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Ego Damage : A Poker Story

I first wrote the following column five years ago. It's one of my most important life lessons, and I'd like to share it with you today. Just don't tell anyone…

Years ago I stopped bragging about my poker skills. Well, maybe I didn't stop, but I slowed down a bit. I'm 51 now, but when I was lots younger it just drove me nuts if anyone thought they were a better player than I was. I knew, deep down, I mean really deep down, that it couldn't possibly be true. I understood in my heart that given enough time, nobody could beat me, provided our bankrolls were theoretically unlimited.

Having this conviction, and being so young, it hurt my ego if anyone even suggested that they might be able to outplay me. I was ever ready to risk my entire bankroll on a heads-up match, anytime, anywhere. It wasn't a matter of winning the money. The opponent needed to be punished for merely suggesting that he might have a shot against Mike Caro. While I won most of these ego matches, I didn't win all of them, and I ended up dead broke more than a few times, having to recover bit by bit in smaller games, building back my bankroll.

A contest. Hell, it got so silly I started a 25-words-or-less contest circulating around Gardena, California (then known as the Poker Capital of the World). The entry form said, "Mike Caro is the greatest poker player in the world, because…" and contestants could fill in the rest. Yes, I gave away real money!

One day while I was nearly broke and rebuilding my bankroll in smaller games, a guy challenged me to a $10,000 freeze out heads-up match I couldn't afford. I wasn't going to back down and relinquish my pride, though.

"You couldn't even afford the stakes I want to play for," I told him. Doyles Room - All USA Players Welcome

"What you wanna play for?"

"Let's just sit down with 500 chips each and play till someone has 'em all," I suggested.

"For how much?"

"The chips are free," I told him.

"That don't make sense," he responded, shaking his head. "You can't play poker with nothin' at stake."

"I didn't say nothing's at stake. I said the chips are free. What if the loser kills himself?"

Then we just stood there, in the middle of the card floor, poker tables surrounding us. He tried to figure out whether I was serious. I would not break our gazes. I did not blink. He would not break our gazes. He did not blink. So we wouldn't break our gazes, and we didn't blink until a very subtle and skewed smile appeared on his face.

"You're kiddin' me?" he said, more as a hopeful statement of fact than as a question.

Not kidding. I just shook my head slowly and proudly. No, I'm not kidding, this conveyed. I don't know if I would have played this match, but I felt brave right then. Additionally, I felt invincible. I had images in my head of beating him and then just saying, "Hey, you don't have to pay this off. You owe me one. Go have a nice life." Something like that.

I was sort of nuts back then. I would have played anyone for anything. And I really thought I could prove at the poker table in a short period of time that I was the best in the world, especially one-on-one.

That day, we finally just walked away from each other and sat in normal games. His was, unfortunately, a bigger limit than I was prepared to play, so we didn't compete against each other. But I felt satisfied that I'd made him surrender, that I had been willing to play for stakes he couldn't afford. Yes, he had challenged me to a match beyond my bankroll. But I had made him back down. And I was proud.

More matches. That was actually the incident that started me challenging other players to "suicide matches" anytime I got my feathers ruffled, anytime someone would question my skills or my nerve. Nobody ever accepted, of course, and most players took my challenges only half seriously. But at times I was sure that if someone ever did call my pot, if someone did accept my dare, that I'd go through with it. At other times, I wavered.

In any case, my youthful bravado, my quest for a suicide match ended abruptly when one particularly mean-looking guy from out of town listened to my challenge and said, "Kid, you wanna play serious, let's play." He calmly unzipped his fly and gestured for me to follow suit. Then he took a pocket knife out, unfolded it and flung it on the table. Then he motioned for me to sit down, saying simply, "Deal." Well, the symbolism was hard to miss.

I finally began to laugh, and so did everyone else. Well, almost everyone. The guy wasn't laughing. So, I said, "Sorry, I don't have that kind of bankroll." A man needs to learn when not to call a raise. I think that was the beginning of my mellowing out.

Today, I realize you can't prove who's really the best poker player in the world, because all the best players are too evenly matched, and it might take years for one player to come out clearly on top. I still believe, privately, that I can beat anyone - especially heads-up. But others feel the same way, and we'll never be able to settle the argument. Except for a night, maybe. Or a few glorious days. But the victory doesn't usually last.

And that's the truth about poker, my friends. Egos often get in the way. Nobody will ever prove who's best. And eventually you grow wise and you live with the greatest poker lesson of all time:

You win some you lose some.


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