Raise or Fold:  Learning (From) Poker

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

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Jack Deuce

The first time I had pocket 9s and came in for a raise under the gun. The very next hand, I flatted a mid-position $20 raise holding KK in the small blind. And I was beat by J2 offsuit in both pots.

The disconnect between play, circumstance, and results in poker can get to a person. It certainly got to me tonight. I think I need a break.

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Friday, September 4, 2009

Not Looking Good

Lots 'o' losing. Other than two small tourney wins (actually, chops one win and one chop), lots 'n' lots o' losing. I am the loserator. Loserific. La Loserella.

And tonight, in a fit of pique, the display on my iPhone went belly up. It had been doing the same thing as the previous model (turning on dimly occasionally). Then, it just gave up altogether. So a trip to the Apple Store is in order tomorrow, first thing. Hopefully the replacement will be as swift as the last time. Not impressed by the product quality control, however, I must say. (My first iPhone was such a joy, built like a tank and totally reliable. This latest model, not so much.)

Tonight, after the endless losing, I actually had a profitable cash session. Half of it was due to two hands: making a straight flush when the other guy had the same straight; and flopping top set of Jacks when the other guy had pocket Queens. The second half of the profit came from not getting brutalized, for once, and not making any dopey errors.

I have one week left. There's gonna have to be a massive amount of winning between now and next Friday if I plan to show a profit for this trip. I'm hoping Labor Day weekend vacationers will play lots of poker worse than I do.

[Update: iPhone seems to have debricked itself after getting charged up a bit. Will wait 'til I get home to look into fixes.]

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Friday, June 12, 2009


I can't imagine ever running good enough to balance out how incredibly bad I've been running. Tonight was just the straw that broke my camely back.

I'm playing my best. And it just doesn't matter.

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Monday, June 8, 2009

I'm No Lady

How tempting it is to make excuses for one's failures! I'm trying to not do that. If a player doesn't have the discipline to follow her own playbook, what kind of success can she expect to have?

My motto: Always be learning.
Also: Don't be an idiot.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Nowhere near as bad as I thought...

I was in a pretty bad funk over my online poker results as revealed by tracking software. Nobody likes to suck. But then I realized that I had not included results from my other computer. So I transferred over the hand history files and imported those too. This provided me with a total of 150K hands to look at.

The result: I am, in fact, a breakeven player online. And if I were getting rakeback, I would definitely be profiting.

While this doesn't exactly offer cause for celebratory fireworks and champagne, it is helpful in two ways. Firstly, it confirms my original estimation that overall I'm not bleeding money online. And secondly, it shows very clearly that I was a significantly winning player until my results FELL OFF A CLIFF 15K hands ago in cash games and in tournaments. And when was this?

It was February.

Okay, that's interesting.

Let's see... what happened in February? Well, gee, I went to Vegas and got my ass kicked. My results in cash games, both online and live, have been in the dumper ever since. My tournament results have been okay live, but pretty bad online.

Some of this, I'm sure, is because most of my online play is very late at night/early in the morning, when I'm not at my best. Some of it is probably down to distraction (online play is particularly vulnerable to this, as the computer offers so many potential *oooh shiny!* attention-snags). And if I were a superstitious woman... well, let's just say I could come up with a couple more "explanations."

But I'm not.

So: have I become a much worse poker player in the last three months?

This seems unlikely. I may have been playing less well because I got so badly beaten up by variance in Vegas, but I don't think I've suddenly lost all my skill. And, if anything, I think the last three months have taught me a ton about overcoming tilt. While there's been a great deal of frustration, I think I've actually come to pretty good grips with the hands I've been dealt (so to speak).

I've also noticed, in the past, that when I'm absorbing new information or ideas about the game (say, from reading a book, or having a useful conversation about strategy), my results tend to suffer for awhile as I digest them and try them out in my own game. Eventually, I process them fully, and incorporate them into my game (or not), and the temporary disturbance passes, much like a case of indigestion from an especially big meal. Usually I emerge from those episodes a better and stronger player. It's possible that is what's going on here. I may be having growing pains, and the downswing may be both contributing to the pain and fostering the growth.

