"I got no fear. I'm fearless. I'm not afraid to go broke. I'm not afraid to put my whole tournament on the line. I'm a great poker player and they're all gonna see that."
Soon after I published a new poker player profile on Mike "The Mouth" Matusow utilizing his above quote, one of the first readers questioned Matusow’s claim of fearlessness when "he laid down a K high flush to a smallish check raise by Phil Ivey on the river in Season 4 of Full Tilt’s Million Dollar Cash Game."
Obviously it’s a bit unfair to take a statement uttered in a WSOP tournament setting years ago and apply it in every poker situation Matusow faces the rest of his playing days. Regardless, it stimulated me to consider the different types of fear that we face at the poker table.
There are three major types of fear when playing poker: fear of losing, fear of embarrassment, and fear of the unknown.
Fear of losing
While no one likes to lose, we have to face the fear of losing during each hand we play. Only on those rare occasions when we hold the stone cold nuts does that fear ever dissipate. Our natural, if unrealistic, goal is to win every hand we play. The general strategy we employ is to maximize our gain when we win and minimize the loss on the hands we don’t. The fear of losing forces us into many unwise decisions. Losing is a part of the game and we have to factor it in to our play.
Fear of embarrassment
Our egos play a big role in poker. We don’t want to appear foolish in our decisions. Sometimes we fear they could have a better hand and fold. While other times we refuse to fold a hand for fear that we will be shown a bluff.
Fear of the unknown
Poker is a game of incomplete information. That is why position is so important because players with more information can make more informed decisions. When we are unsure of our holding versus our opponent’s holding, it creates uncertainty. Facing uncertainty, we often fall back on the maxim that "discretion is the better part of valor." We fold in marginal situations out of fear.
There are many poker situations where all three forms of poker fear are combined in a deadly cocktail to undermine our optimal play.
Learning to overcome your poker fears comes down to your mindset. The first step is to realize that many aspects in poker are beyond your control (e.g how your opponent will act or what cards will come). Focus on those aspects that you do control; your actions, thoughts, and emotions. When you feel the fear encroach, identify its source; whether it be losing, embarrassment, or the unknown. Don't let the fear immobilize you. Breathe and relax in the moment before you make your decision. When your decision, in hindsight, was a poor one, look to adjust accordingly. Gain from your playing experience to develop confidence in your game and conquer your fear.
Aggressive poker players force you to confront your fear constantly. They understand the power of fear. You must make tough decisions that expose you to significant loss, embarrassment and uncertainty.
Matusow’s original quote expressed one of the great advantages of strong poker players; the disassociation of the value of the chips with which they are playing. Matusow has won and lost many a fortune. Some may call him foolhardy, but he has a confidence that regardless of the outcome he will overcome or recover. His quote also demonstrates the fearlessness necessary to make a big bluff or tough call at crucial points. For the best players, sometimes its more important to risk failure than to take the safe and cautious route.
No poker player escapes their fears completely. The nature of poker makes sure of that. You are bound to lose, be embarrassed, and face uncertainty. The sooner you make your peace with facing that fear, the faster you can progress as a player. The absence of fear is really no better. Fear causes you to make prudent moves that you might otherwise avoid. Rational and reasonable fear are what allow us to live a long and productive life, both on and off the poker felt.
Casual fans often wonder why young people do so well at poker. It is because they can play with a fearlessness that older players can't or don't. They don't fear loss at the same level because they don't have much to lose. As you age, gain possessions, and become responsible for others, your appreciation for what it took to accumulate and the fear of possibly losing it causes your tolerance for risk and loss to diminish. This notion was illustrated in a national poll on the reasons that couples stay together. Fear was listed as the number one reason, while love came in third. Once we have something, we fear to lose it, fear the embarrassment of being single again and the uncertainty of when we will find another.
In the end, poker is only a game and the money won or lost is just that. Manage your game and your fear so that you can play fearless poker.