“Don’t Worry, It’s Just Poker!”-Experience, Self-Rumination and Self-Reflection as Determinants of Decision-Making in On-Line Poker

Abstract

On-line poker is a game of chance and skill. The construct of poker playing skill has both a technical (game strategy-related) and an emotional (emotion regulation-related) aspect. A correlational on-line study (N = 354) was conducted to assess differences in technical skills and emotional characteristics related to poker playing style between experienced and inexperienced poker players. Results suggest that, with respect to emotional characteristics, experienced poker players engage in less self-rumination and more self-reflection, as compared to inexperienced players. Experienced poker players are also able to make better decisions, by mathematical standards, in a poker decision-making environment, as assessed by two fictitious on-line poker decision-making scenarios. Furthermore, this study provides supportive evidence that experienced poker players conceptualize the construct of “luck” differently from inexperienced players. A new poker playing experience scale (PES) for accurately measuring poker playing experience is presented in this paper.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Deucescracked (www.deucescracked.com) and Pokersavvy (www.pokersavvy.com) are examples of such companies. Betting-strategy refers to mathematical reasoning for maximizing the profitability of betting. Bankroll management refers to mathematical reasoning for maintaining enough money available for playing in relation to the stakes played.

  2. 2.

    Live poker refers to poker played physically sitting at a poker table, facing human opponents.

  3. 3.

    Here, a poker hand refers to a single round of game play; the period beginning when cards are dealt and ending with the showdown (revealing of players' cards and deciding the winner of said hand).

  4. 4.

    To move up in stakes refers to a decision to start playing with higher stakes.

  5. 5.

    Starting hand (as opposed to 'hand' as defined in footnote 3) is used here to refer to the two cards dealt to each player, during beginning of each round of game play.

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Acknowledgments

We wish to thank The Finnish Foundation for Alcohol Studies, The Kone Foundation, and The Academy of Finland for their financial support in this project. We also wish to thank the following Finnish poker communities for their interest in our research: http://www.pokerisivut.com, http://www.pokeritieto.com and http://www.pokerista.fi.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Jussi Palomäki.

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Participation in this internet-based correlative study was voluntary, and the anonymity of all respondents was guaranteed. Information provided by respondents will be used only for scientific purposes.

Appendices

Appendix 1: Detailed Description of the Poker Decision Scenarios

Detailed descpriptions of the two Texas no limit hold ‘em (NLHE) poker decision-making scenarios are presented here translated from Finnish to English. The scenarios involved NLHE, since it is currently very likely the most popular and recognized poker game variant (see, e.g., Linnet et al. 2011). In both scenarios, participants could choose one of two options, fold or call, in accordance to the rules of NLHE.

Poker Terminology Abbreviations and Explanations:

  • To open = To be the first one to bet in any given hand

  • To limp (in a heads-up -game) = To call (as the first player to act) in the small blind

  • To fold = To give up your hand

  • Button = The dealer button, designating the dealer. In a heads-up game, the dealer is usually in the small blind.

  • h = hearts, s = spades, c = clubs, d = diamonds

  • As Kh Qc Jd Ts = Ace of spades, King of hearts, Queen of clubs, Jack of diamonds, Ten of spades

Scenario 1

You are playing No Limit Texas Hold’em on-line at a head-sup (2 players) -table. The level of the game (the stakes) is NL100 (the blinds are 50c and 1€, and the maximum amount of money that can be bought in is 100€). You are playing at one table, and at the beginning of each hand, you will have at least 100€ (should you lose money, you will rebuy the lost amount before the next hand starts).

A player who is completely unknown to you sits down at the virtual table to be your opponent.

Very quickly you notice that your opponent is overly aggressive: S/he bets or raises all-in in every hand before the flop (s/he always opens with an all-in bet, and similarly, should you open or limp yourself, s/he will always raise all-in). For the first 15 hands you do not get any starting hands you consider worth calling your opponent’s all-in bets and raises with, and you have to fold every time. After 15 hands, your opponent has won a total of 25€ from you (the amount consists of small- and big blinds, and of a few hands where you opened and had to fold to an all-in raise).

However, the next starting hand (on the button) you are dealt is As Qs, you raise, and again your opponent raises all-in, and you call. Your opponent shows Ks 7s, and you end up losing the hand. You rebuy for 100€ (your opponent now has over 200€), and in the next hand you are dealt 5h 4h. Atypically (for the first time during the match), your opponent merely limps, and you decide to check. The flop is 9h Ks 6h (the pot is 2€), you check, and your opponent bets all-in.

What do you do? Fold/Call?

Scenario 2

You are playing poker on-line (with the same stakes as in scenario (1), and you notice that the same opponent as in scenario 1 is sitting at an empty heads-up table. You feel that you are a better player than said opponent, and you start to play with him/her. You buy in for 100€. Right off in the first hand you are dealt Qs Qh, you open, and your opponent raises all-in, and you call. Your opponent shows Ah Ac, and you lose the hand. In the next three hands your opponent again bets all-in before the flop, and you have to fold every time. In the fourth hand you are dealt Ac 3c, and you decide to open (for 3,5e; at the beginning of the hand you had 100€), and your opponent atypically just calls. The flop is 3s 4s 5s (the pot is 7€), and your opponent bets all-in (for over 100€).

