Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Personality of Online Poker Players- An Initial Inquiry

The following article was originally published in 2010 at http://fifthidea.com/personality and contains the results of a scientific study by Paul Fayngersh and Mark Kizelshteyn.  

SSH Commentary: As for the reprinting of non-original works, I was hoping to add commentary to the end of each piece.  After reading this article in its entirety, I can see that this may not be appropriate for this piece, as I am compelled to share an alarming statistic that appears at the end that calls some of the results into question, specifically anything that correlates with a player's stated winrate.  

All of the methods used are stated in the study below, so to make this brief, I will just say that the study consists of 63 total participants who responded to a series of questions on an online survey.  Here is the questionable information:

"Poker may be a game, but for such a large part of our sample (59%) that consider themselves professional of semi-professional players, poker comprises the sole or significant part of their income. In this situation a strong case can me made for classifying poker as work and not leisure. Even for the remaining self-labeled amateur players, all but two posted winning results, signifying that their poker play is profitable."

What!!???  Assuming that I was "conscientious" with my basic math abilities, that means that 24 out of 26 (92%) of the "self-described amateur" players were winners!  Translation: A mere 8% were telling the truth.  The fact that rakeback was not mentioned makes this information reek of an even larger pile of bull shit.  Certainly not scientific in scope, but from many scans of various players and player types on Pokertableratings.com over the years, I was able to glean that on PokerStars, FTP, and the Cake Network that, by all probability, your average modern internet pro does NOT have a positive winrate, but rather, makes all of his income from rakeback and bonuses.  If I am correct in my thinking, this statement would have been at least somewhat less true at the time of this publication, and yet still, the term "rakeback pro" predates 2010 by at least two years.  If we were to actually gather REAL data from poker players, I would even remain skeptical that 92% of actual pros could post winning results after 6 months of play- before OR after rakeback.  What disturbs me most is that the authors of the study just take this information without question.  I can certainly call their competence into question after reading this.

I chose to print this because I still consider it a good read, but it should be clear to all readers that anything that claims to be scientific by requesting self-administered information and/or results is drinking its own snake oil.  Because if the above is true, it is safe to assume that all of the below statements are true:

1) All photos on a dating site are up to date and accurate, and that when you meet these people in person you will always think, "wow, you look WAY better than you do in your photo!"

2) Every male under the age of 25 has at least 9 inches of penis and has scored with women in the double digits.

3) Everyone who has ever claimed that online poker is rigged ACTUALLY is the most awesomest player they know, with decades of winning experience in live arenas.  They are also very humble as well, since they always fail to mention how much they kick ass at Keno and the State Lottery.


This study was born out of a personal observation regarding the existence of a “poker type” – the seemingly very similar profiles of people who are drawn to the game. Discussion with friends familiar with the topic yielded consensus. Despite the fact that poker players are actually quite diverse, come from many different backgrounds, and exhibit a multitude of playing styles, there does appear to be a common thread that ties everyone together. 

We thought it would be interesting to conduct an independent and informal investigation into the personality traits of poker players. Fortunately, our survey received a good amount of respondents and we were able to synthesize some very interesting results from that data. We initially wrote a full academic paper, but decided that this would be overwhelming and/or boring to simply publish online. So what follows below is an abridged and modified summary of our research designed into a one-page website. We hope you enjoy it and would greatly appreciate any feedback, comments, or questions you may have.


This study provides a first glance at the personality type of online poker players within the framework of the Five-Factor model. Participants from two online poker forums were asked to complete a questionnaire that contained the Big Five Inventory personality assessment as well as questions pertaining to their poker gameplay. Our results indicated significantly lower scores for online poker players compared to the general population on the Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness personality traits. Additionally, interesting personality correlations with particular poker gameplay statistics (such as Win Rate, Aggression Factor, and Went to Showdown percentage) are uncovered, the most notable being lower scores on Neuroticism correlating strongly with poker success. Finally, the notion of whether one’s psychometric personality matches one’s “poker personality” – their playing style – is analyzed. Further research directions are proposed for a more comprehensive assessment. 


Poker has long been a fixture of the American ethos and by many standards more of a national pastime than even baseball or football. With the rise of televised and online poker in the 2000s, the game has enjoyed exponential growth in the US and has spread globally. From a study of North American and Western European poker players it was estimated that 15 million people play online for real money (2.6% of the adult population), with 7 million playing at least once a month (1.4%). There are an estimated average of at least 150,000 users playing at any given time (www.pokerscout.com), and in 2010 the online poker industry is estimated to surpass over $4 billion in revenue (Global Betting and Gaming Consultants, 2009).