The net result of my analysis is this: I've been running really bad, it's affected my play, I'm learning new things that I've yet to fully master, and I don't totally suck.

Sounds about right to me. What do you think?

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Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Why We Don't Ask Questions We Don't Want Answers To

I finally decided that I needed to get some software to track my online results and to experiment with a heads-up display on cash tables. Being a Mac user, my only option was Poker Copilot. It's nowhere near as fully-featured as PokerTracker, but it's a start.

And now I know why I stopped keeping careful tabs on my online results.


And not just a little. My cash results are abysmal, and my tournament results are little better. And this is over a 50K hand sample, so it's no statistical blip.

I think I'm showing a net profit in my non-hold'em tournaments (specifically Razz and HORSE). But I wouldn't swear to that. After all, I thought I was at least breaking even in hold'em online; if this software is to be believed, I should be so lucky. (Maybe if I were getting rakeback I'd be a breakeven player. Maybe.)

Well. Time to take a deep breath and start over with new levels of rigor, and at consistently lower stakes.

I've been told that the truth will set me free. I don't feel especially liberated at the moment, I must confess. But I promised myself that I would be ruthlessly honest in my self-assessment over the course of this experiment, and being frank about bad news is part of the deal.

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Rubberneck or Avert Your Eyes

There are two common and very human responses to witnessing something bad happening in other people's lives. The first is a kind of involuntary voyeuristic fascination; this universally causes traffic jams everywhere there is vehicular transportation. The second is an instinctive turning away, or distancing; we don't want to catch the contagious disease, or associate with the weak member of the herd lest the predator focus on us as well.

I have witnessed both reactions in response to my recent lack of success. Some people just can't get enough of it: the thrill of schadenfreude is just too, too delicious. Others' immediate response is to point out all the ways in which I am doing something wrong and, by implication, how I am NOT LIKE THEM, NOT ONE BIT. In both cases, I think there's actually an underlying similarity.
"I'm struggling too. It's not my fault either. See, other players have the same difficulties, or worse, as me! No one ever really succeeds at this game anyway, unless they're really, really lucky. Her bad results just go to show that I'm not that bad myself."

"I'm doing fine. If someone else is having a hard time, it's because she isn't as good as I am, or because her attitude is all wrong, or because she isn't working at it enough."
I suspect that an individual's attitude toward others' success or failure in poker (or indeed any competitive undertaking) is primarily reflective of his own approach to the game and his own current state of success or failure. I'm not proud of it, but I know that mine often is, if I am not sufficiently introspective about it—which apparently is more often the case than I'd prefer.

There is, to be fair, a third response that can be just as reflexive for some: the urge to offer substantive help, support, or even just sympathy and companionship through the difficulty. Some people are genuinely able to offer useful guidance or comfort uncolored by either overt or unconscious feelings of superiority or just simple delight at not being in the other's predicament. Having been the lucky recipient of this sort of attention as well as the others, I can tell you that it is a relatively rare and lovely gift. Often the giver of that gift is someone who has survived the same challenge, and is thereby endowed with the direct experience of how it can best and most gracefully be overcome, as well as what kind of aid is actually useful and meaningful.

I think running bad is a little like getting lung cancer when you're a non-smoker. It happens; you didn't do anything specific to bring it on, but people keep asking you if you did. Everyone has advice on how to get better, but few of them will hold your hand (or your forehead) while you go through chemo. A lot of people will just disappear from your life, or avoid talking about "it" altogether, as if your daily routine were continuing as normal otherwise and you ought to be able to compartmentalize, for everyone else's sake as much as your own. But some of them, often cancer survivors themselves, will offer sound, practical advice on diet and exercise, recommend good physicians, listen to you vent without judgment (as, if they were lucky, others did for them), and offer strategies for coping with the rest of your life while you're ill. When you are in remission, they will celebrate with you and also help you find equanimity in the face of the possibility of recurrence.

