Review: The Psychology of Poker

3 Star, Book Reviews

August 1, 2007

Author: Alan Schoonmaker

Publisher: 2+2

This is a book likely to surprise a lot of readers. I wouldn’t say title is misleading per se, but the book might be better titled The Self-Psychology of Poker because the book’s entire approach is essentially self-help in nature.

Schoonmaker’s target audience for this book consists mostly of the population of losing players. This is a marked contrast to most other poker books, which politely take the position that the reader is either a winning player, or soon to become one thanks to the book’s advice. In this sense, The Psychology of Poker is almost unique amongst poker books. It essentially assumes that the reader has some substantial psychology-related leaks, and then goes about trying to find and address them.

This audience bias combined with the book’s self-help approach can make it a grating read for more advanced and psychologically sound players because many of the assumptions really don’t apply. For example, Schoonmaker assumes that your primary motivation for playing is not money. He’s certainly entitled to his belief, but I’ve got news for him – I’ll put up with a lot of crap as long as I expect to beat the game, and I have no interest in playing to lose. So the rational expectation of winning money is in fact the primary thing that determines if I play or not. The reader’s inability to correct this kind of mistaken assumption becomes frustrating over time.

The meat of The Psychology of Poker is a system for classifying players along two orthogonal scales – passive/aggressive and loose/tight. The book then devotes a long chapter to the psychology of each quadrant. This kind of player classification should be familiar to anyone who’s read recent poker literature. Each chapter gives advice and a certain amount of armchair psychoanalysis for players that fall into that quadrant.

This information is fundamentally reasonably sound, but I think it suffers on two key points. First, the book makes no distinction between strategies and players. It assumes that the strategy employed is a direct consequence of the psychology of the player. This couldn’t be further from the truth for some players. A skilled player will adopt whatever strategy maximizes their expectation. That could be loose or tight, passive or aggressive, depending on the circumstances. The player’s psychological makeup is unchanged, but if you tried to classify them based on Schoonmaker’s system, you would get radically different results depending on the circumstances in which you observed their play. For example, I play a fair amount of heads-up NL holdem. Sound strategy in that game requires you to play every single hand from either position in an unraised pot. Folding the small blind is not an option. It doesn’t get much looser than that, but yet I don’t somehow acquire the psychological characteristics that Schoonmaker attributes to loose players just because I’m playing every hand. Without this distinction, the book is much less useful. I suspect that this failing is a nod to the books audience, since losing players are much less likely to adapt to circumstances.

The second problem with Schoonmaker’s advice is that it fails to recognize the rho nature of poker strategy. It takes the position that tight, aggressive play is always the most desirably strategy. In other words, it idolizes what I’ve termed “strategy B” at the expense of the other two equally valid strategies. This is in many ways sensible for low limit games, but is unquestionably wrong in the broader world of poker play.

These failings dramatically reduce the value of Schoonmaker’s advice. It’s unfortunate, because a really good text on poker psychology is desperately needed. This just isn’t it.

Rating: 3/5

Like this article? Subscribe to the CardSharp RSS Feed

Comments are closed.