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Narcissism and Poker

by Roy Cooke |  Published: Feb 22, 2012

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Roy CookeIt was an unusually slow Tuesday afternoon at the Bellagio, and the $40-$80 limit hold’em game was full of tough local pros with one exception, a young man stuck over $5,000. He was the only reason the game was holding together, and he was totally dominating the conversation.

After telling us how badly he had run over the past year, he insisted that, if the cards just broke even, every good limit hold’em player in the Bellagio and Commerce casinos would be broke. He thought he was that good! I watched several pros unsuccessfully trying to control their laughter. Busting all those great players would be impossible, even for the world’s best. This guy would likely bust professional players only if he quit playing, denying them their income from him.

His narcissism was obvious, but we all have varying degrees of it. We’re hardwired to think that we’re better than we really are. And most of us want others to agree we’re better than they are, both as people and poker players. But whether you’re concerned with poker or life, being grounded in reality will greatly improve your decisions. The poker landscape is littered with bustouts who thought they were something they were not.

Since narcissism is a psychological characteristic, I’m working with Dr. Al Schoonmaker, a psychologist. Because it’s such a common and destructive problem at the poker tables, we’re writing two columns. This article will define narcissism and analyze its causes and effects. The next one will help you to determine how narcissistic you are, and, if necessary, recommend ways to reduce the problem.

Wikipedia states “narcissism often means inflated self-importance, inflated self-perception of abilities, egoism, vanity, conceit.” That definition certainly fits this young man and many other poker players. “Narcissists are characterized by many different reckless and impulsive behaviors and are drawn to gambling both out of a sense of feeling intellectually superior, taking risks based on that false sense of superiority and a myopic focus on short-term rewards” (Probing the link between Narcissism and Gambling, Wiley InterScience Oct. 2007).

Because luck has extreme short-term effects, nearly all poker players, including Al and I, have some narcissism. We naturally want to think we play better than we actually do. As I once wrote, “Your success at poker depends, not on how well you play, but on how well you play in relation to your opponents… This presents a significant problem… almost all players put themselves closer to the front of the pack than they deserve to be” (“A Great Game?” Card Player, May 10, 2002).

Narcissistic players deny reality and blame luck, the dealer, the deck or even the stupidity of other people for their poor results, anything but themselves. This young man’s denial was extreme. He totally ignored the fact that he had never been a winning player, and the idea that he would break all the limit pros in the Bellagio and Commerce is ridiculous. Nobody, no matter how well he plays, can be that dominant.

Narcissism causes players to underestimate their opponents. They have a false sense of confidence, selectively remembering the evidence that supports their beliefs about their superiority and ignoring any conflicting evidence. These characteristics create many problems. Instead of realistically assessing their own skill and finances, they challenge better players and play for stakes they can’t afford.

They can’t emotionally handle losing and often overstay their mental, physical and emotional endurance when stuck. This self-delusion has busted countless poker players and destroyed many lives. Additionally, it’s caused many wars and been responsible for much of the dark side of human history.

Narcissistic players can’t develop their poker skills because they won’t objectively analyze their own game, especially their own mistakes. Recognizing and analyzing your own errors is crucial to learning and growing as a player. Instead, narcissists look for ways to justify their own egotistical beliefs. They focus on the facts that confirm their desired position and ignore anything that doesn’t support their unrealistic thinking. Since they don’t recognize their mistakes, they continuously repeat them. At the poker table this combination is deadly.

Additionally, narcissists don’t want to see others succeed. They need to play “king of the hill” to prove their superiority. They want others to fail, often even their best friends, something very illogical to me. Friends should root for each other and, even from a totally narcissistic perspective, when your friends do well, it should be good for you too! But such is the world of the narcissist.

Narcissists also put down their opponents and take losing personally. They can’t accept and respect the fact that their opponents are just trying to do the same thing they are. Often their obsession with being “king of the hill” destroys all happiness in their life. At the end of the day most narcissists are sad and lonely.

Poker’s combination of skill and luck perfectly fits the narcissists’ need to feel good about themselves. When they win, they believe it proves how superior they are. When they lose – as this young man has always done – they can blame their failures on exterior events such as bad luck. If this mindset fits you, recognize this shortcoming and adjust it to reality. Your poker game and your life will be much better for it!

When I gaze at the night sky and observe the 700,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars out there realizing some of them are as distant as 20,000,000,000 light years (about 6,000,000,000,000 miles per light year), it amazes me how the narcissist can faithfully believe he is the center of the universe. In the grand scope of things, sadly, we’re all irrelevant. ♠

  • Alan Schoomaker contributed to this column.

Roy Cooke played poker professionally for 16 years prior to becoming a successful Las Vegas real-estate broker/salesman in 1989. Should you wish to get any information about real-estate matters — including purchase, sale, or mortgage — his office number is (702) 396-6575, and his e-mail address is RealtyAce@aol.com. His website is www.roycooke.com.