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Head Games: How to Think About Poker and Deal With Variance and Bad Beats

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Mar 19, 2014

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The Pros: Isaac Baron, Nick Wealthall, and Jake Balsiger

Craig Tapscott: What are the biggest mistakes struggling players are making when they think about poker?

Isaac Baron: I think the biggest mistake struggling players make when thinking about poker is just trying too hard. I know that is a pretty broad statement, but I think a lot of players make poker more difficult than it needs to be. They see people on television making crazy plays or playing in some unorthodox manner and they try to make a bunch of hero bluffs or calls, or take a bunch of very complicated lines, when in reality, just playing solid fundamental poker is the best way to be a consistent winner. 

Nick Wealthall: The first thing is to make sure you’re actually thinking. So much of our lives are lived on auto-pilot from going to work in the morning through to driving, choosing TV shows and so on. Poker demands that you’re always thinking actively, thinking about each situation on its merits, not along preset lines, and making good clear thinking decisions.

Never auto-pilot when you’re at the table – there should be no such thing as a “standard” action for you. Always ask “why” you’re making any bet, raise, fold or call. Another common mistake is focusing on results, not decisions. You should work to develop an indifference to the results of one hand, session, or any short-term measure, but instead focus on your decisions. It is easier for me to say this than for you to actually do; but remember you can’t control the outcome of a hand and it’s almost never a 100 percent chance in your favor. Your decisions are the part you can control; the way the board runs out after your decision is a long-run process that’s beyond your control.

Instead of wasting energy thinking about your losses, always focus on improving. Start by freeing your mind of rules or structures for play. The best players don’t have fixed rules or a fixed style, but think actively and situationally about each hand and act in the best way for that moment.

To get yourself thinking in the right way, ask yourself these key questions about all of your opponents: “What are these players weaknesses and where does that give me an edge, and, how do I turn that edge into chips; what’s my game plan against him?”

Jake Balsiger: Developing a cohesive long-term strategy for poker takes experience, practice, and thought. I think the single biggest mistake struggling players make when they play a session is thinking street by street, rather than having a plan for the entire hand. Once the flop comes it is essential to have a basic framework in your mind for how you’re going to play the hand.

If you’re the aggressor, it’s important to keep in mind which turns you want to keep betting and which turns you’d prefer to check or fold before you continuation bet (c-bet). If you have a hand that you don’t believe you can auto profit with by c-betting, and there are only a few turn cards that you can barrel, by mapping out the hand we can decide to save ourselves money. We can make it tougher for players to float us in the future by check/folding the flop instead of putting in a c-bet that’s unlikely to work and then check/folding the turn.

One of the best examples for this scenario is when we are facing a check-raise. Let’s say that we hold J-J and are faced with a check-raise on a board of QSpade Suit 8Club Suit 7Club Suit. Calling seems like a good option on the flop, since there’s a flush draw that makes up a decent chunk of our opponent’s range. But we need to decide what board runouts we are going to call down and what runouts we will fold to before calling. If the turn is a 3Heart Suit and our opponent shoves and we then worry that he has a set or a queen and we proceed to fold, we’re far better off folding to the check-raise, since that flop’s texture is extremely likely to see a second barrel.

By developing a mental framework for the entire hand on the flop we save ourselves money by both avoiding bluffs that we can’t follow through on and folding to bets that we can’t take to the river when it’s very likely that we’ll need to.

Craig Tapscott: Why do many players torture themselves with bad beat stories and losing runs, and what can be done about it?

Isaac Baron: Bad beats and downswings are part of poker; they always have been and always will be. It is important though to honestly assess your own play and take ownership of your own mistakes, rather than blaming everything on bad luck. I think by honestly assessing your play you will be able to make the inevitable downswings less painful and less prolonged.

Nick Wealthall: We hate losing. Hate it. Think of an activity which you’ve done for years through choice that you suck at? There probably isn’t one, because sucking at something… well you know… sucks and we equate losing to sucking at something.
Poker presents a real challenge to this world view because you have to lose.

Everyone loses, you, me, Phil Ivey…everyone. The best cash-game player in the world wins only about 65 percent of his sessions (if he can find weak competition). The best tournament player in the world goes home with nothing 75 percent of the time. There’s no other sport or game like it.

If you struggle with bad beats or losing runs it is not your fault. We as a species don’t like failure and your brain especially doesn’t like it when you were “supposed to win.” If you had a hand that was best and got unlucky, or if you’re playing in games you’re better than, it’s very easy to feel that pang of entitlement that the game “isn’t fair.”

The key to dealing with the losing that’s non-negotiable in poker is to retrain how you view the game. Remember it is a game where you have a small edge and that means your opponents have to win sometimes (if they couldn’t win sometimes no one would play). When they do something ridiculous and get lucky, don’t berate them or feel bad yourself. Instead say to yourself — “That’s why I’m here. If I keep finding people who play like that, I’m printing money!”

Stop worrying about whether you won a hand or a session or even a few sessions in a row, as you can’t control any of this. Instead fixate on your decisions and improving your play and understanding that rewards will come to you if you keep doing the right thing

Jake Balsiger: I think that most players struggle with losing runs because after enough sessions that end with that ominous little red number in our database, we begin to feel we’ve lost our edge, and we’re not entirely certain that we’ll ever consistently win again.

Almost all of us have memories of those sessions where we flop little-to-no equity for eight hours, and two unders with a backdoor gutshot starts to look like an appealing three-barrel spot. In my experience, the best advice for dealing with these situations is contradictory: stop playing, and play more than ever.

When you’re in a session where you’ve lost more buy-ins than you can reasonably expect to win back, the best thing to do is call it a day. Take a hike, go for a swim, go see a movie with friends; do anything where poker gets put back into perspective as just a game. Once you’ve lost that benchmark of “even” being your peak net worth and you no longer feel the need to get back there in a single session, take another trip to the casino. Just as some bad variance made you question whether you should keep playing at all, the next time you’re on the other side of the variance coin and flop top pair three times in a row, you’ll start to feel like Phil Ivey himself. ♠

Isaac Baron recently captured third place for $1.2 million at the EPT 2014 PokerStars PCA main event. In 2010 he won the PokerStars.com EPT Grand Final – Season VI. Baron has combined online and live cashes of more than $3.8 million.

Nick Wealthall is the host of the UKIPT, voice of the Sunday Million, and a popular poker coach. He specializes in training that uses a step-by-step method that’s easy to implement. To find out more go to www.transformmypoker.com.

Jake Balsiger is a professional poker player and a member of Team 888. He final tabled the 2102 WSOP main event and the 2014 Aussie Millions main event. Balsiger has a political science degree from Arizona State University.