Ego and Poker
THE WEEKLY SHUFFLE, 2011-09-11, by OzoneI was recently telling a guy I bump into on occasion about a bet I made on an underdog baseball team. I bet the underdog at odds of +180. My primary reason for making the bet, besides just being bored and wanting some action, was that most of the sportsbooks I looked at offered odds of just +170 on the team. So without really needing to know anything about the quality of the teams that were playing, I was able to decipher that +180 was at the very least a not-awful bet on account of most places offering worse odds.
When this guy heard my explanation for why I bet the underdog team at +180, he laughed. He actually went so far as to say, "that's the stupidest reason I've heard someone use for making a bet."
What struck me as peculiar about his statement is that my reasoning wasn't stupid at all. In fact, it can actually be rather sharp to bet a game when one sportsbook's odds substantially differ from all the others. But the reason this particular individual thought it was stupid was because I wasn't using any of my own "hunches" about the game, I was only betting a line that appeared to be a good price without needing to know anything else in theory.
So why was this individual clearly bothered by such an approach? I believe it is because betting on sports is about emotions to him, not logic. This is true of a majority of people who bet sports. They're not concerned with how good of a price they're getting on their bet, only that they have a "feeling" that team A is going to beat team B. In their minds, they're right about every single game, except for the ones that they end up being wrong about.
Since the worlds of poker and sports-betting are somewhat closely related (pretty typical for poker players to bet sports and visa-versa), I started thinking about how this common logical fallacy found in the sports-betting world applies to poker. What it comes down to is logic versus emotions, or ego vs. no ego.
In poker, and in all forms of risk-taking, there is no room for ego. To have an ego is to leak.
Poker is not about ego or who can cluck the loudest. It's a game of numbers and probability. It's about observing your opponents to acquire as much information as you can. It's about knowing what spots are good and what spots aren't. An ego cannot make that distinction; an ego has an edge in all spots (or so it likes to believe).
Something I've noticed in my years of involvement in poker is that the cream that has risen to the top usually doesn't have much of an ego. And I'm not talking about the Phil Hellmuths who play a few tournaments a year, got famous at the right time, and regularly get eaten alive when trying to play cash games online. I'm talking about the true grinders, the guys who quietly have mopped up hundreds of thousands, or even millions, by dutifully grinding out cash games.
One thing I've noticed about these poker players is that they usually don't seem to possess much of an ego. When they play, their persona is not at stake on the table. They are emotionally unattached to outcomes. The outcome doesn't affect how they feel about themselves. Only the decision matters to them. They have studied the game, practiced, and put in the work to understand what constitutes a good decision. They then implement their good decision making habits over and over again at the tables. As they do, they profit. The dollars made do not validate them as a person, they are merely the by-product of their good habits.
That is how one succeeds as a poker player. It's about clearing out the ego that says, "I should bet big on this because I know it can't lose" or "I belong in this high stakes game," and instead saying, "are there any valuable decisions I can be making here that I can back up with sound logic?" Sometimes the valuable decision is acknowledging that there is no room in the arena for you to make valuable decisions (ie: "Betting on sports seems almost impossible to beat, so I won't bother trying" or "The guys in this game all seem pretty competent; I'm not sure I have an edge over them, so I'm not going to bother playing.")
Being able to prohibit your ego from becoming involved is a crucial skill needed to survive the long run as a gambler. The guys who let their egos get involved go broke and wind up driving Knish's truck (Rounders reference!) wondering how it was possible for x outcome to happen. I know because I've been there!
For every guy who has quietly built wealth grinding online poker, there are hundreds of guys who will talk your ear off about how great they are at poker and/or betting sports. The people talking about how much of an expert wizard they are aren't the expert wizards, because the true expert wizards don't feel the need to validate their ego. They became expert wizards by diffusing their ego and focusing on what matters.
Separate noise from reality. Separate your ego from your decision-making at the table. Most worthwhile decisions in poker can be fully supported by math and nothing else. Math and logic should be what is called upon when justifying a risk, not ego or emotion.
The Weekly Shuffle is our Sunday column with our observations and commentary on the poker world. Have an idea for an article? Leave a suggestion on the feedback page.
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