Ship it! What a TCG player can learn from a poker player

My brother has a really bad influence on me. He loves poker, and has a subscription for two different poker magazines: Bluff Europe and PokerNews, a Dutch poker magazine. Even though I hardly ever play poker, I find myself intrigued by the very elaborated articles and columns about tactics, techniques and the “hard knock life” of a poker player, full of downswings, bad beats and trash talk.

Now, I’m not a poker player, but I do like card games. Especially a certain kind of card games, namely the geeky genre of Trading Card Games, abbreviated as TCG. The number one trademark of a TCG is the way that players customize their deck of cards with their own collection of cardboard rectangles, tweaking them to their own preferred playing style. The mother of all TCG’s, Magic: the Gathering, is still running big after almost 20 years of existence. And you think its something nerds play to face each other on an intellectual battlefield, just for the honor? Think again! The annual price pool of the World Championship of Magic reaches multiple millions of dollars, showering the winners of that tournament in tons of money (which they probably spend to increase the numbers of cards in their collection…)

You might not see the similarities between poker, a classical game for people with extremely straight faces, and Magic, a game more suited for nervous chess-club members who never ever touched a woman. However, many poker players come to the professional circuit by learning the basics of “card game deception” in Magic tournaments. Principles like bluffing and tells are as important to a TCG player as to a pro poker gunslinger, but when I see video coverage of Magic tourneys like the World Championship or even the Pro Tour, I see that many players lack these two basic concepts of deceiving your opponent. So, I hereby tell you of these two elementary concepts.

Act strong when you’re weak, and weak when you’re strong. Or so they say in poker. When you play Texas Hold ‘Em, and you get pocket rockets, you won’t see any pro grin wickedly or show any extreme kind of emotion. Rather, they stay calm, and act like they just got one of the most average hands they could get. The only signs they show are rather subtle, and can only be seen when the opponents knows what to look for. In games like Magic, this principle is easy to apply. When drawing your starting hand, don’t “taunt” your opponent by going batshit crazy when you just drew the sickest combo in your deck. Just look at your cards, think about your first few turns, and see how your opponent tries to guess how good your hand actually is. Especially in amateur-level tournaments (like Friday Night Magic or The Darkmoon Faire in the WoW TCG), this “tool of the trade” is key for victory.

Search for the tells. “Tell” is a term in poker and criminal psychology for the subtle physical signs a player shows his opponents. Touching the corner of your lips with your tongue is a very common tell, and shows that the player is nervous. Large pupils indicate a higher blood pressure, and stroking the chin happens often when a person tries to perceive a situation more intensively. The trick to reading a person by the tells he or she sends, is to know what a tell means. This can only be done by observing the person, and see what tell leads to a certain behaviour. For example, one of my biggest tells is that I stroke my rather well-developed chin when thinking of a possible killer turn. Any player who knows this will know that when I start doing that, I’m thinking of something big. A word of caution here, however: people can fuck with you. If a player knows that you read his tells, he can use these tells to program your actions. For example, if your opponent knows that you know that he is about the play something mean when he scratches his left cheek, he will probably scratch his left cheek in a critical situation, leading you to the belief that he is cooking something up. So watch out for players using reverse psychology on you.

As you can see, these are just basic tips, and as someone who has been playing TCG’s for a while you probably figured these things out. But still, I like to guide newcomers on their way to “prOness”, and proving the world that playing with colorful cards is not just geeky, but also very profitable.




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