Sunday, March 12, 2006

Poker and Narcissism

A while back I posted a poll that I'd found online regarding narcissism. Shockingly, I only got one comment. Many posters IM'd me with their own, personal score, but most readers were scared to talk about their results.

I have always believed that successful poker players must have a selfish streak in their personalities. We must lack empathy in order to make the most of our wins. People who write about poker seem to back this theory up. Dr. Al, for instance, and Barry.

A personality type like an ESFP (strong in each category), for instance, could probably never make it, long term, in the professional poker world (there are many exceptions, I'm sure). Here are some attributes of ESFP's:

"outgoing, social, group oriented, does not like to be alone, feels at ease around others, conventional, talkative, modest, good at getting people to have fun, values relationships and family over intellectual pursuits, open, spontaneous, underachieving, at times unprepared, emotional, suggestible, at times easy to impress, not analytical, disorganized, prone to crying, likes to be center of attention, happy, trusts others, can be influenced more by others than self, can be touchy feely, feels the emotions of others, likes teamwork, guided by moods"

As you can see, this person is just a disaster waiting to happen at the poker tables.

The more unique, and stronger personality type of an INTJ, however, fits like a glove at more serious minded poker:

"loner, more interested in intellectual pursuits than relationships or family, not very altruistic, not very complimentary, would rather be friendless than jobless, observer, values solitude, perfectionist, detached, private, not much fun, hidden, skeptical, does not tend to like most people, socially uncomfortable, unhappy, does not talk about feelings, hard to impress, analytical, likes esoteric things, tends to be pessimistic, not spontaneous, prone to discontentment, guarded, does not think they are weird but others do, responsible, can be insensitive or ambivalent to the misfortunes of others, orderly, clean, organized, familiar with darkside, suspicious of others, can be lonely, rarely shows anger, punctual, finisher, prepared"

It is not a hard stretch to see that someone like an INTJ would have narcissistic traits. I certainly do. I answered the poll honestly, and publicly, so everyone knows exactly where I stand. It wasn't even that hard for me to do, but then again, a narcissist wouldn't mind everyone knowing about it, would he? ;)

So what narcissistic tendencies and traits would benefit a poker player? And which would hurt him, as well?

Here is a good definition of the type of psychological narcissism that I'm discussing (traits that would benefit a poker player are in bold):

"A pattern of traits and behaviours which signify infatuation and obsession with one's self to the exclusion of all others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one's gratification, dominance and ambition."

Even a blind mouse could find the similarities to this and the personality type needed to be extremely successful in poker.

This does not mean, however, that a personality lacking in narcissistic traits cannot be a hugely successful poker player. It also does not mean that a giving, compassionate human being is incapable of having strong narcissistic traits (Barry Greenstein). I do contend that most serious, winning players have at least one, if not many narcissistic tendencies, but it is not 100% necessary to have them, and be successful.

Online poker has shown us that some weaker personality types can be big winners. Chat can be turned off, one does not have to "face" his opponent in order to make that bet, raise or bluff. A personality that has no narcissistic traits at all could survive online, if he works hard enough and recognizes his weaknesses. I know many successful, online players who lack the "killer instinct," yet get eaten alive in B&M play.

Just because one may have narcissistic traits, does not mean he is a narcissist. Since most of you are too scared to even address this possibility, I will use myself as an example. For instance, from the recent poll I posted:


I answered yes to this question. But a true narcissist could never admit that he is not the best, not the smartest. I can admit that I'm not. So while I have this, particular trait, it is not to the extent of a real narcissist.


This is a no-brainer. It is almost necessary in big bet, serious poker.



So although I fit these traits almost to a tee, where are the other seventeen? Well, I don't have them to the extent of clinical narcissism. Some of the top players might have more tendencies than I do, some might have less. I am not positive if any top players are true, clinical narcissists.

Some other traits I found online that are almost necessary for successful, long term players are (IMO):

--Is "interpersonally exploitative", i.e., uses others to achieve his or her own ends
--Devoid of empathy. Is unable or unwilling to identify with or acknowledge the feelings and needs of others

Some interesting statistics about narcissism which help illuminate the make-up of an individual player, as well as that of a typical cardroom are as follows:

--Most narcissists (75%) are men.
--It is estimated that 0.7-1% of the general population suffer from NPD.
--Narcissists are either "Cerebral" (derive their narcissistic supply from their intelligence or academic achievements) - or "Somatic" (derive their narcissistic supply from their physique, exercise, physical or sexual prowess and "conquests").

