Raise or Fold:  A Year of Risky Business

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

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Can you take a licking and keep on ticking?*

It's an important question, because if you're a poker-player you will get beat. A lot. Sometimes more than seems statistically probable. But this is the way it goes.

You're playing a disciplined game. You're at the right stakes. You're not making irrational decisions. The table is exploitable; you've done your due-diligence and are clear on what it will take to win. You go and do what it takes.

And you lose.

Breathe, refocus, rinse and repeat.


Take a break, have something nice to eat, talk it over with a poker-playing friend. Shake it off. Return to the table.


Get a good night's rest. Read a little strategy. Go over your hand histories and your play. Learn something and reset.


Make a self-deprecating joke. Do the math on what your overall EV for the last few days would have been over a large sample size. Remind yourself that no small children or animals were harmed in the making of this downswing. Resolve to continue playing as best you know how.


Avoid the people who can't help but display, with gleaming sharp teeth showing through "just-kidding" grins, their share of Schadenfreude over your recent results. Remind yourself that you are 'rolled for just this sort of eventuality. Keep in mind that your goal is to both survive and prosper, and that you will not be able to prosper if you play with scared money or see monsters under every bed.


How ya doin' now? Hunh? Still playing your A game? Still making your best decisions? Still getting enough good food, good excercise, good sleep? Take a few days off, that's the ticket! Come back refreshed and relaxed.


Do you have the mental toughness to continue with this? Are you emotionally prepared to overcome a prolonged period of negative feedback that is legitimately unrelated to the quality of your play? Do you have reserves of good humor, optimism, and equanimity that will keep you from compounding your bad run with bad play, stupid life choices like -EV gambling, alcohol or drug abuse, and the neglect or destruction of valued personal relationships? Do you know how to leave your work, as it were, at the office? Do you know how to bend with the high wind of variance so that you will not be broken?

When they say that poker is a tough way to make an easy living, this is what they are talking about. Anyone of average intelligence can learn enough poker strategy to be a break-even or modest winner at modest stakes. Truly, anyone. But being a long-term winner requires a combination of personality traits and discipline that are rarely innate, but must be cultivated and sustained in the face of adversity. And this is why teh pokers is not ez, and why most people, in the long run, lose.

Go back to the game. Accept that you might lose. Make the right choices anyway.

*There's a highly-skilled online tournament player whose screenname is "Timex." I have no doubt this motto is the reason why.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

How do you know that your not one of average intellegence with moderate poker skill and a long term break-even player? Is that the point of this year long experiment? Perhaps this is a point of true self-reflection and evaluation. You really might not be cut out for this despite your desire.

2/19/09 6:06 PM  
Anonymous wolynski said...

Well, that's poker. You never know when a downswing will come and how long it will last. Statistically, if you average 20 hours a week, it could last months.

I played cash games online during the golden years - 4 tables 40 hours a week and I got all those bonuses. I'd have a losing week once in a while - that's a crapload of hands in real life. It would take weeks.

I think live poker should be a recreation, something on top of your income. We're not automatons, sometimes we don't play well.

On a prolonged losing streak, I'd take a break (thus prolonging it further?)

2/19/09 8:18 PM  
Blogger Cardgrrl said...

@Anonymous: Yes, of course determining whether I have the Right Stuff to be a long-term winner is precisely the point of this undertaking. I have in no way pre-judged how I expect it to turn out.

This whole blog is an exercise in self-examination on just that topic.

2/20/09 2:46 AM  
Blogger Philly said...

If you're like me, a losing streak makes past wins seem more like luck than skill. The trick is to reach beyond those doubts.

2/20/09 2:46 AM  
Blogger BruceElkin.com said...

Excellent piece on resilience. Luv the rest of the blog, 2! The whole self-examination thing. Great. Thanks.

2/22/09 1:27 PM  

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