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Emotional Numbing

by Ed Miller |  Published: Apr 27, 2016

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Ed MillerIn a word, this game is brutal. No two ways about it. It’s an incredibly complex and strategic game, where you’ll need a depth of understanding to create a lasting edge. This study requires long hours of focused practice to refine.

Then, after countless hours of study, some drunken yahoo spikes a gutshot. Then he laughs that vaguely maniacal laugh that ends in a coughing fit. Then he raises you blind next hand, you call, and he again sucks out. Then he trash talks you for the next hour while you sit card dead, unable to do anything about it.

If you let it, no-limit hold ’em will torture you in nearly every way imaginable. Eventually you’ll hit a stretch, weeks maybe, where you’ll lose every single all-in pot, whether you get it in good or bad. You’ll run the biggest bluff of your life and some guy will snap-call with king-high—and win—and you’ll sit stupefied, wondering how he could make that call. Then he’ll say he misread his hand and thought he had a straight. “Sorry about that,” he’ll say, as he takes a full five minutes to stack all your money.

If you haven’t had enough experience playing poker to understand these examples viscerally, congratulations. You have a vital shred of innocence still to lose. But don’t make the mistake many new students of the game do. Don’t assume that this no-limit hold ’em thing will be a cakewalk. It most certainly won’t be. This game will give you incredible lows, no matter how good you are. Do not assume that all the study in the world and table time will make chips magically float your way.

I urge you not to make that mistake, but you will. Because taking this game too lightly is a mistake that heeds no warning, and a mistake you have to experience and correct for yourself. A big part of your potential blind spot is selection bias. If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you’re interested in poker. If you’re interested in poker, there’s a good chance your experiences in the game have thus far been mostly positive. Maybe you came in third in the first tournament you ever played. You’ve won all the money in your home game. You’ve played $1-$2 in a casino and didn’t always go broke.
The people who learn the game and get their heads bashed in for the first ten times tend to lose interest.

Yet the difference between you with your positive experiences, and this theoretical snake-bitten newbie, is mostly raw luck.

But do we believe the luck argument? No. Not in our hearts. We all know poker is a skill game. So if good things happen, it’s due at least in good part to our excellent skills, right?

Wrong. At least wrong in the short term. And for poker, the short term is longer than many people intuitively assume.

Now the swings are not necessarily forever. Good poker players can, and do, generate edges that allow them to win consistently over longer timeframes. But these longer timeframes are actually fairly long. And it’s likely, if you showed me good results and said, “Ed, is this long-term success yet?” I would say no. I know this because, in fact, people show me results all the time and ask me this very question. And most of the time, my answer is no. No, these results don’t mean you’re awesome at poker. They don’t mean that at all. They mean you’ve been lucky—and it’s also possible you’re good at poker. But only possible.

So why am I belaboring this point? Once you’re playing consistently at the $2-$5 level or higher, you absolutely have to find a way to deal with the game’s emotional ups and downs. You need to find a way to numb yourself emotionally to a lot of the day-to-day noise in your results.

If you don’t numb yourself, it gets harder to think clearly and strategically about your game. If your last four bluffs have been snapped off, it’s tempting to pass on a bluff when a fifth situation rolls around. If you keep getting drawn out on, it’s tempting to try to bet bigger to blow your opponents out of the pot when you flop a strong hand. But if you do these things, you’re playing to make the pain go away. You’re not playing to create an edge.

Playing to ease the pain doesn’t work. It just creates more pain in the long run. You have to figure out how to get rid of the pain without making significant changes to how you play. Not easy.

I’m not a psychologist. But I do have quite a bit of experience playing poker and dealing with this problem. So I can share what’s worked for me.

The first step is an affirmation. “Whether I have won or lost today says nothing about how well or poorly I have played.” This is absolutely true. Say it to yourself after every session, however you do. The positive or negative number you have at the end of the day is, by itself, completely meaningless. It’s noise. You cannot judge your performance on it. It’s very difficult to improve just by second-guessing the hands you lost. If you have a lot of room to improve, chances are good you make mistakes on hands you win, hands you lose, even hands where little money changes hands. It’s misguided to focus on only the losing hands, as in, “I lost last time I tried that, so I’ll try something else this time.” Poker doesn’t work that way.

The next step involves bankroll. In my experience, it’s nearly impossible to play your best when you’re feeling bankroll pressure. The bankrolls needed to play these games are considerably bigger than most players think. For example, I wouldn’t play $2-$5 on a regular basis with less than a $20,000 bankroll. Pros can and do have downswings of $10,000 or more at this level.

And these are professional-level players with relatively high, well-established win rates. If there’s a decent chance you don’t play the game as well as these players, your win rate will be lower, and you’ll be exposed to potentially bigger downswings.

If you play on a short bankroll and you feel the pressure to win, you’re almost guaranteed to make errors in an attempt to reduce your exposure to risk. These tactics don’t work long term. They just increase your chance of ultimately going broke.

My third piece of advice is a bit of a gimmick, but I know it helps some people. Make sure you’re over-bankrolled for your session. Let’s say you play $2-$5, and the most you really ever lose in a session is $2,000. Bring $3,000 with you to the casino. That way you never have to worry about going home broke. You never have to worry about putting your last dollar on the table. There is always money behind.

Successful players get ahead of the frustrations and have a plan to deal with the worst before it happens.

This article was adapted from the same-titled chapter in my book, The Course. ♠

Ed’s newest book, The Course: Serious Hold ‘Em Strategy For Smart Players is available now at his website edmillerpoker.com. You can also find original articles and instructional videos by Ed at the training site redchippoker.com.