Poker, Self-Esteem, and the Accuracy of Self-Efficacy by Johnny Hughes

Poker, Self-Esteem, and the Accuracy of Self-Efficacy by Johnny Hughes

Monday, 4 July 2011

By Johnny Hughes

Titanic Thompson said, “To be a winner, a man needs to feel good about himself and have some kind of an advantage.”

Having been a professional poker player before gaining my PhD in organisational psychology, I saw the constant application of Applied Behavioural Science to poker. In 20 years teaching at university, I used poker as a recurring illustration of psychology and life.

For my dissertation topic, I chose self-esteem and self-efficacy, the psychological concepts with the greatest meaning for a poker player. Self-esteem is defined as the extent to which people have pride in themselves and their capabilities. In poker, it’s their ability to win over time. The early road gamblers and poker champions had very high self-esteem. At the first World Series of Poker in 1970, Jack Binion asked each to vote for the best poker player. Each voted for himself.
It was only when he asked for second best that Johnny Moss was voted the champion.

All the early gamblers were extremely well-dressed. We had on expensive clothes, but played in old warehouses, an old auto repair shop, barns and the backs of car lots. In two gambling movies that heavily influenced me, grooming was a factor. In the Hustler, the Minnesota Fats character, Jackie Gleason, makes grooming a symbol for patience, maturity and emotional control. The same is true of the Lancy Howard character, Edgar G. Robinson, in Cincinnati Kid. Both movies involve an all-night gambling duel between the wise old pro and the hot young upstart. Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.

A more salient concept to poker is self-efficacy, defined as your belief in your ability to win at poker over time in the games you select. A serious poker player should work on the accuracy of his self-efficacy for his whole poker life. Think about it as all one long poker game. People with high but inaccurate self-efficacy set high goals and may select a game they can't beat by moving up. Poker is a game of mathematics and psychology and each decision has rational and emotional elements, since they are made under conditions of uncertainty. This article is about you, and your ability to do a reality check and emotional audit before, during and after a poker game. How did that make you feel? Did your emotions translate into behaviour?

At the 1997 World Series of Poker, I watched Stu Ungar, who won it. He was known for drugs and general mental disarray. He placed a picture of his daughter behind his chips to remind himself of the importance of this money to her. He was also acknowledging the importance of motivation and self influence, a reason to win. I picked up on that as a reality check on money and place a picture of my Goddaughter, sole heir, and light of my life, Sasha, behind my chips. By thinking I’m playing poker for her I achieve control and enjoyment.

Modern psychology and research are very positive about our ability to improve ourselves mentally and emotionally and to gain more self-control. All poker decisions are made on a bipolar continuum with rational/mathematical on one pole and emotional on the other. The easiest illustration is tilt, the Gambler's Fallacy and your raising frequency. If someone is raising every pot trying to get even, you reality check your emotions but play theirs. Emotions are contagious, especially anger. If someone trash talks, whines out their bad beats, slow rolls, or slows up the game, tell yourself it is self-defeating to be mad at a sucker. Amarillo Slim said, “If you are going to be a sucker, be a quiet one.”

In mad and crazy games and noisy casinos, I've trained myself to seek a calm, centred presence, and to concentrate on all the information around me, and adjust my play to me and to my opponents. Johnny Moss said, “In an otherwise even contest, the man with the best concentration will almost always win.”

In life and poker, my enemy is anger. Tilt is anger at the self, others, fate, life. It is all about self-control, patience. Every chip you waste on bad calls won't be in front of you to double up when you get a big hand.

During the game, especially after losing a big pot, I do an emotional audit. You can feel anger chemically, slowly or in a sudden temper tantrum that subsides. In West Texas, friends would always say, “you better walk around.” I say to myself, “Reality check.” Where am I emotionally? If I detect anger at other players or from losing big pots, I say to myself, “Cancel. Cancel.”

For much of my life, I had to win and the money was way more important than it is now that I am retired. I’ve not had a losing or unlucky streak since I retired, but I have re-evaluated the accuracy of my self-efficacy based on being a senior. Hey, my brain is slower. When I was in my twenties playing the best poker and tournament bridge players in the world, the poker field was way easier and I knew more about the maths of it than nearly anyone. I was aggressive when the field were calling stations. I was the most frequent raiser. I had a type of table presence or instinct. However, like a huge number of the poker pros today, my self-evaluation was way too high. The first time I met main event Champs Bill Smith and Jack "Treetop" Straus, I challenged them to play heads up. When I got a little bankroll, I went to Odessa to face Johnny Moss, Doc Ramsey, Paul Harvey and that crew. Overconfidence was my youthful poker problem.

Those gamblers with the most accurate and highest self-efficacy that come to mind: Johnny Moss, Benny Binion, and Ed Bradford couldn't read. That didn't keep them from being brilliant psychologically. Ed said to me once about my over confidence, “I wish I could buy you for what you are worth, and sell you for what you think you are worth.”

In most things in life, you can't have too much confidence, but poker requires more self knowledge than almost any endeavour. Those lovely pasteboards are always waiting to provide a sudden and harsh dose of cold, hard reality. It’s rather therapeutic, the time we spend analyzing ourselves. It’s very educational, the time we spend analyzing others. Poker players develop street smarts even if they are not outlaws or of the streets.

Character is formed in adversity. How do you feel after a loss? Johnny Moss said, “Nobody wins all the time, so when you lose, you need to learn whatever you can from it, and let it go. Forget it.” I make a note of key hands in my notebook after a game: pairs, outcome, A-K, A-Q, big draws, outcome, big pots. I also make notes if I got angry. leave games if I feel angry. OK, I leave towns, talkative ladies, casinos and whole western states.

If I experience a bad beat, no matter how extreme, I don't have any feeling or emotion about it. If I take a loss based on one day's bad luck, I could care less. However, if I make a mistake, a rather obvious mistake in post mortem, it does make me feel bad. There is an anger at myself. In the two instances, I'd probably make another pull out after a bad beat, but might go home after an error. That old long walk of shame. I'm busted, disgusted, and mistrusted. Nobody wants to lose all their chips on a dumb play. Embarrassing. And poker is so public.

If you find yourself in the negative zone at the poker table, say "Cancel, Cancel" or go walk around or go home. Do not sit there feeling bad. Life is too short. There is always another poker game tomorrow.

by Johnny Hughes, author of Texas Poker Wisdom, available on all Amazons.

Tags: Johnny Hughes, Columnist