TOURNAMENT THEORY: Upswings and Downswings

I’ve always been fascinated with what exactly makes most professional poker players bow out after so few years. I know the game takes a toll on the mind, especially the online multitabling portion. The results of initial magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of high volume online poker players have not been promising. Yet, I’ve always suspected it’s more than that.

One of the theories I’ve floated is that when you first enter you are so eager to play that you go after every pot. You do not know downswings yet. You do not know fear. You don’t know what it’s like to have bills stacking up while you’re grinding. You’re not playing with a gun to your head.

Many poker players have impossibly good results out of the gate. It is much more rare to see a guy who has been playing for five years suddenly go on a hot streak. This is off-putting. The flagrant upswing is what we are gambling on when we devote our lives to tournament poker. Everyone got into this wild game because they dreamed about holding the beer with the huge check in hand while they smiled for the cameras. However, if after a few years we are much less likely to go on this same upswing, what exactly is the benefit of having studied and played so much?

Many players never go on a huge upswing because they retreat into their shell. After you have your first few huge downswings in poker it has a monumental effect on your psychology. Some doctors have even found extensive proof that anticipating financial rewards and then facing inconceivable losses can cause real brain damage.

Players feel that pain and never want to feel it again. They tighten up. They play a good game. They pay their bills. Yet, they are not playing for the win anymore. This is why it is so important to play stakes you can afford. It’s much better to play tournaments that allow you to be yourself and go after every pot you can. If you get into the habit of nitting it up at higher stakes you will run up a makeup total, go on a downswing, and not learn. Your lack of experimentation-driven learning guarantees all of these results.

Every time I have played poker for money I have found the process extremely stressful and largely unproductive. When I have gone in with the attitude that “my buy-in is already lost so I should just have fun” I have flourished. Try to take every pot away, but have the discipline to know exactly when you can’t push further. Treat the game with the playfulness you started with. None of these people know anything about you. Don’t change what you want to do because of them.

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