Correcting Common Poker Mistakes: Dealing with Ego

Correcting Common Poker Mistakes: Dealing with Ego

In my last column I briefly identified 10 common mistakes made by beginning or otherwise losing players. Topping the list was the mistake of letting your ego override good judgment at the table, a problem that can affect both new players and those with lots of experience.

In this column I'll take a closer look at how to overcome that serious flaw. But first, let me share a quick, illustrative story.

I was playing in a $10/$20 stud game a while back and found myself up against the "table bully" in one memorable hand.

Just before the hand took place, the player had been insulting the play of his opponents, blaming the dealer for not giving him better hands, yelling at others for drawing out on him, and generally behaving like a loudmouthed jerk. He also was playing a very aggressive and loose game, frequently raising and seldom folding.

In this hand, we were heads up from the first betting round — he with an ace up and me with a pair of kings in the hole and a four showing. As it turned out I progressed to a well hidden set of kings while he would have an exposed pair of aces, representing aces up.

On the final round he bet and I raised, thinking he was overplaying his likely two pair. But he reraised me back and with some concern I just called. At the showdown, I indeed had the better hand with my three kings against his aces up, and I won a fairly large pot for that game.

As I collected the chips he smirked and crowed, "You may have won the hand — but you'll never back me down!" For him, it was more important to save face and look confident than to play a winning game.

You may be fortunate enough from time to time to encounter such behavior from your opponents and to benefit similarly. But you need not fall victim to this ego-driven behavior yourself.

In this example, it's easy to judge negatively the table bully's actions, losing extra bets in the interest of satisfying his ego's desire not to back down. But what do you do if you recognize the behavior of the table bully as something you might do? Short of seeing a shrink, what do you do if you struggle with controlling your own ego, especially if you find that doing so sometimes rises uncontrollably to sabotage your own best play?

I've found that there are a few concrete actions you can perform that help to keep the ego-driven, stack-crushing behavior from superseding your better judgment. Here are five of them:

1. Commit Pre-Session to Playing Your Best

Try to spend at least a few minutes before each playing session recommitting yourself to play your best game throughout, regardless of how your play might look to other players. Just a simple affirmation of your best intention can help solidify your play when emotions might tend to tip you over into steaming. It may even help you to keep some token of this commitment with you — perhaps as a card protector — as a steady reminder.

2. Improve Your Skills

The more you master correct strategy, the more confident you will be in your poker skills, and in turn the less inclined you'll be to pitch the proper move in favor of one that satisfies your ego. Put another way, if you don't have a firm understanding of what the strategically correct action is, you'll be more inclined to give in to your egoistic inclinations. Developing a better knowledge of proper poker thinking will give you a deeper well from which to draw when you are put to the test.

3. Consider the Relative Value of Your Image and Your Bottom Line

Which is more important to you at the tables — how you look or how you do? If you could only have one without the other, which would you prefer, winning or having a good image in the mind of those you play against?

4. Think About Your Opponents' Motivation

If the opinion of the other players is truly important to you and you just can't shake that fact, think about what is truly important to them. Their interest is their own bottom line. They care whether they win or lose. Want to really impress the folks who are looking on or playing against you? Don't give in to chest-pumping plays. Do what you know you need to do to walk away with their money! That will surely impress them.

5. Keep Accurate Records

One ingredient that will help you embrace your best poker play over your imagined reputation and image in the minds of spectators and opponents is to keep a record of your sessions and your overall winnings and losses. As you embrace substance over style, eschewing some fantasy tough-guy image at the expense of good strategic decisions, you will see your bottom line improve (or at least not decline as quickly). That will serve as a regular reminder to you of the importance of playing correctly.

I am not suggesting that good players do not have a healthy ego. Far from it. It takes a lot of self-confidence to hold firm to what you have learned to be the correct play in the face of what might be the ridicule or harsh judgement of others, in any particular situation.

Accordingly, one key to poker success is recognizing that the best way to serve your self-interest, and thereby your ego, is to commit to playing in a way that values substance over style.

Ashley Adams has been playing poker for 50 years and writing about it since 2000. He is the author of hundreds of articles and two books, Winning 7-Card Stud (Kensington 2003) and Winning No-Limit Hold'em (Lighthouse 2012). He is also the host of poker radio show House of Cards. See for broadcast times, stations, and podcasts.

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