Maturity comes with a damaged poker ego

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2006) in Bluff magazine.

What do the 2,000 top poker professionals in the world have in common? We each think we’re the best. And 1,999 among us are wrong. Theoretically, that leaves open the possibility that I, too, am wrong. But, historically, that hasn’t happened yet.

Okay, so I sound like an egomaniac. But if there were a tournament to determine the world’s biggest ego, I wouldn’t win. Phil Hellmuth might win. David Sklansky might win. Mike Matusow might win. Not me. I’d probably make the final table, though.

Ego is important to success. Often, poker among top competitors deteriorates into a war of egos. You have six to ten adults crowded around a table trying to prove superiority in a couple hours. Guess what? You can’t. The cards will play havoc with anyone who tries.

Poker superiority is invisible. It’s subtle. The skills at the highest levels are just too close to prove anything. Why am I telling you this? It’s because I want you to learn something today that took me too many years to discover. Poker is a game of quiet conquest. That doesn’t mean your demeanor should be one of silence. If you’ve ever seen me play, you know I’m on stage – always playful, doing all manner of things that are carefully calculated to get psychological leverage over my opponents.

I’m putting on an exhibition

But, if you watch carefully, you’ll never see me act superior or belittle my foes. Instead, you’ll see a lively but ego-reduced performance. You’ll often see me convey the impression that – although I might know how to play better – I’m putting on an exhibition for my own amusement. By employing that carefully cultivated act – and backing it up infrequently with strange plays that stick in their minds — I hope to convince opponents that I’m playing significantly weaker than I actually am.

I stopped taking my poker ego to the tables many years ago. And this is the true story of how that happened.

I was just a kid back then. I hadn’t published anything, and I hadn’t been tagged with the “Mad Genius of Poker” moniker that would both honor and haunt me throughout my poker career. Some called me “Crazy Mike.” Well, I was already an excellent player in theory and I won more than I lost. But that didn’t stop me from putting my entire bankroll in jeopardy anytime I was challenged. I had skill, but no common sense.

Obviously, that’s a formula for disaster, and I tasted it again and again. Like most young pros I went broke suddenly and often – always able to build back in lower limit games. Fine. But having to demote myself was a humbling experience, and the way I handled it was bizarre.

Suicide matches

I’d challenge players to suicide matches. I’d offer, sincerely, to play heads-up and whoever lost had to kill himself. My thinking was, I couldn’t be embarrassed by not having the funds to compete at large limits if my opponents were turning down my offers to play at the ultimate limit.

And it worked. No one ever accepted my challenge. I’m not sure if I would have actually played a match if someone had accepted, but I had fantasies about winning and then sparing the loser’s life. Sick? Maybe. Anyway, my ego was getting the best of me at poker. This went on for a year, and then my game plan crashed conspicuously one day in Gardena, California before a small audience of players.

I was nearly broke and couldn’t afford the game that this weathered, tough-looking stranger was trying to goad me into playing. So I began to rant in my usual fashion. And I challenged him to a suicide match – a ploy that had always worked before to let me escape with my ego intact. But this man had apparently heard about me and had come prepared.

“Kid,” he said calmly, “if you want to play serious poker, let’s deal.” At that point, he unzipped his fly. He made a sweeping motion toward me, suggesting that I do the same thing. I was momentarily puzzled until he opened up a pocket knife and threw it onto the table.

“Sit down and deal the cards,” was all he said. Almost instantly, I realized what he was suggesting. Now, loser kills himself is one thing, but loser castrates himself is quite another. Suddenly what I had previously thought of as playing for the ultimate stakes didn’t quite seem so ultimate.

Journey toward poker mastery

My pride proved vulnerable and I found myself laughing. I finally said, “I don’t guess I have the bankroll for that.” Everyone laughed, except for the man. He never cracked a smile. Thus began my long journey toward common sense and poker mastery.

After that, I grew more humble at the tables – though no less vocal. My psychological game plan evolved until it was based more on pleasing myself with solid play and pocketing the profits less ostentatiously. I still thought I was best, but I realized I wouldn’t be able ever to prove it to anyone except myself. I kept my ego, but I was no longer willing to let it destroy my bankroll.

So, today’s tip for serious poker players on the way up the ladder: Yes, you should take your ego to the poker table. But you should never put it on display. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


10 thoughts on “Maturity comes with a damaged poker ego”

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  1. I guess I’m just the opposite of you Mike. I’m very humble, polite and quite at the tables. Some have even said that they hated winning from me. And some have said i don’t mind losing to you.


  2. Wow, Mike, I hadn’t heard that one before. Castration? No thank you. I had a friend recently who doesn’t take beats very well. He’s Italian so we give him some slack but he tends to rant and rave when he’s take a particularly bad beat. Kind of a Phil Hellmuth type you might say. He was ranting at me on day and I basically told him to shut up, sit down and play poker. Or he could cash out an leave. He said to me “you’re not nearly as good as you thing you are, you know?” I considered that for a few seconds and said, “but guess what, I’m better than anyone you have ever played.” That set him off all over again and I just laughed at him. Then I said “I just got you off of your game and if you continue to play I’ll be in your head all night.” He went home and I saw him a couple of days later. We chatted like nothing had ever transpired and went in to play some poker. On the way in he said “I’ve played against better by the way, but you are pretty damned good, even if it’s just in the psychology of the game.” I told him that was the best compliment I’d ever been given about poker.

  3. Jake, how ridiculus(sp)! The first paragraph talks about poker. The article is about poker. And unless you want ever sentence prefixed “In poker.” The difference between individual combat like poker and what a ceo does is totally different. Ceo live off the backs of low paid employees that make them fortunes. Poker is a one on one test. Only tennis, golf or other individual sports can know how it is to dominate someone one on one. To be the only reasons for all you success and all your failures is quite different than leading a company or a team. So in Poker their is a guy playing 1-2 NL thats has the biggest ego in the world, bigger than all the pros, this guy is a losing player with more money than all the worlds banks, but he thinks he’s the best and only loses because people cheat. All pros are more humble than this!

  4. I finally think I caught you in a printed mistake! Forgive me but I think that in actuality, the world's biggest ego is unlikely to be a poker player. There are many in other sports which make more than virtually all poker players. Not to mention stock market people, bosses and CEOs of companies, there are actually thousands of candidates. Considering the statistics of the elements involved, one has to say that it is actually rather unlikely that the world's biggest ego belongs to a poker player at all.

  5. You could always adopt the story, Donna. Just say you’re the best in the world, and point to your record as proof; 7 wins in 8 matches! ;)

  6. Love your story. Even though I am a woman, I have an ego too, perhaps a little bit of keeping up with the big boys. Will try to remember not to let it get to me.

  7. I think suicide matches would add a little flare to the WSOP this year. I can think of a few players I’d like to see compete…

  8. in wwII… army air corp pilots used to fly chinese workers over the hump. they were inveterate gamblers and they had nothing of real value to gamble with. so the game went that the final loser would have to jump out of the plane. he virtually always did. this used to freak the hell out the americans. of course this was back in the day when…

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