I played some $15-30 limit Hold’em last night for the first time in a while. It was a fairly tough game; some of the better players were there, including three players who are probably professional-level. I considered going to the softer $10-20 game, which would have been a better financial decision, but I decided to make it a challenging night. I rarely get a chance to play against a tough field, so I thought I’d get some practice.
I honestly get a bit neurotic when I’m playing against good players (of which I don’t play with hardly any). With mediocre players, I don’t worry about how I’m perceived too much, as far as tells or strategy. When I’m against good players, I get really anxious that they are studying my mannerisms as much as I’m studying theirs, even though I know they’re probably not. I also underestimate my own poker face; I feel even more transparent than usual, and I start to feel like people are reading me better than I know they are. All of this, in turn, prevents me from focusing as much on the game as I should be doing.
Basically, I’m probably the opposite of most poker players, because in any given situation I feel much weaker and less fit than my results should dictate. Basically, in a nutshell, I have very low self-esteem. Unlike most poker players, who think they’re much better than they are, I usually feel much worse than I am, despite knowing intellectually that I’m decent. For example, last night, I played damn near my A-game. I only made one play that I considered “wrong” given the information I had at the time. I felt good about all the spots I was in, and felt like I knew where I was in almost every hand. Still, I went through the evening feeling anxious and like a fish-out-of-water.
This low self-esteem has impacted my poker results in good and bad ways. On one hand, I feel like it’s made me a better player, just because I never, ever have gotten, or will get, to the point where I think I’m excellent at the game. I know that I have a small fraction of the skill level of someone like Phil Ivey or Barry Greenstein. (I also know I will likely never reach such a skill level, simply because I do not play enough now.) In this respect, my inferiority complex is accurate and drives me to improve every second I play.
But I also know the low poker self-esteem prevents me from reaching my true potential at the game, just because I hardly ever get comfortable at the table, even when I am by far the best player at the table. Only when the game is very soft and I’m crushing it do I reach a state of feeling like things are going well. It is very uncommon for me to just sit down at a table and start out playing my confident A-game. It usually takes a decent run of cards or good plays before I start feeling validated, even though I know that is a silly way to operate. When you’re feeling anxious about your skills and your readability, it’s hard to focus as much as you need to on your opponents. This above all else is my biggest shortcoming in the game; just never feeling comfortable.
Of course, a lot of these issues with my poker game are tied in to my basic general anxiety, which I’ve long suffered from, and which I occasionally take medication for (Lorazepam). Generalized anxiety can spread to every facet of your being. I can imagine being an Olympic athlete or high stakes professional poker player and still suffering from the same doubts as to my ability or worthiness. In a way, the fact that I can imagine being super-successful while still suffering from such anxiety is kind of encouraging. It means to me that the anxiety is something foreign to me, that it is not who I am, and that it does not dictate my success or failure.