Empathizing With Opponents

The Ink is Black, The Page is White

Poker Empathy“Before you abuse, criticize and accuse, walk a mile in my shoes.” -- Joe South

Empathy is the ability to identify and understand another person’s situation, feelings and motives. “Reading” your poker opponents is greatly a matter of empathy. Despite this, and it genuinely constantly amazes me, the majority of poker players wouldn’t know empathy from a tympani. They are incredibly self-absorbed. They focus on themselves, fixate on their own cards, and very often assume the motives of their opponents mirror their own motives. (Empathy also implies going further, to “feel the pain” of another, but that isn’t important here.)

Why is it so hard for many players to understand that the motivations of their opponents are usually different than their own? How many times have you heard someone cry: “How can you play that hand?” A better question is: “What motivates that person to play that hand that way?” If they think about anything at all, some players seem to focus on what they personally would do in the particular situation. Who cares? You aren’t playing clones of yourself. Your opponents are unique individuals who play poker for many very different reasons.

It is fairly easy for me to feel empathy for my opponents and thus read them well, partly because I understand my own motivations for playing are dramatically different than the vast majority of other players. I don’t play for fun. I don’t play for ego. I seldom play for a challenge. I play to make money -- and I know very few other players have that same, singular motivation.

It doesn’t matter to me if I lose nine pots and win one, but end up making an outstanding profit from those ten hands. (More accurately, it matters to me a bit in that losing hands is no fun, but it doesn’t affect my play.) But then some of my opponents have a bizarro, macho need to win hands. They have a need to personally beat me, rather than take my money. They would get significant satisfaction in beating me those nine hands. That is an end in itself.

While I will never truly understand why a person could care about such nonsense, as a player I need to put myself in that opponent’s shoes whenever we are in hands. I’m facing an opponent who would rather win a pot than win money. Knowing this dictates my line of play. For instance, such ego-driven players will bluff more often than is sensible. At the same time I will have a hard time bluffing them. I can value bet into such players because it will drive them crazy to think they might be bluffed out of a pot. I can also check solid hands into them because I know they will make hopeless bluffs. I get the same one bet out of them with less risk.

One example where empathy is obviously everything is a Las Vegas local against a play-once-a-year tourist. These confrontations happen all the time. Both players should be constantly aware of the polar opposite mindset of their opponent. Either player would be crazy to assume their opponent thinks the same way as they do.

I once read a player describe the challenge and thrill of playing a tournament with John Juanda. This is where his mind was while playing the tournament. In contrast, in my case, playing poker with John Juanda is about as exciting as shopping for bagels. It’s hard for me to think of a more dull thing on this Earth (for me) than playing poker with John Juanda (except, of course, playing with Mark "Sominex" Gregorich). So then, a challenge for John as a player is to understand the completely different thought process that is going through my head compared to this other person’s. He needs to continually adjust his game so he plays correctly against his different opponents.

Most people do recognize that you need to play different players different ways when you just say it that way, but watch and listen the next time you are in game. Listen to the chatter of players who fail to understand why an opponent acted as he did. When you hear someone say “How could you play that hand?” translate it into “I sure don’t have an accurate read on you as an opponent.”

To sensibly battle your opponents you need to understand where they are coming from. They are not like you. Do not assume others play for the same reasons as you. Try to genuinely understand them. Walk a mile in their shoes. Then... beat the pants off them.

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