If you are fortunate, you will actually emerge from the illness stronger, more self-aware, with better habits for maintaining your well-being and a keener understanding of what is and isn't within your control. And if you are truly blessed, you will have learned how to live well even under the most adverse circumstances.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

The Pain

I busted out of my WSOP subscription series tonight with QQ running into AA. I've replayed the hand in my head over and over, and I don't honestly see what I could have done differently.

The fact that I got slowrolled (no way the AA was laying down to my shove, we were heads up, and yet he hemmed and hawed and finally said, "I have to call you" with apparent great reluctance) by someone who has slowrolled me before (that time his QQ flopped a set to beat my AA) didn't help. His penchant for drama at other people's expense is truly obnoxious. Just call in a timely fashion and show me the bad news, dude.

When you cry tears of frustration on the ride home, that's probably a clue that you ought to give it a rest for awhile. I will not be playing poker live for several days, probably until Tuesday.

I'm here to testify, however, that knowing you did your best is just not enough to make the pain go away when you are getting smacked over and over. I cannot imagine EVER running good enough to counterbalance this crap.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009


Me & Sig & Roy & Lion
I arrived home this morning on the red-eye in a state of total exhaustion. Mentally, physically, emotionally: I got nuthin'. This last week in Las Vegas has put me severely to the test, and ~ honestly ~ the results are not so pretty.

Here is a quick rundown of the highlights (the good stuff):
  1. Dinner with the bloggerati. Mentioned in my previous post.

  2. Hanging out with B.W.o.P. CK very kindly spent some time talking with me about life in Vegas and also introduced me to the O8 game at the Orleans.

  3. Playing poker with Cory Zeidman. The Grump describes the scene quite well. What he doesn't mention is that Cory and I played two hands together and chopped them both. In the second hand, I had Fido (K9), and flopped trips. Plenty 'o betting with banter. Turn was an Ace, River was an Ace. Cory showed 8 9 off. He cashed out shortly after and I asked if he would very kindly let me just win one outright next time we played together. He promised he would.

  4. Playing poker with Jamie Gold. I had been sitting in the Venetian Deepstack Sunday game for about an hour and a half when an unkempt, unshaven, dirty-fingernailed Jamie sat down three seats to my left. He was perfectly pleasant to everyone, and received the constant attentions of one of the massage therapists the entire time he was at the table. I took his big blind one time, but that was it. His game was utterly unremarkable and he busted out in about another hour and a half. He seemed awfully nice, but also the very picture of a poker degenerate. A few minutes after he went broke in the tournament I heard the name "Gold" called for a new 10/20 NL table in the Salon.

  5. Being a tourist and doing touristy things. For example, I saw the Treasure Island sirens & pirates show, which is about as silly and pointless as you could possibly ask for. The Grump was seeing it for the first time too (after three years in Vegas), which gives you an idea of just how much of a can't-miss it really is. As evidenced above, I also had my picture taken in a goofy way, which is pretty much de rigueur for a tourist, right? I played mini-golf. I saw a bad lightshow at the Fremont Street Experience (it was basically an extended commercial for LG). I visited Binions, but did not see the eponymous golden nugget across the way. Oh well, gotta leave something for the next visit.

  6. Getting my hotel completely comped again. That this was a such a thrill should give you some notion of how much of a trainwreck financially the rest of my trip was.

The bad stuff:
  • Only two profitable cash sessions, and those barely.

  • Three quite expensive tournament blanks.

  • At least three really dubious decisions for a lot of money, when I should have known better.

  • A growing sense of fatalism about my lack of success. (I knew when I was all in with my KK that I was up against AA. When my all in AA went down to 33, I just shrugged and mentally kicked the penguin on the way out.)

  • A sensation of dread about my impending month in Las Vegas. I no longer know whether I'm running bad or I am bad. I do know that I took another big hit to the bankroll, and will have to spend all of May rebuilding, just as I spent all of March rebuilding from February's trip. This does not bode well for my notion of being able to survive on poker in Las Vegas.

