Are You a Psychopath?

Are you a psychopath? As opening greetings go, it’s perhaps not what you’re normally used to hearing. That is unless you’re the person that I read about recently, who thought it a good idea on a blind date to excitedly offer to show the girl his ‘impressive collection of knives and axes’ that he had apparently spent years collecting. Although I gather she hurriedly left before even asking the all-important “Are you a psychopath?” question….

No, the reason why I am thinking about all things sociopathic, is that I was reading a while back an article about Andy McNab – a kind of celebrity ex special forces operative here in the UK – who has co-authored a new book called The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success.

In the article, Robert Crampton of the Times undergoes with McNab the sort of neurological test that supposedly can determine a psychopathic character. This involves sitting in a cubicle wired up to various machines monitoring brain functions while watching a succession of scenes: some neutral, some pleasing and then at unexpected moments, images of extreme horror – victims of accidents and murder, dismembered bodies and all sorts of gruesome gore. And throughout this – with the added stress of sudden blasts of white noise through headphones – the electrodes measure how the brain is reacting.

It’s what is known as the emotionally modulated startle-response test or as the co-author of the book, Professor Kevin Dutton calls it, the gold standard for testing psychopaths. It is by monitoring how a person responds to moments of visual or aural stress that it can be judged to what extent they may have psychopathic tendencies.

Well, not surprisingly however much Crampton tried to stay calm, his brain reacted with the appropriate levels of stress and anxiety. But McNab on the other hand, the highly trained soldier and indeed killer, showed no noticeable change. As the journalist writes…

His physiological response….bore no correlation to the image in front of him at the time. He flatlined. “I didn’t care” he says. If anything, his results suggest the trees and lakes stressed him out marginally more than the dismembered bodies.

So perhaps not the man you want to invite out with you for a nice quiet walk into the forest…

But needless to say it got me onto the subject of poker and how the psychologist Dr Alan Schoonmaker had written at length in books such as The Psychology of Poker about how TAGs should emulate the “stone cold killer”. So with that in mind, it could be argued that what we think of as the perfect poker attitude, clearly reflects some psychopathic tendencies.

It’s that ability to not only be able to unleash aggression but even more importantly to know the exact moment when it is appropriate to do so; while never allowing the inner calmness and emotional balance to be affected by what is unfurling before your eyes. To be able to say at any time in the heat of the battle, just like Andy McNab, “I didn’t care”. It means being utterly unaffected by whatever gory horrors may result from our actions. Of course in our case, withstanding gruesome images is probably best represented by the mental terror of seeing an opponent river quads with his deuces while we watch our AK full house collapse. But gore is gore, in whatever form it comes…

Of course, it doesn’t mean that we should approach our game with an air of indifferent nonchalance. I don’t know much about armed covert operations but I can guess that McNab didn’t stroll into enemy territory while whistling a happy tune. Rather, like any warrior, he would move with stealth and poise, patiently waiting in a heightened sense of awareness until the moment is right for the lethal attack. Viewing each new development in the light of cool logic rather than allowing emotion to affect the decision as to when to act.

And it’s that ability to determine between what are valid opportunities for action and what are situations that are a waste of energy and/or potentially dangerous which for most of us does not come naturally but must be developed. And it’s clearly a quality that all poker players can appreciate when for example they find themselves caught up in the maniacal mood of a table and start getting involved in hands which they have no rational business being in!

Knowing which battles you should fight and which more importantly are the ones you have the right odds to win, is something that every tactician from Sun Tzu onwards has rightly regarded as essential for victory. It all starts with conquering the enemy within, the inner demons who stand in the way of our success. As Lao Zi says, “Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.”

And like the ‘good psychopath’, we must remain placid and unmoved, especially in the face of the many elements beyond our control. Indeed, it’s the way that a person handles these ‘non-controllables’ that really shows how much he or she is instead in control of themselves and their actions. As Crampton writes about McNab, “If he can’t influence an event, he simply shuts off from it.”

So next time the flop hits magically the hand of the fishiest opponent on earth and you’re about to declare all-out war, remember those words. You can’t influence the event so shut yourself off from it and – as difficult as it may be – strive to remain unaffected by what is clearly beyond your control. For by definition, a true psychopath will not go on tilt. They may coldly plan out the downfall and destruction of their enemy but it will never be with an unbalanced mind or erratic play. Which brings us back to the textbook definition of a successful TAG.

Of course as the journalist showed in the article, it’s not something that comes easily to a ‘normal’ person. But hey, nobody ever accused poker addicts of being normal so all the more reason why we should strive to develop this all important poker – psychopathic! – mindset.

Anyway, you must excuse me now, I have to go and clean my knife collection. I find the machetes are particularly hard work and I have a fish to gut for dinner tonight…