(Obviously I am only interested in "Cerebral" narcissists.)

Addressing those three traits, first I would estimate that up to 90% of most live cardrooms are male populated (in some areas less, some more). Online, however, female players are a much higher percentage. Again, the lack of narcissistic traits and the killer instinct does not hurt an online player as much as a live player. Combine that with the fact that almost no females are of the INTJ or INTP personality type, and I think we've got more than a coincidence.

Second, if only .7-1% of the general population have NPD, I would bet my last dollar that of the top 1000 poker players today, this percentile is greatly multiplied.

Third, I don't know any somatic narcissists, but am speaking exclusively of the cerebral variety. Listening to the way some of the top players talk about themselves, I'm almost certain there must be a few cerebral narcissists out there, and plenty more players with heavy tendencies.

So after reading all of this, what if you find yourself with almost no narcissistic traits, and a weaker personality type like ESFP? Do I make a blanket statement to you and just say to quit poker? No, although that might be the right answer if you find yourself losing, and not being so happy about it (eg, not a recreational player who expects to lose).

In today's cardrooms, both B&M and online, there is a place for just about everyone. We are lucky to be living in the age of extremely live games.

Some of the Two Plus Two books go through player type and how well they will fit a certain game. Since I am of the Two Plus Two mindset, I'm not hesitant about directing players towards a certain game, depending on their personality types and skillset.

If you are of a weaker personality type, you might do better online than live. If you are a tight, passive player, a game like limit Omaha 8 will be just the ticket for you. Other players WILL bet your hand for you, and you can even be a long-term winner with that strategy. That being said, you will probably need to stay in the lower limits, from 10/20 down to 2/4 live, and from 1/2 down to micros online.

If you are relatively tight, but tend to be a calling station (sometimes referred to as weak/tight), you probably will want to stick to online play exclusively, or never play higher than 2/4 live. The right game for you might be Stud (high only).

The weaker the personality type, the less abuse he is most likely to be able to withstand. That is where internet poker comes in. The chat can be disabled, and even the weakest, timid personality types can survive.

While individual statistics can prove just about anything, I am pretty convinced that narcissism tendencies play a big part in successful poker players. Over the years, I have just seen too much overwhelming evidence of this.

Now, having written all of this, who do I think will benefit from it? Well, I do believe more successful, serious minded players may have some illumination about their winnings and how their personality type may play a roll in those winnings. They might also be reassured about moving up levels, trusting that they really can win in the long term (but they probably already knew that, anyway).

Weak players with weak personality types and no traits of narcissism? Well, I don't have to say much. They don't have the will to win. They don't have the killer instinct. But they will not stop playing. This post or others like it (see Two Plus Two Psychology or the FYI poker psychology site, for example) will not deter them from losing. They will continue to play, and continue to lament their "bad luck." They need something, an outlet. If it weren't poker, it would be slots or something else. They have a mindset that they need to spend a certain amount of money on something every week, recreationally, and they will not heed any warnings.

While this, in and of itself, is not a horrible thing, those of us who are winners need to keep it in mind that the weaker players will get taken advantage of, sometimes badly.

We cannot get into the middle of these situations. As much as we might want to, we cannot constantly warn the fish not to lend money to Joe-Broke. The fish are determined to lose and be taken advantage of. They will not listen to our warnings, and we will only create frustration that is not warranted, among all parties involved. (Stealing, however, is another matter, and we have an ethical obligation to protect the fish from those circumstances.)

Any sympathy or empathy that we might feel for the fish needs to be completely killed when we enter the cardroom. There is no gain to "checking it down" against a live one. Soft play and implicit collusion will only get us in trouble, and will absolutely not "help" the fish at all. Trying to be the table coach will make us hated among our peers, while the fish will not benefit in any way whatsoever. Do not lend the fish money, do not give them pointers or tips, and do not "feel sorry" for them. They came to play, and lose, and you are helping them achieve their goals. They may tell you that they want to win, they may try to lie to you and convince you that they are winning players, but you know the truth, although you sit and smile and commiserate with them.

You cannot help the fish become a winner, but you also, in turn, should never berate the fish. For more explanation on that theme, please refer to my psychology post, "Learn to Think Like a Fish."

Felicia :)