Even with this self-evident venerable global interest in poker, no studies have been performed regarding the personalities of poker players. Firstly, this exploration aims to simply compare poker players’ Big Five personality scores to those of the general population. Secondly, differences are investigated between various sub-segments of the online poker population. Finally, we aim to unearth whether there are specific personality correlations with various aspects of poker gameplay that measure ‘looseness,’ aggressiveness, and success.

Poker players were solicited for participation from two US-based websites. Seventy-three anonymous respondents completed the survey (70 male, 3 female). Consent was implicit due to given instructions and no compensation was offered.

Survey questions were embedded into an online questionnaire using Google Docs software. The first section of the survey contained the Big Five Inventory (John et al., 1991; John et al., 2008). The second part of the survey consisted of general questions, in which participants responded to their gender, age range, and birth order. Also, subjects were required to self-assess on a 1-5 Likert scale on the following questions: “Are you an aggressive person?” and “Are you an aggressive poker player?”

The final part of the survey dealt with details of the participants’ poker play and consisted of the following questions: “How long have you been playing Poker?” (< 6 months, 6 months – 2 years, 2-5 years, 5-9 years, 10+ years), “What stakes do you predominantly play?” (Low, Mid, High), “What type of poker player do you consider yourself?” (Amateur, Semi-professional, Professional), “Do you use online poker tracking software?” (Yes, No – though I frequently play online, No – I play predominantly live poker), and finally “What game do you predominantly play” triggered a pull-down menu of the most popular games, with participants having the option to fill one in themselves if not present on the list.

Poker players from two US-based online poker forums were requested to take a short survey. The first forum was the TwoPlusTwo “Internet Poker” forum. TwoPlusTwo is a gaming-related multimedia publishing company that also sponsors and hosts one of the most visited poker discussion forums on the Internet. Since solicitation of any kind is prohibited on the TwoPlusTwo forums, special permission was requested and granted by the forum moderators. The second forum was the DeucesCracked “General Discussion” forum. DeucesCracked is a specialized online poker strategy, coaching, and education website.

Players who responded positively to using tracking software were then asked to open their software and retrieve specific statistics about their gameplay. Players were requested to filter their sessions for the previous six months (April 1, 2009 to October 31, 2009) and for their principal game. Statistics collected were VP$IP, PFR, AF, WTSD, BB/100, and number of hands played (seeTable 1 for definitions).

Internet surveys based on self-report questionnaires and self-selected samples have shown to be diverse with respect to socioeconomic status, geographic region, and age, are consistent with findings from traditional methods and prove to be a very reliable tool for psychological research (Gosling, Vazire, Srivastava, & John, 2004).


General results
The Big Five Inventory scores were compared to a large sample of US males obtained from a contemporary study on personality by Dr. David P. Schmitt (personal communication, December 28, 2009). Female respondents (N=3) and players who play predominantly live poker (N=7) were dropped from our sample. Male online poker players (N=63) scored significantly lower than the general US male population sample on Extraversion, t(62) = −5.10, p < .001, Agreeableness, t(62) = −4.74, p < .001, and Conscientiousness, t(62) = −4.40, p < .001. No significance was obtained on Neuroticism and Openness. 

There was also a stark difference between players who predominantly play “6max” games, games with a maximum of six players that are usually characterized by faster tempo and higher aggression, versus those who play “Full Ring” games, which have a maximum of ten players and are usually associated with a slower and tighter style. Full Ring players scored significantly higher on Neuroticism than 6max players, F(38,1) = 8.33, p < .01, and ranked themselves to be much less aggressive poker players F(38,1) = 7.32, p < .01.

Finally, there were some differences between players who labeled themselves as “professional” or “semi-professional” with those who described themselves as “amateur.” Professional and semi-professional players scored even lower on Extraversion than amateurs, F(62,1) = 3.55, p = .055, and Conscientiousness, F(62,1) = 5.03, p < .05, suggesting that these two scales may form the defining characteristics of professional poker players. Professionals also self-reported as being more aggressive poker players, F(62,1) = 6.36, p < .05 – though these assessments were not corroborated by actual poker statistics as defined by Aggression Factor (AF) and Went to Showdown percentage (WTSD). Unsurprisingly, professional and semi-professional players correlated with playing higher stakes, and, in the normalized NL Holdem 6max sample, a significantly higher Win Rate (BB/100) than amateurs F(20,1) = 4.52, p < .05.

