Ego is a Poker Player’s Worst Enemy

From the time I started playing poker full-time in January, till the time I started working on Beyond Tells full-time in July, I pretty much watched nothing but poker. Whether it was recorded episodes on my TiVo or YouTube videos, I ate poker for breakfast, lunch and dinner. (I still do, just in a different form.)

At some point I started watching a poker show called, The PokerStars Big Game. The premise of this show is that they invite an amateur (termed, “The Loose Cannon”) to play a high stakes game with famous pros and sometimes a couple of experienced non-pros.

I watched all the shows up to season 1, week 10 with David Fishman, and over the course of these episodes I found that many of the loose cannons were excited to play in the Big Game because they could go back and tell their friends that they had “played with and beaten the best in the game.” They might not have said this explicitly (although Ernest Wiggins did say something of the kind) but it was clear from their interviews that this was a motivation.

Comments like these got me thinking about the differences between a successful poker player and an unsuccessful one. There are many, of course, but an important one is simple: a successful poker player wants to make money reliably and doesn’t allow his ego to divert him from that path. An unsuccessful poker player is more concerned with stroking his own ego than he is with making money.

What does ego have to do with anything? Well, what else but your ego would drive you to play for big money against players who are much more skilled than you are? You may win a few hands, you may get lucky, you may even outplay them a few times, but in the long run the player with more skill will come out on top.

A concept very similar to this appears in the book, The Professor, The Banker and the Suicide King by Michael Craig. The title banker, Andy Beal, urges a group of poker players who call themselves The Corporation to play against him for huge stakes. Every player in the group is not only more experienced than Beal, but also more skilled, and although he experiences some huge wins, at the end of each trip the pros end up with the upper hand.

Beal certainly has a tireless desire to improve his poker game, but the fact that he does it in the riskiest way possible (by playing with people against whom he is almost certain to lose huge sums) points to huge egoism.

I’m not saying egoism is a bad thing, I actually don’t really care whether someone is egoistic or not. What I’m saying is that in certain situations egoism can be deadly. For Andy Beal, the millions that he lost in those poker games were chump change. He was not, nor did he ever want to be, a professional poker player. He could take the losses, go back to his regular day job, and make the money back almost instantly. He also had his own advantage: he could risk these huge sums comfortably while the pros were basically putting their life savings at risk every time they played.

Most regular people don’t have enough money to play at stakes that would intimidate poker pros. What’s more, most of those who want to be professional poker players do not have the luxury of going back to a lucrative day job. They cannot count on getting lucky to make money. They cannot allow the egoistic desire to “beat the best” to cloud their moneymaking judgement. Doing so will only lead to a lot of (money) woes.

Blake’s favorite saying is that the 8th worst poker player in the world can make money if he only finds the 7 players worse than him.

I understand that you will never get better at something without challenging yourself. However, there is a huge difference between challenging yourself in order to improve and putting your livelihood at risk. Make friends with better players, get counsel from better players, play with better players when you can, but don’t be stupid enough to believe you can make your living doing the latter.

If you want to be a successful poker player, keep your ego in check at the table.

This post was born out of tweets sent while watching the show:

tweets for post copy

If one post per week is not enough for you and you want to see what I have to say more often, follow me on Twitter: @ZulyTweets

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