Raise or Fold:  Learning (From) Poker

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

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Real Motivation

Run, don't walk to read this post by Listening. A sample:
Hey — I like respect, too! We all like to have self-respect. We enjoy the respect of others. But if these things are the primary objective, instead of the natural result of your poker efforts — you've started a step behind and you'll never catch up. There is nothing for anyone to achieve to be worthwhile: you have value because you exist. And your value exists irrespective of anyone else's opinion of you. If you don't know this, you lack self-respect. If you lack this, you cannot respect your opponents. When you show this in play, you simply demonstrate your own weaknesses to your tablemates and make yourself exploitable.
Who knew you could learn this playing Razz! (I kid. Poker is poker.)

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Friday, October 9, 2009

I take it back.

Once upon a time, I made a rash promise.

I try really, really hard to keep promises I make. But it has become clear that this one was foolhardy; I am just not that noble a person. On the other hand, the motivation had some merit: who wants a Bad Beat Story inflicted upon them unwittingly?

What to do?

I have created a little quarantine ~ a gulag, if you will ~ for the BBSs of our lives. When it all becomes just too much to keep to yourself, c'mon over to The Book of Bad Beats and vent. Misery loves company, after all, and don't we all feel that our particular beat is the very worstest of them all?

Or, for those of you who feel Bad Beats are usually the victim's fault, feel free to analyse via a comment just exactly what the alleged "sufferer" did horribly, horribly wrong to bring on an inevitable and well-deserved fate.

So, this blog will remain a no-BBS zone: none of my readers will have their eyes defiled unless they choose to go visit The BoBB. If you want either to wallow in miserable company or to indulge in the sweet, sweet sensation of superiority brought on by schadenfreude, now you know what to do.

See? Fun for everyone!!!

[Update: First example submitted and posted. Check it out!]

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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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Tuesday, September 22, 2009


You'd think that prospect of making or losing money would be sufficient incentive to keep a person focused on the task at hand, wouldn't you? I mean taking other people's money is the object of the game, ultimately, right?

Well, yes.

But the human mind is easily clouded, and our emotions are unruly monkeys just waiting to leap out of the jungle trees and run riot. Furthermore, the fiendishly clever devices of "chips" and "pots" can distract us from remembering that the sole and royal road to success in poker is making good decisions at every juncture.

I will freely admit to being as weak-minded, or more, than the next person. I have found it useful to give myself concrete incentives to make good decisions. These motivators are not perfect, because they are correlated with results, not directly with the quantity or quality of good decisions per se. But, I have to admit, they do work, at least to some degree. They give me something external (not unlike, say, a WSOP bracelet) to strive for. They are a way for me to keep score that is separate from and more concrete than my bankroll.

So, I give you:

The Tournament Charm Bracelet
Each bead represents either a casino tournament win or any tourney cash for more than $1000. Silly as it is, the desire to add another bead to the bracelet is sometimes more motivating than the notion of winning.

The Cash Glass Bead Necklace
This is a new score-keeping program that I've just begun since The Tweak. I have had a tendency in cash games to play longer than I should, and to go on win-tilt. As an exercise in discipline, I have been striving to make sure that ~ having doubled my buy-in (or better) ~ I do not give back my profits. To that end, I am setting aside 1% of my profit from every session where I leave the table with at least double my buy-in toward a glass bead fund. Since the beads cost about $30, each one will represent $3000 or so in profit. If, however, I double up during a session and then end up cashing out for less, I must remove a bead from the necklace until I next double up (or better) and take the profit again. So far, I haven't had to remove the necklace's starter bead, and I am well on my way to my first new bead.

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Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Good day; bad day.

I had a very good day on the personal front yesterday.

You remember what it's like when you have a giant, painful, unsightly pimple right near your lip? It hurts, it looks bad, it gets more and more bothersome day by day. You know you could have avoided it if you had skipped the fried chicken or exfoliated more assiduously or just plain not had normal teenage hormones or SOMETHING. You try to ignore it, you cover it up with make-up, your nice friends tell you "It's not that bad, really!" but you know better. You can't bear to look at yourself in the mirror, you start turning down social invitations, and the pain near your lip makes talking or kissing miserable. This stupid little zit is messing up your life. It starts to feel like an enormous zit, a zit the size of the Matterhorn. You are irrationally afraid it will somehow infect your brain and kill you.