Gameplay results
The gameplay results derived from participants’ online poker tracking software uncover interesting particularities. As previously hinted, the extent to which someone describes oneself as being an “aggressive player” correlated with both stakes played, r(21) = .69, p < .01 and professional level, r(21) = .56, p < .001. However, it appears that players’ concept of poker aggression actually corresponded to “looseness,” that is, how frequently they voluntarily entered the pot (VP$IP), r(21) = .46, p < .05 and their preflop raise percentage (PFR), r(21) = .57, p < .001, and not to more accurate measures of poker aggression such as Aggression Factor and Went to Showdown percentage.

Participants’ self-report scores on being an “aggressive person” correlated significantly with WTSD, r(20) = .45, p < .05 and negatively with AF, r(20) = −.46, p < .05.

The most noteworthy results of all – surely the ones poker players themselves would be most interested in – are the two [non-poker gameplay] factors that correlated significantly with success. Win rate negatively correlated with both Neuroticism, r(21) = −.45, p < .05 and a player’s age r(21) = −.49, p < .05.


Significant results on three out of five personality traits on the Five-Factor model – pronounced differences on Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness – suggest a distinct personality profile for online poker players. The results on Extraversion and Agreeableness are not surprising. Low scores on Extraversion are expected of those who engage in a solitary endeavor requiring great introspection and mental activity for many consecutive hours. Any of the friendly communication that live pokers enjoy amongst themselves is almost entirely relinquished in online poker. There may be personality differences between predominantly live and predominantly online poker players; unfortunately covering live poker players was not within the scope of this study.

The very nature of poker almost requires one to be disagreeable; duplicity and cunning are the name of the game. In a situation of finite limited resources and zero-sum gains, self-interest must come to the forefront if success is to be achieved. However, low scores on Agreeableness are unlikely a factor specific to poker itself, but rather a dynamic that may be generalized to other highly competitive and solitary endeavors (for example, chess and tennis). Bilalic, McLeod, and Gobet (2006) showed that children with lower Agreeableness were much more likely to take up chess, and also proposed males’ general lower scores on Agreeableness as one reason why boys took up chess much more commonly than girls. [Avni, Kipper, and Fox (1987) found that adult chess players are also more introverted than the general population, marking a potential particular likeness between poker and chess players.]

Disagreeable people who do not get along well with others may choose to pursue activities such as online poker rather than activities in more interpersonal settings, and/or be less likely to be called to participate in such activities by others. Also, as a general characteristic of Internet activity, engaging in online poker requires almost no need for agreeable behavior that is frequently demanded in face-to-face situations and thus would appeal more to disagreeable people.

Conscientiousness yielded the most surprising results amongst the differing personality factors. We expected poker players to be more conscientious than the general population, when in fact our results indicate that they are not only less conscientious, but that professional and semi-professional players were significantly less conscientious than amateur players.

Our initial disconnect lies in a subtle distinction: one should not confuse poker gameplay for the poker lifestyle. Poker gameplay seems like it requires traits of high conscientiousness, but the qualities of the poker lifestyle in fact exhibit the opposite. Personality tests measure perceptions of the world and how these perceptions inform decisions, not the traits necessary to perform a certain task well. It would be incorrect to expect discipline, industry, organization, and the need for achievement – traits associated with high Conscientiousness – to be prevalent in successful poker players simply because these traits may be beneficial for poker gameplay. It is more pertinent to focus on the fact that poker players have chosen a very nontraditional career and/or hobby choice, are shying away from highly structured and regulated environments, are escaping rigid work or study schedules, and examine the underlying personality dimensions which inform such decisions.

Most evident is that high conscientiousness is linked to social conformity; in fact, in early personality research the terms were sometimes used interchangeably (Leary & Hoyle, 2009). Playing poker as a hobby, and surely as a profession, would less likely appeal to highly conscientiousness individuals with the propensity to follow socially prescribed norms.
Poker success
In terms of poker play, the most revealing finding of this preliminary study are the two correlations with win rate. Firstly, win rate correlated negatively with age; younger players achieved higher win rates irrespective of poker experience. The fact that “young guns” are always threatening to take over is actually a commonly held belief in the poker world whose truth is now verified by experimental data. Poker strategy is constantly evolving and one must always stay ahead of the curve to succeed. Strategy is not only continuously changing, but the rate at which it changes has been accelerating in recent years with the explosion of online poker and associated training, coaching, and strategy websites. Moreover, there are probably several cognitive biases and maladaptive habits that are engrained in older poker players that prevent them from properly adapting to newer playing methods. The commitment and status quo biases particularly come to mind.