I saw a bit of Las Vegas beyond the Strip, and was brought face-to-face with the reality that it is fundamentally a desert wasteland with a car-dependent monoculture pasted down on top of it. During June I will hope to explore a bit more, to see if there are any signs of life and creativity to be found elsewhere in the city.

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Running Bad

Running bad is a lot like a very specific kind of nightmare.

We all know that invisible brick walls are relatively rare. Once in a while, though, you are walking along perfectly competently, making progress on your journey, and **WHAM** you stride face-first into an invisible brick wall. Upon impact, it snaps temporarily into visibility, and it generally has some kind of label on it like "bad beat" or "cooler." (Occasionally it's marked "stupid play," but those walls are usually semi-transparent, rather than invisible, and if you're paying attention you notice that kind and climb over or walk around them.)

In any case, you stanch the nosebleed or bandage the cuts, ignore the black eye, and carry on. You get back on the right path and you pick up some steam. You may even be jogging a little. There's a pleasant breeze, the sun is shining, and all is right with your world.


It happened again. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move on down the road.


You start to suspect that there is a construction crew deliberately building invisible brick walls exactly where they know you are going. The walls are fiendishly designed and strategically placed to catch you exactly in mid-stride and face-first. Other people seem to know how to avoid them. Other people seem to miraculously find the gaps in the wall and slip right on through.

After the fourth or fifth such collision, not only are you a bloody mess, but you are also a nervous wreck. It's hard to march boldly forth when all your recent experience doing so has resulted in high-impact injuries. You start to suspect the presence of walls that simply aren't there. You become more tentative; you cover less ground. But eventually you gird your loins, settle your mind, and step out in faith once again.

And it will be just when you are persuaded that it's finally going to be smooth sailing from here on out (how many walls, can there really be? the path can't be -all- walls, after all!) ~ the coast is clear and you're running swiftly downwind ~ that you will once again **WHAM** smack headlong into one of those stealth walls.

But this time, you'll be sure it was your fault. You should have seen it coming, somehow. You should have proceeded with more caution. You should be inching your way forward by feel, maybe with a blind person's cane, not trotting along like a vacationer without a care.

In short, you SUCK as a traveler. Stay home, for god's sake. You just don't have what it takes: you are wall-prone.

Remember, it's only a nightmare. Just a bad, bad dream. There is no conspiracy. There's no extraordinary density of walls on your path compared to anyone else's. And besides, those bruises add character to your appearance. Next time you'll know better, right?

The clear archway cut through the ordinary, run-of-the-mill wall, that passage through the entirely visible plain brick wall, is actually **WHAM** sealed with invisible bricks.

Oops: too bad for you.

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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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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How Can I Lose? (Or: How Vegas Kicked My Ass ~ Hard ~ Yet Again)

Let me count the ways!

1: The one-outer. For example, the straight flush card on the river to beat my King high flush. Or the 8 on the river to give my opponent quads to beat my Jacks full.

2. The two-outer: The flopped King to give my opponent the trip Kings that cracked my Aces with all the money in pre-flop.

3. The three-outer: one of three remaining 9s in the deck (other than the one I held) which allowed my opponent to draw into the (gutshot) higher straight.

4. The four or five-outer: My favorite being getting it all in for my tournament life with AA against QJ with a J on the flop. And another on the river.

I have never in my life taken the quantity and quality of bad beats that I did over the last five days. The only merciful exception (mostly) was the $550 Deepstack Tournament on Saturday.* After surviving the straight flush mentioned above ~ which took 2/3 of my stack on the 11th hand of the game ~ I fought my way back and managed to finish 11th of 232. I played my very best game for 12 hours, and if my final call had held up (AQ v. K9, Q and 9 both on the flop, 9 on the river for my opponent's win), I would have arrived at the final table ready to contend for the whole thing.

It's impossible to get so completely crushed for so many days and so much money without starting to suspect that there is something really wrong with one's game. I estimate that I made four or five really bad plays that probably account for 20% of my losses. (And most of those decisions were made at the tail end of the trip, when my confidence was pretty rattled and my game less than optimal.) The rest of it? Well, all I can say is that I think Variance made me his BITCH on this trip. I got my money in good and got destroyed over and over.