And then one day, finally, you've had enough. You are sick of thinking about that thing and of trying to not think about it. You apply hot compresses to the pimple. You perform the operation. The zit gives up the little solid pillar of hardened matter at its core, the pus flows, and maybe a bit of blood. The distended flesh and irritated nerves of the surrounding area on your face feel immediate relief. And the healing begins almost instantly. In a little while, all trace of it will be gone and not only will no one else take note of it, but you'll barely remember it was ever there yourself.

Yesterday, I popped a big metaphorical zit in my life (the healing has already begun). The relief was extensive. I was in a very upbeat mood. What better time to go play poker, right?

But I also had a bad day yesterday, and it was my own damn fault.

I was on happy tilt. I was also on only about four and a half hours of sleep. As I drove to the Ikea game, I asked myself: "Is this wise? You're kinda tired." But I was also floating on the confidence engendered by eight consecutive winning sessions. "It's okay, self, I won't stay long."

Meh. It wasn't that I played terribly. I didn't, I played okay. But I got stuck early, and then lost my buy-in and then another top-up, and then I got felted. I think I made one dubious decision (that early loss), but other than that my reads were good ~ the cards just didn't fall my way.

Nonetheless: I SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN PLAYING. I was not capable of bringing my A game. And even if my B game was "good enough" for the circumstances, I should be practicing the discipline of only playing when I can do my best.

I made a series of unprofessional choices: I didn't make the correct decision in deciding to play in the first place. Nor did I make the correct decision to leave after I realized that I was going to want to dig myself out, but I was really too tired to make a marathon night of it. I could have saved a buy-in by acknowledging that and picking up and going. Had I been well-rested, I could easily have rebought yet again and stayed and ground it all back and more. But I wasn't, and I knew it, so I should have left earlier and taken the more modest loss.

Being a professional poker player is not just about the decisions you make at the table. It's also about the choices you make on your way to the table and in leaving the table and away from the table. My tweet to the contrary, being a pro is not a hat you put on while you're on the baize, it's an identity that has to inform your entire life.

Am I playing at being a poker player? Or am I really a pro?

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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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Friday, May 29, 2009


I have had a very annoying day today.

Mostly, annoying days do not produce much of use. However, in a fit of pique, I pronounced that "Poker is a stupibad game." (It may have had something to do with horrible players drawing out on me with crap in a HORSE tournament. Maybe.)

I then fell madly in love with my new coinage. I feel it is much more expressive than its near cousin "terribad." I look forward to muttering it under my breath for many games to come.

Say it with me, brothers & sisters: STUPIBAD!!

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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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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Oh what a difference a day makes...

We are told, with good reason, not to be results oriented. The only thing that matters, we are instructed (and quite rightly), is that we make good decisions. We should then be content to let the chips fall as they may.

And it's true. It really is.


Every now and then, ya just gotta win. Otherwise the game is simply soul-crushing and any normal human being is going to give it the hell up. So when I finally had a winning session at the Crime Scene Game on Friday night, when I racked up my bricks of red and cashed out with a nice profit, it was balm to my battered poker ego. My big hands held up. I got away from my losers cheaply. I pulled off a couple of nifty bluffs. I played well, and I had average-to-good luck.

So today, I'm playing with my A League in Manassas. So far, I've busted out of two tournaments early, but made my buy-ins back playing cash. The key thing, though, is that I don't feel like a total, complete, hopeless loser today, and you know what?

That's nice. It's really nice.

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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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Monday, April 13, 2009

Pre-Travel Travails

Well, there's the taxes. Everyone loves doing them, I know. I always leave them to absolutely the last minute, to ensure maximum stress and anxiety. And then there's the mad scramble for the documentation, etc. It's totally pathological, and I'm embarrassed to death by it, but there you go.

