behavior guest post

Poker and The Culture of Narcissism

Guest post and artwork from Porter today – P.

You are a serious poker player. You post hand histories in the forums, subscribe to the poker training sites, and watch all the latest vlogs. You even have a coach. Yet you still aren’t crushing the games. Probably variance. But humor me for a minute, what if there is something else holding you back?

Poker players are a conflicted bunch. We “espouse freedom but crave authority,” belittle our opponents yet long for their respect, we want a social game to be solitary. Some of us even want poker not to be gambling. These conflicts lead to frustration and stagnation. But we are merely part of the larger American culture, diagnosed in Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book, The Culture of Narcissism*. And we can’t change unless we recognize, reject, and escape this culture.

Taking a step back to the myth, Narcissus was prophesied at birth to live a long life, so long as he never knew himself. Later, after rejecting a lover, he is cursed so that if he ever fell in love, his feelings wouldn’t be returned. Narcissus then fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. He didn’t know himself, he fell in love with a reflection he didn’t recognize.

So, what is the culture of narcissism? It’s a culture that gives “increasing prominence and encouragement to narcissistic traits.” Traits such as “a certain protective shallowness, a fear of binding commitments, a willingness to pull up roots whenever the need arose, a desire to keep one’s options open, a dislike of depending on anyone, an incapacity for loyalty or gratitude.”

It’s people wishing for admiration over esteem, celebrity over fame, envy over respect. And it manifests as “shame over guilt; rage over anger; … your future over your past.” Shame is about image, guilt is about remorse. Rage is directed out at the world and impotent, while anger is within and can be productive. The future is valued because it doesn’t exist; we can conjure up any fantasy we desire. While our past, every action and moment leading to this, is what defines us in the present. (This is the culture that would gladly forgive Chris Ferguson in exchange for a weepy, public apology, but will hold a grudge after a voluntary five-year leave.)

Narcissism acts as a defense mechanism. We have learned to assign power to others (parents, government, elites, etc.) but not to ourselves. Although we grasp the gulf between us and the elite, we don’t want to risk our identity by changing.

A defense against what? Against change. We use narcissism as a defense against having to change. Instead of changing, we distinguish ourselves by adopting the signifiers of the elite, although we lack their ability. If we are confronted with our failures, we lay blame at the feet of experts. Lasch describes this as a paternalism without fathers. We are stuck in childhood.

We assign power to the poker books, to Doug Polk, to Phil Galfond, to Fedor Holz, but never to ourselves. We buy their products, wear their gear, and use their language. Adopt their strategies, follow their hand charts, and make the standard play because they told us to. If we fail, well at least we did it their way.

As Nick Howard said, Anyone Can be a Successful Poker Player, EXCEPT You because you’re still asking for permission. And it’s related to Why You Struggle at Low Stakes Poker, according to Persuadeo.

Why do you play poker? Who are you and what do you want? Why are you here, reading this blog? If you play for fun, this isn’t about you. Do your thing, have a blast. But if your answer is something along the lines of, “Well someday I want to be…,” or “I’m actually pretty good, other than some mental game leaks,” then I’m talking to you. If you don’t even have an answer for “why” then I’m absolutely talking to you.

If you want to master poker, then learn the fundamentals, understand the theory of the game, find the deviations, and finally build your own strategy. A strategy is more than  tactics, more than a list of heuristics. Building your own strategy requires knowing your strengths and weaknesses and having your own ideas about the game. The confusion borne of having a jumble of ideas floating around your head, each from a different poker thinker, never ends until you take responsibility and develop your own ideas.

“Poker reveals to the frank observer something else of import – it will teach him about his own nature. Many bad players do not improve because they cannot bear self-knowledge. The bad player will not deign to determine what he thinks by watching what he does,” as David Mamet wrote. Step 1- be a frank observer. Step 2- bear the self-knowledge. Step 3- ?

I was born right around the time Lasch published his book, right into the culture of narcissism. After fumbling around for thirty-some-odd years, completely clueless about who I was and what I wanted, and despite all my privilege, I finally bottomed out. My girlfriend (now my wife) broke the news to me about just how insufferable I had become. Although I was somewhat surprised, I accepted her appraisal and decided to change.

