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The Low Rollers #271

Do You Have the Temperament for Poker?

by Michael Wiesenberg |  Published: Sep 21, 2011


Michael WiesenbergJim was having a bad streak in the $10-$20 limit hold’em game. The game was good, with multiple players per pot and lots of loose play. Loose Willy, who had the big blind, had been the only one to stay in against Jim, who had come in for a raise on the button. Willy called. With a flop of QHeart Suit JHeart Suit 9Diamond Suit, Willy checked. Jim bet, and Willy called. The turn was the 2Club Suit. Again, Willy checked, and Jim bet. Willy called. The river card was the 3Diamond Suit. Willy passed. Jim bet, and Willy called. Jim said, “No pair,” and disgustedly turned over the AHeart Suit KHeart Suit, while yelling at the dealer, “Can’t you deal me anything that connects with the board?” He didn’t seem at all surprised when Willy turned over his 4Diamond Suit 2Diamond Suit to take the pot.

Other writers don’t mention a very important requisite for poker success — your temperament when playing. More particularly, how do you handle the inevitable downturns and setbacks of poker? Anyone plays great when winning, goes the card-room cliché. There’s a lot of truth in that. It’s how you play when losing, when everything seems to be going wrong, that determines whether you ought, in my opinion, to play. Certainly whether you ought to be playing professionally.

Shortly after, I played Q-J suited from late position and flopped two to a straight flush. I, of course, bet the turn, which was a complete brick. I had sense enough not to bet the river, another brick, because I knew that Willy, who had the small blind and was my only opponent, would call with as much as king high. My hand would beat in a showdown any hands Willy would fold, so why waste a bet? “You must have me,” I smiled, “I missed.” Willy showed K-3 offsuit. All he had going for him was pairing one of his holecards — and king high. “Good hand,” I said. “Please take the pot.” Three or four times in the course of the session, Willy passed to me in big pots, and I bet. I had the best hand each time. One of the times he even called with 10 high, “just to keep me honest.” I had to get stuck $500 before managing a win of $400 for the session.

While I was pleasantly going in the hole, Jim turned up his cards, out of turn, whenever he had two unrelated small cards, and threw them towards the center of the table. “Hey, dealer, why do you keep giving me all the little ones?” Jim wasn’t playing badly (apart from showing cards, for which he got more than one admonition). He was playing a strategy that should make a slight profit for the average player, not playing substandard cards or trying to push bad hands, not attempting to bluff the calling stations. He wasn’t steaming, just crying a lot, though about what I couldn’t really understand. Did he really think the dealer had singled him out and was deliberately dealing him losing hands? Did he think there was some cosmic plot against him?

A funny thing happens in a hold’em game when a player shows he’s going to fold out of position: observant players in early positions can open with hands they might otherwise throw away. A funny thing happens when a player shows holecards before the final bet and screams at the dealer: a player who ordinarily never bluffs suddenly gets inspired to bet a hand he was prepared to lose with. Another funny thing happens: players who otherwise might be intimidated by this player regard him as little threat and make plays against him, raise him when ordinarily they would call and bet when they would check. In other words, even losing players suddenly start playing a winning game against him.

What’s the point of all this? If you’re running poorly and overreact, you gather more bad luck around you. However, when you play poker, you are being paid to make good decisions, and individual outcomes are irrelevant in the long run. If you realize that fundamental point, it’s easier to accept that you may lose a lot of pots in which you have the best of it, but good decisions should have a positive expectation in the long run, and you will make money overall.

A former roommate of mine asked me to teach him how to play poker. I taught him to beat the small games, and after several weeks of practice, sent him to the card rooms, where he did, indeed, make a little money. However, he got very depressed when he had a losing session, and he wanted to tell me every bad thing that had happened, every bad-beat story. A loss would ruin the rest of the day for him, and sometimes the next. He couldn’t handle losing. Finally I said, “Doug, you know how to play winning poker, but you don’t have the temperament for the game. I don’t think the aggravation is worth it.” Doug quit playing cards and went back to enjoying life. He later became a psychologist.

Maybe Jim should take a lesson from Doug. If Jim can’t handle the losses, he might be better off quitting playing entirely. Jim might not have the temperament to play. Do you? Spade Suit

Michael Wiesenberg has been a columnist for Card Player since 1988. He has written or edited many books about poker, and has also written extensively about computers. His crossword puzzles are syndicated in newspapers and appear online. Send commentary, censure, and counsel to