What do you do? Fold/Call?

Calling is a Decision with Negative Expected Value

In the above poker scenarios, the decision to call or to fold needs to be made based on an estimation of the range of all possible starting hands the opponent could be betting/raising all-in with. A starting hand range refers to the set of starting hands with which, in a given situation, the same action would be taken. In the current context, the opponent’s starting hand range relates to the frequency of his/her betting/raising all-in. As the opponent’s frequency of betting/raising (all-in) is high (nearly 100 %), his/her starting hand range is also wide.

Most of the time, a narrow starting hand range for betting/raising corresponds to a strong starting hand range (for an assessment of NLHE starting hand strengths, see, e.g., Sklansky and Malmuth 1999), due to a higher probability of a player raising with strong starting hands as compared to weak starting hands. A narrow starting hand range for betting/raising might also be weak, if it, e.g., only included the weakest starting hands. However, it is irrational to presume an opponent who constantly bets/raises all-in would employ a strategy where s/he was systematically more likely to bet/raise with the weakest starting hands than with the strongest starting hands.

Thus, assuming that the probability of raising with strong starting hands is higher or equal to the probability of raising with weak starting hands, the weakest possible starting hand range relates to a random starting hand range (i.e. raising with every starting hand). In other words, given an opponent such as the one in the poker scenarios, calculating the profitability of folding or calling against a random starting hand range corresponds to, in essence, the best case scenario. PokerStrategy.com Equilator (version 1.8) was used to calculate the distribution of equity between the subjects’ hand and the opponent’s starting hand range.

Tables 2, 3, 4, 5 present starting hand range equities for both the subject and the opponent, the amount of money left that is not in the pot, the flop and the effective size of the pot for the two poker decision scenarios.

Table 2 Scenario 1
Table 3 Scenario 2
Table 4 Scenario 1
Table 5 Scenario 2

Notably, even if the opponent should have decided to not bet/raise all-in with the stronger starting hands, thus narrowing his/her hand range, the expected value of calling is still negative (tables 4 and 5), in fact even more so in scenario 2 (table 5):

The expected value of folding is always exactly zero. Thus, calling is always mathematically incorrect.

Appendix 2: The Poker Experience Scale

Abbreviations:

  • NL*number* = No limit hold’em, with a maximum buy-in, usually totalling 100 big blinds, indicated by the number.

  • PLO*number* = Pot limit omaha, with a maximum buy-in, usually totalling 100 blinds, indicated by the number.

  • SNG*number* = Sit and Go = A small tournament, with usually less than 30 participants, with a buy-in amount indicated by the number. A typical Sit and Go -tournament starts with a single table, and either 6 (short-handed Sit and Go), 9 or 10 (full-table Sit and Gos) players.

  • MTT*number* = Multi-table tournament = A tournament with usually more than 40 participants, and at least 4 tables, with a buy-in amount indicated by the number.

  • FREEROLL = A tournament with a free entry, both SNGs and MTTs.

The number depicting big blind amounts corresponds to either dollars or euros, depending on the internet poker gaming site (or other venue) the respondent was normally playing at. The monetary difference between euros and dollars is not substantial, and therefore was not controlled.

The Poker Experience Scale was formed from three open ended questions:

  1. 1)

    How many years have you played poker?

  2. 2)

    What is the rough estimate of how many poker hands you have played during your life?

  3. 3)

    At what level of stakes do you usually play?

The questions were coded from 1 to 10 after the fact. The following guidelines were used in the coding process:

Question 1

Code Reported number of years played
1 Less than 1
2 1–2
3 2–3
4 3–4
5 4–5
6 5–6
7 6–8
8 8–10
9 10–15
10 More than 15

Question 2

Code Reported estimate of number of hands played
1 0–50,000
2 50,000–150,000
3 150,000–300,000
4 300,000–500,000
5 500,000–750,000
6 750,000–1 mil.
7 1 mil.–1.5 mil.
8 1.5 mil.–2.5 mil.
9 2.5 mil.–5 mil.
10 More than 5 mil.

Question 3

Code Reported level of stakes usually played at
1 Freerolls, NL2-5, PLO2-5, SNG1-5, MTT1-5
2 NL10, PLO10, SNG5-10, MTT5-10
3 NL20, PLO20, SNG10-15, MTT10-15
4 NL25-30, PLO25-30, SNG15-25, MTT15-25
5 NL50, PLO50, SNG25-35, MTT25-35
6 NL100, PLO100, SNG35-50, MTT35-50
7 NL200, PLO200, SNG50-100, MTT50-100
8 NL400, PLO400, SNG100-200, MTT100-200
9 NL500-600, PLO500-600, SNG200-500, MTT200-500
10 Above NL600, PLO600, SNG500, MTT500

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Palomäki, J., Laakasuo, M. & Salmela, M. “Don’t Worry, It’s Just Poker!”-Experience, Self-Rumination and Self-Reflection as Determinants of Decision-Making in On-Line Poker. J Gambl Stud 29, 491–505 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10899-012-9311-3

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Keywords

  • Poker
  • Decision-making
  • Emotions
  • Tilting
  • Self-rumination
  • Self-reflection