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The average “guy on the street” misunderstands a lot of things and poker and psychology are right up there with string theory in physics and mathematical models of economics. But there’s a curious twist here. They know they don’t “get” string theory and economics, but they often think they “get” poker and psychology. They typically do not. Most people think that poker is gambling like other casino games such as roulette, baccarat or even the slots. It isn’t. Those are games of pure chance, dominated by random outcomes. Poker is a game of skill where the decisions players make trump the random distributions of cards.

Poker is a game played with cards for money. The cards are the least important part of the game. It is ridiculously complicated. Going out on a limb the author claims that it is the most complex game people play regularly. It is more complex than chess or bridge or backgammon. 

Poker is also a microcosm of life. If you play the game seriously you know this. Because the game mirrors so much of life it shares many psychological burdens. We are the products of evolution and, as anthropologists, evolutionary psychologists and sociologists have shown, our genetic history carries with it a set of behavioral predispositions. If threatened we are prone to counterattack. If stressed we often lose our deliberative abilities. When we are the conquerors, certain neuro-hormonal changes occur in our brains. If conquered, different ones do and they do very different things. We pride ourselves on rationality but the ascension of our species works against it. When things look bleak, we reach for gods and angels, faces in the clouds, mystical rustling in the bushes. If hurt comes to those close, we gather forces with like against different. When it happens to those distant from us we are cavalier.

It is not easy to overcome these tendencies. They share a common bond with the genetic roots that also make democracy hard, discourage tolerance and encourage us to embrace religion. These trends are found everywhere and penetrate all the even mildly interesting things we do – and that includes playing complex and intensely competitive games like poker. They are also the reason why is it such a devilishly hard game to master. Poker is a microcosm of life precisely because it is the most intellectually complex, emotionally rich, and social game we’ve ever invented.

In these essays Arthur S. Reber tries to take elements of the human condition, those that social scientists have learned a good deal about, and show how they interlock with the game. Some chapters start with a psychological principle and look at what it can tell us about poker. Some begin with a particular aspect of the game and seek to unpack the psychological processes that underlie it. Others look at mathematical and statistical aspects with an eye to the impact they have on our perceptions and understanding of how to play the game. Still others examine individuals who play and write about poker.

There is some poker strategy buried in these essays but not directly. They weren’t written to teach anyone how to play poker. Some of them may help you play better but the real goal is understanding the game from the psychologist’s perspective. As some wag once said, “poker is a people game played with cards and money.” They got that right.

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