Poker and the ego
Successful poker is about tiny edges. In order to exploit these edges in the long run you need to play with a good understanding of the odds
, bankroll management, variance, player types, the importance of position, subtle changes in context and on occassion even the value of the cards you are dealt!
However there are a lot of people who grasp most or all of the above and yet either lose or don't win as much as they could. This may be because they get stacked in ring or fail to make the final stages of tournies enough and often it's because for whatever reason they stop playing the "correct" way and let their ego take over.
This article is about the role the ego plays in poker and how to avoid letting the competitive beast within allow you to throw your chips away in a chest-beating frenzy. Why is this important? Because in my experience getting good results in the long run is as much about making laydowns at the right-time as it is about check-raising or floating or winning coinflips.
Putting chips in the middle is easy, it's aggressive it gives you a chance to win the pot and it feels goooooood. Folding is an admission of defeat, it says "you've outplayed me" and it feels bad in comparison. But as Marsellus Wallace says to that chap from Die Hard, "That's pride f*cking with you. F*ck pride. Pride only hurts, it never helps."
So here are a handful of areas where I think ego, or pride if we use Mr Wallace's term can be a factor. And of course some, none or all of them may apply to you.
Losing players are losing players
Playing correct 95% of the time and then making mistakes due to tilt or the need to catch the maniac out by playing like a maniac yourself means you are a poor player. It doesn't mean you are a good player who suffers from the occassional lapse, it means you are a poor player. Failure to control the ego, whether it manifests through tilt or bad calls is as big a hole in your game as overplaying low pairs or not understanding position.
You would never say "I'm a good player I just lose because I overplay small pairs." but the line "I'm a good player, I just have sessions where I go on tilt" crops up a fair bit. Given a sufficiently large sample if you are not winning, there is something wrong with your game. Admit it and fix it.
Who cares what they think
It doesn't matter what people think of you. If you must have external acknowledgement of how great you are then post in forums like cardschats Brags and Beats (like I do when I want to be loved) or stare longingly at your officialpokerrankings ranking (I do this too!).
The ONLY thing that matters is that in the long term is that you are beating the game (and hopefully enjoying it). It is absolutely irrelevant if PokaGOD69 thinks you are a weak-passive because you folded to his preflop resteal, in fact it might help because you know you are not and you can use this false image he has of you to your advantage later.
Let them call you a donk, let them continue to make false assumptions about you. You know better and the moment they disappear from your screen they are gone forever from your life.
(A subsection of this is showing bluffs. People often justify this by saying, "I wanted to tilt the table". No, you wanted everyone to think what a clever chap you were, be honest. Take the chips and move on)
This relates to another area I like to call..
Catch the maniac!
Sometimes there is a guy at the table who is bad. They are making mistakes pretty much every hand and are ripe for the picking. Sometimes they may even be telling you or others what you are doing wrong.
One of the big edges in poker is exploiting these ATMs and relieving them of their lovely chippies. However the ego is telling you that you are better than him, that he doesn't deserve that big stack which he got by sucking out with his push with KQ utg.
This can and does result in loose calls because "he never has a good hand", "he was a maniac so he could have had anything". Neither of these justify getting involved unless the right situation occurs. So maniac raises large, as he has for the last 5 hands and you look down at 66 and are facing a call for half your chips, should you call? Possibly, but it should be because it's the right thing to do, not because you are "better than him" (for the record I'd fold).
When playing a maniac wait for your spot and then get the sucker. If your spot never comes it doesn't matter, don't force it, don't become a maniac to catch a maniac. Of course there are plenty of valid ways to work a spot, but that's another story.
Blind battles and Heads Up
There is a particular kind of relationship that develops in protracted battles over blinds or in Heads Up play. You both know that more often than not you are playing with less than great cards and that potentially a reraise will take a nice juicy pot.
Of course aggression is key and you should be dictating the play, but it is easy to take repeated blind steals as an assault on your manhood (or womanhood) and strike back out of wounded ego rather than for good poker reasons. It is of course easy to justify this as a resteal but don't let your ego decide when you do it.
They don't matter, no-one cares and it's a good sign if you are getting all your chips in a pot ahead a lot. In the long run you will win.
Folding is a positive decision
To get a bit high-brow on you for a second let's talk some Sartre. He said (probably in French) that doing nothing is a decision, it is not the absence of decision, you have to actively decide to do nothing.
I like this because it forces us to acknowledge that passivity is not what happens while we decide what to do, it's what happens when we decide to do nothing. I think folding can be viewed the same way. It is not a passive act of inaction, it is a positive decision based on a huge range of factors.
Folding gives us the opportunity to pick a better spot, to demonstrate that we have the skill to invest in a pot and then walk away from it when we are probably beaten.
A good correct fold is without doubt the hardest thing to achieve in poker. Any fool can shove any time (it's a great egotrip!) it takes real skill to fold QQ preflop when it's clearly beat, or laydown the flush draw because you would be kidding yourself that you have the odds to call. What makes it all the more tricky is that the rest of the table will never know you laid down bottom set or the idiot end of the straight.
Again, it doesn't matter, learn to enjoy a good fold it's the basis of success.
Just to conclude, I've focussed on the passive aspects of removing ego from your game, primarily folding and patience. However from a state of analytical awareness it is also possible to spot opportunities for aggression which may not occur otherwise. The tremendous Zen and the Art of Poker refers to a state of detatchment, where you are entirely aware of the game but are unaffected by it and therefore able to play in an optimum way. And of course this usually means aggression.
If you really remove ego from your game you will find yourself being really happy with how you played despite the fact that you lost. You will be able to accept losses as a natural and normal part of successful play. But perhaps more importantly you will be able to successfully criticise yourself when you win, either because you could have played better or because you played like a fool and got lucky.
Players driven by ego are often so focussed on short-term outcomes (even the result of single hands or tournies) that they are unable to accept that their play was bad even though they won. Again it's all about the long run and the long run, as they say, is very, very long.