, if you don’t like wild games, avoid them. If you get impatient in tight games, play late at night and on weekends. Regardless of which kind of game is best for you, watch the action before sitting down. Keep watching after you start playing. If you’re in a game that makes you uncomfortable, change tables or go home.


That acronym stands for Hesitate, And Look Left And Think. When players are on tilt, they often telegraph that they will fold, check, bet, or raise. If you hesitate and look left, you may see what they intend to do before you commit yourself. If you take a few seconds to think about their intentions, you will make much better decisions.

Bluff More Selectively

If your opponents are playing too loosely, bluff less often. They will generally call you down, even if they are almost certain they are beaten. We call them “peace of mind calls” and “curiosity calls.” They just want to be sure that they don’t fold the winning hand.

Conversely, if they are playing scared, bluff more often.

Value Bet More Selectively

The same logic applies to value bets. If they are playing too loosely, bet weak hands because they will call you with even weaker ones. If they are playing weak-tight, don’t make thin value bets. If they call, you’re beaten.

Constantly Monitor Your Play And Feelings

Continuously ask yourself: How do I feel? How am I playing? Why did I make that play?
If you suspect that you’re on tilt, take a break to get your head together. Better yet, go home. There will always be another poker game. If you’re on tilt and keep playing, you can blow your bankroll. ♠

Alan SchoonmakerAll-time tournament cash leader “Miami” John Cernuto and I are writing a book about negotiating final table deals. For information about it, email