I began meditating, assessed my strengths and weaknesses, adopted a philosophy of life, and slowly sussed out what I wanted to accomplish. Lo and behold, I started having impulses that I didn’t indulge, learned my limits, and began to become a better person for the people around me. (The aim is self-knowledge and personal responsibility, not the cult of self-improvement.)

This didn’t make me an elite poker player. I’m still working on that. And I have had to confront these issues again in poker-specific ways. But I can say that I know myself and my limitations, and that I’m building something unique to master a game I love. I’ve suffered my share and feel like I’m on a path towards something better. So, although none of this will help you master poker, I hope that it might help you become someone with the capacity for mastery.

*All quotes are from this book unless stated otherwise.


  1. This is really outstanding Greg! I have read through it several times and clicked on all the references. Very deep stuff. People will see various aspects of themselves as they read it, and maybe even still other aspects when they re-read it. Each of us has different reflections on how we were shaped in growing up, and our hopes and plans for our poker future vary just as widely.

    I liked that you included Nick Howard’s thoughts, because I think he’s right, and by including it, I guess you agree with him too. And I loved it that you wound up with the article and quote by Mamet. Ultimately, “Character is destiny.” Especially when accompanied by honest self-knowledge.

    Clicking the embedded links deepens our thinking experience too.

  2. My apologies for not including the citation:
    While it has been used by some in modern times, the original quote, “Character is Destiny,” was from Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, about 2000 yrs ago.

  3. I see what your saying its better to define yourself than run around trying to copy other peoples thoughts on playing. I have become a better player by not playing. What do I mean? If I sit down and I see I am way over my head I quit. Also if I have played four or five hours and I am tired I quit. The next thing I have done is if I lose two buy ins I quit. So far this year I have played 62 tournaments and have cashed $ 2400.00. Unfortunately I have bought in for $2900.00. Yes I am losing money for the year but only $ 500. Not so bad. I am more than happy with my play and it does not bother me one bit that I am losing for the year.

  4. Great post. It takes courage to engage in self honesty, seek and pluck the weeds of self delusion, and bear self responsibility. It’s a lot easier to blame anything or anyone but ourselves for any slight or circumstance that doesn’t fit the glamour of our narcissistic and deluded culture.

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The OOP Lexicon is a user-developed poker glossary.

Absolute Position
Being last to act (e.g. closest to the button) postflop.

Advancing Leverage
Aggressive actions intended to shift the leverage point closer to the current street.

A bluff or value hand which is a natural candidate for balancing another hand because of their shared qualities, such as AA and AK; usually helps planning range splitting and line construction.

Auto profit threshold (APT)
A bluff made with positive expectation resulting from the opponent under defending vis-a-vis bet sizing. The inverse of MDF.

Choosing to support either value bets or bluffs with their converse.

A bet is a proposition.  It’s the first offer on the pot with regard to the outcome of the game. Each player, in turn, has the opportunity to lay or change the price on the pot to the rest of the players. “The language of poker.” The bet, as opposed to the raise, is most often and most easily allied to the merged pricing construction.

To remove combinations of hands from a range based on cards in your hand or on the board.

Cards which influence our combinatorial assumptions. Ex: We face resistance on T76ss while we hold As7d. Both our cards act as blockers. Our ace of spades blocks (limits) a number of flush draws our opponent could hold, while our seven blocks a number of two pair and sets our opponent could hold. *See also Block and Unblock

Blocker Bet
A small bet made by an out-of-position player.

Board Texture
The available community cards and the set of conditions which inform its relationship to a logical range.

The worst hands in a betting range.  Depending on context this could be the worst hand in a value bet range or the bluffing section of polarized range.

A range descriptor indicating a range shape with a specific high or low boundary.  A range bounded high won't contain some number of the best linear hands ranked from the top down.  This is equivalent to a "capped" range.  A range bounded low won't contain some number of the worst linear hands ranked from the bottom up.  This is often useful to describe a range that doesn't include any air or very weak hands.

A strategic mode in which a player is attempting to deny their opponent(s) equity share of the pot through aggression. Often referred to as “denying equity” or “buying up equity”.

