For several weeks now I've wanted to write a blog about the concept of "poker empathy", but I couldn't wrap my mind around what I wanted to say exactly. We commonly consider empathy to be the capacity to recognize and share the feelings of another sentient being. For instance, many of us feel empathy for those who suffered from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. We didn't endure any hardship ourselves, but we can identify with the devastation, loss and disruption in their lives. It inspires some of us to donate, others to volunteer, and most of us at the very least contemplate what it would be like to go through ourselves. We often emerge from our empathy feeling appreciative and thankful for our relative good fortune.
Poker empathy is a related characteristic that distinguishes many of the best poker players from the rest of us. Poker empathy involves the reading of your opponent; more than just their cards but their thoughts and motivations too. We are playing a game where the goal is to beat our opponents and take their chips. Most serious poker players naturally seek to employ a superior strategy to our opponent. As we improve as poker players we realize there is more to the game than our cards, our math and strategy. There are different levels of thinking involved. By being able to understand our opponent and their thinking, we can try to manipulate them to our advantage.
Some of the questions we want to ask in trying to develop our poker empathy are...
1) Why are they playing? Is it to win the most pots, make the most profit, to have fun, or to release tension?
2) Why do they play a hand a certain way? What does each of their bets, checks or calls mean?
3) What situations frustrate your opponent and cause them to alter their play (e.g. tilt)
4) How aware is your opponent to your actions and moves? Do they make adjustments?
Ultimately, your goal is to understand why your opponent does what they do? When you begin to understand them, "putting yourself in their shoes," you are in a position of extreme advantage if they can't do the same to you. In heads-up or short-handed situations, that poker empathic advantage can be greater than any other.
Gaining that psychological and empathic understanding is harder than it appears. It is much easier to determine our motivations, desires and perspective than to understand those around us. It is difficult to think outside ourselves. We see our opponents through our own prism of experience.
To illustrate further my idea of poker empathy, I want to use a non-poker example that was tangentially introduced by poker blogger Nat Arem. In his recent blog, he shared a recommended link to check out the traveling exploits of a young couple who were traveling around the world on their own. I saw several other poker players retweet the link, so it must have spread somewhat in the poker community. The couple did a great job of regularly posting compelling pictures and written accounts of their travels. This particularly protracted series of forum entries that Nat linked to covered their two week adventure crossing the Democratic Republic of Congo from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa in their private vehicle on a road they claimed hadn't been fully traversed in a couple decades.
Anyone who knows me or who has followed my blog the last few years knows the important role that growing up in several African countries and subsequent African travels and experiences have played in shaping who I am. Years ago, I experienced many similar and related circumstances to theirs so in some ways reading their account made me quite nostalgic. Unfortunately, the more that I read the more I noticed a disturbing element to their narrative. They lacked much empathy for the people and circumstances around them. I don't mean they didn't feel any sympathy for the poverty and hardship of the people, but rather they chose to prioritize their prism of experience rather that trying to empathize and understand the motivations for the actions and reactions that their journey through their countryside caused. Their perspective was one of discovery and survival, not one of understanding or cultural immersion. They didn't try to learn the language, eat the local food, or understand the local customs. They were always in a hurry to move on. Their journey was much like the early European explorers of Africa who marveled at what they encountered, discovering it for the first time. They didn't understand much of the reaction, both positive and negative that they received in their travels. They didn't really empathize with their environment. They were content to view it through a foreign lens, somewhat insensitive to the local history they were disturbing by their journey.
For instance, when given the opportunity to seek help from locals when their vehicle got stuck, a regular occurrence on some of the world's most treacherous roads, they preferred self-reliance than seeking assistance that might cost them some small pittance. They sought out foreign missionaries and foreign aid workers at every opportunity. Their journey was one of haste not empathy. Unfortunately, their lack of empathy put them in more difficult circumstances than they might have been in otherwise. As they sped across the devastated and demoralized countryside, they missed the opportunity for much growth or understanding. There wasn't much they could take away from the experience to use in the future, except one of survival and ticking off that portion of their journey.
Returning to a poker context, you too can blaze your own trail across the poker landscape. You can remain oblivious to your opponent's motivations and thought process. Your self-directed approach can even be a profitable one, but the best poker players realize that they can benefit greatly from understanding from where their opponents are coming. Whereas we will often wrongly assume that our opponents think like us, or act like robots playing hands the same way time and again, the more empathic player will dig deeper. They realize their opponents don't think like they do. They don't assume others play for the same reasons that you do. They try to genuinely understand them.
At the poker table, it is usually the keen LAG (loose-aggressive) players who are most successful at probing the psychology of their opponents. They have learned to press our buttons for wanting to play in a safe TAG (tight-aggressive) manner. When they raise five hands in a row we want to scream and fight back at the perceived injustice. We often choose sub-standard hands to make an over aggressive play back at them. Ego plays such a big part in our poker decisions. We don't want to get shown up. We don't want to get bullied. We don't want to be bluffed. The smart LAG player is prodding us to get a predictable reaction that they can exploit. They are attempting to employ poker empathy to their advantage.
Top poker players are rewarded for going the extra step in trying to understand the thoughts and motivations of their opponent. They craft that knowledge into their strategy to defeat and confuse you. Poker empathy isn't about feeling sorry for your opponent. When two warriors enter the ring, they understand and accept the rules and goal of the challenge. One will win, while the other will lose. No hard feelings.
My money is on the player who understands their opponent best.