So far we’ve looked at developing strategies and playing hands. This next skill is about the game’s mental aspect.
In a word, this game is brutal. No two ways about it. It’s an incredibly complex and strategic game, where you’ll need a depth of understanding to create a lasting edge. This study requires long hours of focused practice to refine.
Then after countless hours of study, some drunken yahoo spikes a gutshot. Then he laughs that vaguely maniacal laugh that ends in a coughing fit. Then he raises you blind next hand, you call, and he again sucks out. Then he trash-talks you for the next hour while you sit card dead, unable to do anything about it.
If you let it, no-limit hold ’em will torture you in nearly every way imaginable. Eventually you’ll hit a stretch, weeks maybe, where you’ll lose every single all-in pot, whether you get it in good or bad. You’ll run the biggest bluff of your life and some guy will snap-call with king-high—and win—and you’ll sit stupefied, wondering how he could make that call. Then he’ll say he misread
his hand and thought he had a straight. “Sorry about that,” he’ll say, as he takes a full five minutes to stack all your money.
If you haven’t had enough experience playing poker to understand these examples viscerally, congratulations. You have a vital shred of innocence still to lose. But don’t read this book, with all its strategic cleverness, and assume that this no-limit hold ’em thing will be a cakewalk. It most certainly won’t be. This game will give you incredible lows, no matter how good you are. Do not assume that all the study in the world and table time will make chips magically float your way.
I urge you not to make that mistake. But you will. Because taking this game too lightly is a mistake that heeds no warning, and a mistake you have to experience and correct for yourself. A big part of your potential blind spot is selection bias. If you’re reading this book, there’s a good chance you’re interested in poker. If you’re interested in poker, there’s a good chance your experiences in the game have thus far been mostly positive. Maybe you came in third in the first tournament you ever played. You’ve won all the money in your home game. You’ve played 1-2 in a casino and didn’t always go broke.
The people who learn the game and get their heads bashed in for the first ten times tend to lose interest.
Yet the difference between you with your positive experiences, and this theoretical snake-bitten newbie, is mostly raw luck.
But do we believe the luck argument? No. Not in our hearts. We all know poker is a skill game. So if good things happen, it’s due at least in good part to our excellent skills, right?
Wrong. At least wrong in the short-term. And for poker, the short-term is longer than many people intuitively assume.
Now the swings are not necessarily forever. Good poker players can, and do, generate edges that allow them to win consistently over longer timeframes. But these longer timeframes are actually fairly long. And it’s likely, if you showed me good results and said, “Ed, is this long-term success yet?” I would say no. I know this because, in fact, people show me results all the time and ask me this very question. And most of the time my answer is no. No, these results don’t mean you’re awesome at poker. They don’t mean that at all. They mean you’ve been lucky—and it’s also possible you’re good at poker. But only possible.
Part of the reason I recommended live cash game no-limit hold ’em at the beginning of this book is because this is actually the most forgiving of the available options. But if you play live cash games long enough, even if you’re a winning player, you’ll encounter long stretches of bad, bad things. These stretches will go on for weeks and sometimes months. When I played full-time for a living, I once had a stretch where I lost every day for 16 days straight. That’s pretty demoralizing.
But the bad runs you’ll get playing live cash are actually many fewer than if you play online or you focus on tournaments. Nevertheless, they’re still quite bad.
So why am I belaboring this point? Once you’re playing consistently at the 2-5 level or higher, you absolutely have to find a way to deal with the game’s emotional ups and downs. You need to find a way to numb yourself emotionally to a lot of the day-to- day noise in your results.
If you don’t numb yourself, it gets harder to think clearly and strategically about your game. If your last four bluffs have been snapped off, it’s tempting to pass on a bluff when a fifth situation rolls around. If you keep getting drawn out on, it’s tempting to try to bet bigger to blow your opponents out of the pot when you flop a strong hand. But if you do these things, you’re playing to make the pain go away. You’re not playing to create an edge.
Playing to ease the pain doesn’t work. It just creates more pain in the long run. You have to figure out how to get rid of the pain, without making significant changes to how you play. Not easy.
I’m not a psychologist. But I do have quite a bit of experience playing poker and dealing with this problem. So I can share what’s worked for me.
The first step is an affirmation. “Whether I have won or lost today says nothing about how well or poorly I have played.” This is absolutely true. Say it to yourself after every session, however you do. The positive or negative number you have at the end of the day is, by itself, completely meaningless. It’s noise. You cannot judge your performance on it. It’s very difficult to improve just by second-guessing the hands you lost. If you have a lot of room to improve, chances are good you make mistakes on hands you win, hands you lose, even hands where little money changes hands. It’s misguided to focus on only the losing hands, as in, “I lost last time I tried that, so I’ll try something else this time.” Poker doesn’t work that way.
Remember to affirm to yourself after every session. “Whether I have won or lost today says nothing about how well or poorly I have played.”
The next step involves bankroll. In my experience, it’s nearly impossible to play your best when you’re feeling bankroll pressure. The bankrolls needed to play these games are considerably bigger than most players think. For example, I wouldn’t even think of playing 2-5 on a regular basis with less than a $20,000 bankroll. Pros can and do have downswings of $15,000 or more at this level.
And these are professional-level players with relatively high, well-established win rates. If there’s a decent chance you don’t play the game as well as these players, your win rate will be lower, and you’ll be exposed to potentially bigger downswings. It would not shock me to hear of a winning (but not elite) 2-5 player suffering a $30,000 or bigger downswing.
And the thing about downswings is, for the most part, they’re random. Sure, once downswings get big enough, they’re self- feeding on some level. No one plays as well near the bottom of a large downswing as they do on a normal day. But professional- level players who aren’t playing their best should still (for the most part) be playing a game that’s expected to win over the long run. There are many errors that a pro will never make, even in the depths of anxiety and despair.
So when the downswing keeps going, it’s often due to garden- variety bad luck.
But if you play on a short bankroll and you feel the pressure to win, you’re almost guaranteed to make errors in an attempt to
reduce your exposure to risk. These tactics don’t work long term. They just increase your chance of ultimately going broke.
So my second piece of advice is simple. Ensure you’re properly bankrolled (or, preferably, over-bankrolled) for whatever stakes you choose to play. If you don’t have $20,000 set aside for poker, don’t play 2-5. At least not on a regular basis. Stay at 1-2. The goal is to get to the point where the day’s outcome is almost completely irrelevant to you. To numb yourself emotionally to it. You don’t want to feel down in the dumps if you lose two buy- ins, nor do you want to feel ecstatic if you win two. You want to be as even-keeled as possible after every session. A generous bankroll is, in my opinion, necessary to achieve this goal.
My third piece of advice is a bit of a gimmick, but I know it helps some people. Make sure you’re over-bankrolled for your session. Let’s say you play 2-5, and the most you really ever lose in a session is $2,000. Bring $3,000 with you to the casino. That way you never have to worry about going home broke. You never have to worry about putting your last dollar on the table. There is always money behind.
Obviously, there’s nothing magic going on here. The math and the game don’t care how much money is in your wallet. But the goal is to focus on the things that matter, and worrying about whether you’re going to run out of money is not one of them.
Over the years I’ve written widely on this topic and have deepened those ideas here.