I actually like traveling, especially when the destination is one I'm actually anticipating that I will enjoy. What I don't like is the 48 hours or so before I travel. Mentally, I'm already THERE. That makes every little thing I have to do HERE a giant pain in the patootie (e.g., doing the taxes becomes 10x as unpleasant, if you can imagine that). Washing the dishes becomes horrendously miserable. Writing the note for the paper delivery person is an enormous burden. Hell, figuring out what to wear today (i.e., stuff I don't want to pack for the trip) is aggravating. The basic problem ~ that I'm still HERE instead of THERE ~ is completely insurmountable, and yet I manage to let it irritate me. This is utterly irrational, and you'd think that a person who'd spent a significant fraction of her life in various meditation practices would be able to rise above it.


I am still HERE, and I have these annoying tasks to accomplish and decisions (mostly minor) that have to be made, and it making me a cranky Cardgrrl. Expect little to no bloggage until I'm actually THERE; in practical terms that likely means Wednesday.

[Post Scriptum: Please don't forget to greet me with "Hey, Sis!" if you wish to make yourself known to me at the poker table.]

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Monday, April 6, 2009


Recently, I had been running bad.

(Say it in a chorus with me, people: “Boo-hoo, you poor grrl, life sucks and then you die, go tell it to your mama.” I am well aware that no one really wants to hear it. Hell, even I don’t want to hear it.)

The most frustrating component of it had been getting crushed in games where I legitimately believe I have an edge, where in fact my past record shows that I have an edge, and where I don’t believe I’ve done anything meaningfully worse to produce such disproportionately bad results. In fact, the only thing that had really declined over the last month was my attitude.

I experienced frustration, resentment, a foiled sense of entitlement, aggravation, irritation, impatience, and a stubborn unwillingness to revisit my own behavior in the light of current conditions. This is hardly the posture of serene equanimity that I aspire to. Just look at that list; that list is a summary description of someone on LIFE TILT.

Now let’s consider that previous observation again: the only thing that had really declined over the last month was my attitude.

“The only thing???“

Once the basics are covered (fundamentals of strategy, people reading, mechanics, math), attitude is not the only thing, it’s everything.

I was faced with the prospect of two tournaments, one right after another on sequential evenings, that I really wanted to win. On some level, I also felt that I needed to win them. For better or worse (mostly ‘worse,’ obviously), I was pinning some of my self-esteem to the outcome of these two games. This is not a healthy attitude in general, and it’s especially stupid for a poker player, since—realistically speaking—so much of the outcome of any two games is contingent upon chance.

In preparing for the first of the two games, I identified (in addition to the emotional errors listed above) another factor that I felt was missing in my approach to poker lately. I lacked commitment. I was blaming my failures on everything and anything under the sun; I felt cursed, snakebit, gunshy, doomed. On some level I had already given up on bringing my A game, since it hadn’t done me a bit of good for the last six weeks or so. I had all the safety-net excuses in place for my forthcoming failure.

You know how you can tell that someone’s diet isn’t going to work?
They say, “I’m trying to lose weight.”

You know how you can tell that someone isn’t going to manage to give up cigarettes?
They say, “I’m trying to quit smoking.”

You know how you can tell when someone is just one cocktail away from returning to alcoholic behavior?
They say, “I’m trying to stop drinking.”

The people who succeed at their goals say things like:
“I want to be slimmer. I choose to follow this regimen of diet and exercise today.”

“I want to be a non-smoker. I choose to not light up a cigarette today.”

“I want to live a life free of alcohol. I choose to not take a drink today.”
The equivalent for me:
“I want to be a winning poker-player. I choose to make the best possible decisions I know how at the table today.”
These are statements of commitment, and the actions they predicate are not something subject to material failure (e.g., attempting 13 reps in weightlifting and only being able to do 12). These are behavioral decisions that are totally under the control of sane sentient agents. To quote a famous pop-culture sage: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

I brought that frame of mind to the first tournament and won it. I brought that frame of mind to the second tournament and won it. And the following night, I brought that frame of mind to the cash game I’d been losing at for weeks and walked away with a profit.

Coincidence? On some level: of course. I could just have easily lost in all three locations, attitude and all. But in another sense: no. When I make the best decisions I know how, I put myself in the best possible position to win; in fact, because I actually know how to make good decisions, I will win more often. I become the kind of person I have declared I want to be by behaving the way such a person behaves. It is not some supernatural woo-woo Law of Attraction new age bullshit. It is the way human reality functions.

Okay, let’s take this notion of the importance of commitment and widen the perspective a little bit.

When I started my year-long experiment exploring my potential as a poker-player and a writer, I put some safety nets in place: budgetary restrictions and a specific timeframe were the most significant of these. In effect, I was saying to myself: “I’m going to try out this business of being a professional poker player and see how it goes.”

Can you see the problem with this, the weasel-words embedded in the concept from the get-go?

Three-quarters of the way through this undertaking, I find myself looking ahead to a decision point in August. In August I will have to determine what to do, based on my experience. But I will have to make a decision based not only on incomplete information (as with many important life-decisions), but also on information which has probably been distorted by an underlying flaw in the premises upon which the experiment has been conducted.

I have not, in fact, been acting as if my livelihood and well-being truly depended on my poker decisions. I have been “playing at” being a poker player. I have been operating under the assumption that there is a Plan B, that somehow it doesn’t really matter whether I succeed or not. I have not been making the best possible decisions in my life circumstances, generally; I have not been consistently bringing my A game to this project. This renders my results to-date (already a statistically dubious sample) even more highly suspect. The whole thing reeks of lack of commitment.

Here’s the irony, however: there is no Plan B.

I can no longer imagine happily returning to a more conventional way of earning a living. Of course if getting a regular job were to become a pure financial necessity, I would do it and I would make whatever accommodation was required. But I would experience it as a failure.

The fact of the matter is that I had simply never truly considered what the consequences of committing to this life would actually mean for me. It never occurred to me that (barring some kind of life-altering tournament score) I would absolutely have to move—leave my city home of sixteen years, my dear friends, comfortable residence, pleasant seasonal climate, familiar pastimes, rich cultural context. I had no clue that I would find myself ever more radically out of sync with the rest of the workaday world, to the surprising point of a certain discomfort, even for me, the perpetual outsider.

This is a strange place for me to find myself. I have changed careers multiple times in my life. People have often commented to me that they thought I was “brave” for essentially turning the page on one career and moving on to the next without much regret or anxiety. In retrospect, however, I think one of the reasons I was able to do that was that—again, somewhat ironically—I was never truly committed to any of my choices. I always figured: well, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll do something else. I’m lucky enough to have the education, the background, and the intellectual wherewithal to move on to the next thing if the current one doesn’t pan out. And so I have flitted from occupation to occupation (and pastime to pastime) without any truly signal accomplishments and without any deep-seated sense of satisfaction.

I am convinced, however, of this truth now: there is no substantial success in life, of any kind, without commitment. I have to now consider very carefully what I am actually prepared to commit to, because life is short and these things matter. It astounds me that it has taken me so long to come to this understanding, and amazing that I have poker to thank for it.

[Nota bene: "Commitment" is, of course, also a strategic concept in poker, and at some point I'll want to talk about that too.]

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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, March 26, 2009


The ability to monitor one's own behavior and modify it as needed is one key attribute of a good poker player. It's also a signal attribute of successful and happy human beings in general.

For an example of this in action, read this from Bad Blood.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Punishment Does Not Fit The Crime

Because I have taken the solemn of oath of No BBS, this post will be remarkably detail-free.

All I can tell you is that my crime apparently consists of playing the best poker of my life, and the punishment is to consistently lose large sums of money.

I wish I could tell you that there was some kind of meaningful lesson to be learned here, but the only thing I can do is to keep making good decisions and hope that someday, somehow, they are rewarded all out of proportion to their merit (so as to make up for what I'm going through now).

As if poker were ever about justice.


Friday, February 27, 2009

It Is What It Is

(I'm in the mood for a good full-throated rant.)

The world is infested with fatuous, empty, pointless catch-phrases. Some of them have been foisted on us by commercial interests (think: advertising). Others come from pop-culture: movies, music, late night TV shows. Still others seem to have seeped out of the memetic petri dish that is high-school.

I don't know where "It is what it is" came from, but I can assure you I don't care. All I'm really interested in is that it should sink back into the primordial ooze of idiotic tautological redundancy from which it emerged.

Could there possibly be a more vacuous phrase?

I don't think so.

But it's not enough that the sentence is a waste of the breath required to utter it. No. It is also required that the speaker be enunciating it with an air of smug spiritual superiority.

Clearly you, the lucky recipient of this gem of wisdom, are insufficiently evolved to be able to appreciate its karmic, even zenlike, essential truthfulness. You are probably distracted by transitory emotions of rage, despair, resentment, or frustration. You should probably go meditate until you are capable of repeating "It is what it is" as a veritable mantra revealing the depths of reality.

It is the jewel in the lotus, man. Om!

There was a time when hearing "It is what it is" at the poker table would instantly launch me into high orbit tilt. No longer. Now I just conjure up a mental image of the individual who emitted it strapped to a chair, being forced to listen to Deepak Chopra for all eternity. This brings a buddha's smile of ineffable delight to my lips, and all is once again right with my world.

(There, I feel better now. How about you?)

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Thursday, February 26, 2009


That would be me.

Couldn't hit a flop. Couldn't make a draw. Couldn't bluff without running into a monster made hand.

And I did something I rarely do: I went on super monkey tilt. I rebought twice and lost it all. The last half hour was textbook HORRIBLE play. Just godawful.

I should have gotten up and left after the second rebuy was gone. My failure to do so is indicative of a huge lapse in discipline.

I am embarrassed on my own behalf. Seriously, no one who responds this way to adversity should even be thinking about trying to earn a living from this game.

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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, January 27, 2009

One Problem at a Time

So the car folks are saying my car is fixed. I will be going to get it shortly. If anything else goes wrong with it in the next six months I am going to sell it and get myself some kind of cheap gas-sipping metromobile. No more flushing money down the drain on this vehicle.

The confluence of no car, snow, and no home internet was making me INSANE.* After many frustrating conversations with Verizon tech support, they have finally agreed to send a technician to my place on Friday. I hereby predict that FRIDAY will be the first day I am required to actually go in for my jury duty ~ and I'll get impaneled too. Because that's just the way things are going.

On the plus side, my Vegas trip is completely locked in. Air tickets: bought. Hotel: booked (with comps 'n' all I'm going to be paying a grand total of $160 for 5 days' lodging). I start the trip about $500 in the hole, but that seems an entirely manageable sum. It is helpful to have this to look forward, as it inspires me to keep my eyes on the prize.

*I would like to offer a nod of thanks to the Friendship Heights Panera Bread (#3572), which has kept me in lattes and wifi during the car/DSL crisis.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Another Good News/Bad News Scenario

The good news: I've bought my plane tickets to Vegas and will be there from February 11 through the 16th. I am planning to participate in the Venetian Deep Stack Extravaganza and attendant cash game juiciness. I still have to determine where I'll be staying, but alea jacta est 'n' all that. I have also contacted a condo owner about renting a place for all of June, now that the 2009 WSOP schedule has been published. The process of actively making plans to do this is getting me all psyched up. For better or worse, I am putting myself well and truly to the test in the second half of my year's adventure.

The bad news: Freakin' car repair still not done. NOT DONE. As in unfinished. No car for me tonight. Words cannot express how very, very aggravating this is for me. Am I peeved? Yes, Sparky, I am downright peeved, and I don't care who knows it. This is EPIC FAIL. (I strongly suspect that the dealership is not telling me something. Since the repair is being done under warranty, I wouldn't be surprised if the problem was more extensive than originally identified.)

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Friday, January 9, 2009

Super Monkey Life Tilt

Four hours of sleep.
Car trouble. More money spent, problem still not entirely resolved, and horrid service.
Tournament loss to donkey play.
Cash loss to even donkeyer players.
Plus, someone poured a glass full of sticky red liquor all over my beautiful new faux fur coat.


I should not play poker when I'm running this bad.

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

More frustration

Didn't even make it to the final table of my B League.

Then, on the way to my Capitol Hill game, my car's overheating engine warning light started flashing. This is, mind you, the same car I just had in for very expensive maintenance yesterday. So I pulled over, waited for it to cool down, and then went straight home. Of course the light came on again, as well as the check-engine light, causing me nothing but anxiety the whole way. I have an appointment for tomorrow morning, and it is to be hoped that they can solve the problem in one day, as I'm planning to drive to AC on Monday. I suppose I should be grateful if I can get the car to the shop without the engine melting down.

NOT a happy camper. (God only knows what this fix will cost.) File under: life tilt.

I did manage to cash in a Omaha Hi/Lo game online. Barely, but hey, I'll take what I can get at this point.

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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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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Day 93: Back on Track

Well. That was interesting.

If you read the 2+2 Forums enough, eventually you will come across the concept of "life tilt." It's usually used in a humorous/exasperated way, extending the notion of "tilt" in poker (playing in a non-optimal way due to an emotional reaction to circumstances) into the rest of life. The phrase "life tilt" is funny in part because it's so clearly used as hyperbole, e.g.: "The way the guy to my right counted out his stack of hundreds by TWOS put me on life tilt." or "My girlfriend's constant hinting about a ring is putting me on life tilt." (Okay, maybe that last one isn't so much hyperbole for the 2+2 demographic.)

So consider this, to begin with, my confession. My confession of the sin of pride.

I have always claimed to tilt less than most poker players I know. Having seen at least my fair share of bad beats (more than my share? don't we all think so?), the miracle card just doesn't faze me that much. Rude comments don't piss me off enough to affect my game. Needling doesn't get to me. Even playing with people I loathe just doesn't put me off my game the way you might think it would. At the poker table I'm pretty thick-skinned and relatively unflappable. When playing alone at home online, I may rant and rave out loud ~ my array of invective can be quite impressive ~ but I like to think that my play remains pretty steady.

So what the hell happened the last couple of weeks?

Life tilt happened.

There was the incredibly frustrating trip to AC. There were some disappointing developments in my personal life. Logistics got the better of me on a few occasions; things I thought were settled ~ over-and-done ~ turned out to be unfinished business. And I was playing poker with a vengeance: way too much and with the wrong motivation (the desire to make up losses). I was not going to the gym, not sleeping enough, eating like a 400 lb. shut-in, and failing to keep enough company with people who love me and vice versa.

I have known for a while now that I am vulnerable to the cumulative effects of multiple stressors. In the last ten years I've had two episodes of fairly severe depression, both brought on by the convergence of several highly stressful events (in one case, for example: a car accident, quitting a job where my supervisor was a nutcase, and the collapse of a relationship all in the space of a couple of months). What I think I've failed to recognize is the much milder version of the same syndrome. There have been no catastrophes in the last couple of weeks, but the stressometer was definitely starting to redline. And I was not taking the proper steps to manage my response. This is classic vicious circle material.

Naming it does not solve the problem, but it's a start. Okay, so I'm pressing the reset button.

Here's the thing: I cannot sustain this experiment without a high level of self-scrutiny and a degree of self-discipline that I'm simple unaccustomed to exercising. And the key to this is management of my emotional well-being. I'm never going to be a poker genius; I don't have the raw talent and I'm not young enough to bake the skills in so that they are purely intuitive. If I'm going to have any edge at all, it's going to have to come from mental and emotional maturity. That means I must make the things that contribute to strengthening that equanimity a priority ~ a priority way ahead of the actual poker-playing.

To play good poker, my head has to be in a good place. And for my head to be in a good place, I have to be leading a good life. Duh, right?

If it's so easy, let's see you do it.

