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Three Tips To Keep Your Sanity

by Ed Miller |  Published: Apr 17, 2013


Ed MillerPoker is an infuriating, frustrating game. Consistent progress is impossible. Even the best players take two steps forward, three steps back, and then another step and a half forward and wonder why they feel so exhausted when they’ve barely gotten anywhere.

As I write this article, I mark the ten year anniversary of quitting my last job. That’s a full decade for me in the sink-or-swim world of poker. Over the years, I’ve developed some tactics to keep my sanity as I continue to persist in the clutches of this often insane game. Today I have three tips to share with you.

As Soon As You Think To Quit, Quit

There comes a time in every poker session where that thought first enters my head, “Maybe I should just quit for today.”

I now obey that thought virtually without exception. I don’t try to play through it. I just quit.

When I start a session, I’m raring to go. I’m focused and have that little spark of excitement that first drew me to the game long ago. As the session gets going, the spark wanes and I settle in. This is my normal pattern, and I play my best poker in this cruising zone of relatively unemotional focus.

Then, usually all of a sudden, I’m mentally done. I’m tired. Or my mind is elsewhere. Or I’ve had a bad day either at the table or away from it, and the negativity is wearing on me. “Maybe it’s time to quit,” creeps into my stream of consciousness.

I used to ignore that thought. “I can play through it. Just focus and push through.” Then I noticed that rarely did anything good come after I had that thought. I haven’t kept the statistics, so this is conjecture, but I think it’s possible that I’m a lifetime loser during all the time I tried to ignore and press on.

It sure feels that way. I can’t think of many times that I pressed through and then something really good happened.

So my advice to students is that, as soon as you think of quitting, you quit. Unless you play for a living and simply must put in the hours to make your nut, you have the luxury of being able to quit whenever you please. Use it.

I don’t care if it’s only been half an hour. Quit anyway. I don’t care if you just drove 90 minutes to another state to play. Quit. If you really, really don’t want to quit yet for the whole day, then take a good break. Rack up your chips and cash out. Go have a beer and watch half a baseball game. After that maybe you give it a fresh go.

But, basically, the moment you think to quit, just do it. It will save you a lot of grief.

Ignore Session Results

I know this is a tough one, but if you can get there you’ll be a lot saner about poker. Please ignore your session results.

What do I mean?

“Gee, I’m only up $130 for the day. One more bad hand and I’ll have lost it all back.”

“I can get even. I’m almost there. I’m on a roll.”

“Darn, I used to be up $800 and now I’ve lost it all back and I’m down $100.”

All thoughts of this type are 100 percent, without exception counter-productive.

Your results in any session are pure noise. There is no information there. Being even for the day is no magic number. It does not matter whether you quit for the day below even or above even. It does not matter how much you’ve lost from your peak stack of the day. Just because you’ve gotten half your loss on the day back does not mean anything about whether you should keep playing or not keep playing.

It’s all completely meaningless. Completely.

It’s also counter-productive to think about, because these thoughts tend to alter how people play. They’ll play too conservatively when ahead a little bit for the day and too recklessly when either ahead or behind a lot for the day. No one ever plays better because they’re thinking about how much they’ve won or lost on the day.

So just stop thinking about it. Here’s my suggestion. Come to the cardroom every day with a fixed amount of money. Maybe you play $2-$5 and you always come with $2,000 in your pocket. At the beginning of a session, convert all your cash to chips, buying black chips for the money in excess of your first buy-in.

If you lose $100, take a black chip out of your pocket and put it on the felt. Make change for the black chip if you like to make the chips harder to count.

If you always keep your stack topped up like this, after an hour or two it becomes work to keep track of whether you’re up or down. How many times did you rebuy chips? You have to think about it.

But don’t think about it. Are you ahead or behind? Well, you had to rebuy a couple times, but now you just won a big pot. Are you ahead $100 or $500? When you’re not thinking about it and you don’t keep your buy-in in round numbers, it’s hard to be sure, and that’s the idea. Don’t worry about it.

Then at the end of the session, cash everything in and count to see what your final number was. Since you know what you started with, you know how you did. Write it down in your log.

And then forget about it. Because that number is noise and doesn’t indicate anything about how well or poorly you played.

Take A Hand Home With You

After a session, write down one hand you played. Most people tend to choose the biggest pot they lost, but I don’t necessarily recommend that hand. Instead, choose a pot where you had a good hand and your opponent folded to your bet. Or choose a pot where your opponent was fairly weak, but you allowed the hand to get to showdown and you lost.

Take this hand home with you. Work through it systematically. At each point in the hand, write down an estimate for your opponent’s hand range. Rethink everything you did. Should you have done something differently? Or did you play fine, and it just didn’t work out this time?

What’s the purpose of this exercise? This is how you get better. You take hands you played and you analyze them thoroughly until you understand exactly what you did right and wrong.

If you do this every session, you will get better. And that’s the point, right? As long as you are getting better, win or lose your poker session was worth it. You will play better tomorrow than you did today. Focus on getting better and ignore wins and losses, and you will keep your sanity. ♠

Ed’s newest book, Playing The Player: Moving Beyond ABC Poker To Dominate Your Opponents, is on sale at Find Ed on Facebook at and on Twitter @EdMillerPoker.