Raise or Fold:  A Year of Risky Business

Writing and playing poker as if they were activities worth doing well.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Day 4: Knowing When To Say When

How do you know when it's time to end a session of playing cash?

This a vital question for anyone who takes the game seriously and wants to actually make money over time. The conventional poker wisdom on the subject is: you should keep playing in a game when you are confident that you have an edge.

The catch here is that you have to be able to assess your edge pretty keenly. This turns out to be significantly more difficult in practice than in theory. While most of us are able to judge fairly accurately whether or not we are playing our "A" game, it's not always obvious whether our A game is good enough to prevail at a given table. And if, for any number of everyday reasons, we've regressed to our B game, it can be hard to say for sure that the B game isn't plenty adequate to prevail over the competition.

Should I stop playing the moment I know I'm not playing my A game?

In my view, not necessarily. There are a whole lot of circumstances in which my B game can handily generate profit. Maybe not maximum profit, but enough to make the game worth the candle. If we all only played when we could bring our A game, most of us would hardly play at all. And for a person who's playing small stakes, that's not going to be enough. Maybe if you're Phil Ivey you can afford to only play your A game. (But, hey, I've seen him looking pretty bored and disgruntled at the poker table, so I suspect he doesn't always bring his best to the table. On the other hand, his B game is more than sufficient to put most everyone else in the shade, so why wouldn't he play it at stakes he can easily afford? My guess is that when he plays for nosebleed stakes, he does in fact bring only his A game.)

Should I set a stop-loss and quit when I'm down a certain amount of money for the session?

In many cases, this makes a lot of sense. But not for the reasons you might think. It's not the monetary loss for any one session, in either absolute or relative terms, that matters. It's the cumulative effect generated by losing over the length of a session: eventually you can start feeling like a loser. And it's really hard to play well when you know in your bones that you are A LOSER. A stop-loss policy is fundamentally a tilt-management ~ not a bankroll-management ~ technique.

Should I set an earnings goal for the session and stop when I reach it to lock in the win?

Again, the conventional wisdom is no: if you're winning, and you believe your edge is such that you can keep winning, you should play on.

But there's a catch. Success is a double-edged sword. There is a such a thing as success-tilt; that's when, because you're doing well, you start to suspect you are poker god. The upshot of this excess of self-confidence is that you play less and less optimally, because in your heart of hearts you have begun to believe that you can do no wrong and that you are just that much better than your competition. You are fated to crush them.

Yeah. Not so much.

It would, actually, be better in those cases to quit while you're ahead. This has two benefits. First, you end the session on a positive note; you reward yourself by booking a profit. And you avoid the trap of hubris... which can lead to giving all your gains back and then some. The emotional crash that ensues when you turn a profit into a loss through success-tilt is even worse than a plain ol' gradual decline in a losing session.

A highly-evolved professional will get past being influenced by the highs and lows of session results. When you find such a professional, I will shake his or her hand and bow in respect. I will seek to be his or her apprentice. I aspire to attain that level of detachment myself.

But until I do, I think I'm going to institute some personal guidelines and see how applying a little session discipline to my live cash game works for me. The first one will be the requirement that I step away from the table for fifteen minutes when I reach 2x my buy-in. And that I walk away from the table for a full hour when I get to 3x my buy-in, and seriously consider not returning. The same time-out intervals should apply to losses at -1x and -2x buy-in.

Let me offer two examples of session-ending behavior from my recent trip to Atlantic City, one successful and one not.

Example 1: Recreate Yourself

I had returned from a lovely dinner and sat down at the $1/$2 table. I recognized several players from an earlier session that had gone quite well for me. One, a young Asian woman, who had started with a short-stacked buy-in of about $70, was now sitting with about $300 in front of her. Over the next couple of hours, she positively pillaged the table. I couldn't tell whether she was playing really well, or just getting sick lucky, or ~ most likely ~ a little of both. As I watched, her stack grew to nearly $1000. Meanwhile, I was getting increasingly frustrated at my position, my lack of cards, my inability to hit a flop or get there on a draw. Things were just not going my way, at all. Two thirds of my 150xBB buy-in was gone and my attitude had gone completely to shit. I recognized that the quality of my decision-making was seriously degraded. I had to do something about it.

