Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Riding Out the Poker Doldrums

One common thread that crops up again and again while reading poker blogs (and see in my own scattered ramblings when I dig through the archives here) is how to deal with bad results, whether they be suckouts, bad beats, extended downturns, you name it. While it's very easy to say "Been there, done that, the cards will turn your way eventually, just stay the course" that's not really helpful. It's especially not helpful when you're doing your damnedest to understand what's going wrong with your dwindling bankroll, to analyze your play and see what changes you need to make.

While there's no universal answer(s), I think there are some general trends worth noting. They won't answer the eternal question of why the hell is that moron sucking out on me hand after hand with J4o but maybe they'll ease the sting a bit.

  • The smaller your bankroll, the greater the perceived variance.

    Statistically speaking, your AA is no more or less likely to lose to J4o if you have $10,000 in your bankroll or $23.82. You're an 87% favorite in both instances. But that particular suckout hurts a hell of a lot more when you're down to your last $23.82. And we remember pain much more vividly than we remember smug satisfaction when rockets hold up against a crap hand. The times when I've been frustrated the most with poker are almost always when my bankroll was the lowest, and I was fighting and clawing for my life, only to have a mighty 84o smite my Hilton Sisters down. "What the bafucking Jebus am I supposed to do?" I'd think, ready to chunk my laptop out the window.

    The solution? Well, sadly, there ain't one. Suckouts happen and will continue to happen. You can't control that. In most cases, though, you can control your bankroll. Granted, there are some cases where you get down to your last few dollars, and you simply can't deposit more money, can't afford it, and that's all there is and you have to make the most of it. More often, though, it's just stubbornness that causes you to refuse to deposit any more money. You decide that you'll by God get it back, that you'll run that $30 into $500.

    Well, guess what. Ain't likely to happen. For all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is you're not playing optimally when you're down to $30, steaming, seeing monsters lurking everywhere as you cringe when you get dealt KK, already preparing for another beating. If you can, deposit again and top off the bankroll. If you're going to take the game (and your time) seriously, take it seriously. Invest in yourself if you believe it will show a return.

  • If you want a steady yield, trade your chips in for bonds.

    Poker is a strange beast. In the long run, your return is likely directly proportional to what you invest. If you study and analyze and constantly strive to improve, you'll make money. If you do more of that, you'll make more money. If you do less of that, less money. Poker is a game of strategy and skill. The more you possess, the more profitable you'll be over time.

    In the short term, though, there's absolutely no correlation. None. At times the relationship between study and return is even sickeningly inversely proportional, as you cost yourself bets by thinking too deeply and playing too fancifully. No matter how much logical sense it makes that the cards should behave, once you learn to be their master, they won't always oblige you. Especially in the short term. And by short term I mean up to two or three months. Unless you're grinding out tens of thousands of hands a week, your monthly number of total hands will be low enough that normal standard deviation can cause some pretty wild swings back and forth.

    I've never seen hard data to back this up, but I have a feeling that most profitable players make their money in fits and bursts. Looking back over the last eighteen months, about 60% of my profits come from three months. This isn't a problem of execution, per se, as your hard work will, indeed, pay off over the long run. It's more a perception problem, as far as getting your head around the idea that you'll possibly have more losing months than winning months, yet be a profitable player.

  • SnGs and MTTs increase your variance, no matter the buy-in.

    I like SnGs and MTTs. I really do. But I think they're -EV for almost everyone, even if you break-even in them over the long run. I can't count how many times I've seen someone blog something along the lines of: "I was -15BB and sick of yet another losing session so I thought I'd change it up with a cheap $10 SnG." (I've said that myself more than once so I'm guilty as charged here, too.)

    That sentence doesn't really hold logical water, in all sorts of ways. Speaking solely for myself, I'd usually utter it when my bankroll at whatever site I was playing was down to $100-$200 or so. Frustrated at a losing session, it made perfect sense to try to recoup it (plus some) by only investing a total of $11. Plus I'd get some chips to play with and could at least get my money's worth, instead of seeing some assmonkey take down my KK with Q7 sooooted.

