Monday, October 04, 2010

Break-Even Poker

Break-Even PokerWas talking to Vera Valmore some over the weekend about what has become a kind of ongoing frustration for me at the tables. The post title gives you an idea. Ding-dang it I keep runnin’ in place!

I still consider myself a recreational player, one of those part-timers who maybe takes the game a bit more seriously than most but who for a variety of reasons will never likely rise above the micro- and low-limit games where I feel most comfortable.

That said, over the years I’ve consistently managed to eke out some profit from my hobby, ending each year up enough to withdraw some cabbage from my accounts. Nothing too spectacular, but it’s always been nice to recognize that I’m coming out ahead. Better than the alternative, anyway.

That hasn’t really been the case over the last year or so, however, where my records -- which I still carefully keep after every session -- show I have essentially become a “break-even” player for quite some time. Still better than losing, sure. But a little bit trying after having come out ahead previously.

While talking to Vera, I found myself trying to diagnose the problem. I realized soon there were probably multiple explanations for why I’d seemingly hit a wall the way I had. Or, to choose a less violent metaphor, “plateaued.”

But to single out one particular issue, I realized that my thinking with regard to individual sessions had become such that I was virtually guaranteeing I was going to limit my successes at the tables. Let me try to explain what I’m realizing I’m doing...

I wrote a post here early last year called “On Being Results Oriented” in which I confessed to being such. Which, really, is like confessing to being human. In that post I make reference to a chapter in Tommy Angelo’s Elements of Poker in which he addresses the subject -- and makes a similar confession.

“When I win, I think I played better than I did,” he writes. “When I lose, I think I played worse than I did.”

Like a lot of players, I play the same sort of mind games with myself following sessions. And really, a further lack of discipline with regard to reviewing sessions and hands -- something I admit I’m not doing at all these days -- helps make it easier simply to tell myself I “played good” or “played bad” depending on how I ended up at session’s end.

That’s a problem, obviously. But that’s not the one I’m wanting to highlight here. Rather, I want to talk about another issue comes up for me during the session itself, often happening right about the same moment -- that is, just after the session has begun and the first few decisive pots in which I’ve been involved have occurred.

To use Angelo’s terminology, I most often begin my sessions with what feels like my “A-game.” That is to say, that’s when I am almost always paying close attention to my opponents, making what I think are good decisions, and approaching the game in such a way that I believe I have all of my “tools” or plays available to me.

In other words, I’m smart when I start.

I’m not saying I never make any mistakes early in sessions, nor that I’m necessarily going to be a better player than my opponents when I first sit down. But I do think whatever edge I might have is usually greatest there during the early stages of play.

Then come those first few significant hands in which I’m either rewarded for my good play or suffer some misfortune and am not. Such is poker. Here’s the revelation I had, though -- it doesn’t matter which way things turn out in those early hands, I almost always stop playing my “A-game” and descend into my “B-” or “C-game” where I’m no longer drawing on all of my “tools” or moves, my game having become artificially restricted, thus making my decisions less optimal.

It goes differently depending on whether I have started out winning or losing, but I think the consequence is largely the same. I might be smart when I start, but then dumb I become.

If I start out winning those first few pots -- and getting ahead -- I am suddenly conscious of an urge to leave. I don’t want to lose the profit I’ve gained, and I’m certain this fear is affecting everything in a negative way. It’s not that I necessarily tighten up and grow more conservative, but something is happening to knock me off my “A-game” and limit my ability to build on my early profit.

On the other hand, if I lose money early on -- which more often than not happens after coming out on the wrong side of a so-called “coin-flip” or two, or experiencing hands in which I play correctly and get the money in good, but fail to win -- I also start playing sub-optimally, though the reasons for doing so are different. I press a bit, desirous to get back what I’ve lost, and probably too become overly loose and -- even worse -- passive.

And to go back to results, the consequence of all of this seems to have been a lot of short winning sessions and a few longer losing ones. Which currently has been adding up to a whole lotta break-even poker.

I could pull out hand examples and go into all of this in greater detail, but I don’t want to go on much longer here. The point is I’m realizing my sessions almost always seem to be marked by these two distinct stages -- an initial “A-game” period followed by a period in which I play less well.

I’ve talked here before about how Vera is an equestrian who rides dressage and competes on a regular basis, so she’s familiar with the psychology of sports/competition -- and how we often tend to psyche ourselves out of performing at our best. So she’s a good one to talk to, and I think helped me realize this particular problem.

Of course, it isn’t the only problem I’m having, I think. But an important one definitely worthy of some attention.

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Blogger Tim Peters said...

Hey Shamus:

Good post. I think all of us who take the game seriously have read or heard this dictum about playing for the long-term, not the short one. But that is so much easier said than done. If I take a beat, especially one that puts me in a hole, I am focused on turning that losing session into a winning one--which means I'm focused on some future state more than the present state, the hand I'm in right this second. I think it take enormous fortitude to play your A-game when you're stuck (or even when you're running well and start to play arrogantly). So when you figure out how to let short-term considerations go, please let all of your readers know.

10/04/2010 2:38 PM  

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