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Playing to Win

The Reason to Play Poker

Win at Poker"We spend our whole lives being cool.
On our tombstones itís gonna say:
'He didnít have any fun, but he was cool.íĒ
-- John Stewart


John Stewart is one of my favorite songwriters, both for lyrics and melody, and his songs often get me thinking about poker applications. He said the above line while urging his audience to sing along with his beautiful "California Bloodlines." Itís one of those songs that if you were driving through the desert alone in the middle of the night, you would just have to sing along. But in front of other folks, a lot of people stifle that impulse, out of concern for their image -- the need to look cool, the desire to not look like a dip.

This begs the question of why the stiflers go to a concert. If you do something, why not seize the whole available experience? Of course, some people go to a concert just "to look cool." That is the goal in itself.

Different people play poker for different reasons. And, people often have multiple reasons for playing. In my own game and everything I write, my focus is (or tries to be) on playing to win. Getting the money.

Winning poker is about getting the money. Itís not about playing as high as you can, or having showy piles of chips, or winning a bunch of tournament titles. You may want to achieve these things for other reasons, they may often be by-products of winning, but these are not the stuff of playing to win. Winning poker is the art, science and craft of taking more than your equal share of the money being put at risk on a poker table. If you play to win, thatís what matters -- taking in money, not squandering money, putting money at risk in mathematically sound ways, gearing your play to end up with more money than you started with.

Despite what they may say, few players actually play for the money, and of course, that is fine with those of us who do. Even among successful players, a lot are motivated by other goals. The main one being ego.

While self-confidence in your ability is a vital part of winning, playing to satisfy an ego urge is not. Many otherwise great players win less money because of their egos. This goes back to the John Stewart quote. If you go to a concert to have fun, sing. If you go to look cool, then look cool but understand you are passing up on some fun. Some great players arenít going to the concert to have fun (win money); they go to look cool (play for their ego).

I donít care why anybody else plays (except it is good to know what motivates your individual opponents because you can then use that against them). If somebody plays for ego, or because they got thrown out of the house for the night, fine by me. People can do what they want with their poker lives and money. But if you want to win, if you want to maximize the amount of money (or monetary expectation) you get out of all your poker confrontations, then you should first and foremost be motivated by the desire to win money. Put your ego in a shoebox somewhere. Itís no help. It can only distract you or hurt you. You can only win so much ďstuffĒ at a poker table, and you canít spend ego. Time spent accumulating ego strokes should have been spent accumulating spendable chips.

I know some people will read this and think that playing for their ego goals doesnít conflict with their financial goals. Others might think there isnít much here to really sink your teeth into -- just play properly and win. But what is properly for the money is often not properly for the ego. Ego motivations lead to things like people playing too high for their bankroll, playing too long sessions when losing, getting into purely macho blind-stealing or blind-defending confrontations with specific players, and personalizing actions of opponents ("you raised me again?!"). Focus on that stuff if you want... that is, if you want to play ego poker.

But if you want to play to win, go to the casino with that goal in mind, and "sing." They'll put on your tombstone: "S/he played to win."

See also Why Play Poker, Poker Ego and YA Tittle and Losing Poker