And if you think I'm exaggerating (and who could blame you? doesn't everyone attribute their failures to bad luck?), I can tell you that I had a witness to at least some of the carnage. I am not making this shit up.

In sum — Christians: 2; Lions: Eleventy-Billion.

All I can say is, thank god I wasn't counting on my poker income paying the bills for February. Because this month is going into the books well and truly in the red.

*Actually, to be fair, I should note that I also won a one-table satellite on Friday which covered my Saturday buy-in. I didn't encounter any bad beats in that game.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Fish in the Desert

...That would be me.

To say that I have not profited in the last twelve hours would be a tragic understatement. In fact, I have sustained my single biggest one day loss in poker EVAR.

Not pleased.

I make no excuses. A better player than I, faced with the same adverse circumstances, would have lost less. I hope I managed to learn something along the way, but at the moment I'm not sure of that.

Despite the day's results I'm feeling remarkably cheerful. I attribute this to two specific factors: I am doing work I love to do; and I had delightful company alongside me while doing it.

Tomorrow is a new day and I have some rebuilding to do. My plan is to play cash on Friday and invest in the big buy-in Deepstack tourney on Saturday.

Status: bloodied but not bowed.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

I Hate Online Poker

Outdrawn and coolered until my eyes bleed. I honestly don't know why I bother.

Apparently there are some people who actually earn their livings playing online poker... even tournaments. Honestly, for the life of me, I don't know how.

The last month or so has been a relentlessly miserable experience. I think I'll go drink now.

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Monday, December 8, 2008

Day 112: Ungroovy Miscellany

Let's see:

The online debacle continues. I cannot win online at the moment. NOTHING I do prospers. Can't win playing tight, can't win playing loose. Can't win with made hands, can't win with draws. Can't win. Can. Not. Win.

The lack of winning online is annoying.

I played in the Crime Scene game on Sunday and had another of those days that resemble nothing so much as... a day of playing online. Aaaaagh! Again with the not winning.

I console myself mightily with the observation that I am still meaningfully up. I am. I am UP. Nothing can take that away from me. (I mean, other than a serious downswing. Blech.)

It would be nice, very nice, to have one big winning session here before I head to AC on Thursday for the Circuit events. I could use the morale boost in preparation for the battle.

It has always been part of my Grand Strategy to have one substantial live tournament win during this year. The theory is I'll have a much easier job pitching my book to the publishing community if I can point to a high-profile tournament victory. Why would anyone care about my observations on poker and life if I can't win at poker, right? And no one really cares if you are a successful cash player. Tournaments are what get televised, and so they are what people know.

In the meantime, the rest of my life continues to offer up alternately wildly fun and unbelievably idiotic episodes. I am sparing you, my dear readers, the particulars, but suffice it to say that certain gentlemen and certain members of my family are totally batshit insane. (Not at the same time. You know what I mean. Stop that!)

Nevertheless, and despite the various aggravations, I would be remiss if I did not emphasize that my life ~ ramshackle as it may be ~ is far more enjoyable now than it has been in many, many years. I am still not doing everything I want to be doing, but at least I am doing SOME of the things I want to be doing and many, many fewer of the things I don't want to be doing. This is a net win, bigtime. (Every time I decline to a do a job I don't want to do, I feel like superwoman. If I'd known saying "no," was this fun, I'd have started doing it a long time ago.)

I do have the occasional moment when I wonder if I am completely out of my mind myself. There is no doubt that this year is a slightly eccentric undertaking (to put it politely). It's entirely possible that I'll have less than nothing to show for it in the end. I don't think I will, but it is possible. Even in that case, though, I don't think I'll be swamped with regret. On some level, this was a journey I felt I simply had to take.

Thanks for coming along!

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Saturday, November 1, 2008

Day 74: Scorched Earth and Other Signs of Destruction

When things are going well, it's difficult to remember how awful it feels when things go badly. And, conversely, when everything is going to shit, it's difficult to remember what life was like when things were easy and pleasant. In fact, I maintain, except for the very most highly evolved persons, virtually impossible.

This trip to Atlantic City was a classic arc. Things started out pretty well. I went deep in a tournament or two. I was up a couple of hundred bucks at the cash table. I was flirting with my tablemates, with the dealers, the floor staff ~ let's be honest and say just about everyone ~ and they were flirting right back. Fun was being had by all concerned. The cards, while not spectacular, were well within normal and acceptable parameters. Poker was being played. And life was good.

(I add, on an entirely and purely personal note, that one cannot truly claim to have lived, as a poker player, until one has closed down a cash table in a casino and proceeded, whilst stone cold sober, to make out with the player immediately to one's left, as the dealer sits by and does his or her best not to hear or see anything. The entertainment value alone of this experience is enormous, quite apart from any other enjoyment that may be derived from it.)

And so one quite naturally thinks to oneself, "things are going swimmingly, yea verily I shall extend my stay in this paradise of gaming, where the rooms are cheap or free, the people pleasant and accommodating, and the cash runs like milk and money, err, honey."

But no paradise is without its snake, no rose without its thorn. Or, if you are me, your paradise becomes a snake pit, and your rosebush becomes a thicket of thorns without a bloom of any sort.

That horrible, perhaps unfamiliar, but indisputably ominous creaking noise you hear in the background, is the sound of the doomswitch being pulled from the OFF position to the ON position. You don't know it, yet, but you are FUCKED. Everything that was fun and good is now going to become very, very unfun and very, very bad. It's as if the Apocalypse had five horsemen, not four, and the guy after Death (Death’s really, really mean older brother) is coming specifically for you. Did I mention: really, really not good?

You will go through the stages of grieving. You will deny. You will rage and you will make stupid decisions. You will bargain. You will be very, very depressed. And eventually you will accept. Or you will kill yourself.

You know, one or the other.

In short: you will tilt. Welcome to my world.

I can tell you exactly when it all started to go south. It began innocently enough with a run of bad cards. Everybody has them, it’s no big deal. Patience is all that’s required, right?

Lots and lots and lots of patience. HOURS of patience. I cannot possibly enumerate the number of times I folded 9 2 offsuit and its ilk. I am told that premium hands were to be had during this stretch of time, but I can assure you, they were not to be had by me. After a while, and I mean a LONG while, non-premium hands of the vaguely connected and suited sort start to look like pocket aces. So, in the course of several hours, I played a few of those, with decidedly uninteresting results.

Time to mix it up, says I to myself.

I am in the cut-off (one seat to the right of the dealer button). Six people limp in to the pot with the minimum opening bet pre-flop. I look down at 10 8 of clubs. In my state of diminished capacity, it looks like gold to me. Suited and connected, by god! I feel frisky and daring. I raise to four times the big blind. The idea was, I would get to play for a biggish pot, against one or two people, with a hand that had possibilities against likely callers.

Now normally what would happen here is that something like half or more of the field would fold. Generally, people who limp into a pot are not terribly excited about their hand. A big raise is likely to scare them off.

This is not, however, what happened in this case. No indeed. Every one of the limpers called my raise. We are playing 2/5, so there is now $150 in the middle and I have a hand of dubious value, at best.

And then the clouds parted, and angels sang (I thought). The flop came 10 of diamonds, 8 of spades, 8 of hearts. Yes, dear friends, I flopped a full house. The phrase “I couldn’t believe my eyes” doesn’t even begin to cover it. I actually double-checked my hole cards, because I thought I couldn’t possibly be so lucky. But, lo and behold, it was so. I was in possession of the second nuts (the second best possible hand, after pocket 10s for the bigger full house).

And it got better. The first two limpers checked the flop. The third limper made a bet of $50. The fourth limper folded. And the charming fellow to my immediate right, a delightful young man who was a reasonably skilled player and fun to talk with to boot, pushed all in for about $320.

