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There Aint A Problem So Bad You Can't Make It Worse

by Bryan Devonshire |  Published: Feb 01, 2014


Bryan DevonshirePoker players often find themselves deep in a hole, and in an effort to get out of that hole they dig themselves deeper. This happens on both the micro and macro scales, and is a result of fundamentally flawed thinking. The good news is that anybody can change the way they think, the trick is applying the work to accomplish growth.

On the micro scale, especially in big-bet games, watching this implosion is truly a glorious sight. First they get stuck a few bucks. Then they try to bluff a pot, get called, and try to bluff again. Their opponent makes another “awful” call, then a third one on the river, and our hero is buried. There’s a full on steady stream of chips pouring forth, and unless something is done to plug that leak quickly, the dam’s gonna burst.

Off the table, most players manage their bankrolls awfully. They move up in stakes too fast, play games they shouldn’t be playing, and chase losses. When on a losing streak you should move down in stakes, never up. Variance is so much greater than most of us imagine. Given 1,000 equal professional poker players, a sample size of one year, equal opportunity, earn rates, and expectation of $100,000, one of those players will win $400,000, another will lose $50,000, and the rest form a bell curve peaking at $100,000 per year. A healthy bankroll allows for stress-free swings because wins and losses just don’t matter that much. If you play $1-$2 with a bankroll of $1,000, every pot matters. If your bankroll is $10,000, then you’re free to play the game optimally. Without a healthy bankroll, the urge to chase losses and dig the hole deeper increases dramatically.

Now, I understand that most of y’all aren’t professional poker players, nor expect to ever put in a full-time schedule with the expectation to make six figures. It’s questionable whether or not there’s even a thousand of these people on the planet. Got a job? Got some savings? That is your barometer. Don’t lose so much money that you’ll care, in the depressed and drinking alone sort of caring. Care about playing your best and not allowing yourself to take a loss so big that it hurts your soul.

During the LAPC (Commerce Casino) a couple of years ago I ended up five-handed in a $2,000 mixed-game event with Phil Hellmuth, Brian Tate, Tyson Marks, and Owais Ahmed. It was midnight and the tournament had one of those stupid Matt Savage structures that looked like it was going to last six more hours, and being after the main event, we were all kind of over it. We decided to chop up the prize pool by the Independent Chip Model (ICM) and the last longer by chip count, the absolute fairest way to do so. The conditions of the chop were that we made the levels 15 minutes instead of an hour, must all immediately start drinking, play to a winner, and hang around until the winner was decided.

Shortly into this game that would have made an excellent two-hour TV special, Phil gets a dirty beat put on him and goes ballistic. Very classic Phil stuff. I start laughing heartily, partly because the whiskey just started to kick in, and mostly because I finally realized what makes Phil tick. He is so insanely competitive that he just wants to win more than anything else when he’s engaged in competition. There was no money, prestige, or anything that we were playing for, and we all knew that turning the thing into a turbo made the best of us less likely to win, but Phil still wanted to win so bad that stealing those chips from him was the worst thing that could have happened to him in that moment.

We all got a laugh, he agreed, and I admire Phil more as a result. I liked him instantly when we first met, and over the years his goodness as a dude became more and more confirmed. I never could answer until that moment, the question, if he’s so nice, then why does he have these eruptions of colorful metaphors at the table? It’s because he’s immersed in the competition more than any of us, and I believe that immersion is why he has been so successful for so long.

Caring is good, but caring about the money is bad. Phil wanted to win more than any of us, and he did. He didn’t care about the money because there was no money to care about. If you care about playing your best poker, absolving yourself of the burden of worrying about money, then all will be better.

So, how to avoid holes and making them deeper? First, the ability to objectively self analyze is absolutely essential. If you blame your failed bluff on that player being so bad they can’t fold a hand, then you’re missing the point where you failed to identify that player as a calling station. If you’re making a bluff because it’s the only way you can win rather than correctly evaluating pot size, bet size, and likelihood of villain(s) folding to bets of various sizes, then you’re doing it wrong, and digging your hole deeper.

The second way people dig themselves into holes is by not making a plan. Both on and off the table, the best way to choose the correct course is to consider all possible courses that may result by stepping off in each direction (and the likelihood of every course). There are plenty of times at a table that I see people make a bet, get raised, and have no clue what to do. This should have been considered before making the bet!

Third, if something is digging you in a hole, then what is it? The lake’s draining, and there’s water coming out of a hole in the dam. Dumping water into the lake is not the solution. Plug the leak and the lake will refill on its own. In poker, people make the same mistake for their entire lives because they don’t know about the leak. They either refuse to self examine or do not seek knowledge. Since you’re still reading, I’m assuming you seek to improve, and that’s up to you to do. Reading is a good start. Talk to other players who are better than you and learn. Listen to worse players and (silently) identify mistakes. Sometimes we lose due to variance, but usually there are leaks that we don’t know about and need to find. Don’t make the hole you’re in deeper. ♠

Bryan Devonshire has been a professional poker player for nearly a decade and has more than $2 million in tournament earnings. Follow him on Twitter @devopoker.