This is not a comment on the age-old debate of whether poker is more skill than luck; it's about the one skill that some players have since childhood, and others must develop. When you did something wrong as a child, were you good at escaping trouble, or did you get caught every time? If so, you may lack the very skill you need to be good at playing poker.
It's the skill of being a good liar. In fact, most skills in poker are traceable to this one skill. Whether you are bluffing, avoiding being read, or avoiding giving out tells, the one common denominator involves lying.
Teachings outside of the poker room have more to do with the virtue of truthfulness. But in a poker game, truthfulness is not a virtue-unless, it is to represent a lie. In a very real sense, most people come to the poker table more prepared with messages about being truthful. Few come with a lot of permission to be deceptive. Yet the better players can deceive other players; and the likely results of such deception are winning more pots-the object of the game.
Poker players don't refer to such actions as lies. They have other names which become their substitute poker lies. They may substitute the word "lie" with the word "bluff." It sounds better to develop the skill of bluffing as opposed to the skill of lying, given the way the virtue of truthfulness is promoted.
Another lie is to be sneaky and act the opposite of your hands. Instead of lying, the art is how well you mislead opponents into thinking your hand is stronger or weaker than it really is. Some players lie about their lies. They will act strong when they are strong and act weak when they are weak-instead of visa versa. But they are still lying.
Changing styles from being loose to being tight is another form of lying that is highly valued in poker. For example, when an ordinarily tight, conservative player, bluffs with garbage, is that a lie or bluffing skill? It might be both-the skill of lying and the skill of bluffing.
My mom "hypnotized" me into believing that she could always tell when I was lying and she wasn't lying. She seemed to know by my actions when I told the truth. So, I asked her before she died, "What did I do to tell whether I was being truthful or not?" She said that I had one "tell" [not her word] when I was being truthful and another when I was lying. I would look her in the eyes when I was being deceptive and I would not look her in the eyes when I was being truthful-and she never played poker in her life. I'm sure that many opponents knew this about me before I was aware of how I acted when I was lying... or should we say "bluffing?"
The whole point is that life prepares most of us for the skill of being truthful and then we end up playing a game like poker and some must learn the skill of lying. What makes successful poker players is an ability to disguise their lies and knowing when others are lying. Betting enough that "it wouldn't be poker to call," can be a betting lie or is it a skill? Is limping in with pocket aces before the flop is a form of lying or is it plain lack of skill? Waiting for someone to get something to bet-on can be deceptive if you already have trips or is it just good poker playing? Whatever your answers to these questions, if you feel better calling them "bluffs" or "poker skills," have at it-they're still lies.
Jim McKenna has been practicing psychotherapy for more than thirty-five years. His books include the acclaimed Beyond Tells: Power Poker Psychology, Beyond Bluffs: Master the Mysteries of Poker, and Beyond Traps: The Anatomy of Poker Success, all published by Kensington Press. Write to Jim@Jimmckenna-PhD.com.