The Power of Pessimism

Poker players often believe my job as a mental game coach is simply to help them think more positively. Some criticize the nature of my work because they believe, as I do, that a positive attitude alone is not enough to have success in poker. As it turns out, research has proven that for some people a positive attitude is actually detrimental to performance. That’s correct. Contrary to what many people and poker players think, some players hurt their game by trying to be optimistic.

The problem with overreliance on positive thinking is that you are whitewashing over any negatives that exist. People have a problem with negativity, they think it’s, well, negative. There is actually a real benefit to pessimism and understanding that negatives are real, the problem is that people treat negatives as permanent rather than something that can be improved, which is why they try and discount negativity all together.

If you have real weaknesses in your game just being optimistic won’t solve them. It may help you focus, but if you are not addressing the negatives, optimism is in fact delusion.

I can’t think of many games where positive thinking can be more destructive than in poker. It is very difficult to get accurate feedback in the short term because of variance, so it allows players to believe what they want. They can discount losses as bad luck and believe they owned players souls when they ran well. If you put too much stock in positive thinking and follow it up with a run of good luck at the tables, it won’t be long before you start to believe that your optimistic outlook controlled the outcome of the cards – which will set you up for a massive emotional fall when the variance starts to swing the other way.

I recently started working with some new clients who genuinely believed that if they started to think positive thoughts, their results would get better. They falsely assumed that the quality of their mood is what caused them to profit. That attitude is akin to praying to the poker gods. How you feel doesn’t directly equal your results. If it did, winning would be as simple as feeling good. Skill wouldn’t matter.

Mood does, however, influence results. Too much of either will make you play poorly, for example a bad mood might make you play too tight and a good mood may make you play spewy. So what’s the ideal? It depends. Some players do better by being slightly optimistic, and some actually do better being slightly pessimistic.

A recent research study found that some participants performed at higher levels by being pessimistic rather than being optimistic. After completing a survey, participants were divided into two groups, one group was deemed to be have an optimistic outlook and the other a pessimistic outlook. Both groups were then taught to play darts. The optimistic participants did better when they received instruction that was encouraging, supportive, and positive, compared with more negative feedback. The results for the pessimistic group were the exact opposite. When they received instructions that highlighted real statistics, their shortcomings, and criticised flaws in technique their performance was significantly better than from optimistic feedback.

These results show that a positive attitude is not the be all and end all of performance. In fact, it actually makes some players perform worse. Instead, being positive works for some people, but it doesn’t work for everyone. If positive thinking works for you then great, I always say do what works for you, but if it stops working after a short while, positive thinking can actually be part of the problem. The pessimists embraced their negatives and used them to improve. Being a pessimist doesn’t sound as nice as being an optimist, but at the end of the day results matter most. If being pessimistic helps you to perform better than how can that be negative?

Pessimists are generally more realistic. In a game like poker, being pessimistic can be incredibly valuable in handling variance. No matter how optimistic you are, you are not going to be able to stop a 20,000 hand downswing no matter how well you play. One of the biggest issues I deal with my clients is how they handle variance and it is always the players with overconfidence issues that handle downswings the worst. They never see it coming.

The pessimistic players handle downswings much better, they prepare for them and are able to look at areas of their game they can improve on to counter it. I’m not saying we should adopt an overly negative attitude to poker or reverse psyche ourselves up before a session telling ourselves we are going to lose, because too much of a negative attitude can be equally as destructive as an overly positive one. All I am trying to do is make the case for a little realism and to debunk the belief that all you need is to think positively and you’ll perform thoughts and everything will turn out ok.

The power of positive thinking is real for some players, but for others it hides real weakness. What I do with my clients is help them identify, analyze and fix real problems that can’t be solved just by thinking positively.

Jared Tendler is a Mental Game Coach who has worked with over 250 poker players. His newest book, The Mental Game of Poker 2 is the first poker book devoted to getting you to play in the zone consistently. It’s available on April 23rd, but you can pre-order a copy now at: