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How Do You Play When You Don’t Have It?

by Alex Fitzgerald |  Published: Jul 12, 2023


It happens to every poker player. You walk into the cardroom, you sit down, and it’s clear within 15 minutes. The spark isn’t there. Your focus isn’t there. This is going to be a hard session.

What do you do in these situations?

If you’re playing cash, you should just head out the door. Who cares what anyone thinks?

Believe it or not, there are many successful poker players who do not have much talent beyond this. When they are crushing the game, they won’t leave the table. When they are losing and they don’t like the game, they leave immediately. I’ve seen some of them leave after only 10 minutes!

People at the cardroom might mock them for this habit, but these players make money. It’s hard to beat a guy who won’t bleed chips when he’s having an off day.

Leaving the game is a fine option, but what if that exit isn’t available to you? What if you’ve been on tilt for weeks? What if you have to play to pay your bills? What if you’re in a tournament?

This happens all the time. You’re in a situation where you’re forced to play when you don’t have your fastball. What should be done at these times?

You need to simplify the game when you’re in this uncomfortable spot. Don’t get creative when you’re having an off day. Tight solid players make money all the time. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel on your rough days.

Play 8-8+ and A-Q offsuit+ primarily. If you have a hand beyond that range, spend some time with it. Ask yourself if you have to play it. On your good days, it’s much easier to play dominated Broadways or small pairs. On your off days, these hands can cost a ton of money.

Try to not cold call from early position with mediocre holdings. Focus on playing your best hands for good value.

Pay attention to the players to your left. If you open a few times and get three-bet, your tilt is going to soar. It’s best to not put yourself in that situation in the first place. Are the players to your left active or are they tight?

If they’re tight, you can open more speculative hands and try to play a pot with the big blind player. Simplify the game in that way. Don’t focus on beating the entire table on every deal. Look at the big blind player. Can you get to them? Many players in the big blind call with half the deck and won’t let go with any garbage pair. It’s easier to get real value from these players.

If too many players are three-betting then don’t open your weaker hands. If the table is docile then keep working to get that big blind alone.

If you get flatted with your speculative opens, then slow the game down. Don’t fire into multiple players just because you were the preflop raiser. You’re likely to get called. When multiple players see the flop, it becomes far more likely someone has hit something. You can’t piss away continuation bets when you’re already on edge. That will increase your tilt.

Don’t worry about check-folding in a few multiway pots. Most of your opponents will call down too much with pairs in multiway pots. You’ll make back all those chips when you do hit a hand and get value from it.

If you get three-bet, slow down the game. Calling three-bets out of position with weak hands is a fantastic way to lose chips when you’re tilting. If you want to fold more in these situations when you’re having an off day, that is a totally fine strategy. It’s not optimal, but it will keep you out of trouble. You can make the chips back in more advantageous situations.

Another dangerous play we have to avoid when we’re having an off day is the hero call. When we feel awful, we’re more likely to believe that everyone is trying to run us over. If we have been running poorly, we’re more likely to think, “there’s no way they sucked out on me again!”

Relax. Most people don’t bluff enough. If you’re playing lower or middle stakes games, most players struggle to run quality bluffs. You can fold more to river bets if the person has shown considerable strength. Unless you have seen the person bluff in a similar situation, you should know most people struggle to bluff enough. If he shows you a bluff, then this was a big moment for him. That means he doesn’t bluff normally. Unless you had a physical tell it was going to be difficult to pick him off.

To avoid tilt at the table, put some headphones in. If there is someone at the table who is talking nonstop, then turn on some calmer music to drown them out. If you find yourself distracted by the televisions in the cardroom, then wear a baseball cap. Sometimes that can help you keep the screens out of your vision.

Try to stretch on the breaks. Drink plenty of water. Don’t load up on caffeine. This can send tilt to the stratosphere. Once you crash, the fatigue will be severe.

Those brief tips should help you play more solid sessions when you’re having an off day. To increase your profits for the long term, you should also examine what could be causing your off days.

The common reasons people feel off at the table are poor sleep, poor diet, and poor exercise. Luckily for us, minimal effort in each field can get us back to normal. If you can just go for a walk without headphones before a poker session that will go a long way towards loosening you up.

Poker players tend to mess up their sleep frequently in poker tournaments. The long days grind them down, and against their better judgment they have caffeine later in the day. This causes their sleep to be interrupted that night, and they feel off for the next day. This causes them to wolf down more caffeine, which interrupts their sleep cycle more, and the problems keep compounding.

Getting out of this process is difficult. Sometimes you can just slug down an aspirin and walk it off, but some days you won’t have it like that. It’s better to just try to tough it out initially and not push yourself too hard. You’ll have levels where you’re not the most active player who has ever played. That’s fine. No one can play at 100% capacity all the time.

Alexander FitzgeraldFinally, the best advice one can be given on a bad poker day is to just sit with the feeling. If we keep willing ourselves to feel better, we will stress ourselves out. If we accept the day is going to be tough and sit with the feeling, we’ll find it’s not that bad. We’ll be fine as long as we focus on fundamentals. ♠

Learn how to play A-K when it misses the flop!

Alexander Fitzgerald is a professional poker player and bestselling author who currently lives in Denver, Colorado. He is a WPT and EPT final tablist, and has WCOOP and SCOOP wins online. His most recent win was the $250,000 Guaranteed on America’s Cardroom. He currently enjoys blasting bums away in Ignition tournaments while he listens to death metal. Free training packages of his are provided to new newsletter subscribers who sign up at