Whether you play your poker online or at a live table, you’ve no doubt met a few trash-talkers. The philosophy behind talking trash is simple – if you talk enough, you get under a player’s skin and put them on tilt. The poor decisions some players make when they’re the target of malicious insults or other attacks are at the heart of trash-talking strategy.

But is talking trash a legitimate strategy, or is it just poor poker etiquette?

An early example of the power of trash talk comes to us from the Biblical story of David and Goliath. Before defeating the giant Goliath, the otherwise-meek David issued the following challenge: “I will strike you down and cut off your head.” We know how that one ended.

Famous Poker Trash Talk

The two best-known trash talkers in poker are Tony G and Mike Matusow. Both of these guys have used their loud mouths and gift of gab to get inside the heads of opponents. Here’s an example of Tony G roughing up Ralph Perry both before and after he knocks him out of play. As for Matusow – his best work happens away from the table.
What do we learn from these guys and other poker players who use smack talk as a psychological tool?

Trash-Talking Can Be Effective

It doesn’t matter if you prefer online poker or live games – you can chat and talk smack in the online game as much as you can at a live table. The next time you’re in a microstakes poker game online, watch how people talk to each other in chat. The goal here is simple – to intimidate fish into giving up all their money. It works, too – it’s why most players choose to just turn the chat function off.

We know smack-talking works. Look at this five point plan for dealing with trash talk put out by a sports psychologist working for Arizona State University. The university spent a little scratch researching, printing, and distributing this program – they wouldn’t have done that unless trash talk really does work.

But It Doesn’t Always Work

Dr. Jonathan Katz, the same clinical sports psychologist who put together that report for ASU, suggests that talking trash could impair a person’s overall performance. In an article in Psychology Today, he said that trash-talking athletes are “… are putting time and energy into something that distracts them from playing their best.” He went on to say that his research found that the most intimidating factor on the playing field is simply “playing well.”

For every instance where Tony G talked an opponent into making a dumb play, there’s an example of him losing his concentration and going on tilt all on his own, and making an even dumber move than his opponents would.

And it’s Mostly Just a Distraction

Effective trash talk can win you some specific advantages in poker. The best a trash-talker can hope for is to force a better player at his table to make a move that’s bad enough that the player is removed from the competition. But how productive will this player be while he’s trying to set the admittedly-superior player on tilt?

Anything in your game that takes the focus away from the game, or saps your energy, or removes your ability to concentrate is a –EV proposition. Talking smack may sound cool, and it may give you a rush of adrenaline, and (every now and then) you may take out some of your competition with it, but it’s still a poor thing to concentrate on, especially in the complex world of poker.

So what can we do this information about trash talk? I say talking trash is a totally valid play in some cases – if you want to talk trash. It’s not mandatory. In fact, the more you can avoid it, the more effective you’ll be as both a player and a trash-talker.

When to Talk Trash at the Poker Table

From what I’ve read while researching this post, it’s acceptable to talk trash as long as it is authentic, not a personal attack, and not something that distracts you from your game. If all those things are true, you have my permission to talk a little bit of trash in any of the following situations:

After a bad beat
If you let loose a spontaneous string of not-so-nice words aimed at no one after a bad beat, absolutely no one at the table is going to blame you. If you want, go ahead and aim some of that vitriol at the other guys around the table. Again – they’ll understand, and if it makes you feel better, it’s worth it.

After sucking out on a good player
Most of us can’t help but put down the player that you sucked out against – especially if they’re ahead of you in the chip count or are obviously a better player. Remember, part of the goal here is to try to push that player into making future mistakes or acting on tilt, so do your best, just don’t get too personal.

To put an obviously-shaky opponent on tilt
One example of this is to talk a little smack to a player who just lost out on another hand. The goal is simple – to force them to make more bad plays by getting under their skin. Tread lightly in this area, as you’re likely to make some enemies, especially if your tactic is successful.

Against a bully.
No one will care if you beat up on a big stack holding bully. The goal of this kind of trash talk is to get the bully to call when you have a good hand – your trash talk will basically bully the bad guy into chasing you when you hold a good hand to prove you wrong.

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