Book Review: Mason Malmuth’s Real Poker Psychology

Steve Ruddock


It’s been a while since Mason Malmuth authored a poker book, 2004 actually, (he is, however, listed as an author or coauthor on many twoplustwo books), but because of what he perceives as flawed and faulty advice by other authors, the poker publication magnate decided to weigh in on a topic that would seem to fall outside his areas of expertise: that topic is poker psychology.

Or does it?

Mason’s new book is titled, Real Poker Psychology. Here are my thoughts on the book.

In Real Poker Psychology, Malmuth delves into the subject head first, offering up his opinions on what it takes to master the mental side of the game of poker, and why, in his opinion, mastery of the mental aspects of the game is extremely overrated.

Because of the auspices under which the book was written (to debunk other books), as well as it’s critical and often-times contemptuous tone towards other authors writing on this subject (there is actually an ongoing feud between the two camps), this is going to be a somewhat strange review, as it contains a lot of my own commentary and is a bit nitpicky in some spots.

This isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the book. I did, and I think it’s worth buying and reading. However, it’s also flawed in some ways, as Mason attempts to tear down scientific research on brain functions based on his own personal experiences.

The crux of Real Poker Psychology

In a nutshell, Mason believes that a solid understanding of poker (short-term variance, standard deviation and such) and possessing strategic expertise will solve most mental game problems. Continuing on this point, he feels that the advice given by poker psychologists doesn’t address the root of the problem, which is learning to play better. In Mason’s purview, if you’re not playing poker at a high level, or you’re prone to tilt, you’re wasting your time with mental game issues when you should be focusing on improving as a player, and through this understanding you’ll tilt less.

As a longtime player I certainly understand where Mason is coming from, and agree with what he’s saying – that becoming a better player and having a better understanding of poker will by and large reduce tilt, and at the same time make you a better player.

What I would point out (I’ve read most of the other poker psychology books), is I think he is mischaracterizing the emphasis the poker psychologists place on the mental game compared to studying poker concepts and strategies. It may not be peppered throughout their books (why would it when it falls outside their area of expertise), but they do make a point of noting that nothing supersedes poker knowledge or skill.

Whether it’s Jared Tendler’s Mental Game of Poker, Patricia Cardner’s Positive Poker, Tommy Angelo’s Elements of Poker, or even the much older Zen and the Art of Poker, by Larry W. Phillips, the authors have always emphasized playing well first, and that the mental game is more along the lines of being a small but perhaps significant edge, particularly if you have tilt problems.

People tilt all the time

The one thing that really stuck out to me while reading Real Poker Psychology was the intimation that there is a single solution to tilt. Something that manifests itself in different people in different ways and for a variety of different reasons.

After reading his book, I can safely conclude that I don’t think Mason Malmuth tilts very often at a poker table, and I think he believes if others simply understood poker as well as he does they wouldn’t tilt either. This seems like a classic case of correlation doesn’t equal causation. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that Mason is a wealthy, if not rich, man whose regular game is $20/$40 limit Holdem for roughly 10 hours a week. He’s not relying on poker for income; it’s more of a hobby, which means he plays the game in a fairly stress free environment and on his own terms.

I’m not wealthy but I do play poker on my own terms and I really never tilt either, I can laugh off bad beats and streaks of bad luck with the best of them. However, if I were to quit writing and take up the game as a pro I have no doubt in my mind I would tilt from time to time.

Mason isolates tilt to being a poker related phenomenon; something caused by a lack of understanding of the game to overcome a bad beat. In a technical sense, this is correct, but all of us carry our personal lives to the poker table, and it’s a pretty safe bet that if you’re having issues at home or at work, you’re far more likely to tilt at a poker table. Ditto if your bad run is causing problems at home, or maybe preventing you from paying bills.

This is why I had trouble writing this review; Mason is right, but he’s right on the microscopic level and not looking at the macroscopic level, or better yet, the larger 30,000-foot view.

The theory of locked up brains

The central theme of Mason’s book is that tilt occurs when your brain can’t make sense of what just happened, and becomes, what he refers to as “locked up.” He does this by comparing how your brain finds a joke funny – Mason calls this your brain making sense of the disconnect in logic.

