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Winning Psychologically vs. Financially

by Matt Lessinger |  Published: Jul 11, 2012

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Matt LessingerIn all aspects of life, self-analysis is one of the most difficult things to do. In poker, the checklist is quite long. You have to analyze your strategies, your image, your results, and, perhaps most importantly, your motivations for playing.

Last month’s article, which talked about the thresholds of misery and happiness, focused on motivations. I discussed the subject with a few friends, who realized they had never really thought about it, but agreed that they definitely had those thresholds. When they’re losing big, they already feel depressed to the point that losing further money will hardly make them feel any worse. Similarly, when they’re ahead a decent amount, they have already achieved a desired level of satisfaction, such that winning more money won’t add much to that satisfaction.

I’m glad to have helped them recognize their thresholds because, for experienced players, I think that was worth more than any piece of strategic advice. And since I only scratched the surface of the subject last month, I’d like to continue discussing it here.

Anyone who has played poker for any length of time has had the feeling of winning by getting even. Perhaps you were in a $1-$2 no-limit game, and in a very short time you got stuck $300 after a quick barrage of second-best hands. You couldn’t believe your bad luck, and feelings of anger and frustration were building. Still, you felt that your luck would have to turn at some point, so you stuck around for hours. Sure enough, you eventually got back to even, at which point you promptly got up and left.

Psychologically, you felt like a winner. Your ability to come back from being down $300 left you feeling proud and strong. There was no reason to continue playing because you achieved what you set out to do from the moment you were stuck $300.

Of course, financially, you didn’t win squat. Sure, things could have been worse, but they could have been better too. If you played well enough to win $300 during your upswing, it stands to reason that you were probably a favorite to continue winning. Still, you were satisfied to get even, and you didn’t want to risk that satisfaction by taking the chance of getting stuck again. Meanwhile, finishing ahead would hardly have added anything to your current level of contentment at having broken even. At that point, consciously or not, you made the decision to stop playing for psychological reasons rather than financial ones.

If you’ve had days like that, you’re not alone. Countless poker players start out losing, make it their goal to get even, then quit once they’re even. Financially they’ve broken even. Psychologically they come out feeling like a winner. There’s definitely some value to that winning feeling (just ask Charlie Sheen). But, if your goal in playing poker is to make money, you shouldn’t be content with that result.

As a comparison, let’s take someone who is playing roulette, clearly a minus EV game. He is betting $50 per spin, doesn’t hit anything the first six spins, and is down $300 rather quickly. Then in the next spin he gets lucky and gets back his $300. Now he has to decide whether or not to continue playing.

Should he quit? The obvious answer is yes, because from a financial standpoint, it is always the correct time to quit. Any bets he makes are minus EV. He was lucky to get even, so he should take the psychological satisfaction of having recouped his losses and get out of Dodge.

Now back to the $1-$2 game. When you decided to continue playing after being down $300, it was unclear whether you were making a plus EV decision. But the fact that you got even justifies your decision, at least to some extent. Maybe you got lucky, but it’s also very likely that you were playing disciplined poker, and were a favorite to win back at least some of your money.

If you quit once you’re even, now you’re not taking full advantage of having made that earlier correct decision to continue playing. Instead, you’re now afraid of taking a loss for the day and feeling the pain that accompanies it. As I said, a lot of us have been there. But you could separate yourself from the pack by being one of the few who takes a step back from the situation and sees it for what it really is.
After all, if you finish with a loss for the day, so what? Poker is one long game.

You started the day terribly, but from that point forward you put together a nice win. In poker, winning breeds further winning. Sure, there’s luck involved, but the fact that you’ve been recouping your losses consistently over a period of hours suggests that you are doing something right.

When that’s the case, you should need a strong, legitimate reason to stop playing. If you have another commitment, or you’re feeling tired, or the game has changed for the worse, those are legitimate reasons. If you want to lock up a break-even session so that you won’t fall back in the red, that’s a legitimate psychological reason, but one that should be left to players who are strictly recreational. If you are a professional, or even an amateur who takes the game seriously, that’s not something which should influence your decision making at all.

In short, if you are making a decision to play or quit based on psychological satisfaction, you’re no better than any random gambler doing the same thing while playing craps or roulette. The one difference is that the random gambler would always be correct to quit and is always making a mistake by continuing to play.

If you want to be a winning poker player and not just some random gambler, you need to put aside your psychological needs and instead ask yourself the questions that really matter: Have I been playing good poker? Do I still feel fresh? Is the game still soft enough that I can expect to beat it? All in all, would continuing to play be a plus EV decision?

You can’t leave just because you’re even for the day, nor can you let it affect the way you play if you decide to continue. Simply put, you need to risk losing your psychological win for the chance at a financial one. For serious players, winning poker is measured in dollars, not in happy feelings. ♠

Matt Lessinger is the author of The Book of Bluffs: How to Bluff and Win at Poker, available everywhere. You can find Matt’s other articles at www.cardplayer.com.