Learn to Stop Judging and Start Evaluating at the Poker Table


Changing your mindset at the table could lead to more profits

It doesn’t take more than five minutes of roaming around ‘poker Twitter’ during the World Series of Poker to recognise that making value judgments is just as much of a habit for poker players away from the table as it is at the table.

You don’t have to scroll far to read someone’s opinion on their opponents, or their opinion about another player who just won a tournament, or their opinion about the way a tournament is being run…you get the picture. Poker players are opinionated, and that’s fine – nothing wrong with that in a vacuum.

There comes a point, however, where many players can get so accustomed to being surrounded by this mentality that it begins to become second nature to make judgments about everyone and everything.

This doesn’t sound like it would be much of a problem, but it’s more of an issue than you might think. Whether you’re a recreational player or a professional, veering away from open-minded evaluation and towards emotionally-charged judgment can be a dangerous path.

Judge, evaluate – what’s the difference?

The simple difference is that judgment involves an emotional or social component, whereas evaluation is more ‘scientific’ in nature. Judgment says, “this is good/bad/right/wrong”, while evaluation says, “this is the reality, and these are the potential consequences of this reality”.

Judgment is one of those things we’re constantly doing in the real world – responding to terrible events we see on the news, critiquing the performance of our favourite sports team, or discussing a movie we really loved or hated. When it comes to poker, though, this isn’t an ideal habit.

The reason why it’s not an ideal habit should be fairly obvious – our goal as poker players is to minimize our emotional attachment to what happens at the table, in order that we can make more effective and profitable decisions.

When we attach adjectives like good, bad, right and wrong to things we see in poker, we immediately lend them an unnecessary level of emotional significance, often mixed in with a degree of personal insecurity or even social anxiety.

This is true especially when we moralise and try to ‘take a stand’ on things that ultimately aren’t that important, just for the sake of being ‘right’ – we sacrifice time and effort for the sake of a temporary sense of self-satisfaction.

Poker’s growing behaviour problem

The most obvious way in which we, as poker players, are guilty of judgment over evaluation is usually in the way we make assumptions about our opponents. We might see a previously unknown player limp in in early position on a short stack and immediately say to ourselves, “well, I guess this guy is a bad player”, or we might observe a hand between several other players at the table and end up thinking, “wow, this is a table full of fish”.

The dangerous thing about this kind of language, even if we only use it internally, is that it’s all too easy for it to become externalised. How many times recently have you been at a table and seen a player openly question his or her opponent’s decision-making, call them an idiot, or tell them how bad they are? And how many of those times has this evolved into a full-blown argument or shouting match? I can guarantee you it’s more frequently than your average chess or bridge tournament, that’s for sure.

Every time this happens it’s extremely harmful for poker, so it’s in all of our best interests to make sure it stops happening. If you’re not moderating your behaviour at the table to ensure that you’re being respectful and friendly to all your opponents and treating them the same way you would treat people outside of poker, then you’re doing the game a disservice.

The involvement of money in poker makes people so much more attached to their results that they are suddenly willing to act in ways they would never act away from the table. They’re willing to be extremely confrontational or rude towards opponents, dealers, floor staff or anyone else in their way, just because they made a judgment about a certain person or situation that they can’t step away from (e.g. “this guy didn’t call my river shove with third pair because he has any idea about my bluffing frequencies, he just called because he’s a fish without a fold button, what an idiot”), when in reality that judgment might not even be remotely correct.

Making changes to become less judgmental

Of course, making assumptions about the way our opponents think, and the way they are likely to play, is an important part of adjusting profitably to the table we’re playing at, so we can’t avoid doing that.

What we can do, however, is moderate our behaviours to ensure that we aren’t outwardly making unhelpful judgments about opponents or situations. What good does it do you to tell your Twitter audience how bad you think another player is? Maybe it makes you feel better, but it doesn’t really change anything.

We can also change the terms in which we talk about our opponents, both inwardly and outwardly. Instead of categorising that under-the-gun limper as “fishy old guy” in our heads, we can make an approximation of what his preflop stats might be instead; instead of texting our friends on tournament breaks about the “bad nitty reg” to our right or the “aggro maniac” to our left, we can be specific about how we expect the characteristics we think we’re observing might actually affect the situation. We can evaluate, instead of judging.

Judgment kills your EV, both short and long-term

It should be fairly obvious how making snap judgments based on limited information can hurt you in the short term – if you get attached to the idea that your opponent is a bad player, you might make mistakes if they’re actually more experienced than you think.

Conversely, you might assume that because you recognise another player from a previous televised tournament, they’re likely to be playing a lot more aggressively and making perfect decisions against you – this could be pretty far from the truth too! Evaluating the play of each of these players based on the evidence and information we have available is always a more prudent way to go.

In the long term, you’re killing your EV by forcing yourself into a results-oriented, emotional frame of mind. It’s hard to step away from thinking in terms of “winning good, losing bad”, but the reality is that they’re two parts of the same system, so making judgments about your performances instead of evaluations is more likely to lead to mental game issues that could stunt your growth as a player.

Finally, if you’re one of those players who likes to make judgments about their opponents and be vocal about it, you’re killing your EV long-term by making poker a less hospitable environment for recreational players. To berate an opponent for a play you believe was bad is sacrificing your future success and wellbeing for the sake of your present emotional satisfaction, and it’s not likely to make you many friends at the table either. Don’t do it.