Thursday, December 14, 2006

Poker's Sisyphean Challenge

I recall a few months back sitting at an online table -- my usual game/limit, one of my usual sites -- and facing an opponent whom I’d probably had at least two dozen sessions with before. He’s a smart, selectively-aggressive player who certainly has a clue what he’s doing. We’d never really chatted previously, but I knew, being the decent player he was, he likely remembered me & how I play. We were sitting next to each other (he was on my left), and so had a few blind-vs.-blind battles punctuating each orbit. He was getting the best of it on that day, as I recall. (This was before the early summer CPU meltdown I’ve mentioned before, or I’d call up the exact session from Poker Tracker.)

Anyhow, after fifty or sixty hands I see in the chat window he has asked me a question. Addressing me by my screen name, he’s asked me “How’s it going today?” In truth, I was down a bit, but responded with a noncommittal “up and down.” “Same here,” he replied, and we went back to the game.

The last two weeks really have been up and down for me -- and I ain’t just talking. Have had a number of sessions here lately where I start out losing, then slowly work my way back even, then perhaps get ahead a bit, then fall back, and so forth. Looking at my overall totals for the past two weeks, I’m actually up a few bucks, but the ride has been rocky. Here’s a graph of my results from 11/29 to 12/12:

Shamus's results from 11-29-06 to 12-12-06A lot of hands (over 6,000) -- more than I usually play. Generated the graph in Poker Tracker, by the way. Just highlighted the days in question (in “Session Notes”), then chose the “Game Notes” tab and clicked on the “g” button to see the graph. (I went back over and thickened the red line so as to make it easier to see.)

Looking at the graph reminds me of Sisyphus, the man who in Greek mythology was condemned to roll a rock up a hill in Hades repeatedly throughout eternity for having betrayed Zeus. In The Odyssey, Homer describes Odysseus witnessing Sisyphus performing his punishment during his hero’s visit to the underworld in Book XI: “Leaning with both arms braced and legs driving, / he heaved [the boulder] toward a height, and almost over, / but then a Power spun him round and sent / the cruel boulder bounding again to the plain. / Whereon the man bent down again to toil, / dripping sweat, and the dust rose overhead” (Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, XI.670-75).

The moment when Sisyphus “bent down again to toil” -- when he looks back down the hill and sees the boulder at its base, knowing he’s going to have to go back down and try again -- that’s the moment that most intrigues Albert Camus in his short essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” “It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me,” writes Camus. “I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”

For Camus, Sisyphus’s existence is absurd, but utterly meaningful -- and that’s what makes him like the rest of us. We make meaning out of our existence, even though doing so does not make our lives less absurd. “His fate belongs to him,” explains Camus. “His rock is his thing.”

Looking at this graph of the last two weeks or so also made me think about what it means to play while ahead versus what it means to play while behind. When ahead, I don’t necessarily play with a specific goal in mind -- that is, I don’t decide on a particular amount that I hope to win and therefore usually just play until I’m satisfied with what I’ve won or desire to do something else. When behind, however, I always have a specfic goal -- to get back to even. I will play longer sessions in order to reach that goal. This tendency is obviously a flaw in my game. In a recent column for CardPlayer, Steve Zolotow offered the following advice: “Look at your five biggest wins and five biggest losses. If you played significantly more hours during those losses than you did during your wins, you have a major discipline problem. If you perform this simple exercise and change your negative pattern, it will be the most important thing you can do to improve your bottom line.”

The fact is, I don’t always reach that goal of getting “back to quits,” and thus am guilty of precisely the error Zolotow has identified here. Looking in Poker Tracker at particular tables and the length of time I played at each (i.e., not necessarily sessions), I see that during my five biggest losses I played about twice as long as I did during my five biggest wins. I’ve written about this issue before, in fact, where -- borrowing Chandler's title -- I referred to the problem as "the long goodbye." Definitely an issue worth considering.

Here’s the rub, though. That’s my rock down there. And my rock is my thing. I have to push it back up the hill. That’s what I do. Absurd, I know. Is it possible that poker makes more sense -- is more meaningful -- to a person when behind (and trying to win back what has been lost) than when ahead?

I don’t have the answer. Just thought I’d give you something to roll around in your head.

Images: Sisyphus, Franz Stuck (1919), public domain; Poker Tracker.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know I'm seeing more and more blog posts about people being bored whilst constantly clocking up winning sessions. So you may be onto something here mate!

12/15/2006 8:00 AM  

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