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Decision Fatigue in Poker

Decision guyPoker is a game of constant decision-making. Online multi-tabling, where some prolific players may reach upwards of 24 tables at once, amplifies the rate at which decisions are made during play. It is one of the reasons that many online players find live play unbearable; there is so much mental down time. However, the energy required to make decisions so frequently is finite.

Decision fatigue is refers to how decision quality deteriorates over time during periods of frequent decision making. This phenomena affects many professions, including court room judges. Consumer also make poor decisions if they are strained in similar ways. But you don’t need a gavel to know that constant decision making can be exhausting.

In poker, there are three main effects of decision fatigue.

1) Passivity

After a long session, you may notice that your edge can soften. At the start, you are sharp with good reads on other players and you choose the more aggressive play when you need it. You rarely elect to flat call when the better option is to pop it. As the hands accumulate, you call a little more and your play becomes more passive. You get lazy with your your mental checklist for making these decisions. Online, you may also stop taking notes on players, missing out on great information that will help you in future hands with the villains at your table.

2) Avoidance

In addition, you may notice that you avoid tough decisions entirely and choose not to mix it up by folding when you normally wouldn’t. In a way, you can’t be bothered with the mental effort to make difficult choices. Dodging hard decisions is one of the symptoms of decision fatigue. If poker were easy, there would be no difficult decisions. They are unavoidable and for good reason. A lot of money can be made or saved in the face of a challenge of whether to call, raise or fold at a crucial moment.

3) Poor judgement

While playing passively is a problem, shutting down your insightful and intelligent playing style is also an issue. In short, decision fatigue can lead you to stop thinking well (or at all?) and, in turn, make shallow reads and impulsive decisions. The end result is average play, at best, and donking off your stack, at worst. This loss of good judgment can even include a crucial decision that many players struggle with making; when to leave the table.

Because decision fatigue accumulates via a series of metaphorical paper cuts, it is hard to detect. If you are a multi-tabler, you will know how much mental endurance and focus required to make decisions at a high level consistently. Beyond the table, if you are tapped out after an epic session, this fatigue may carry on to your personal or social life. Ideally, this only affects what you are choosing off the menu at a restaurant. However, it can include something more significant such as making a poor decision on a major purchase or wearing that green polka dot tie on the first date with your dream girl.

Like anything, being aware of any compromise to your A-game is essential to protecting it and preparing to bring it each and every time you play. The best indicator of such compromise is a shift in playing style. If you are tight aggressive and you start playing like a calling station, you are bring risk into your game. Any changes to the style that has been effective for you, unless adaptive for the conditions of the table, should be a warning sign.

Poker is a lot like a marathon. Have you ever watched a marathon? Competitors stagger across the finish line and sometimes collapse. The last mile can be the hardest. You certainly do not want the first 25 miles to go to waste by falling victim to decision fatigue. Stay fresh by taking breaks and avoiding bad food or alcohol. But begin by thinking hard about what your A-game is so that you can notice it when it is gone. Put that stick in the sand first.

Kelly Doell, PhD is a mental performance consultant. Learn more about his work and the inner game of performing at www.KellyDoell.com


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  • Ivan Y

    I like your metaphor of “decision fatigue accumulates via a series of metaphorical paper cuts, it is hard to detect” – Nowadays I can’t play more than 3 hrs of online poker at a time. I just get mentally brain dead. However, Live Poker I can play for hours…

  • keulniss

    I’ve been guilty of all 3 of the things mentioned in here, I agree with everything except the part about the bad food and alcohol, come on now, let’s not be crazy now.

    • Kelly D

      I am the man who fun forgot, apparently!

  • Alex

    Yeah, it’s quite common with me. Sometimes I get a fish to my right and he’s made the usual min raise and I wake up with Jacks and got him stacked but to my left there’s a maniac who knows I like to isolate fish then he jams…zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

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