Keeping your ego in check at the poker table

All great poker players keep their ego in check at the tables – find out how you can master yours and keep winning

Poker is a brutal game. Unlike other sports you can be the best player at the table and still lose consistently. Losing streaks can last months at a time. Bad beats and coolers seem to always crop up at crucial points in big tournaments when life-changing money is within reach. To survive long-term in poker you must be able to see past short-term results and have confidence in your own abilities. If you can’t do that you’ll likely end up broke – or in an asylum screaming ‘One time!’ over and over again.

There’s a fine line however between having confidence in your own abilities – which is a positive – and allowing your ego to take control of your poker playing, which can quickly turn into a huge negative. Self-confidence is a crucial skill in poker but so too is self-awareness. This means you can recognise how good you really are, which games you have an edge in and how big your bankroll is, all of which help dictate which cash games or tournaments you should play in. When your ego gets too big all of these rational considerations quickly go out the window and you can soon end up in a world of hurt. Here are some of the biggest warning signs that your ego is getting out of hand, and how it will cost you. Luckily enough, we’ve also come up with some solutions to help get your mind back on the hunt for gold.

Heads-up for rolls?

There’s no variant of poker like heads-up to fire up the ego. It’s poker’s version of a fist fight where aggression, machismo and guts are needed to win. As such, it’s the game type where those who have a big ego are destined to go broke. In heads-up it’s more important than ever to game select well. Unlike in a six-max cash game where you can get away with being the fourth or fifth best player at the table (as long as the other player is terrible) in heads-up if you aren’t the best player you are definitively the worst.
Too many people play in heads-up games for the wrong reasons; grudge matches versus players they don’t like, trying to prove they are better than a winning reg or through boredom at not getting enough action. The correct reason should be that you have seen an opponent you believe to have an edge on and expect to win money against. In heads-up everything is magnified.
If you’re playing against an opponent better than you then (luck aside) you will lose more money quicker. Happily, the opposite is also true so if you wind up in a good game the expectation will be that you can win a large amount rapidly. Many people take this advice too far and only ever play heads-up against complete fish, which is a practice often called ‘bumhunting’. If you can get the action this is a very profitable way of playing poker, and neatly eschews ego problems. We’re not suggesting you take it this far though. It is fine to occasionally play in heads-up games where you might be neutral EV (or even be a slight dog) because it helps keep your game sharp and improve. Just ensure you don’t play heads-up for the wrong reasons – always be consciously aware of if you have an edge – and if you don’t then quit.

The levellers

In the early stages of a deep-stacked MTT there is no better strategy than playing straightforward tight-aggressive poker. In these days of hyper-aggressive online kids it seems that many have forgotten this. But at big live tournaments like the UKIPT it’s actually quite common to see cold four-bets, players five-betting with air and even check-raise river bluffs from Isildur-wannabes in the first few levels.
If this sounds like something that you would do in tournaments then stop it! Stop it now! You may not realise it, but getting embroiled in these ‘levelling wars’ with other good, aggressive players is totally counter-productive. If your audacious move works, at best you may pick up 5,000 tournament chips. 
If it goes wrong you can be busted in ridiculous fashion after starting the hand at no risk of elimination. The key thing to remember is that even if these moves work the gain is far outweighed by the risk. While adding 20% to your stack in Day one of a UKIPT may feel good at the time, in the grand scheme of things it becomes quite irrelevant once you progress into Day two and beyond. The point when creative bluffing is important in big tournaments is when the stakes get truly high either around the bubble, in the money or on the final table. The early stages are absolutely not the time to do it and players that look for highlight reel plays are not geniuses, they have merely been taken over by their own egos.

