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Training Your Brain: Could Your Poker Game Use a Little CBT?

Training Your Brain: Could Your Poker Game Use a Little CBT?

“Cognitive behavioral therapy” (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that attempts to solve specific life problems by changing incorrect thought processes and the counterproductive behaviors that flow from such thoughts. It has proven useful for a wide variety of psychological/psychiatric disorders, including anxiety, depression, personality disorders, eating disorders, addiction, and even psychoses.

I submit that many — perhaps most — poker players could do with some CBT, because they keep making the same mistakes over and over again, driven by incorrect underlying thoughts.

My idea here was sparked by a recent article in The Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt titled “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Their specific context is the distorted thought processes behind some recent developments on college campuses, and how CBT could be deployed to correct those thought processes. But I’m going to borrow some of their categories of incorrect thought processes and explore how they apply to poker.

Let me start with the authors’ summary of the goal of CBT:

The goal is to minimize distorted thinking and see the world more accurately. You start by learning the names of the dozen or so most common cognitive distortions…. Each time you notice yourself falling prey to one of them, you name it, describe the facts of the situation, consider alternative interpretations, and then choose an interpretation of events more in line with those facts. Your emotions follow your new interpretation. In time, this process becomes automatic. When people improve their mental hygiene in this way — when they free themselves from the repetitive irrational thoughts that had previously filled so much of their consciousness — they become less depressed, anxious, and angry.

You can probably see how this form of “brain training” can apply to poker players. I’ll discuss just three of the types of thought patterns they identify.

1. Emotional reasoning

This particular example of cognitive distortion is one with which many of us are no doubt familiar. It is the assumption “that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: ‘I feel it, therefore it must be true.’”

You don’t have to hang around poker rooms for long to hear this distortion manifested loud and clear: “I never win with aces.” “How come flush draws hit for everybody but me?” “I can’t win a race to save my life.” “I haven’t flopped a set since the Nixon administration.”

I once had a Vegas cab driver, upon learning that I played poker, tell me that he liked playing, but “I haven’t won a pot in 15 years.” He emphasized that he meant that literally, and was not exaggerating.

Obviously, none of these things can be objectively true. It is mathematically impossible that a player never wins a pot starting with pocket aces, or never completes a flush draw. What leads to such assertions is distorted and selective memory. The losses hurt more than the wins feel good, so they stick in our minds more prominently.

Having expectations dashed leaves a mental scar, causing a cognitive distortion going forward. Having expectations fulfilled simply feels like things going the way they should, and thus makes little emotional impact.

The key to conquering erroneously gloomy beliefs is objective data. If you think that one of these kinds of statements is true about you, test that hypothesis. Keep track of the results every time you have pocket aces, a flush draw, or whatever else you believe fails you more than statistical theory predicts. After a sufficient period of data collection, the results will show you that your subjective, emotional feeling about the facts was objectively wrong, and you can begin to let go of it.

Thereafter, when that sense of dread about the situation comes to you, banish it by remembering what the actual compiled results revealed.

2. Magnification

The article defines magnification as “exaggerating the importance of things.” Though I like to think I’m reasonably immune to emotional thinking, this one is something that can easily trip me up if I’m not careful, so let me illustrate it by telling a story on myself.

In one of my first trips to a casino to play poker many years ago, I was involved in a hand with a young man who had a friend standing behind him, watching him play. At one point, he called a preflop raise, then showed his hole cards to his buddy and laughingly said, “I shouldn’t be playing hands this bad, should I?” His friend laughed, too, and said something like, “Nope. You should fold at the earliest opportunity.”

I knew that there was an iron-clad rule: One player to a hand. You’re not allowed to receive any outside advice on how to play. This interaction, I thought, was a clear violation of that rule. And, frankly, I got kind of bent out of shape in protesting it. When the dealer tried to dismiss it as unimportant, I insisted that the floor be called over, and pushed the floor person to declare the player’s hand dead because he received advice from his friend on how to play.

Before he could respond, the player, obviously severely irritated, threw his cards in the muck and said, “There? Are you happy now?” Of course I wasn’t happy, but I did have some perverse satisfaction from having triumphed in my point.

In retrospect, I was way out of line, and I’m deeply embarrassed by this memory. If the same thing happened now, I would ignore it the first time. If a similar interaction happened a second time, I would wait until after the hand was over and then either address it directly with the player or ask the dealer to say something. My tone and wording would convey that these particular comments were not a big deal, but were still something to avoid because it could lead to a slippery slope where the advice conveyed really could make a difference.

I see now that I had let a trivial, technical infraction of a rule loom as large as if it had been done in earnest — say, when he had a genuinely difficult decision to make in a large pot and actually received advice on what to do. I magnified the importance of what had occurred to a ridiculous degree.

Of course, the disordered thinking of magnification can take many forms in the poker world. It’s what leads to big blow-ups, occasional fistfights, and players being expelled from the room. It’s what causes one day’s loss to seem like the end of the world. When winning a casino’s small daily tournament makes you feel that you just might be the best poker player the world has ever seen, that, too, is magnification at work.

The cure is perspective — interrupting the emotion with rational thought. Is the insult just hurled important enough to let it ruin your session, get thrown out of the casino, and maybe have criminal assault charges filed against you? Has the loss of a couple of buy-ins financially ruined you in the past? If not, why would it now? (If it would, then you shouldn’t be playing in the first place!) How much luck was on your side to win that tournament?

The cold water of reality is the remedy for the overheated emotions that come from magnification.

3. Mental filtering

The article defines mental filtering as “picking out a negative detail in any situation and dwelling on it exclusively, thus perceiving that the whole situation is negative.”

I have a poker-playing friend who absolutely cannot stand to sit in one of the seats on the long sides of the table. Unless he gets one of the seats on an end of the table, he is constantly distracted — obsessed, even — by his seating position and he can’t play well. This is an example of letting what is objectively at worst a small annoyance poison one’s perspective on an entire situation.

Is the game a profitable one? Are the dealers competent? Is the atmosphere friendly? If so, then don’t let small matters like an uncomfortable chair, an overly chatty player, somebody’s body odor, or slow drink service cloud your perception of the whole experience. By all means, address those annoyances when and if you can, so that you’re as comfortable and free from distractions as possible. But in the meantime, and for the things over which you have no control, keep them in perspective.

In fact, items such as those at the opening of the previous paragraph are a good place to start, for a corrective point of view. You’re making money and having a good time with some nice people. The big picture is that you have the freedom and the luxury of playing a game instead of doing some form of arduous work, and to leave the game with more money that you had when you started. This is to be celebrated and enjoyed. Don’t allow small irritations have the power to ruin the experience for you.

But you consciously have to decide what you’ll dwell on. Will it be the big thing, which is mostly good, or the one little thing that is bothering you? It’s your mind — you get to choose what it focuses on. Choose wisely.


You don’t need a therapist in order to begin applying the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy to the distorted thoughts that you get when playing poker, and to their consequent negative emotions and dysfunctional actions. There are plenty of self-help books and articles that can teach you the various kinds of incorrect thinking — of which I have listed only a small sample — and how to fix them. It will take work, but I think you’ll find the results worth the effort.

Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the “Poker Grump” blog.

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  • Learn how "cognitive behavioral therapy" (CBT) and correcting incorrect thought processes can help your poker game.

  • Do you make the same mistakes in poker over and over? "Cognitive behavioral therapy" can help break the pattern.

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