A range is capped when it represents little to no nutted combinations as confirmed by prior action.

A continuation bet. A bet made by the player with initiative as a continuation of their initiative on a prior street.

The ability to accurately range an opponent based on all available information at a decision point.  An understanding of your hands exact equity.

Closing Action
Acting last where no subsequent action is possible behind you.  For example calling a UTG raise in the BB or calling in position postflop with no players behind.

Cold Call/Cold Bet
An action is considered “cold” when it comes from a player entering into the pot has not previously put chips voluntarily in the pot. Ex: the UTG opens, the BTN 3bets. If the SB were to call or raise, it would be a cold-call or a cold-4bet.

The branch of mathematics the deals with finite number sets. Used in poker in determining the amount of combinations of certain hands in a range.

When a blind that is not the biggest blind calls the amount of the biggest blind. Ex: At $2/$5, action folds around to the SB and the SB completes. Meaning they just call. The BB can complete when there is a straddle.

A capped range that contains only middling value hands. A range without the polarized portion.

Logical advancement of combinations across streets.

Dark Side of the Deck
The large swath of hands, often off-suit, that fall outside of conventional playable recommendations. Counter-equity hands.

Dead Money
Money in the pot that is not being fought for.  A passive player creates dead money when they call a bet preflop and looking to play fit-or-fold postflop. Dead Money is often confused with the money in the pot.

Delayed Cbet
A cbet made on the turn by the preflop raiser when the flop checked through.

Delaying Leverage
Passive actions intended to maintain a likely late street leverage point, or possibly to avoid a leverage point entirely.

A strategic break from one’s standard construction as an exploit of a particular player’s profile or construction.

Diminishing Medium Value Category
A Seidman concept in which when one’s middling value hand range is too small and transparent to our opponent and thus either that range should be shifted into the top of a polarized range or the nutted portion should be shifted into the medium value range. Ex: AQo or TT being 3bet preflop.

A cbet that is less than the preflop raise. Ex: BTN opens to $25, we 3bet to $90 from the SB, BTN calls. On the flop we cbet $70.

Dry Board
A board texture that yields relatively few logical hands value. Often containing one medium or high card and disconnected low cards. Ex: Q53r, T622r.

Dual Mentalities
A Seidman concept in which when we decide to go postflop with a weak hand against a nutted range, we should either be looking to out flop it or steal the pot away. We base our decision against the player type we are up against and never go post with both mentalities at once.

Dynamic Board
A flop texture in which the runout is very likely to change the order of top ranking hands. Ex: 954tt, 742r.

Effective Stack
The smallest stack to VPIP in a given hand. Their stack decides the amount of money that can be played for or threatened before an all-in.

Effective nuts
A value hand that can be played for stacks as if it were the actual nuts.  This is a relative hand ranking based on range assumptions and opponent type.

A measure of how well the equity of a hand is deployed. Efficiency can also be used as a measure of what is risked vs what is gained for a given bet size.

Either/Or Philosophy
A Seidman concept in which a particular street can be a very good spot for value, meaning our opponent is never folding, or a very good spot to bluff, meaning our opponent is never calling, but that those spots cannot be concurrent.

Borrowed from economics, a measure of the sensitivity of a range or hand relative to the price offered.  Ranges (or hands) described as elastic will narrow, sometimes quickly, in response to increases in price.  Those described as inelastic will not.

The percent pot share of a holding or range on any given street if the hand were to go to showdown with no further betting action.

Equity Pusher
A analytic approach to the game in which a player views the correct actions only through the lens of their hands equity vs. their opponent’s range. Often this player type has a lack of understanding of overall strategy and plays their range face up with few bluffs.

Expected Value
The mathematical formula for how much a player’s action is expected to make with their hand vs. their opponent’s range. EV = ($towin * %ofwin) - ($tolose * %ofloss)

Face Up
A player is playing their range “face up” when their actions directly correspond with their desired outcome. Ex: A player bets half-pot three streets with a range that has no bluffs. A player 3bets to 7x with JJ.

False Polarization
Otherwise known as Faux-Po; a polarizing action taken with a merged range.

