Study Reveals How Ability Affects Enjoyment of Poker

Brain Playing Poker

Understanding what makes poker players tick is an interesting and useful way to spend your time. After discussing the report released last week that demonstrated that poker is – as most of us suspected – almost certainly a game of skill, it’s serendipitous timing that this week a new study has mapped out the relative brain activity of players with varying degrees of expertise.

The Aim

The study – carried out by the behavioural research consultancy SimpleUsability – wanted to see how the brains of different poker players respond to different playing situations. By placing two beginners, two intermediate players and two expert players in a similar variety of playing environments, the team hoped to find out if (and how) the brain patterns of each of the participants responded to the situation. Ultimately, the goal was to see if there is an appreciable difference in the way each level of player experiences Texas Hold ‘Em.

Although ostensibly an unrelated study, the way this investigation relates to that which we reported on last week is very interesting. The discovery that poker is a skill game has possible ramifications on the legal position of poker as a taxable entity – if the way experts respond to poker is appreciably different to how beginners and intermediate players do, it definitely convolutes any hard and fast conclusions one might draw.

The Approach

The six participants (yeah, not the biggest study ever, but we think it’s still worth taking notice of) were hooked up to an EEG (Electroencephalography) headsets. These headsets were able to read the players’ emotional and cognitive responses to the different playing environments they were put in. Each player was asked to play for between 35 and 40 minutes at a time, and played a mixture of single and multi-table games.

The setting was carefully controlled to ensure that it was as homelike and comfortable as possible, and while they played online poker, they had their levels of excitement, engagement and frustration. All these variable were hoped to create the most useful map and clearest definition between the brain activity of the players.

The Findings

As you might well expect, across the board with all players who took part in the study, there were peaks of excitement when they won a hand, and peaks of frustration when they lost a hand – but do we really need brain scans to tell us that? Some of the more interesting outcomes included one of the beginner players getting a peak of excitement when the first hand was revealed, despite the fact that they lost. Given that this result was not replicated in either the intermediate or expert group, it does lead one to wonder if you can get more enjoyment out of all forms of playing as a beginner.

Other similar results demonstrated that beginner players got a kick out of any decision making process, whereas experts were frustrated when they had to fold. Multiple tables was where the players really started to differentiate themselves. Expert players were obviously frustrated from the outset when they were only playing on one table at a time; their excitement peaked when they were making decisions on multiple tables simultaneously. As you might guess, beginner players were pretty frustrated – albeit very engaged – when they had to make multiple decisions at the same time, while intermediate players were sometimes excited by this and sometimes frustrated.

Linking back to the skill game study, it’s interesting to note that the agitation experienced by beginners during different plays often led to players thinking and acting less logically. This is in contrast to intermediate and expert players, who were better able to keep their cool during all games and make plays which made the most sense, and crucially, were most likely to end up in the player winning the hand.

What this report makes clear is that players of varying degrees of ability experience different amount of enjoyment and frustration from completely different elements of the game. For beginners, luck is necessarily going to be the main decider of whether they win or not, meaning there’s a thrill in the unknown, while for experts, that lack of control is usually frustrating.

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