Raise or Fold:  Learning (From) Poker

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

Monday, August 3, 2009

Money Inversion

It's a truism in poker that, while you are playing, you must not think of your chips in terms of their monetary value. As you make a re-raise, there should be no part of your mind mentally flashing subtitles that read "Okay, that's a month's worth of groceries, right there!" At the table, chips are weapons and tools and score-keepers, and that's it.

It's only when you cash out that you can think about the utility of money away from the table. If there is profit, some portion of it goes to build your bankroll (everyone handles this differently), and the remainder, if any, enters your life as part of your everyday resources.

And here's where it gets weird.

One of the standard ways of referring to your poker bankroll, is to account for it in terms of buy-ins. So if you usually play 2/5, and you have a bankroll of 40 buy-ins, that works out to 20K. For 1/2, a 40 buy-in bankroll (depending on where you play), could be from 8-12K.

As I get better at divorcing chips from their money equivalency as I play, I find a strange kind of reverse osmosis taking place away from the felt. To wit: I now frequently catch myself thinking of everyday life expenses in terms of buy-ins. Roundtrip airfare to Las Vegas? Less than a buy-in at 2/5. My rent: a little over two buy-ins.

For smaller sums, I end up thinking in terms of an average pot-size at different stakes. That little Pandora bead I covet, or the cute flat sandals: a modest pot at 1/2. The comfy trousers I bought yesterday: a typical 2/5 pot.

Apparently I now live in Pokerland, where the currency comes in pot-sized and buy-in denominations. I find myself doing this mental exchange-rate exercise more and more frequently these days. Describing it, I realize that it probably sounds like a really weird way of thinking to most people, and it is yet another way that my life continues to diverge substantially from the mainstream.


Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Q and A: What Are Your Goals and What Are You Willing To Do To Achieve Them?

Faithful reader Anonymous asks:
Would you be willing to move to succeed? Would you be willing to get a job flipping burgers just to increase your bankroll? Would you sell your car to take a shot at a main event? Think about it. Also, what are your goals? A grinder (like Rakewell) or do you aspire to be the next Jennifer Harmon?
To which I answer:

1) Moving is the big thorny question for me. I'll know I've chosen to go ahead full-throttle as a poker player when I decide to move. It is absolutely the case that I'm not there yet.

2) "Flipping burgers?" That would be a very long, tedious, and inefficient way to build my bankroll. I am quite sure that I could build my bankroll faster playing poker than flipping burgers. And if I need full-time employment, I have to believe that ~ even in a recession ~ I could find a job that pays significantly better than burger-flipping, and is at least somewhat more interesting.

3) No. That would be really, really foolish bankroll management. Even for the most skilled players on the planet, a seat in the main event is a 1/8000 lottery ticket. Besides, my car isn't worth 10K, and I might need it to get to my burger-flipping job. :P

4) I do not aspire to be the next Jennifer Harmon. I will never be an elite tier poker player: I simply don't have the combination of personal attributes that would make that possible. I would, however, be very pleased to be a mid-stakes cash grinder and/or a modestly successful tournament player. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am perfectly content with a low-overhead lifestyle. I would be delighted beyond words to get some kind of sponsorship deal. I would be thrilled to have a degree of success that would increase publisher interest in the book I'm writing. My ambition, while not neglible, is hardly outsized.

Faithful reader Loose proposes that I quiz myself, as follows:
Ask yourself "what have I learned in the last 6 months?", "Am I a better player then when I started?", "Have I acquired the skills necessary at my current level to be a long term winner?", and the most import question of them all, "Where will my income come from? (Atlantic City, The Crime scene Game, One big mtt score a year, LasVegas)
To which I respond:

1) I have learned a lot, some of which I've documented in this blog, but much or most of which I have not. I've studied books and forums, I've reviewed my own play to identify strength and weaknesses, and I've talked strategy with people who I think know more than I do. A great deal of what I've learned has been about poker, and even more has been about myself. It is also clear to me that the learning never ends, and I am well aware that I have to continue actively acquiring knowledge, skills, and experience.

