Monday, December 27, 2004

My Sordid Poker Past

Yeah, I know, it ain’t done yet, but I’m back at work, with absolutely no work to do, so you’re just going to have to suffer through the obligatory year in poker review.

Stepping back a bit, though, I should probably give a quick and dirty version of previous poker years, as I’ve only had this blog up for a few months. It doesn’t really impact this year, in and of itself, but I think it’s important, as it fleshes out my mindset a bit and where I’m coming from. Plus I like reading similar things on other blogs. So you’ll get my sordid poker history first, followed by the actual year in review post.

I started playing poker in high school, if you can count silly-ass dealer choice games like guts, acey-duecey, and Indian poker as “poker”. We’d play a good bit but it was basically an excuse to drink beer that someone’s brother bought for us. Ditto for college and grad school, except we were old enough to buy alcohol. I can’t say I learned anything worthwhile at all (in a poker sense) from all those hours. It was very fun but try as I might I can’t think of any valuable poker lessons learned by sticking a card to your forehead and wagering money.

The funniest thing about those games is that we avoided any real poker like the plague. I don’t think we ever played hold ‘em. Not one single, solitary time. There was the obligatory five-card draw and stud game every now and then but that was about it. I always did well in these games, though. I didn’t bully people, didn’t bluff, didn’t force the action. I was always pretty patient, even playing ridiculous games. I couldn’t have explicated it at the time but I think I’ve always had a pretty good intuitive grasp on the power of being patient and getting your money in at the right times, whatever gambling pursuit it is.

Fast-forward to late 2001. I was single, making good money, saving money like crazy, and had a lot of free time on my hands. I still don’t remember what the original impetus was but I started playing online at Party. I ponied up $500 and started playing me some hold ‘em.

I had no idea what I was doing. I hadn’t read a book on hold ‘em, hadn’t played hold ‘em with friends, nothing. I started playing $2/4 because, you know, that seemed about right, based on how much I deposited and what most people had in chips at those tables. Hee.

On the bright side, I’m pretty competitive when it comes to games and sports, and I pick things up quickly. It didn’t take getting slow-played more than once or twice for the little light bulb to go off in my head, and my monkey brain to go “Ahh, if you have a huge hand you don’t necessarily want to bet and raise like crazy.”

So yeah. I was completely ill-equipped to be playing at those levels but I actually managed to make that first deposit last a couple of months before busting out. By then I was hooked and immediately reloaded for another $500. That lasted a month. Rinse and repeat.

Midway through 2002 I was about $2,000 in the hole, addicted and frustrated. Like I said, I’m pretty competitive and, to be honest, I’m used to being better than other people at games and hobbies I take seriously and play a lot. The money itself wasn’t a huge issue. What was painful was the bruising to the ego and pride.

So I stopped playing. For three whole months. And I bought poker books. And Turbo Texas Hold ‘Em from Wilson Software. And I did all those things that anyone should do before leaping into a complicated, strategic game that has little to do with truly gambling.

So after my little self-imposed hiatus I returned to Party in July 2002, ready to rock and roll with what I vowed would be the last $500 I ever had to deposit, ready for the winnings to roll in. And promptly busted out again. Heh.

But I was finally starting to get it. The most important lesson (and maybe still the most important lesson) is that I finally realized that poker is a grind. It just is. I kept insisting on playing at levels above my bankroll because I wanted the money to mean something, avoiding the micro limit tables like the plague. That was partly because I was generally flush with cash in a larger life sense, but I think that particular dynamic is one that many, many poker players wrestle with, at a variety of levels.

The next level up is always there, teasing you. It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that moving up a level is where the “real” poker is at, where the real money is to be made. Where you no longer get sucked out on and can truly dazzle the players at the table with your wit, cunning, and skill. In the end, though, the only difference is the color of the chips. Your long-term success is still measured in tiny, tiny numbers, as far as BB/hour. It’s always a grind. It’s always hard. It’s never easy or exciting or glamorous. The same things that frustrate you about poker will always frustrate you, no matter what level you play.

Once I gave up any lingering notion of quickly amassing a poker fortune, things turned around pretty quickly for me. I stepped down to $1/2 and kept reading and studying. Other people have written about this, as far as reaching assorted plateaus in one’s poker journey, but I finally hit the first big one in late 2002. I wasn’t losing money. I was even, gasp, making a little bit of money.

2003 was a pretty steady climb upwards. I went on a bit of a rush early in the year, bouncing back and forth between 2/4 and 3/6 limits. I started bonus whoring, playing different sites. I also had a nice cash in a Party MTT that suddenly pushed my bankroll over $5,000. This was right before I met my wife-to-be, so I was still single, still hoarding savings, and had just gotten a promotion at work. So what do I do? I start sitting at 15/30 tables.

Yeah, I know. That’s not grinding it out or learning one’s lesson. To be slightly fair, I did know most of the risks and was aware I was taking a shot. But I was also backsliding a bit, still trying to find a way to make poker a full-time, lucrative gig. Still clinging to the notion that if I could not play with idiots then all the reading and studying and cogitating I had done would really pay off, when I finally sat down with real players.

Long story short, I was woefully unprepared to sit 15/30, lacking not only the bankroll but also the skill. I thought I understood the game much better than I did. I hadn't successfully eradicated the notion that there's a way to beat the grind, that skill always translates to success and riches at the poker table. Ill-equipped, in every way.

My only saving grace was the fact that I tend to play tightly and revert to rockish nut peddling, especially when I step up in limits. Well, that and the poker gods decided to bless me with decent cards. Amazingly enough, I didn’t flame out. I actually nearly doubled my roll in the two months I played 15/30.

My other saving grace is that I’m pretty conservative, despite loving to gamble. And pretty self-critical. I was still reading and absorbing poker strategy and content pretty voraciously, lurking at assorted online forums. I realized I was in way, way over my head and ran like a scared little girl

Looking back, I don’t regret either decision one bit. Jumping all the up to 15/30 was a horrible decision but a good experience. Running away was both a good decision and a good experience. Yeah, the fact that I made money makes it easier to say all that, as opposed to busting out, but it doesn’t change the basic lessons learned. Idiots occasionally get lucky. Poker is still a grind.

I dropped all the way back to 1/2 and 2/4, kept bonus whoring, kept grinding out small, steady profits. I had some down months but they were only marginally negative, while the profits in positive months became steadily larger. I ended 2003 with an overall profit of just under $14,000 for the year.

I also cashed out almost all of that when I bought a house. I’d met my wife by that point and was playing less poker in general. Heading into 2004 I felt pretty good about the general state of my game, and my ability to grind out a decent profit, but was a little worried about the lack of a bankroll. Given all of the expenditures for the house and what-not, I was going to have to build a roll from scratch

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