Ego is the Enemy: Applications in Poker

Ego is the Enemy is a highly acclaimed book by Ryan Holiday. It talks about how our ego often leads us on the wrong path in our pursuit of success. While reading the book, I couldn't help but notice its implications in poker. Allow me to start with a recent personal experience.

A few weeks ago, I was running deep in a live tournament. I busted on the final table after losing a flip. The guy who busted me wasn't someone I knew, but during the course of the day, we had developed a less than cordial relationship because of a few altercations. Later, we did shake hands and put it away as water under the bridge. 

Fast forward to yesterday when I found him on my table again in an online tournament. The first hand I played against him, he cracked my Aces. That hurt. Immediately, I felt a surge of emotions, clouding the logical part of my brain. I sensed an irrational desire to outplay him. And a few hands later, I busted against the same guy after making a sub-optimal play. I went on tilt and played worse for a couple of hours after that.

What happened here is a classic case of letting your ego guide your decisions rather than your poker knowledge. It is perhaps the most common mental game leak. I've been on the other side of this situation too when my opponents are not able to adapt to my playing style, and they go on tilt and give all their chips away. Their ego told them to fight to defeat me, instead of defeating my play. This led to bad decisions and a negative output for them.

It often happens that you end up playing more hands against a specific opponent. You think he is playing bad but getting lucky. Perhaps he is 3-betting every time you raise. Or maybe he is calling with all his gutshots even after getting bad odds and getting there. It makes you tensed up. You berate him in the chat box and you want to punish him. But how do you go about that?

The most common response I've seen from players is that they start becoming more aggressive, which ends up hurting them even more. Or they become too passive, waiting to trap with their most premium hands. None of these strategies is correct. The right approach would be to stick to your fundamentals. So, if your opponent is 3-betting you light, then you can tighten your opening range so that you can defend his 3-bet more often with a stronger range. If he calls with bad odds, then punish him by increasing your bet size, perhaps even overbetting flops/turns.

We chose a fundamentally sound counter-strategy which will give us the best chance of defeating our opponent. By separating the play from the player, we could identify the correct course of action.

This is what I mean by saying that ego is the enemy. Detach your ego from the results. It is fine if you are not able to defeat a particular player. Perhaps he is getting lucky, or he is playing better. If his play makes you feel awkward, then kudos to him. He shouldn't be expected to play in a style which makes you feel comfortable. Whatever be the case, you have the right strategy to deal with it - playing solid fundamental poker.



Mayank Jain

Mayank Jain is a guest writer who plays poker for a living. He writes at on mindfulness, travel and art, among other things.