Beta Males and the Poker Plateau

When Mediocre Players Think They Are Superstars

Beta Males"Heaven help the man who kicks the man who has to crawl"
-- Heaven Help Us All by Ron Miller, performed by Stevie Wonder

The contributions of recreational players having fun are the financial engine of poker rooms everywhere, but beta males overestimating their abilities are the engine of high level ring game and tournament poker.

For the purposes of this article, "beta male" means a man who significantly overestimates and overvalues his modest skills. Basically, a person who strongly believes he is one of the best poker players alive, when in fact he is objectively not close to that elite level.

Such creatures have existed since the first hand of poker was dealt, but the late stages of the poker boom generated a large number of these players -- who find themselves floundering during the non-boom, poker plateau.

During the boom, new players were introduced into the poker ecosystem every day. Some of these newbies became top quality players, but most either burned out eventually or settled into being recreational players who don't play for large sums of money. These days, far less new players are created on a regular basis. This means that there is a much smaller pool of low-skilled players for mediocre players to take advantage of. Instead, mediocre players trying to make significant money are faced with more peer players. These peers are not "good" players by any means, but poker profit is all about edge/advantage. Mediocre players can only gain edge from weaker or play-for-fun players.

In other words, games have not really gotten tougher. Strong players can beat mediocre players as thoroughly (perhaps even more so) than they can recreational players, but mediocre players now find themselves the entree in the poker restaurant, not the customer.

Some mediocre players sensibly recognize this and play at modest levels where recreational players still exist and there are few top players, but beta male players delude themselves into believing they are better than they are, and so continue to play higher than they should, and play with an unclear understanding of what they are facing.

A lot of factors are in play here. Many top players who came of age early in the poker boom developed into excellent all-around poker players, and similarly diversified their financial and personal interests. Simply playing No Limit Hold'em 24/7 makes Jack a dull boy, and dull boys stagnate. Poker income comes from finding EV+ edges. One-trick ponies have nowhere to go if opponents don't just throw themselves on their one spear.

Poker has always had beta males. Players who hit one or two major tournaments and thought they were geniuses, when they were merely hit by the deck. Likewise, even though you can play hundreds of thousands of hands of poker online, variance always allows some players to run luckier than the norm over an extended period. A top level player will recognize this, but a beta male will tend to confuse good luck with their own actions.

A growth plateau like now is just another opportunity for a top level player, but it frustrates beta male players. Top players look at poker as a career (even a temporary one). They do not treat it as a passing fancy from which they can lose interest when the going gets tough.

To be a top player, the best path is to treat your entire bankroll and every hand you play as an organized unit. In contrast, beta male players will play on whims -- because they have an absurdly outsized belief in their own genius. But nowhere else in the world are whims the best path forward. Part of an army doesn't randomly attack the enemy on a whim while the rest of the army is eating lunch. Someone on a diet should not just randomly eat a doughnut. Making bets on early betting rounds when you don't know what to do when you are called and it comes a blank is like driving from Los Angeles to Barstow and only then asking: "what the hell am I doing in Barstow?"

Winning poker is about accomplishing, achieving. In contrast, beta males think in ego-satisfying thrill-seeking terms. This is a hard distinction to put into words, but easy to illustrate with examples. A thrill-seeker will jump off a bridge on a whim for excitement; an achiever will enjoy the excitement of climbing Mount Everest.

Winning poker is about making EV+ decisions. That's it... but not to beta male players who often lose their focus on the simple point and instead obsess over all kinds of useless nonsense, like being upset when they lose a single pot (even if they played it the best EV+ way), simply because losing hands interferes with their mental narrative of being a specially gifted player.

Players who have not progressed beyond their longstanding No Limit Hold'em comfort zones are more prone to burnout than diversified players simply from the nature of the game, where coin flip hands and an overabundance of short term luck are the law of the land. Contrasting No Limit Hold'em with the next most common big bet game, Pot Limit Omaha, a key distinction between the two is NLH is usually a "game of nothing" while PLO is usually a "game of something". Constantly having to fight battles with nothing or very little can be very draining on a psyche.

This difference highlights a problem for thrill seekers either way. While winning more than your share of the equity in pots where players have nothing or very little is a key to NLH, it offers beta male thrill-seekers endless opportunities to make whim plays, where they overestimate their ability to pull them off. Playing whims against a well-conceived strategy of a top level opponent will only frustrate a beta male player, and frustration leads to the poor house for a whim player.

A successful poker career, poker tournament or individual poker hand play comes from design, architecture, planning -- just like climbing of Mount Everest requires those things. While at its most generous, whim/thrill-seeking poker could be compared to jazz music, even with jazz, satisfying music is made by inspiration... not by the delusional belief that whatever you do must be inspired because you are sooo good, or sooo clever, or sooo special.

Joran van der Sloot PokerJoran van der Sloot, the man who murdered Natalie Holloway in Aruba and Stephany Flores in Chile, was an extreme example of a beta male player. He thought he was entitled. He was arrogant and delusional -- and he went on life tilt when he wanted what he could not have, and did not deserve. Ernie Scherer III was better known as poker player than Joran, but because he wanted to live a life grander than his limited skills could provide, he murdered his parents (with a laughably idiotic beta plan) to inherit what he couldn't earn via his poker play.

A similar non-poker example that comes to mind are the group of pretentious losers from Kansas who called themselves the "Crusaders". They gave themselves a self-important name, established a goal of murdering people they deemed to be "cockroaches", spent their meager resources on many guns and other deadly weapons and the only thing they accomplished was making fools of themselves and getting locked up for the dual sins of being scumbags and pompous fools.

I don't want to belittle the actions of a murderer or say some arrogant doofus at the poker table is one step from being Joran, but it is useful to consider that people who think they deserve more than they have earned or worked for are actually engaging in acts of self-destruction, even if they may destroy others around them even worse.

There will always be a real distinction between degenerate gamblers and skillful poker players. If you bet an amount like $1,000,000 on a weight bet that causes you to do an activity that betting $1 won't, that is degenerate gambling because it is money motivating behavior rather than desired behavior motivating betting. Likewise, if you spend days on any activity like winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in a poker tournament and then you place the winnings on one spin on a roulette table, you disrespect yourself, you disrespect the non-degenerate people of the world for whom such money would be life-changing, and you disrespect the accomplishment of your own labor.

But pure degenerates are only a subset of beta males in poker. There is a much larger group complaining about how -- despite how awesome they play themselves -- games are getting tougher, how they are growing bored with what they are doing, and so on. Life is what you make it, and so is your poker career. Diversify, both in game play and outside interests. Find excitement and challenge in climbing Mount Everest rather than jumping off a bridge. And most of all, objectively evaluate your choices and assume you still need to grow to become better at everything you do. Once you start thinking you have nothing left to learn, you have everything to learn.

Finally, if you are wondering why I'm targeting beta males here and not women... I've written before how the average level of play for women players is higher than the average level of play for men since men lose more money per person than women do in poker. One reason for this is that society overall is far more dangerous for women than men, so women have to be smarter. For every woman who has delusionally lost everything she has playing poker, there are 100 such men. It's a lot easier for a man to sleep in their car or under a bridge than it is for a woman, so hardly any women delude themselves about their self-perceived poker genius to the degree beta males do.

See also The Poker Plateau, Diversity Makes a (Poker) Boom, Not Monotony and Sponsored Poker Players