2) I am definitely a better player now than when I began this project. I'm also a better player than I was last year, and a much, much better player than I was two years ago.

3) I don't know whether I've acquired the skills at this level to be a long term winner. I don't have a "long term" valid sample-size of results. During the time I've been keeping records, I am definitely a winning player. Am I ENOUGH of a winning player to live off my poker income? I don't know that yet, either.

4) My income won't come from Atlantic City because it's a big fat zero of a city and no amount of money on earth could induce me to live there. My income won't be earned at the CSG or other equivalents locally because the stakes are too small and the games too infrequent. (That's assuming that I can actually beat the CSG in the long run ~ recent results notwithstanding.) If I'm going to do this full-time for a living, I'm going to have to move to Las Vegas, with its vaunted 55 (give or take) cardrooms and plentiful MTTs. My data currently shows that I am most profitable playing tournaments. It remains to be seen whether that will hold true for higher-stakes, larger-field tourneys. My next trip to Sin City (next week!) will put that question to the test once again.

I will add that I disagree with two of Loose's other observations. Loose says that I have done NONE of the things I could do were I committed to being a pro. I have certainly not done ALL of the things I could do, but I think I have taken many small but important steps to lay the foundation for such a choice. Loose also opines that I am "comfortable in my current situation." That is absolutely, positively not the case. The "current situation" is not tenable for the long haul, nor would I wish it to be; sooner or later I will have to fish or cut bait (wait a sec... there's a better phrase to use here... um... oh yeah! "raise or fold").

As always, I welcome your questions and comments. I am continually struck by the variety of approaches, attitudes, and tones of voice with which people choose to communicate, and I find something valuable and interesting in them all. Thank you for being engaged readers!

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Friday, April 3, 2009

A Good Checklist

Short-stacked Shamus pointed me to a useful checklist on Nat Arem's blog. Here are the basic characteristics that he considers essential for a successful poker player, and my brief self-evaluation for each.

  1. Even-keeled personality. I am not a volatile person. While I have suffered from depression in the past, I have never been a moody or highly-reactive person. Very few things really, really bug me or make me genuinely angry. Like anyone, I can be temporarily frustrated, but it blows over quickly. I am frequently shocked by how emotional and badly-behaved people can get both at the poker table and away from it.

  2. Good money management. This is a strong suit for me. I live frugally, and I very, very rarely truly splurge on anything. It is not a challenge for me to live within my means, and I have no aspirations to rock the balla lifestyle.

  3. Analytical mind. I spend a great proportion of my waking day thinking things through methodically. I love to figure out how various factors contribute to a decision. When I make a mistake, I review the entire sequence of events to determine what I might or should have done differently.

  4. Ability to view money as a tool. This does not come easily for me; I understand the concept, but it goes against my upbringing and previous understanding of the role and purpose of money in our lives. But accumulated experience playing at appropriate stakes is helping me learn to do this, and it is indisputably a vitally important attitude to cultivate.

  5. Overconfident and realistic expectations. Honestly, I'm not sure why Arem phrased his heading this way. If you read the description, it's clear he considers overconfidence to be a pitfall and, in contrast, values highly the ability to accurately self-evaluate and maintain expectations grounded in a realistic appraisal of one's experience. I like to think that I'm good at this, and that my view of my own abilities would match reasonably well with others' more objective assessment.

Needless to say, this is not an exhaustive list. I can think of quite a few more (I should hope so, since I'm writing a book that addresses the topic head-on). But it's a useful place to start.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Q & A: Why the Heck Do You Use ROI to Report Cash Results?

Faithful reader Anonymous queries in the comments to a recent results post:
I've always had trouble understanding the "Results" that you give in this blog.

I understand tournament ROI, but what the heck is cash ROI ? ROI is not a metric that I've ever seen used in cash poker and seems completely usless. I mean, if you buy in for $1000 and win $100 your ROI is 10%, but if you buy in for $500 and win $100, your ROI is 20%, but you won the same amount!

I assume you made that up as a way of giving results without actually discussing how much you won? Or am I missing something?
I started calculating and using cash game ROI for a few reasons, only a few of which may be good ones.

