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Tonight We Dine in Hades

by David Downing |  Published: May 01, 2007

If there is one reoccurring theme of my writing, it is that I don't really like poker. By this I mean, the "How do I play A-K offsuit in the blind?" or the "Should I be playing suited connectors from under the gun?" school of thought interests me not at all. Basically, the mechanics of poker are not difficult. The effort required to become a proficient poker player, compared to, say, a chess player or even a backgammon player, is minuscule. Yet, so many players, even those with reasonable technical skills, end up lifetime losers. Why is this?

David Sklansky, the "Godfather" of technical poker authors, once wrote, I believe, that the biggest hurdle to a player becoming successful is that he should play better; the emotional and mental factors can be overcome. The logic behind this, and Sklanksy is certainly a logic kind of guy, is obvious. It does not matter how well-grounded emotionally and controlled you are if your play sucks. Conversely, if you know how to play, you simply have to learn to control these emotional factors, and profits will ensue.

I am not sure if I have ever agreed with such a view. Certainly, in the old days, when accurate playing information was harder to find, it may have been more true. But today, with a wealth of both straightforward and sophisticated information available both online and in print, it has never been easier to become good at poker. But the factors outside the playing of the game itself, often called the meta-game, still remain mostly unexplored and unexplained - and difficult. Let us look at just one facet of this meta-game.

For example, how does a poker player cope with the two nemeses of the meta-game - excessive success and resounding failure. The latter seems obvious, but how can winning be bad for your emotional and mental state? You would be surprised. A big score at the start of a poker career can be just as bad as an initial loss, except that the ride downhill takes a little longer. Such players are prone to have an exaggerated view of their own prowess and seeming indestructibility, and find themselves practicing bad game selection and battling in poor games. Moreover, they feel compelled to play at the biggest stakes, regardless of bankroll considerations. The Internet is littered with the corpses of such players, their tersely terminated blogs glistening like bone fragments in the Nevada desert.

Coping with remorseless defeat is more obviously testing, and can clearly be much quicker; a badly timed negative run may simply squash your career before it has even left the traps. To quote an aging Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money: "It was over for me … before it really got started." What would have happened to some of today's elder statesmen of the Internet if they had run bad back in the day when the next level below 50-100 was 15-30? The truth is that they ran good. They were lucky.

Sometimes defeat is relentless. Every day can feel like the 300 Spartans facing the Persian hordes at Thermopylae - certain death. But how resilient are your mental Spartans? Back in 2005, I had a bad run that made my teeth wobble and my eyes bleed - $50,000 in two months. Now, by many professional players' standards, this would hardly even be a blip on the graph. Ben Grundy loses that in a pot, and blinks - once. But for me, it was like someone had turned gravity off. However, I managed to turn things around, book a reasonable amateur profit for the year, and, furthermore, had my best-ever year in 2006. But I had been through similar, if smaller, slides before. I could cope.

Until you have been through such a run, it is hard to explain how it feels. One thing I am fond of saying, and believe to be absolutely true, is that the only way you get used to winning and losing large sums of money is to win and lose large sums of money. No book or technique or meditation can really prepare you for how it feels to have such swings - or whether you can mentally and emotionally handle it. Many players, who may be expert at the Sklansky playing-the-hand matters, simply cannot cope with these pressures. Good players, of all shapes and sizes, normally have been through such proving grounds and come through them - harder, tested. For other players, well, sometimes it is better to play for fun, or play just lots of low buy-in tournaments - or quit. The only answers you will find are those you find yourself.

"Come back with your shield, or on it."
- Saying of Spartan women, to their men going off to war

David has played poker all over the UK for the better part of a decade. Originally a tournament player, now focused on cash play and almost entirely on the Internet for the last three years, David makes a healthy second income playing a wide range of games.