Raise or Fold:  A Year of Risky Business

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

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Day 18: On Being A Loser

Hamm: What's he doing?
(CLOV raises lid of NAGG's bin, stoops, looks into it. Pause.)
Clov: He's crying.
(He closes lid, straightens up)
Hamm: Then he's living.
~ Endgame, by Samuel Beckett.
I have to wonder whether Samuel Beckett, modern (or early post-modern) patron saint of existential angst, was a poker-player. He certainly had more than a passing acquaintance with futility and despair, emotions which even the most stoic of players are bound to experience more than once in their careers.

Let's face it, poker is as much about losing as it is about winning ~ even for the very most successful players.

For example, a consistent ROI of 15% is considered fantastic for single-table sit-n-go tournaments at moderate stakes. To achieve that kind of return, you have to place in the money in about 30% of the games you play. Which, if you do the math (which we must), means that you are losing 70% of the tournaments you enter. Losing. Failing. Busting out. Nothing to show for your time and effort.

And that's what a really successful SNG tournament player looks like. Like a loser, most of the time.

Playing multi-table tournaments puts you up against even longer odds, and subjects you to proportionally greater statistical variance. The reason why many bankroll management guidelines recommend a roll ONE HUNDRED TIMES the size of your typical tournament buy-in is that it is possible to lose and lose and lose and lose; even for those with exceptional skill the element of luck plays an enormous role in tournament success.

Now consider the cash game player. In a cash game, most of your hands are losing hands. The hands you fold pre-flop are losers. The hands you get bet out of on the flop are losers. The hands you fold on the turn or the river are losers. And, even for the very best players, sometimes almost half of the hands you show down are losers too. Sitting in a cash game, most of the time you are experiencing loss.

It is possible to play optimally for hours and lose multiple buy-ins. It is possible to come back the next day and have it happen all over again. And the next. And the next. No matter how many times someone tells you that cash games are "all one long session," and that superior play will eventually show profit, it can be hard to grasp just how long "the long run" really is. It can be excruciatingly long. Longer than you would believe possible. And that's for the folks who, when all is in fact finally said and done, are winning players.

Estragon: I can't go on like this
Vladimir: That's what you think.
~ Waiting for Godot, also by Samuel Beckett
If you want to be a poker-player, you must become acquainted with grief. You have to somehow befriend the darkness or, I think, it will simply overwhelm you. You must be able to envision the mountaintop view even as you are walking in the valley of shadow.

There is really only one way to cope with the relentless assault of loss that is endemic to the poker life. It is based on two concepts that the human mind does not does not handle very well naturally. Training is required.

The yin and yang of it is: learning to make good decisions moment by moment, while simultaneously letting go of attachment to the immediate results. This is incredibly difficult.

We are bad at making rational decisions over and over again, especially under stressful circumstances when we are flooded with hormones that tend to bypass or even shut down higher cognitive functions. And it's especially true when the rational choices we should be making are often high-risk and/or counterintuitive. Staying in the present moment, and considering each decision in its proper context, unswayed by recent experience ~ whether positive or negative ~ and with one's judgment unclouded by all of life's contingencies, is a practice that only grows strong with deliberate cultivation.

We are a results-oriented species, and in the evolutionary scheme of things most of the outcomes that have mattered to us have been short-term results (that mushroom is poisonous, don't eat it! that individual looks like a good baby-making prospect, let's have sex!). We are not well-wired for patience with feedback mechanisms that require sample sizes in the tens of thousands to be reliable. In fact, most of us have an extremely poor intuitive grasp of probability and the math of large numbers. We have a hard time "learning from experience" when that experience is stretched out over very long periods of time or a whole lot of iterations.

I'm quite convinced, for example, that ~ with few exceptions ~ people who become avid gamblers are those for whom the first few forays into the world of wagering were more successful than average. We all started as winners. We considered our early losses to be anomalies (based, of course, on a totally inadequate sample-size). Our little lizard-mammal hybrid brains were flooded with dopamine rewards as we were successful on those original outings, and like lab rats we went back to that "happy" switch to press it again and again looking for the same jolt of joy-juice. Every casino on the planet wants your initial ventures into gambling to be winning ones, so that you will forever after consider your losses to be a temporary speed bump on the royal road to riches.

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
~ Westward Ho, AGAIN by Samuel Beckett
In gambling pastimes where skill either plays no part or merely slows how quickly you lose (i.e., every casino table game where you play against the house), there is only one way to truly learn from the inevitable failures: to quit. Permanently.

In a game like poker, however, skill can and does give some players an edge that, ultimately, means that local losses are not the end of the story. The challenge then becomes how and what to learn from the inevitable and repeated intermissions of failure that all of us encounter.

We are required to distinguish between the losses that come from bad choices and those that come from being on the wrong side of a metaphorical coin-toss. We have to be honest with ourselves when our bad choices are actually rewarded by good results (which happens amazingly often), and properly attribute those successes to a happy roll of the dice rather than our own unheralded excellence. And we must have the strength to recognize when we've made all the right choices, even when those decisions lead to catastrophic failure, and be prepared to make those very same choices again the next time the circumstance arises.

A good poker-players' motto, hand after hand, must be: Do the right thing.

Not the easy thing, or the thing that happened to work last time, or the thing your buddy told you was the thing to do. You have to do the right thing for this moment, this game, this situation, as you perceive it and as you are able. You have to do it with full understanding that you may well lose anyway. Playing good poker is a perpetual exercise in taking the high road: ignoring the flashing neon signs of distraction; disregarding the siren song of emotional memory; equally deflecting the dull knife of boredom and the razor-sharp edge of the risk-taker's thrill.

Some day, it may even become possible to positively enjoy this state of detachment from results, to relish doing the right thing for its own sake. We sometimes give lip-service to the notion that "virtue is its own reward," but the poker-player would do well to take that sentiment to heart. It proposes a baseline attitude that can render bearable the onslaught of negative outcomes. It provides for something rare and precious at the end of the day, however long and frustrating that day may have been: the peace of mind that comes from having no regrets.

Live bankroll: 98.18%
Online bankroll: 107.4%

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Blogger PAPro_SandMan said...

This post represents an important stage in your poker journey. Do the right thing and let the end results come out in the wash.

It's an important thing everyone should learn about life, let alone poker.

Hell, when I'm really on top of my game the bad beats sometimes make me grin... Because I know I've just burnt up some small amount of bad karma and (bordering on the gambler's fallacy here, but odds do win in the end) am that much closer to a rush of the good.

9/5/08 4:06 PM  

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