When I began this project, my primary objective in record-keeping was to determine if I could make a living playing poker given my starting bankroll. First: could I be profitable? Second: if so, how profitable? And third: would I be able to support myself given the small stakes and modest bankroll I began with? How would poker-playing compare to other ways I might choose to invest my money? (For example, my money is doing a heck of a lot better in my bankroll ~ right now ~ than it would be in the stock market, or indeed most typical investment vehicles!) I don't think ROI is completely useless as a metric. It gives me a general idea of how much money I have to put at risk, in the games I play, in order to achieve a certain monetary return.

It is true, as Anonymous suggests, that I wasn't particularly eager to reveal publicly the exact size of my bankroll, to always be specific about the stakes I was playing at, or to detail the absolute dollar amounts won or lost. Despite the common notion (probably derived from TV broadcasts that talk about lifetime tournament winnings) that poker players' results should somehow be public information, I prefer to keep these matters private unless I have a good reason to share them.

And, to be frank, I was also clueless about the need to keep statistics that would help me track the information that is most useful in analyzing one's cash game results across various stakes, e.g., BB/HR. (I would point out, however, that the same concern is true for tournaments as for cash games: ROI tells you NOTHING about actual profits. All I have to do is win one larger-buy-in tournament and that makes up for a whole lot of losing at lower stakes in ROI terms, if I lump them all together.)

Recently, I have begun tracking winrate statistics for my cash play, including stakes and time played per session as well as profit/loss results. If ~ after I have accumulated enough data to be worth analyzing ~ they reveal something interesting or meaningful, I may eventually write about them.

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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

One Simple Test to Determine If You Are Playing Above Your Bankroll

...If it makes you angry when a player draws against odds and gets there.

If you are playing within your bankroll, this should bring a gentle smile of delight to your lips (accompanied perhaps by a mental fistpump and exclamation of "Yahtzee!!!"). You should be able to deliver a sincere-sounding complement to the fish, reach into your wallet ~ virtual or ortherwise ~ and reload with a song in your heart.

If you cannot do these things when an inferior player wins a hand, or when you get your money in good and you're just outdrawn, you are either way too prone to tilt, playing at limits that you are not comfortable with, or both.

Move down in stakes and learn to meditate.

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

No Sure Thing

From Ed Miller:
After all, you’re not looking for a sure thing. It’s okay if you get caught sometimes. You just need an edge.

It is easy to forget this. We have bankrolls and multiple buy-ins for precisely this reason.

We don't have to win every hand. We just have to play every hand in a way that maximizes its expected value in the long run. That means we'll lose hands like that a certain amount of time. Our bluffs will get snapped off occasionally. The odds will break against us from time to time. THAT'S OKAY.

Lose the battle, win the war. We have more than one soldier, more than one bullet. We are legion, and we know where the edge is.

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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Day 99: The Reckoning

Okay, just a quick note to say that I managed to do very nicely indeed in two different cash games tonight, the Capitol Hill game and the Crime Scene game.

I realize also that I failed to note any stats from the landmark end of Month Three. This is mostly because I'd forgotten to close out Month Three (which ended before my latest AC trip) ~ and I probably forgot to do that in part because, subconsciously anyway, I knew that Month 3 was going to go down in the books as my first losing month. Which it was.

Month 1 ROI: 34%
Month 2 ROI: 27%
Month 3 ROI: -13%
Month 4 is off to a good start, however, currently at: 29%

YTD ROI: 18% (including travel expenses)
YTD Live bankroll: 112% (ditto)

I have put sums totaling 65% of my bankroll into play over the course of three months. However, I have never put more than 4% of my live 'roll at risk at any one time.

Tournaments are by far my most reliable earners. My live tournament ROI is 72%, and it was solidly positive all three months. Cash games, by contrast, are much more swingy. Although my cumulative ROI for cash games is 36%, I had negative ROIs in Months 1 and 3.

This result is the opposite of most people's conventional wisdom, which is that tournament results are much more variable than those from cash games. I think my stats reflect two things: I've been running average in tournaments and like CRAP (for the most part) in ring games. Also, I've been playing tournaments seriously much longer than I've been playing cash games, and I'm probably still a better tournament player than a cash player.