Open your eyes

Players that take their poker seriously are always on the lookout for good games. This can mean anything from having position on a fish to playing in a game composed solely of nits. Whatever the makeup is, you’re putting yourself in a great position to win. A lot of poker players understand this concept and are pretty good at initially game selecting. Where they fall down is in not adjusting to the changing game conditions when sat down. A change can be when a fish goes broke and doesn’t reload or if the seats to your left suddenly get filled up with very aggressive, dangerous players. At this point your good game is no longer good. However, for ego-based reasons too many people don’t take this opportunity to leave the table and look for better spots. You mustn’t be afraid of feeling a bit embarrassed that you aren’t a favourite in certain line-ups. You should be playing poker with the intention of winning money however you can. This is the sole aim of the game.
Any true professional will tell you that earning consistent, stress-free money is more important than attempting to prove your poker prowess versus other good players. Keep your eye on the dynamics of your table and if you don’t like it for whatever reason it’s time to find a new one. That’s the beauty of cash poker – you are the one who gets to choose your opponents. Don’t be lazy and sit in the same seat all night, the game of your life could be just next door.

Stop loss now, thank you very much 

Just as important as knowing when to play poker is knowing when to quit. Unless you are a robot completely unaffected by large sums of cash escaping your bank account, you will begin to play worse poker as a session unravels. Through experience and training you can learn to cope with losing sessions much better but there is still a breaking point for everybody when they would be better off quitting.
Unfortunately many players grind on long past this point and spew away a couple of buy-ins or go on to bust out unnecessarily from a few tournaments before finally walking away. Yet again this is a symptom of your ego affecting rational decisions. Nobody wants to be a loser or admit they aren’t good enough, but sometimes you have to. 
A basic way to minimise the losses you suffer in losing sessions is by setting a stop-loss. In cash games this could be set anywhere from three to six buy-ins (depending on your own bankroll, control of emotions and skill level) and it should be slightly increased for both sit-and-gos and MTTs because of the increased variance of those formats. This may sound a dull way to play the game but it’s also one that will ensure you don’t go bust in one long, miserable evening. Trust us, that’s much worse.

Ballin’ outta control

A poker player’s ego can be a huge detriment at the table but what’s often ignored is how ego can be a financial burden away from the table too. This can come in many forms. The first is in prop betting. Many poker players are stubborn, competitive and love to gamble, so they often can’t turn down a prop bet. There’s nothing wrong with this in theory, but it’s very important to ensure the stakes are well inside your comfort zone. You should look on it as just an extended form of good bankroll management and ensure you don’t get lured into a bet that will cause you great stress should you lose.
There’s also a lot of peer pressure within the poker community to spend inordinate sums of money on status objects. This can be anything from hideous Ed Hardy shirts to buying huge rounds of drinks in clubs or travelling first-class. It may be fun to live like a superstar but only do it if you can really afford it. 
There seems to be a real negative connotation attached to being sensible and mature in today’s poker world. Not surprisingly, this is a load of nonsense. An important, and overlooked, aspect of becoming a winning poker player comes from things like cutting down on travel expenses by booking flights in advance or by shunning a night at the club in order to prepare well for a poker session the following day. 
These small lifestyle changes can pay big dividends at the table over time so make sure you don’t succumb to peer pressure and do things your own way. Don’t let your ego win!

Ego masterclass

If you’re interested in learning more about how ego, confidence and other emotions can have a large impact on your poker playing a great book to pick up is The Mental Game of Poker by Jared Tendler and Barry Carter.
In it sports psychologist Tendler explains how the psyche affects poker players and, more importantly, steps that you can take to ‘conquer’ the mental game. It’s certainly different from a traditional poker strategy book but it’s definitely a valid read if you feel as though your poker has ever been affected by ego, tilt, motivation or numerous other emotional failings.

Feldman and Matusow are outmatched

Even great players like Andrew Feldman and Mike Matusow sometimes play in games where they are the fish at the table. Whether they chose to take their seats because of ego or any other reason here are two games that these two should not be playing in…
Andrew Feldman finds himself surrounded by messrs Antonius, Dwan, Ziigmund and Ivey in this classic series of Full Tilt Poker’s Million Dollar Cash Game. He doesn’t fare well as you can see in this cringe-inducing hand where Feldman is taught a lesson in bluffing by the world’s greatest player, Phil Ivey.
 Mike Matusow’s final appearance on High Stakes Poker was tough to watch. He played extraordinarily tight and as the stakes got higher he appeared out of his depth. Look at this key hand versus Daniel Negreanu where Matusow makes a poor, easily read flop shove while his face exposes the pressure he is under.

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