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Switching Off of Autopilot

by Matt Lessinger |  Published: Feb 20, 2013


Matt LessingerYears ago I used to play regularly with a fellow named Andy. He was about seventy, couldn’t play worth a damn, but always kept a constant stream of chatter going at the table. I knew him only from our time playing together, but we grew comfortable needling each other. I was young and cocky, he was old and cocky, and probably neither one of us was justified in our cockiness.

One time he misplayed a hand horrendously, misread the situation completely, but got lucky and took down a massive pot. I wasn’t even involved in the hand, but I couldn’t help myself from giving him some shit. Let’s just say my needle-meter was on high. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I basically asked him how he thought his lousy hand could have been any good before the river, with a few expletives thrown in for flavor.

As he was stacking his chips, he glared at me comically, as if he couldn’t believe what I was saying, and said in a light-hearted sing-song way, “Matt, who do you think you’re talking to? I’ve been playing this game for forty years…”

Without missing a beat I asked, “Then why do you still play like shit?”

That got some great spontaneous laughter from the table, and even Andy was laughing, although I’m sure it was easier for him to laugh having just raked a massive pot. Thankfully, he did not take my comment seriously, although the truth is that it probably hit closer to home than he wanted to admit.

Andy has since passed away, and now, some fifteen years later, I have to face reality: I’m getting closer to being in his role. I’ve been playing for almost twenty years. For me and anyone else that has played for a long time, it’s easy to justify to ourselves that our experience gives us an inherent advantage. In some ways it might, but it can also lead to a complete lack of self-evaluation. When that happens, not only do we stop improving, our skills actually get worse. Poker strategy is constantly evolving, and if we are not adapting to it, our skill set grows more and more obsolete. Combine that with young up-and-coming opponents who are working constantly to improve, and suddenly our experience isn’t worth a damn.

I’m falling into that kind of dangerous rut. I really don’t have the time to work on my game, and the only time I get to play nowadays is a couple of hours here and there after I’ve put in an eight-hour shift at work. I’m tired and not completely focused, and by the time I’ve played for two hours I’m practically ready to fall asleep at the table. In short, I’m following a pattern that I know is terrible.
It’s time to restart my poker career, and if you recognize yourself falling into the same sort of rut, maybe it’s time for you to do the same. Here are some of the things I need to do:

First and foremost, I can’t keep playing on autopilot. I need to focus on each hand individually. Too often I am falling back on a default action without thinking through the uniqueness of the particular hand in which I am involved. If I were multitabling online and couldn’t focus my full attention on a particular table, perhaps I’d have more reason to rely on a default action. But we’re talking about one live table here, so having to fall back on some pre-determined strategy without analyzing the situation is just plain lazy.

I need to stay attentive between hands. Part of my problem is that, since I know I’m going to be playing for only a couple of hours, I tell myself that it’s not as important to learn about my opponents since I won’t be with them for too long. That is, of course, complete BS. I still need to watch my opponents when I’m out of a hand, and I have no excuse to do otherwise.

I need to be more aware of my image, which right now is pretty poor. I come to the table looking tired, and even when I’m being attentive, I rarely appear enthusiastic. That might inspire certain opponents to try to run me over, taking my uninterested look to mean that I won’t be putting up a fight if they attack me. In an isolated hand, my tired appearance might give off the impression that my cards are not worth getting excited over. If I’m that tired, I simply shouldn’t play.

I need to rediscover my love for the game. I used to look forward eagerly to every session, and that excitement permeated my demeanor at the tables. That helped me run more successful bluffs, while at the same time it discouraged others from attacking me. I need to find that feeling again, not just for the sake of my poker enjoyment, but also to help make my overall game more aggressive, as it should be.

By this point you’ve probably gotten the sense that I wrote this article as much for myself as I did for my readers, and you’d be right. But I know at least a couple of people who have expressed to me some of the same sentiments that I’ve discussed here, so maybe you can relate to them as well. Not necessarily the tiredness part, but certainly the lack of attention and the sense of boredom rather than enthusiasm.
As this goes to press, I’m taking the first step towards changing my current pattern. Since part of the problem is that I’m playing only after working an 8-hour shift, I’ll be taking a week off of work in order to play in the L.A. Poker Classic. That used to be an annual trip for me, so imagine my surprise when I realized I haven’t been there in seven years!

I have no idea if I’ll have any success. Given that I haven’t played a tournament in over two years, it’s tough to like my chances. But if I can do all the things that I’ve let slide, such as pay full attention to every hand and improve my image, then at least it will be a step in the right direction. ♠

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