This is where, in my opinion, Mason undermines his strong message of “learn to play better” by making these not so scientific statements about neuroscience and brain physiology. I’m not sure how he settled on this particular “locked up” theme, but by trying to explain what happens during moments of tilt in over simplistic, laymen’s terms, his admitted lack of expertise in the field is highlighted.

I think the logical counterargument to this theory is your brain actually does understand what happened – you saw the cards and you know those cards are in a normal deck – even if your opponent hit long shot odds to beat you.

What is actually happening inside your head when you start to tilt is your emotions are being kicked into hyper drive. It’s not a fundamental lack of understanding of what just occurred or disbelief that it could occur – that would happen if you won the hand and the dealer pushed the pot to your opponent and everyone at the table was also adamant that your opponent had won.

A bad beat isn’t a magic trick or a riddle you can’t solve. It’s when the emotional sectors of your brain have had enough, for whatever reason, from, as Mason suggest, a lack of understanding variance, to many other reasons.

As I understand it (I’m far from an expert and this is probably a butchered way of explaining this), once you get past the auto-functions like breathing, your brain has two methods of decision making, one is emotional and instinctual, the other is logic based. You need these two parts of your brain to be in balance to make your best decisions. Completely removing emotion (a common piece of advice that is utterly wrong) is not only impossible, but, unlike people would have you believe, it doesn’t allow you to make super-informed decisions. If a person was making decisions with no emotion than they’d never make a decision. Ever! The logical part of their brain  would never stop considering options, since it’s the emotional part of your brain that tells your logic centers what’s important and what isn’t, you want emotions to be involved in your decisions – the proverbial “zone” is when these two processes are in perfect harmony, when your instincts (your amygdala) are firing perfectly and sending all important information to the prefrontal cortex, your logic sector.

Tilt occurs when you start moving to the opposite end of the spectrum, when your emotions start to override them (most obviously when you’re impaired – drunk, tired, hungry, angry at your boss) and in some cases (fits of rage) essentially shuts down the logic sectors of your brain, and your decisions become increasingly less logic based and more emotional.

One final point on this. The emotional, instinctive response happens much faster, it’s meant to save your life after all. So, when you’re impaired your emotions tend to start ignoring logic – it ain’t got not time for that!

In the end, you become more reactive, more focused (tunnel vision), and decisions are less thought out – see every story that begins with “we were drinking…” for proof of this. You lose the big picture and focus on one or two particular aspects – what your brain perceives to be the primary threats/important information. In poker this might manifest itself as wanting to beat a particular player in a hand so badly that you lose sight of a third player involved.

Bottom line: the fact that Mason doesn’t seem to tilt has nothing to do with why other players do tilt; nor is his advice guaranteed to make you not tilt in the future, although it will probably help most people reduce tilt, but it’s the emotional sector of your brain overriding the logic sector that causes people to tilt.

Final thoughts

Let me be clear here. There are things stated in Positive Poker I disagree with (or feel are only beneficial to certain people), and there are things in Real Poker Psychology I disagree with and feel are scientifically inaccurate.

In the end I think both camps make good points, and both books have value. Mason is correct that understanding poker and being able to make sense of the extreme variance poker players should expect to experience is extremely important. And yes, this will likely solve most of most  players tilt and mental game problems.

But, Dr. Cardner and others are right to say that even armed with supreme knowledge, mental game issues can be a big problem for some people, and using proper mental game strategies can be the missing piece that will give a professional players and aspiring professional players the small extra edge they may need to beat the game or jump to the next level.

If you’re able to get past the incongruities, I think reading both of these books will help your game. One will drive home the point that poker skill and knowledge are keys to being a successful player and make the idyllic case for why you shouldn’t tilt, and the other will explain why, even with this knowledge, your emotions will still rear their head, and what you might be able to do to prevent this from happening.

If Real Poker Psychology kept to its central theme and didn’t try to undermine the research psychologists have done/are doing, I’d give it a 9/10, but because of this underlying issue, I’m going to drop the grade to a 7.5/10… still worth grabbing a copy.

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