Nick Wealthall on ego

Nick Wealthall on ego

Friday, 1 June 2012

This column is about ego. I actually mean this month’s column specifically, although I can understand why you might have thought I’d just come clean about my whole raison d’être.

Ego is a big thing in poker. There’s a famous story about the first ever “World Series”, where the eight invited players played for several days and were then asked to vote on who should be crowned champion. Every single one voted for himself. A second round had to be carried out in which narcissistic voting was specifically banned. Presumably, the winner of that ballot was the person who was owed the most money. Quick, give him the title. He’ll stop asking for it back.

That vote is everything you need to know about poker players, right there. I’ve often wondered whether, if you stopped a random game in any tournament, grabbed the nine players from a table and asked them who the best player was at their table, a frightening number would vote for themselves. The higher the stakes, the truer that would be, I’m certain.

Ego is a double-edged sword, of course. You need ego in poker. You need it to have the confidence to try to dominate opponents, to challenge people at higher stakes, to back your judgment in big pots. But ego also costs most players more money than anything else.

Ask yourself this question: how many times in the last couple of months have you quit a game because the players on it are better than you? If you can’t remember at least a few times, you’re doing something wrong. Either you’re not challenging yourself by always sitting down with players who are way beneath you, or, far more likely, you’re not admitting when you don’t have an edge in a game.

I was reminded of all of this recently at the Nottingham UKIPT. It was a huge event, the biggest on the tour so far, with 1,625 players generating the £1.1 million prize pool – off just a £700 buy in. It was won by Robert Baguely, a great guy with a great story. He’d only been playing poker for a couple of years and, amazingly, this was the first tournament he’d ever entered with a buy in higher than £50. He picked a great week to run good!

He also played well too, specifically in the heads-up. He entered the one-on-one match out-stacked and outmatched in terms of skill against pro Iqbal Ahmed. Robert was able to dominate the heads up, though, no doubt in part by holding the better cards, but he

also used a “big bets” strategy which put continual pressure on Iqbal and took him out of his comfort zone. You might have seen Darvin Moon use the same strategy when heads up to give eventual champ Joe Cada the fright of his life. Whether the strategy was by design or just the way Baguley always plays, he gets credit for fearlessness; but, more interestingly, it was the correct strategy for him to use.

As I watched the heads-up match, I was reminded of Chris Ferguson’s contention years ago that with even stacks in a heads up match (around the 50 big blind mark), if a player moved all-in every single hand against the best player in the world, that player would be nearly 40% to win. So, you could take a man off the street, tell him to move in every hand and he wouldn’t even need to know the rules of poker to have a 40% shot to take down the best in the world. What a game! It wouldn’t quite work out like that if you gave the same man a tennis racquet and told him he was playing Roger Federer and should “just go for it”.

The thing is, I’ve watched a lot of tournaments, played a decent amount and read reports of hundreds more. I’ve never, ever seen someone carry out this strategy to the letter. And yet I’ve seen many occasions of a player being more than a 40% dog in the heads-up. In fact, you can often see the obviously weaker player in a heads up try the opposite and play a lot of small pots. The problem, of course, is one of ego. How many times does a player admit to himself he is the poorer player? And even if he does, how often does he acknowledge the extent of the skill gap, and then develop a strategy to take that into account?

Assessing your own skill in relation to others isn’t an easy thing to do. Start by asking yourself the question: who do I have a big edge over in this game? You should be able to describe the edge, almost as though you were giving evidence to someone accusing you of not being a favourite in the game. Of course, you can’t always pick your opponents, especially in a tournament, but if you can assess the skill gap without ego you can make some good adjustments. Against players you have to play against who are better than you, focus on a straightforward, tight-aggressive strategy, add a few bluffs once they’ve pegged you as predictable, and consider using bigger bets to take them out of their comfort zone.

Right, that’s ego in poker covered; time to go and fire up four tables and pwn some fools because none of those suckers can live with me. Seriously, I get up in the morning and piss excellence. They should all stay at home and save their money.

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