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The Psychology of Folding

November 5, 2019
by Pete Clarke

We all know that making disciplined folds when the evidence points that way is part of a successful winning game. Executing those folds, however, is another battle altogether. Let’s face it; no matter how correct or skilled the fold we make, it almost never feels good! We have just lost a sizable pot, so how could we possibly be happy? In this article we take a look at how our attitude to folding impacts our mental game and what we can do to feel better about it.

Why Does Folding Feel Bad?

Resource attachment is to blame here. We are not programmed to invest time, effort, energy, or resources in something to get nothing back. If you placed your money in a savings account only to be told later that the bank had lost it and could not reimburse you, the reaction would be fury and indignation; and rightly so. We are supposed to cling onto the things to which we have committed our resources. Unfortunately, in poker, this is the opposite of what we must do. It is very often the case that a board runs out badly for our hand and well for our opponent’s range. Sometimes a tight player wakes up and raises our river value bet. A passive recreational might call our turn bet and we brick all of our outs to make a flush or straight. In cases like these, giving up the pot is mandatory, but never easy. What we must remember is that when we experience the strong desire to avoid the fold button, this is nothing more than an instinct (resource preservation) going wrong. We must train our brain to function differently in poker and accept that many pots must be invested in and then surrendered. Otherwise, we become calling stations and lose a massive edge – that of folding good hands against players who do not bluff often enough.

Willpower and Folding

Folding takes mental muscle and resolute determination. We have a store of willpower which is replenished by resting, but during a particularly bad session, where opponents seem to keep waking up with unusually strong actions against our medium strength hands, we might have to do a lot of folding and this bleeds both chips and willpower. After half an hour of being bashed around repeatedly, willpower is all but gone. The student finds himself in one gross spot too many and before he knows it, the dreaded ‘bad call’ has been made. So what can we do to make sure that we do not end up in this situation? There are a few options:

  • We make a rule that if the session starts out terribly for the first half hour or so, then we simply take a break and replenish that stock of precious willpower.
  • We remind ourselves that variance has no memory or pattern to it. The fact that the last three opponents had the very top of their range does not mean that this one is less likely to. Sometimes we have to speak to our logical brain in order for it to regain the reigns of control and displace the emotional brain that so desperately wants to call.
  • We remember the bigger picture. Most sessions are not like this. If we can just make it through this one in a damage-limiting way, then we will have improved our long-term graph. This little downswing will hardly be visible over 50k hands unless that is, we go on tilt because of it.

Downswings and the EV of Folding

Needless to say, the longer we run bad, the harder it gets to access our willpower and continue to fold in the face of strong ranges. What we must remember here is that money not lost is exactly as good as money won. Let’s imagine that you fold to Villain’s $50 river bet into a $70 pot and your true equity is only 10% due to your opponent failing to bluff enough in this situation. Your EV for folding is zero. The money you have invested in this pot is already lost. What matters is whether you can regain any of it by calling, or whether you will simply lose more on average. The EV of calling can be worked out by adding up each outcome multiplied by its frequency of occurrence. In this case, because you win just 10% of the time, it looks like this: (120 x 0.1) + (-50 x 0.9) = 12 – 45 = -$33. That is $33 you have just made by pressing the fold button – a massive gain in EV.

When a downswing persists for a while it might feel like we are drowning in bad luck and that our chances of success have been permanently ruined. This is an illusion triggered by the overreaction to the troubling emotions, which are generated by consistent losing over a prolonged period of time. It is normal to feel this way, but it is an illusion.

If you zoom the graph out over 100k hands, this 10k stretch will be a noticeable part of it, but how noticeable depends entirely on your reaction to the downswing, not the downswing itself. If you are a winning player, then the less you react to this downswing, the more money you make over those 100k hands. If you react terribly to this 10k stretch, you might even break even or lose over the larger sample!

Feeling Good About Folding

Believe it or not, such a thing is possible. The idea here is to train the subconscious mind to apply positive or negative emotions to things not based on their monetary outcome but on their correctness. Taking pride in making each of your sessions as flawless as your skill level allows is paramount to building this new outlook. During the moments right after folding there will always be some degree of discomfort or regret, but we must let this emotion pass. When this negativity dissipates, there is room to positively reinforce making that good fold and now the brain can release positive chemicals which eventually, will be recognised as being caused by that good fold, making us more likely to replicate it in the future. Let the storm of bad feelings pass before judging the fold you just made. When I do this, I almost always end up being pleased with my decision. If the appraisal happens just after we have lost the pot, we will only build a negative association with disciplined folding and this is something we must avoid.


  • Folding is supposed to feel bad. It’s part of our real-life programming, but this can be overridden with practice.
  • Willpower is finite, take breaks and do not let bad variance chisel yours away.
  • A downswing is never as bad as it feels unless we refuse to fold due to it.
  • We can feel good about folding if we wait until the initial regret of losing the pot passes.


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