The result of losing your entire table stakes. All the way down to the felt.

A call of a cbet with a weak holding with the likely intention of taking the pot away when the opponent shuts down. Often done by an in position preflop caller.

The convergence of positions, stack depths, and preceding actions at a given decision point.

A mathematical formula developed by Phil Galfond for calculating the expected value of one’s range construction vs. an opponent’s holding.

A computer programming term that means "garbage in, garbage out" which also applies to poker forums when a poster seeks an in-depth conversation about a hand, but fail to provide pertinent information such as stack sizes, bets sizes, table dynamics and player tendencies.

Game Theory
The applied science of combining mathematical models with logic to craft winning poker strategies.

Game Theory Optimal
A set of strategies is GTO if no player can unilaterally deviate and increase his average profit. ~ Will Tipton.  GTO does not mean best possible response, highest EV, or maximally exploitative play.

Implied Odds
Additional value likely to be accrued if you make your hand on a later street.

Sometimes referred to as the betting lead, a common situation in which the passive player yields to the aggressive player postflop, or the last aggressor continues betting on subsequent streets.

A bet or raise intended to force out the rest of the field in order to play heads up against a weaker opponent who has entered the pot through limping, raising, or posting the blinds.

Loose aggressive player type. Generally overused and inaccurate.

A bet made from out of position after a passive action. Often referred to as a donk bet on the flop.

He knows that I know that he knows I know.

A bet or raise that signals the hand will be played for stacks.  Within reason, it is accomplished by betting with a sizing that will create RSP equal to 1 on the following street.

Limp First In

A consecutive range of hands decreasing in strength from top to bottom; generally meaning value hands. Equivalent to "merged."

Lockdown Board
A board on which the nuts have often already been made.  More prevalent in PLO but sometimes useful in no-limit, for example on monotone flops and boards with available common straights e.g. JT9, T98, 987, etc.

1) A range of hands that includes both strong and medium value; 2) in reference to medium value; 3) the merged construction describes the natural representation of a wide range through a bet.

Mini Stop-N-Go
A Seidman concept, a line taken by a OOP PFR where flop is check/called and turn is lead.

Minimum Defense Frequency (MDF)
The necessary defending (calling/raising) frequency to prevent an opponent from auto-profiting.  The inverse of APT.

Natural Action
A check, bet, or raise which is exactly suited to a player's range and situation (e.g. a pfr's continuation bet on AK2r).

A player who will not put chips into the pot without a very strong and sometimes only nutted hand.

The best possible hand.

Nuts-To-Air Ratio (NAR)
In a polarized betting line, the ratio of value to bluff.  As used by Seidman, not limited to polarization but sometimes used to label general opponent tendency of value to bluff.

Old Man Coffee. Typically an older, retired player that likes to play bingo with ATC, but will only continue with the nuts.

The first voluntary action. The first action or bet to voluntarily enter the pot.

A bet that is more than the size of the pot.

Perceived Range
Refers to the range of hands that your opponent thinks you could have in a certain playing situation. This can be interpreted and thus misinterpreted from your playing style and position at the table.

A range consisting of very strong and very weak hands.

Post Oak Bluff
A small bluff on a late street that has little chance of winning the pot.  Generally interpreted as “gutless” in the past but now fulfilling certain functions as betting efficiencies are understood.

Positional Protection
When the strength of a range is perceived to be capped or uncapped based on which position an action is taken from.

When an action or player is perceived to have strong hands in its range.

Protection Bet
A wager which denies equity to hands which will only give action if they significantly improve; "a value bet which does not want a call."

The rejection of the offered price and the laying of a new higher price.  Raises represent a more narrow range of hands and trend towards polarization.

Range Advantage
Implementation or study tool that refers to 1) most basically, equity measurement of one range against another; 2) or also including a combination of further factors including availability of nutted hands, the nuances of the runout, and positional protection.

Range Manipulation
Deliberate line work/bet sizing made to narrow a range or keep a range wide.

Range Switch
A deliberate change in range composition made to thwart a player who is reading our range too accurately in any spot.  Reduces transparency, fights assumptions, and wins the leveling war if implemented correctly.

