Ego and the Tilt Cycle

Most of the book has been about specific poker strategies. Not much has dealt with psychology. Some things you need to do to be successful in poker don’t rely on whether or not to call, raise, or fold. Simply put, you need to lose your ego. This is difficult for many poker players to do. I often hear good players saying of other regulars, “Oh man, that guy sucks. He’s so terrible.” The person they’re describing makes hundreds of thousands of dollars per year playing poker. He doesn’t suck at poker. He might not be the best in the world, but he’s not making enough mistakes to give anybody a large edge over him.

Let’s consider this concept with some hypothetical numbers. Let’s say, as happens commonly, a fish sits down at my HU table. He limp-calls a lot and calls a lot postflop. He’ll be easy to stack. Let’s say that my edge is 80-20. My variance is low. My win-rate is astronomically high. I’m generally very happy. It doesn’t take many hands for me to realize my expectation—usually I stack him very quickly. Now, let’s say that a regular sits down to play me instead. He’s making many fewer mistakes. He will be difficult to stack. He plays aggressively both pre and postflop. My edge is now reduced to 55-45.

A few things happen:

  •   My win-rate goes down. This is pretty obvious and doesn’t require much explanation.
  •   My variance goes up.* Many people don’t realize the strong connection between variance and win-rate—indeed, your swings will increase as your competition gets more difficult.
  •   It takes longer to reach expectation. With a lower win-rate and higher variance, it might take an unreasonably long time to show my expected profit.

Importantly, if the edges are that thin, it actually becomes nearly impossible to even know whether or not you have an edge. If it’s close enough that I think it might be 52-48 in my favor, the estimate has a wide enough margin of error that it could possibly be 52-48 in his favor. If that’s the case, I’m actually playing as a dog and will lose money in the long run.

This isn’t to suggest that we shouldn’t play against decent players and that we should only “bumhunt” as has become popular with a number of players online (only playing against the worst players and avoiding regulars). Instead, we can play against regulars assuming the following qualities:

  • We have the bankroll to handle the swings.
  •   We have the time to pursue a small edge in the long run.

And, most importantly:

We aren’t sacrificing our edges in other games by becoming distracted with a low-profit, high variance game.

The final point above is the starting point for something that I call “the tilt cycle”. Look at the $5/$10 scene online. Let’s consider a hypothetical regular. First, he’s definitely good enough to beat the game when there are fish involved. He’s even good enough to beat a fair amount of the regulars. He should be winning a lot of money then, right? Wrong. This player is sitting at 8 tables. Only three of them are actually good games where he has significant edges. The other five games are full of regulars, some better, some worse. His edges are small in these games. He then experiences high variance. This variance leads to tilt. Tilt, affecting his decisions, lowers his win-rate across ALL of his tables. He then experiences higher variance. Which then increases his tilt.

Don’t fall for the Tilt Cycle:

Now let’s consider the $10/$20 scene online. Once again, we’ll consider a hypothetical regular. He is, again, good enough to beat the fish and hold his own against the regulars. However, he’s playing four games. In all four, his edges are significant. He maintains a higher win-rate. He has less variance. He also is much happier with poker more consistently, and tilts much less often. This isn’t to say that he won’t play against aggressive players—if he sees a regular he thinks he has an edge against, or he sees a new player who is acting like a regular, he won’t hesitate to play them HU (providing he is properly rolled for the limit). However, he won’t pursue these games to the detriment of his overall system. In this way, he churns out money, plays good poker, and stays happy:

There’s more to be said on the subject of ego. I want to discuss two different mindsets of poker.

  1. 1)  The Winner. This player is obsessed with winning. This drives him to play a lot of tables, a lot of hands, and to try to make as much per hour as possible. This player often beats his limit for a modest win-rate (nothing spectacular). He gets crushed at higher limits because he isn’t improving his game as fast as others. He also almost always has major tilt issues—for the winner, losing the pot is a tragedy and winning the pot is a success.
  2. 2)  The Learner. This player is obsessed with learning. It drives him to think about poker constantly. He discusses his hands with anyone who will listen and contribute. He’s playing fewer tables and is more focused on the theoretical intricacies of every scenario. This player might have a lower hourly win-rate than the winner at first. But, he’s the one who will stay afloat at higher limits. He also doesn’t have a major tilt problem, because he knows that the correct decision is a success and whether or not he wins or loses the pot is irrelevant.

I have students in both categories. Any of my students would tell you that, within the first five minutes our first, I ask what their purpose is. “Are you trying to move up? Or are you trying to beat your limit for more?” Certainly there is overlap, but the differences are significant. Nearly every one of my students wants to move up. If you want to move up, be a learner. Don’t worry about winning; if you learn, you’ll win. If you win but don’t learn, pretty soon you won’t be winning at all.

There are a lot of different emotions that affect our ability to make decisions. Frustration is the most famous—I lost a big pot, and now I’m not thinking straight. However, ego affects your ability to make decisions before you even get to the table. “Oh, I can sit at 8 tables with 8 regulars and churn out a profit,” “This player is so much worse than me, I deserve to win,” or “I’m good enough to play under- rolled in a tough game.” Ego is just like frustration—it’s a form of tilt. In fact, your ego might be the biggest thing preventing you from being the successful poker player you want to be. It’s pretty simple to fix—be smarter than you are proud.

*Having a higher win-rate won’t make you win flips more often and having a lower win-rate doesn’t make you lose flips. In this sense, your short-term variance is independent of your win-rate. However, if you flip for $500, but you just made $1000 stacking a fish, you experience no downswing if you lose the flip. If you flip for $500 without stacking the fish you subject yourself to long-term variance when you get repeatedly unlucky.

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