I expect these two sets of numbers to even out as the year progresses; it will be interesting to see how that goes. To be fair, these are ~ statistically speaking ~ very, even ridiculously, small sample sizes to draw any conclusions from.

As for online, I cashed in a large multi-table big buy-in tournament for the absolute minimum today... but hey, I made it to the money! I am hoping and praying that this is indication of an online results turnaround. What it wasn't, though, was an example of good bankroll management, as the buy-in was not in my price range. It worked out, but it was an excessively risky proposition. (The play was, however, considerably less donkeyesque than at lower buy-ins, and that was refreshing. I am reminded that game selection is key, and that I seem to do better at higher stakes for a variety of reasons.)

I am still waiting on the acquisition of poker tracking software (HINT HINT Poker Academy Prospector beta testing team!) that will allow me to review my online results in a coherent way.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Day 98: Recovery

Slept 15 hours and didn't do much of anything else. Nothing like keeping casino-hours to exhaust a person.

The weather was awful and I stayed inside, where I've spent my time getting crushed online. Honestly, I don't understand why things are going so badly for me online lately. I haven't changed anything, I've been playing the same stakes as before, and I'm getting destroyed where before I was quite successful. My online bankroll's taken such a hit that I'm going to have to move down in stakes now. It's a tad demoralizing.

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Day 41: Today Is A Good Day To Die

Learning how to tolerate the risks that come with poker rewards is essential to a strong game. The idea is: scared money is dead money. ("Dead money" is a term of art, referring to players so weak that their money is sure to get snatched up by others.)

How much risk must you be willing to tolerate? In no-limit hold'em you must be willing to put your entire stack at risk. Everything you have on the table.

Here's what Ed Miller had to say today on the subject:
To win serious money at no limit you have to use your stack as a weapon, and that means being 100% willing to lose it at any moment. I really can’t stress this point enough as it’s extremely important. When I play live, I always play stakes where I can lose stack after stack and just shrug it off, replacing it as needed. That allows me to be more aggressive than the players who are nursing their stacks, and basically it allows me to rob them blind, $20 or $25 at a time.

If you don’t have enough money to replace stack after stack at the stakes you’re playing, move down. If you’re already playing the smallest game in the room, buy-in for less. If you’re playing the smallest game in the room and you can’t buy-in for less because the minimum buy-in is $40 and you have less than, say, $400 to play with… unfortunately, you’re kind of pretty much underrolled to play no-limit. You can play, but expect not to play that well because you’ll be too worried about what you can lose to play as aggressively as you should.
Look at the numbers he mentions. He wants you to sit at the table with 10 times your intended buy-in in your pocket. I literally know no-one who does that. I certainly don't, at least not yet. But I do have a deep enough bankroll behind me that I can tolerate losing session after losing session, if I must. And most of all, his post is about attitude, about the well-calibrated level of aggression which maximizes your risk/reward ratio.

I think this explains why the new crop of good young players that came up playing exclusively on the internet are both so aggressive and so fearless. They learned to play in an environment where there was always another game, night or day, and where they could move up and down in stakes easily and painlessly. The internet is a zero-opportunity-cost environment that pays off the appropriate levels of aggression much more quickly (online "long run" is much shorter in time than brick-and-mortar) than in a casino or a home game. Combine that with running good for the first year of your career (and the pre-UIGEA fishpool), a youngster's inherent lack of appreciation for the real-life value of money, and a skilled online player becomes an absolute Juggernaut Beast of Death.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Stick A Fork In It: Month 1 is So Done

I have yet to really establish a rock-solid schedule. But I've made progress on every front, and I'm feeling optimistic about the whole undertaking.

I'll be traveling to AC this coming Friday through Monday, and I haven't yet figured out if I want to take my laptop or not. I think I probably won't, so updates are likely to be sparse during that period.