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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tilted Beyond Recognition

Going through an extremely rough patch here.

Bear with me. It can't go on forever.


Friday, November 14, 2008

Home Internet Connection Hosed

You cannot imagine the number of ways this is messing up my life. So far, no help from tech support. It has already cost me money.

TILT doesn't even begin to cover it. I am so frustrated I am ready to rip someone's lungs out and eat them raw.


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Sunday, November 2, 2008

Day 75: Still Standing

It helps that I came home and won a tournament in my A League right away. It doesn't help that I continue to run bad online.

But let me be clear: I tilt, but not for long. The Day 74 rant is history. When all is said and done, it was only a 2.5 buy-in downswing. Just not that big a deal, and nothing I can't recover from handily, in due time.

The real take-away from the experience is not yet another reminder about how frustrating being at the mercy of probability can be. The take-away is about everything but the cards: getting enough sleep, eating well, quitting a session when quitting is what's called for, and continuing to make optimal decisions when anyone else would be breaking out an uzi or a strong rope.

Poker is a mental game. It is all about using your head and trusting your gut. I remind myself that I am privileged to learn these lessons at manageable stakes. Acquiring the mental toughness and consistency to excel over the long haul ~ so that luck becomes irrelevant ~ is the hard part, and I believe it is ultimately what separates the recreational (and losing) player from the pro.

If I have one thing going for me, it is that I am resilient. I am also stubborn as hell, especially when I think I'm doing what's right. I am highly competitive and I am not easily beaten down. I've got some serious stamina; I regularly outlast much younger people at the table.

What I'm trying to say is that the latest unpleasantness, far from persuading me that this whole enterprise is a bad idea and I ought to just give up and move on to something more rewarding, has ~ to the contrary ~ quite hardened my resolve. I will learn more, prep better, observe more closely, choose more wisely, persist, and eventually prevail. I know I have it in me. It is a matter of doing what is necessary, and of ~ above all ~ discipline.

It intrigues me, at this stage of my life, to have come across an activity that truly stirs my ambition. It's actually something of a novelty to me to be so highly motivated. I am not a spectacularly naturally gifted poker player. I don't have a photographic memory, or an especially mathematical mind. I'm not particularly good at manipulation or deception. But I am a quick study, and I do have a certain ear for people's emotional pitch, and I am acquiring heretofore unknown degrees of emotional flexibility and behavioral adaptability.

Poker is a great teacher, and what it teaches you most of all is who you are and who you could be. For this, I am already grateful.

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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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Monday, October 6, 2008


The more I play poker, the more convinced I become that the single biggest component of a winning edge is the player's attitude.

As with any craft or art, one must have mastered the basics. You've got to know the math (to a reasonable approximation, anyway). You have to be in good-enough health to think clearly, observe, remember, concentrate, and put in a sustained effort. You have to be sufficiently experienced to recognize the shape of certain situations and their likely significance. And, of course, when you get to showdown you have to actually have the winning cards often enough.

But the fact is, all of the above is useless ~ as a practical matter ~ without the right attitude. Although elements of the right attitude change with the circumstances, there are some things about it that can be asserted independently. The right attitude is: even-tempered, open, unafraid, patient, focused, flexible, imaginative, rational, creative, self-aware, and resilient.

Aren't these qualities highly desirable in life as well? (Of course, one might also add to the list: ruthless and relentless. Compassion and mercy do not enter the equation at the poker table; whereas, a life devoid of these essential qualities of humanity is hardly worth living.)

I watch with astonishment as decent players fall apart because their attitude is incompatible with success. They are so highly reactive, so emotionally labile (to get technical about it), that a bad card or an insult or the wrong music or indigestion or too much to drink or whatever disagreeable internal or external factor can move them off their best game. They wobble into disequilibrium, they tilt, and then with the slightest nudge they fall.

People often think that I am tilted when I'm not. Some of that is deliberate. I will feign being upset, so as to lead opponents into believing I am steamed and making unwise decisions based on my emotional state. This is often very successful, I think, because many of my competitors really do steam at length and so it's easy for them to impute that frame of mind to me, too.