    Bzzzt, wrong answer. SnGs are incredibly high variance and you can play perfectly and easily go nine or ten with no money finishes. Willfully putting 5-10% of your bankroll at risk in such a situation is suicide. It works just enough to seduce you into trying it again and again, until it eventually breaks you. Ditto for MTTs. When you feel desperate and short-stacked and convinced that your only shot to make money is to roll the bones and try for a big cash in a MTT, stop. Cash out whatever money you have in the site, because you've already lost it.

    If you need a break, take a break. Turn off the computer. Don't play SnGs and MTTs in an attempt to reverse a bad session or because your normal, preferred game isn't going well. You prefer it for a reason. Stick to your guns.

  • If you're desperately short-stacked, limit is more dangerous than no-limit

    This is going to raise some eyebrows, but I think it's true. If you play poker long enough you'll find yourself down to the felt, in some form or another. Maybe it's your whole bankroll you've run through, maybe it's just what you'll allow yourself to deposit/lose in a week, maybe it's what you put into a certain site for a bonus chase that went wrong. Whatever the circumstances, you're almost guaranteed to be at that stage at some point, where you have $25 to your name, and it's time to sit down at a table, and there ain't no more money to be pulled out of your wallet.

    For most of us, the natural tendency is to sit at a limit table and wait for a big hand, either going broke or not. The problem with that, though, is that you end up playing passively, waiting for the final hammer blow of doom to fall. What usually happens is you get blinded down a bit, waiting for a big pocket pair, get impatient, then find yourself limping in with J10s, catch a piece of the flop, can't get away from it, and bleed off half your stack when you know you're outkicked. Then you shove the rest of your money in out of position on a crap hand like A2s, just because you want it to be over. And it is. And you never even really gave yourself a shot.

    Give yourself a shot. If you get desperately short-stacked, use that to your advantage and play no-limit. The only advantage you have with a short-stack is the knowledge that your whole life is at stake, which allows you to use your entire stack to potentially push someone off a hand.

  • Isolate your addiction.

    No, I'm not getting all self-helpy. But there's a reason why you play so much poker, why you read poker blogs, why you're here. And, in many cases, that reason can be lead to a larger frustration with the game of poker. Depending on what drives you to the felt, recognizing it and facing it head-on can potentially save you some gnashing of teeth.

    When you get down to brass tacks, I'm addicted to making money, not playing poker. Don't get me wrong, I really like to play poker, but what revs me up is the fact that it's an easily accessible, skill-based endeavor that I can make money at, sitting in my boxers, drinking a beverage. All I have to do is consistently be better than most of the other players at the table. Not even the best. Just better. As dumb as it sounds, realizing that made me a better poker player. You can suck out on my all day, slap me around, call me Rhonda, I just don't care if, at the end of the day, I make good money. I'll take it however I can get it. It becomes much easier to see the bigger picture when you focus on the dollars and cents, as they'll inevitable acumulate on your side of the table over months and months of play, if you put in the thought and energy to study and learn the game.

    If the commmunity aspect of poker is what attracts you, the codified rules of behavior, the easy access to other players, bloggers, and thoughts, that's always going to be there, no matter the size of your bankroll. Yeah, you have to have enough scratch to play, but that's not really the point. If it's the larger community and the rituals that you love, then you get let go some of the frustration that comes when your bankroll stalls out or declines. Does saying "But I love the poker community I'm a part of so it's okay that I lost $100 tonight" ease the pain of losing $100? Of course not. But it does at least isolate it, instead of leaving you with a vague, frustrated, dissatisfied malaise towards poker.

    If you're a gamer type and get off on the competitive nature of taking someones lunch money from them, well, you've got the hardest row to hoe. Because there are going to be days, weeks, and months when the fish slap you around with their fishy tails. And there ain't a single solitary thing you can do but grin and bear it. In the end you'll probably be the best player of all the types outlined above, but it's going to frustrate the hell out of you at times, watching idiots rake in pot after ginormous pot.

    Human Head said...

    Well thought out and well written. Thanks for the great advice. Most of it I knew already, but it's always nice to see it written down by someone else to remind you and solidify it even more.

    James said...

    True, true, true. I wish I had had heard all this great advice when I first started playing online. Also, keep up the tips on the lesser-known sites, they're very helpful!