My god, what could be better?!? I am worried about one and only one possible hand, and if he had pocket tens in the hijack (two to the right of the button), I very much doubt he would have failed to raise pre-flop. My only concern now is to make sure that anyone with an overpair who may have limped pre-flop hoping to re-raise — like maybe the guy who just bet $50 — does not get a chance to draw to a bigger full house than mine.

This is an easy problem to solve: I shove for my whole stack, about $530. Obligingly, the third limper folds, leaving me heads up with the guy to my right. I get a rebate of $210, the amount more of money I had than he did.

I turn my hand over. He sheepishly shows the 7 8 of diamonds. He has trip eights. "I folded a ten," announces the guy who led out for $50. My heart swells with gladness. Both my patience and my creative daring are about to pay off. With two cards to come, I cannot be beaten.

Quoth he, “I need runner runner overcard pair for a chop.” The table laughs and groans. The probability of this happening is something on the order of .05%. I’d like to think the heat death of the universe will come sooner, but I know for a fact that is not true.

How, you ask?

Turn: King of hearts.

River: King of spades.

Perfect, perfect for the chop.

Yes, friends, I chopped this pot. I didn’t lose it, I will grant you. The two of us each made a little bit of profit from the money that others had already committed.

But I could not outright win a pot that I was the overwhelming, PROHIBITIVE FAVORITE to win. And that, folks, was the beginning of the end.

Before that, I was card dead. After, I was card crucified. Before that, I couldn’t get any traction. After that, I got my money in good and got bad-beated so many times that people were commiserating in hands with me before it even happened, because they knew it would.

For the following forty-eight hours, until I finally slunk out of the casino at 3 am this morning, it was carnage. I lost at the cash table, I lost at tournaments. The quality of my play definitely suffered, and I didn’t quit soon enough in a couple of sessions, but honestly, no matter whether I played well or badly, I was just going to get killed. It was only a question of whether I would lose my money quickly or slowly.

The hand that stuck a fork in me and let me know I was truly done went as follows.

It limps to me on the button. I have A 5 suited: again, not a monster, but one of the better hands I’ve seen in 48 hours. I raise the standard table raise of four times the blind. It folds around to one guy who limped in, and he calls.

The flop comes A 3 4, with two of my suit. For those of you following along, that means not only do I have top pair (aces), but I also have a draw to a straight and a draw to the nut flush. Let’s count the outs: 9 flush cards and 3 non-club deuces is 12 (or 15 if we believe that the remaining 3 fives will give us a winning hand if we get our second pair). Suffice it to say, this is a pretty good situation. Most of the time, we are favored to win if the other guy has an ace in his hand. He will need to pair his other card or the board in a suit other than ours and have a better kicker.

He bets out nine times the big blind on the flop. Bingo! We think it likely he has an ace. (Given his previous behavior when holding an ace, this seems like a reasonable assumption.) We hope very much it is a good ace, so that he will call when we proceed to raise him another fifteen times the big blind.

He calls our raise. While this causes a small twinge of anxiety, basically we rejoice. We are building the pot with what is likely to wind up the best hand.

Turn card is the queen of spades. Okay, no flush draw for him, and no flush (yet) for me. Did he have a queen for A Q two-pair? Apparently not, because it went check-check on the turn. (Should I have bet here? I thought it prudent to take a free card, still drawing to my flush, straight, or second pair, and exercise some pot control.)

The river is the 5 of hearts. Icing on the cake, baby! My flush didn’t materialize, but I have two pair. He bets out, I re-raise, and he shoves for about half the pot’s worth more. My heart sinks. I am fucked again, somehow.

Was I outplayed by a flopped set, or did he have pocket 5s? Did he slowplay his A Q?

Hell no! He called a thirty dollar re-raise on the flop with A 2 offsuit. And was the lucky beneficiary of a three-outer on the river for the wheel (an ace through five straight). Which river, of course, just happened to give me my second pair, pretty much ensuring that I’d call — although, to be honest, it was a crying call. (I didn’t expect to be beaten by the deuce, I must say. I thought for sure I was going down to a set.)