I picked up my wizened stack and went to the podium and asked them to seat me at the $1-$5 spread stud game. I thought it would do me good to switch things up, get out from under the no-limit pressure cooker, and stretch my poker muscles a little bit in a non-threatening environment. I sat down at the stud table and immediately started to feel better. I commenced flirting with my table-mates ~ most of whom were grandfatherly gentlemen ~ and joking with the dealers. (A vast change of persona, in this case.) I realized fairly quickly that my opponents were not especially skilled stud players, so I wasn't outclassed in the least. I began to have fun, and I was playing reasonably well. After about two hours, I'd nearly tripled my stud buy-in and I was ready to go back to the no-limit tables with a whole new 'tude.

I proceeded to rebuild my no-limit stake until I'd not only erased my losses for the day, but was even a little bit up. Which brings us to...

Example 2: What time is it?

It was 4 am. I had been playing poker for 16 hours, with only a two-hour dinner break. I racked up and stopped by at my traveling companion's table to share the good news of my fiscal recovery. The companion was stuck several hundred dollars and seemed uninterested in calling it a night. I looked down at my rack of chips, which by my lights seemed to be positively glowing with health.

What the heck, I thought to myself. (This is the point at which warning bells should have been ringing loudly in my brain.)

I went to the cashier's cage and cashed out all but $200 of my stack. I took those two stacks of red and returned to the poker room and sat back down at the table. Over the subsequent four hours, I managed to part with that money, and another hundo on top of it. The fact is, I was exhausted and not thinking well. And my reasons for being at the table were all wrong.

My traveling companion fared worse. Both of us would have done far, far better to get up and go at 4 am.

Just because I know I'm capable of fighting back from a loss doesn't mean I should attempt to do so at every occasion. And sometimes, when I've scratched my way back to even, I should just pat myself on the back and call it a night ~ not try to turn the break-even success into a profit success.

And, most importantly, I should never let someone else's state of mind or game-plan influence whether I choose to play or not. This is now my job, and I need to be making decisions based on professional, not purely social, criteria.

What time was it? It was time to quit. And the aggravating thing is: I knew it. I knew I should call it a night, right then and there. If I had done what I knew was right, I would have come back from AC showing a slight profit for the trip.

And now, the life example, which ~ such a coincidence ~ happened this very evening.

Life Example: It's Over, Stick a Fork in It

After busting out of my B League tournament early, I went to play in a local pub poker game. I know all the regulars and they know me. I hadn't seen them for a week or so, and I was warmly greeted when I arrived, late, and joined the tourney already in progress. After I won, I hung around for awhile with a few of the guys, had a couple of drinks, and listened to a bunch of youngsters massacre 90s power-ballads at the karaoke machine.

One of the players is someone I know a bit more intimately than the others. I met him originally right after he broke up with his girlfriend. The fact that he was evidently deeply distressed about this didn't stop him from flirting like crazy with me. And the fact that I was entirely aware he wasn't over his girlfriend didn't stop me from returning the favor. Suffice it to say that we proceeded to enjoy one another's company quite thoroughly. And then, not long after, he informed me that he'd gotten back together with his girlfriend (no surprise whatsoever) and in truth that was just fine with me. Lovely fellow, but not long-term material.

Tonight, however, he proposed in most persuasive terms that we reprise our earlier involvement. And, while the prospect had a certain appeal, I found it necessary to inquire into the status of his relationship with the girlfriend. He explained that she was away. I gently informed him that "away" is not good enough for me: that, alas, I am afflicted by scruples in matters pertaining to personal relationships. A rather charming philosophical conversation followed this exchange, and we parted on entirely friendly, one might say even especially friendly, terms. The point is, though, that we parted.

I count this as the successful conclusion of a life session.

You have to know when to say when, and then go ahead and say it.
And mean it.

Live bankroll: 98%
Online bankroll: 103.4%

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Blogger Kelly O said...

WOW. I don't play poker at all and was still riveted. Can't wait to read more!

8/22/08 11:23 AM  
Blogger PAPro_SandMan said...

The lengthy discussions in Vegas were not enough for me to fully understand how you and I ended up such similar personalities...

(I felt like I was bragging to compare myself to you and thought I'd mention it as I'm fairly certain that comes out to a compliment.)

I know the struggles you have outlined in this post as intimately as you apparently know a certain gentleman at your pub. My attitude and state of mind are the absolute lynchpins to the quality of my poker game. If they go South, I find myself losing to the poorest of players... After which, I feel even worse...

(Then I tend to go off and lose several more hundred in some absolute tilt-mongering slots or blackjack or whatever kind of rage suits my infantile temper tantrum that particular night...)

I'll be eager to follow you vicariously and hope to glean from your lessons. If I could fix that one problem, my poker game would take a huge leap forward.

8/22/08 12:34 PM  

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