Fish Psychology Part 1

Psychology, Strategy

September 12, 2007

I want to pose a simple question: why do losing players continue to play?

This question should be of supreme interest to anyone considering a career in poker or considering playing at high stakes. It should be obvious that poker games cannot exist without losing players – if the players with a negative expectation made a policy of quitting a game, that game would quickly cease to exist since in any given lineup there’s always someone who has a negative expectation[1] and who would thus be quitting.

Thankfully, we know that in reality this doesn’t happen. The losing players do continue to play, and the games stay reasonably healthy. In fact today there are more casino poker games than there ever were in the past. However, that doesn’t mean that individual losing players won’t quit the game. It’s obviously in the interest of winning players to keep that from happening. Or to put it in more cynical terms, losing players are collectively a resource that needs to be maintained and protected so that the games can go on.

The issue, then is how to keep them around. And I propose the following solution: figure out what motivates losing players and make sure that they get what they’re seeking out of the game. Hence why I think it’s so important to know what motivates them. However, as with anything in psychology, it’s not obvious what motivates the fish. If you ask two players, you’ll get five answers. This of course is not totally unreasonable, as different fish may well have different motivations.

Over the course of this series, I want to list this possible motivations and explore them one by one. Hopefully this will provide insight into the losing player’s behavior and how to keep them playing.

Here’s a list of possible motivations to play with a negative expectation:

  • The player thinks they have a positive expectation (self-deception)
  • The player is honestly unsure what their expectation is but believe they might be winners (taking a shot)
  • Playing poker is recreation, and money lost is simply the cost of that recreation
  • Gambling addition
  • Self-punishment (aka the Freudian explanation)
  • Practice
  • The threshold of misery
  • Tax evasion

We’ll take a look at each of these in subsequent articles (linked above).
[1] This is a direct consequence of conservation of money, unless everyone has a zero expectation, which is theoretically possible in an unraked game but never happens in reality

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