Secondly, win rate negatively correlated with Neuroticism; players who are less easily affected by negative emotions have significantly higher win rates! We believe this to be strongly related to the notion of “tilt,” a unique poker term referring to an angry, frustrated, or destructive mental state causing worse-than-normal, irrational play. Again, it is commonly acknowledged that “tilt control” is a crucial aspect that separates good players from bad players, and great players from merely good players. Our results are the first to verify these notions empirically – emotional control is paramount to poker success.

Another impetus for conducting this study was to investigate whether one’s real-life aggression matches their poker gameplay aggression levels. We asked participants to rate themselves as aggressive people and aggressive poker players and then compared this with their actual poker statistics. Unsurprisingly, self-rating scores on the aggressive poker player question correlated with both professional level and stakes played, meaning that professional and high-stakes players significantly considered themselves to be more aggressive poker players. In fact, there was no correlation according to the traditional measures of poker aggression (AF and WTSD), though there was a correlation with both VP$IP and PFR, measures usually associated more with players’ ‘looseness’ and only somewhat with aggression. (VP$IP and PFR are extremely linked and always should be considered paired; in our sample their correlation was r(21) = .841, p < .001) Participants misjudged their looseness for aggression probably because the looseness statistics are significantly more salient and easier to measure heuristically.

More interestingly are the two gameplay correlations with the Aggressive Person self-report. Responses to Aggressive Person correlated with WTSD and negatively correlated with AF! Those who consider themselves so be aggressive people are significantly more likely to not fold their hand – this seems more or less logical. But why do those who consider the opposite, that they are not aggressive people, have significantly higher measures of AF? It’s an interesting result with no straightforward answer, but perhaps it suggests that people exhibit opposite behavior at the poker tables; unassuming and laid-back individuals enter a venue that facilitates aggressive activity which they can’t or don’t want to pursue in their day-to-day regular lives. These contradictory results warrant more investigation (and we would also love to hear our readers’ opinions).

Internet Use
An obvious confounder unfortunately present in this study is the fact that participants are likely to be moderate or heavy Internet users irrespective of their poker play, and of course even more so when one considers actually playing online and participating in poker discussion forums as Internet use. Landers and Lounsbury (2004) did find that heavier Internet use correlated to lower scores on Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness – similar to results obtained herein, though significant variance from the general population was not measured in their study.

Landers and Lounsbury (2004) also measured what type of Internet use participants were engaged in, following previous research that established broad categories for types of Internet use: Communication (including E-mail and Chat), Leisure (including music, role-playing, shopping), and Academic (research, online course participation). Problematically online poker does not fit comfortably in any of the established Internet use categories making it difficult to consolidate their results with ours. Poker may be a game, but for such a large part of our sample (59%) that consider themselves professional of semi-professional players, poker comprises the sole or significant part of their income. In this situation a strong case can me made for classifying poker as work and not leisure. Even for the remaining self-labeled amateur players, all but two posted winning results, signifying that their poker play is profitable. What is noteworthy is that Landers and Lounsbury (2004) indicated that subjects who primarily used the Internet for academic work purposes actually scored higher on Conscientiousness, whereas we found that professional poker players scored lower on Conscientiousness than amateur players. These facts provide some impetus for classifying both playing poker online and participation in strategy and discussion forums as wholly separate from conventional Internet use, and we believe that the categories established by Landers and Lounsbury (2004) and others are impossible to extrapolate to online poker behavior.

Another reason why Internet use alone cannot fully explain our results is that differences within our population sample signify a proclivity towards low Extraversion and Conscientiousness as a defining feature of professional poker players. Even within a sample already skewed toward low scores on both these traits, professional poker players still scored significantly lower than amateur players – regardless of how much time they actually spend playing online. Therefore Internet use may not be the only factor at play here, even if online poker players share similar personality traits with general Internet users. Also worth noting is the anecdotal evidence of many poker players who start out as live players – either playing with friends or at card rooms – who eventually switch to online play out of convenience or professional decision (the actual figures associated with this occurrence are unknown).

This study provides some interesting initial findings on the personality profiles of online poker players. Further research would surely benefit from a larger sample size and perhaps more granular comparisons could be explored, such as potential differences between players who predominantly play one game versus another (e.g, Holdem vs. Omaha). The role played by one’s level of Neuroticism should be explored in more depth, as it may be the single most important factor that correlates with poker success. It would also be noteworthy to determine whether the personalities of online players are congruent with live poker players – the rules of the game may be the same in both cases but the actual act of playing is quite different. Moreover, the results of live poker players will establish whether a distinct poker personality exists separate from the online players’ personalities that are congruent with other heavy Internet users.


Quinn skyler said...
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