Poker Strategy With Alan Schoonmaker: It’s Not Personal

Poker Strategy With Alan Schoonmaker: It's Not Personal

The Card Player Poker School has partnered with the best U.S.-facing online poker room, Americas Cardroom, to offer you an exclusive opportunity to practice your game.

Sign up for Americas Cardroom today and received up to a 100 percent bonus on your first deposit AND have access to an exclusive $100 Card Player Poker School freeroll if you deposit $25. So if you like free money, get into the game today with Americas Cardroom!

Phil Ivey once said: “The minute you take anything personally at the poker table, you’re done.”

The same principle applies to much more important situations. When we lose our detachment, we can’t make good decisions. Since prevention is much easier than correction, we should avoid situations that make us react too personally. For example, surgeons don’t operate on their relatives. They know their judgment would be impaired.

Lawyers are an even better example for poker players because they play a game like ours, one with winners and losers. The losers take the natural conflicts too personally, and the winners stay cool and impersonal.

Lawyers may look like uncontrolled brawlers, but the reality is completely the opposite. All good lawyers depersonalize conflicts. When they have a personal legal problem, they retain another lawyer. They want a cool, detached advocate who can view the situation dispassionately. They follow a simple adage: The person who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client.

Lawyers may get nasty and personally insulting during trials, but they’re not just expressing their feelings. Like good poker players, good trial lawyers don’t lose control of their emotions. Another lawyers’ rule is: A good lawyer can appear angry any time it’s in his client’s interest, but he must never lose control of himself. An angry lawyer is as ineffective as an angry poker player.

Preston Oade, my friend and occasional writing partner, is a highly accomplished attorney. While editing this column, he wrote: “Trial lawyers are professionals who know how and when to use emotions effectively. Good lawyers know when to use emotions, when to avoid them, and when and how to defuse or neutralize them.”

Of course, lawyers are just as human as poker players, and everybody – even you and me – occasionally takes things too personally. When we do, our smarter opponents recognize and exploit our weakness.

Career military officers are the most extreme example of depersonalizing conflict. They try to kill each other, but they share a code and rituals to maintain their detachment. They know that military courtesy and professional detachment benefit everyone.

For example, when they meet enemy officers in non-combative situations, they normally salute each other. They calmly discuss common interests such as exchanging prisoners or information. They may invite a prisoner of war to dinner. Their code and courtesy essentially say: “I’ll try to kill you, but it’s just my job. Don’t take it personally.”

The Effects Of Personalizing Conflict

If you can’t depersonalize conflicts, you will make serious mistakes at the tables, at work, and in many other places.

You won’t acquire valuable information. For example, while trying to get revenge on one person, you’ll miss signals from others.


You won’t interpret information correctly. You’ll distort information to make it fit your feelings.

You’ll be impatient and impulsive. Personal conflicts can create so much tension that you can’t wait for the right opportunity to act. You must do something now.

You’ll give away information that your opponents will use against you. You may have such a strong need to express your feelings that you tell opponents how to beat you.

You’ll look foolish and vulnerable. Other people will see and exploit your feelings.

You won’t act decisively or effectively. Your anger may cause you to overplay your hands or try hopeless bluffs, hoping to punish your “enemy.” Of course, you shouldn’t have poker enemies because thinking that way means you’re taking things too personally. The Chinese have a very apt proverb: “Before seeking revenge, dig two graves, one for your enemy and one for yourself.”

Doyle Brunson has often written about emotional reactions. For example, “Treating a bluff emotionally is one of the most common and costly mistakes a player can make… You’ll see grown men get bent out of shape after being bluffed out of a pot. They start playing angry poker instead of rational poker. Often the result is catastrophic.”

Poker rooms resemble golf and tennis clubs. Most people – especially the winners – try hard to beat each other, but socialize, tell stories, drink and eat together, and so on. This socializing eases the intrinsic tensions and encourages weak players to stay.

Personalized conflicts drive away the best “customers.” The weak, passive “pigeons” often refuse to play with nasty people or in a tense atmosphere. Because losing control has so many negative effects, many talented, but emotional, players are losers, while less talented, but more controlled and pleasant players are consistent winners.

Depersonalizing conflicts also increases your freedom. It lets you attack weaker players and use deceptive tactics without feeling guilty or embarrassed. You’re not a rotten SOB who wants to hurt someone. It’s just the way the game should be played.

Winners’ Laws

Since keeping cool can mean the difference between winning and losing, apply four Winners’ Laws.

Avoid situations that make you react too personally.

You may think that you can always control your emotions, but nobody can do it in certain situations. No matter how well you usually control your emotions, some people and situations arouse strong feelings. That’s why lawyers and surgeons let other professionals take over. Study your past mistakes, recognize the situations that weaken your self-control, and avoid them.

Keep your conflicts impersonal.

Do everything the rules allow to win, but don’t take the battle, your losses, or anyone’s actions personally. They’re just natural parts of the game. Remember, taking them personally hurts you more than your opponents.

Know exactly where your interests conflict and coincide.

Some interests conflict, while others coincide. We want to take each other’s money, but we also want a pleasant, smooth-running game. Depersonalizing conflicts helps you to fight hard where your interests conflict, but cooperate on common interests.

Act aggressively ONLY when it will improve your results, NEVER just because you’re upset.

Do it only when it’s in your interest, and never lose control of yourself. If you’re becoming too emotional, take a break or go home.

Where Do You Stand?

This rating scale measures how personally you take poker conflicts. It does not consider the way you react to conflicts in other places.

Circle the number that best describes your agreement with this statement:

I never take poker conflicts personally or get angry about them. (7) Agree strongly, (6) Agree, (5) Agree somewhat, (4) Neutral, (3) Disagree somewhat, (2) Disagree, (1) Disagree strongly.

The Critical Questions

Review this entire article, especially the “Winners’ Laws” and “Where Do You Stand?”
Then answer two questions:

What are the implications of your self-rating?

What should you do differently? List specific actions you should take to depersonalize poker conflicts

Discuss your answers with someone you trust and take good notes. He may see emotional reactions that you overlook.

A Final Reminder

If you take things too personally, write a reminder where you will see it while playing: “At the poker table and everywhere else, winners don’t take ANYTHING personally. Only losers do it.”  ♠