Sometimes, though, in a friendly game among people whom I know well, I will repeatedly return to discussing a hand in which I was beaten. The other players think I'm obsessing over the hand unhealthily as I revisit every nuance of the play. But that's not it at all: I'm trying to extract the maximum learning out of the experience. I revisit every step of the action, every inflection point, and try to elicit "what-if's" from both myself and the other participants in the hand and observers at the table. They think, "She can't let the hand go." I think: "I'm not letting go of this hand until I understand everything I possibly can about what happened."

There is rarely one and only one correct play in interesting hands (this is, come to think of it, probably the first point in the definition of "interesting hand"). Furthermore, I am not satisfied with my game. Far from it! I try to squeeze every ounce of information out of a failure, so that I can strive to not make the same mistake ~ or the same kind of mistake ~ again (or often, anyway).

My motto as an apprentice in the land of professional poker: Always Be Learning.


Monday, September 1, 2008

Day 15: Razz Me, I Can Take It

I can't remember the first time I played Razz, but I do recall that my take-away from that encounter was something like, "You mean, the person with the worst hand wins? Obviously, this is the game for me!"

The only time I won the Ferguson (Full Tilt's hugely popular $1 multi-table tournament that starts at 1 am daily) outright, the game was Razz. Of course the primary reason I was successful on that occasion is that I suck at Razz just marginally less than most people who barely play the game.

Something about the sheer perversity of Razz tickles me. I love that it is an inverted version of Stud. I love that there's no such thing as qualifying your low. I love that straights and flushes mean nothing.

Razz is surely the version of poker that is played in Hell. Or maybe Heaven.

One or the other, anyway.

The point is, I'm not the worst Razz player in the world, and I enjoy playing it. I lose Razz tournaments for two reasons, and two reasons only.

  1. I get bad cards. Razz is very card-dependent. If you're showing a pile of bricks in your up cards, you simply can't win the hand.

  2. I fail to fold when is self-evident that I am beat. I'm looking at a hand that's undoubtedly a made 7. The guy is BETTING it like it's a made 7. I have a 9 low. Anyone looking at my hand can see this. I probably can't even beat a bluff. Why do I call the bet on fifth street? Why why why?

It's a bizarre form of tilt, and if I could rid myself of it, I'd win most of the Razz tourneys I play. (I actually believe this.) You'd think that would be incentive enough to get me to stop doing it. Just writing it down in black and white makes me realize how utterly idiotic it is.

There are two major kinds of poker mistakes: mistakes of ignorance or insufficient analysis and mistakes of emotional origin. Both result in play that is not properly guided by rationality. It is staggering to me how much more easily faults of the former type are corrected than those of the latter. I'm guessing this is true for most people of at least average intelligence. It is much easier to learn how to think one's way through a situation than to maintain true emotional equanimity under stress.

The fundamental Theorem of Poker (viz. Sklansky) states that we will profit if we can consistently get our opponents to play differently than they would if they could see our cards. Optimal strategy, then, would seem to suggest not only striving for intellectual excellence and emotional equanimity for oneself, but also that we should seek to make the essential cognitive and emotional tasks of poker as difficult as possible for our adversaries.

I believe in courtesy and proper etiquette at the poker table (as indeed in the rest of life). I have no interest in engaging in needling or taunting or mean behavior. Aside from being morally dubious, it's just not my style. But it is worth considering how one's play and demeanor might nonetheless accomplish those aims without becoming crude, cruel, or otherwise inappropriate.

Any suggestions?

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Day 12: Meltdown

League tournament: played great, got crushed.
Live cash game: played mediocre, got crushed.
Anybody spot the common denominator?

Feeling cranky about it: mostly annoyed that I'm running like crap, but also not pleased with how I handled the sequence of events.

Grist for the mill.
(Stupid mill. I hate the damn mill.)

P.S.: Thank god for online. Smoked through a bunch of SNGs, got a royal flush, feel a bit better.

Live bankroll: 98.2%
Online bankroll: 120.8%


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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