And that was enough for me. Not only did my hands not hold up, my good hands all became snares and delusions, perfectly devised to trap me into parting with more of my money while revealing my opponents to be people who made really bad decisions. And prospered by them. (Oh, how I both envied and despised them!) I was so desperate, shell-shocked, and disbelieving (surely, OMG, not again!) that I had become a pay-off wizard.

As I was turning my chips in at the cage (what few chips remained of multiple rebuys — yes, I rebought, because I believed that somehow, some way, I would actually get paid off rather than outdrawn, silly naive girl that I am), another player came up behind me. “Say,” he said, “weren’t you playing in that 2/5 game where that guy went runner runner for the bigger boat.” Yes, I said. The young dealer waiting behind him to pick up a rack of whites piped up, “Hey, I heard about that! And I have to say, I’ve never seen anyone take more bad beats in a row than this woman.”

That’s me, a legend in my own time. (I may have laughed bitterly.) When casino personnel are talking about you in pitying tones, you know you’ve had a bad run.

I’m telling you, you have to have a mind of winter to play this game. Because it will kick your ass. Hard. My bankroll took a big fat hit. I am still ahead, but now very little indeed. Two days undid most of two months. Evidently, losing is a much more efficient proposition than winning.

Yeah, poker is fun, baby. Lots and lots of fun. Now, where did I leave that cyanide?

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Day 64: Black & Blue

I caught the fleshy part of my hand — you know, the bit between your thumb and index finger — in the pushbar of a door yesterday. The pain was excruciating, and naturally I now have a giant subcutaneous blood-blister that hurts like hell. Shaking hands is a challenge (of course it's my right hand).

Metaphor alert!

I haven't had a good hand since.

I have been running, you should excuse the expression, like shit. Horrible! My god, I didn't realize how many ways there were to be beat. I have taken the art of the second best hand to a new level. I feel like the freakin' body bag down at the gym: "C'mon, hit me again boys, I hardly FELT that last one!"

Yeah, I'm a little punch-drunk. You would be too.

I busted out of my A League tournament early on Tuesday. I can't even remember how, at this point.

I got smacked around at the Crime Scene game, but managed to get out of there with only a few slight dings. The misery had, however, only just begun.

My poor online bankroll is deflating so fast there ought to be a hissing sound. When you multi-table, and you're running bad on all five tables, your money evaporates incredibly quickly. I'd like to know how my opponents, who are playing amazing crap and making perfectly ridiculous decisions, manage to catch exactly the right cards to make their hands so often... and especially when that card is the one that gives me the great, but second-best hand. And do not even talk to me about AA, KK, and QQ.

Some things just need to be passed over in silence.

It's a wonder I haven't destroyed some nearby household object. There have, I admit, been expletives. It is hard not to become persuaded that the universe is obviously OUT TO GET YOU.

I need a hug.


Sunday, September 28, 2008


Speaking of dying: I nicked an artery tonight and bled green all over the felt. A sample:
AA cracked by the K 10 offsuit that called a giant raise pre-flop.
99 cracked by A 3 offsuit (the case Ace on the river).
Trip sevens on the flop destroyed by a full house.
I finally grinded my way back to nearly even.

And then I flopped a set of Kings, and slowplayed them (one time, I thought, let me bet for value), and of course got horribly outdrawn to a straight and then a flush.

When my opponent went all-in, I should have folded. But I was frustrated from having been outdrawn so many times, for so much money. And the pot was huge. And I thought: if there's a 25% chance he's bluffing, and a 25% chance he's got an underset, then I have to call.

Which was absurd. I needed to fold there, and walk away with the remaining third of my stack.

The good news: I played beautifully until the last hand. I got my money in good and got very, very unlucky multiple times.

The bad news: I tilted, and I wasn't able to get away from a hand that was beat.

It doesn't matter how "unfair" the whole scenario was, from start to finish. I cannot even begin to consider myself a good poker player until I make those laydowns easily and without pain.

I let the past influence the present in a totally inappropriate way. I made a very bad decision, based in wishful thinking and emotion, and I got my ass handed to me.

That, I deserved.

All the crap that went before? Well, that's poker, folks.

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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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