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Power Plays
Gambling Psychology
by James A. McKenna, Ph.D

Poker illustrationWhat images do you get when someone says, “He’s a power poker player”? You probably think of an aggressive player who forces people to fold. Or, it might have been a re-raise that you labeled a power play. Others will claim that the correct definition of power poker is any play that results in a person dragging the pot to their pile of chips. They won the hand and that’s power each time it happens. There’s truth in all these definitions and yet none define what power poker really is.

There is actually no such thing as a “power poker player.” The reason this statement is true is that each player uses his own power in his own playing style. Different players use their playing personalities in different ways—some are aggressive, some passive, some structured, and others very loose.

Each action can be considered a power play. For instance, a player with a very good hand (i.e. the nuts) might play meekly to encourage other players to bet and build a pot. Again, a very weak hand may re-raise to represent a better hand. An example of the latter would be a player who has a pair of twos showing on fifth street (7-Card Stud Poker) and re-raises to represent three of a kind or two pair.

So, each player will use their playing powers in different ways. Once you discover how a player is using his power, you have a great tool for discovering their tells. In other words, you know when they are bluffing and you know when they are about to win the hand. How? Most bluffs are unconscious changes in behavior from their usual routine. For example, suppose a player who usually places his bets neatly and softly when he has a good hand starts splashing the pot and aggressively throwing his bets in. Odds are that player is bluffing (unless he wants you to think that he is bluffing). This brings up another level of reading tells.

To become proficient in reading tells, you must determine whether the player’s actions were conscious or unconscious. Authentic tells are unbeknownst to the player and are unconscious.

The use of power becomes a player’s arsenal of weapons, particularly in high stake games. Since each player has their own power-style, the players that have the most choices of playing aggressively at times, passively at other times, and knows when to be structured and when to be loose, will be the most powerful player at the table.

Many poker players will hope for loose players to come to the table. They know that eventually a loose player will lose their stake. At the same time, players will bemoan a table full of very tight players who play like rocks and seldom change their style. Actually, a very structured rock is easier to play than a loose cannon that is getting good cards and making hands. It’s the player that you can’t figure out who is moving from very structured to loose, and from passive to aggressive who is much harder to read.

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