Ratio of Stack To Pot
RSP. The stack to pot ratio at any point in a hand, generally used post-flop as opposed to Stack to Pot Ratio.

Taking a hand to showdown and realizing its full equity.  Generally used with regard to passive actions.

The mutual exchange of chips resulting from similar play and ideas.  Reciprocity is a common bi-product of group-think.  A true edge by definition cannot be reciprocal.

Relative Position
A player’s position measured against the aggressor's position.  Generally this is used going to the flop.  For example, if UTG raises and several players call behind, calling in the big blind would give you the best relative position.  You will act after seeing how the field responds to a likely continuation from the preflop aggressor.  In the same scenario calling immediately after the preflop aggressor results in the worst relative position.  You will have to act immediately after a continuation without seeing how the remaining players will respond.  Strong relative position confers an information edge.

The ability of hand to maintain equity across streets against a betting range or as part of a betting range.

Reverse Implied Odds (RIO)
Hands that often win small pots or lose large pots suffer from reverse implied odds.

Popularized by Mathew Janda, a descriptor for how well a hand retains equity over streets of play.  Hands described as robust have equity that does not suffer as an opponent's range becomes stronger.  Often these hands are currently both strong and invulnerable, or have the ability to become very strong by the river, relative to the opponent's range.

Fourth and Fifth Street cards following a given flop texture.

Scale of Protection
Poker theorem which states that the more protected or strong an opponent's range is, the higher the degree of denial or retention a counter will require.

Sklansky Bucks
Dollars won (or lost) in expected value regardless of actual hand result.

Any one of many possible poker archetypes found at low stakes games.

A reraise made after a player has raised and one or more players has called in-between.

Static Board
A flop texture in which the runout is unlikely to change the order of top ranking hands. Ex: AK7r, KK4r.

A passive action followed by an aggressive action, out of position.  For example, a call followed by a lead on the next street.

Streets of Value
A crude shorthand measurement for how much betting a hand can tolerate and still be best at showdown more often than not.

Tight aggressive opponent type. Generally overused and misapplied.

TAG's Dilemma
The paradox created by having a top-heavy range played so aggressively that it misuses equity vis-à-vis position and holding.

The Great Range Fantasy
The common idea that we know our opponent’s range and frequencies precisely; most commonly seen in post-hoc analysis to justify microedge decisions.

Thin Value
A bet that is only slightly more likely to be called by worse than by better. Associated with the merged pricing construction and bet-fold lines.

Three Fundamentals
The most fundamental variables for decision making: position, stack size, and community cards.

The best hands in a given range.

Two-Way Bet
A bet that expects calls from worse hands and incorrect folds at the same time, a simultaneous value bet and bluff line.

The psychological effect of feeling like you’re losing because your stack size isn’t as large as it once was during a session, even though it’s more than what you’re in the game for.

(e.g. You bought in for $100, ran it up $450, but now only have $175 in front of you.)

A hand that has no negative card removal effects on the target range.  Bottom set, for example, unblocks top pair top kicker.

A range that is perceived to contain the nuts in any given line.  Capped ranges may become uncapped during transitions for example from preflop to flop, or flop to turn.

A turned nut straight after raising flop with a gutter.

Value Owning
Making value bets with a hand that has less than 50% equity when called.

Voluntarily Put Money In Pot (VPIP)
The frequency at which a player limps, calls, or raises preflop.

Volatile Board
A flop texture where equities will often shift on the turn and river.  See “dynamic”.

An illusory cooler where one player makes a massive mistake equity mistake and loses his stack with a strong but second best hand; also known as a Jam Basket.

Wet Board
A board texture that allows for a lot of logical hands to continue. Often made up of medium rank connected cards. Ex: KT9tt, Tc8c6s-7c-Ac.

“Walk In, Fuck Shit Up, Walk Out” a hashtag used by instagram poker players.

Winning Player
A forum poster who offers reciprocal advice under the guise of questionable positive low stakes results. A weak player or fish, in general.

Young Man Coffee. Is very much an OMC, but younger.  They usually only continue with the nuts, often under the illusion of playing a GTO style.