I've decided to change the format of my bankroll reporting, and to only do it at the end of every week and month. Daily reporting puts too much emphasis on short term swings. I'm also going to combine the live and online portions of the bankroll into a single percentage number (rounded to the nearest whole number), while using color to indicate the status of each category. Unless explicitly stated otherwise, the number will include poker-related travel expenses.

For the duration of this project, I have allocated a fixed sum per month to play poker with. I will not wager or lose more than that month's allocation. Any unused portion or profit from the previous month is rolled over into the next month's available lump sum. This allows me, if I'm breaking even or profiting, to play larger stakes as the year progresses. And it also ensures an absolute, well-defined stop loss limit for the entire experiment.

Just for some perspective: If all I were to make was 1% return on my bankroll (as I am at the moment) ~ and I needed to survive on my poker proceeds ~ I'd have to have a bankroll of at least $3M (yeah, that's "million") to lead a very modest life. Bump the return to 10% and I still need a bankroll of $300K.*

Brother can you spare a dime?

Bootstrapping oneself into a real bankroll is astonishingly difficult. As I said at the beginning of this adventure, I'll be very happy indeed if, when the year is done, I have managed to cover my expenses and break even. Earning a living playing poker is no walk in the park. Doyle Brunson is fond of saying, "It's a tough way to make an easy living."

Amen, Brother Brunson, amen!

Currently: Live + online = 101%

*I'm pretty sure there's something wrong with these numbers. But as a math-impaired poker-player (I know, I know) I'm not seeing exactly what it is at the moment. Somebody help?

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Monday, September 8, 2008

Day 22: Running With The Red Queen

Well, in our country," said Alice, still panting a little, "you'd generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long time, as we've been doing."

"A slow sort of country!" said the Queen. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"
~ Alice Through the Looking-Glass, Chapter 2, by Lewis Carroll
So this is the beginning of Week 4 and, like Alice, I've pretty much been running violently in place. My live and online bankrolls have seesawed up and down, mostly in opposite directions from each other. Lately, things have been going great in live games, but I gave back the profit in my online account (all in about 24 hours of brutally bad cardage). Go figure.

If there's good news in this story, it's this: I've been putting a lot more money in play these three weeks than I ever have before, and I'm essentially breaking even so far ~ including covering my poker-related expenses.

Still, I guess it's time to start running twice as fast.

Live bankroll: 99.7%
Online bankroll: 100%


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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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Day 10: Not Exactly What I Had in Mind

Yeah, this is what happens when you make plans in poker. Things go completely the opposite of what you had in mind.

The friendly game kicked my butt. (Okay, actually I'm only down a couple of buy-ins. And that was all due to two hands. In one monster pot, I got all my chips in the middle with the nut straight on the turn, 84% to win, and got outdrawn by a flush on the river. In the other, I re-raised from the button to 10x the big blind with AK suited, and got called by a fool with 10 J who proceeded to flop trips, while I caught my second pair on the turn.) It was just one of those nights where things didn't go my way. I got pretty frustrated, but I'm pleased to say that I kept my head level ~ while verbally venting so as to persuade others that I was massively tilted ~ and played solidly until the game broke. It could have been a lot worse.

Furthermore, I was unable to reach my contact about the crazy-ass game, so I was relegated to coming home and playing online. The beautiful thing about online poker is that you can always get a game, day or night. I played 3 tournaments and cashed in all of them, and I ran roughshod over the cash tables. All microstakes, of course. Still, the net effect was to put me up for the night, which was balm to my spirit.

My online bankroll began with one modest bonus-maximizing deposit at the beginning of 2008. I have been exercising strict bankroll management discipline ever since, and have ground it up to its current amplitude without reloading. (I did deposit once to take advantage of another bonus offer, but I do not include that deposit amount in my bankroll calculations.) I fully intend to make at least a 10,000% return on my original deposit by the close of the Year of Risky Business. Since I had already achieved a growth of 1050% by Day 1, that translates to an additional online bankroll growth of 650% from the new baseline (as tracked below) by Day 365. I consider this a relatively modest goal, by the way. There is every reason to believe that I might do meaningfully better.

Live Bankroll: 98.8%
Online Bankroll: 113.6%


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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