Booking a Win


Many poker theoreticians-especially those who focus more on mathematical analysis than on psychological aspects-will tell you that the only reasons to leave a game are performance related. That is, get out if you’re tired (or for some other reason are not playing your best game), you’re on tilt, or the other players are better than you.

These theorists say to keep playing if you’re losing, perhaps even badly, if you’re still convinced you have an edge on the others in the game. Life is one long session, after all. To their credit, these theorists also say there is nothing at all wrong with leaving, even while winning big, if the composition of the game changes and you now feel you no longer have an edge.

If the ONLY reason we all played poker was money, I might be willing to go along with this line of thinking. But for the vast majority of players, poker is about more than just money. Further, even if money is the only reason you play, there are still some reasons why quitting a good game can make sense.

Suppose, for example, that you have been “running bad” for a while-that is, while you feel that your play has been good, you’ve been getting bad results. Players keep drawing out on you with inferior hands, your own flush and straight draws just never get there-every poker player goes through periods like this, and to say that they are no fun is an understatement.

Unless you have extraordinarily unusual emotional control, such a streak of running bad can start to affect your play and make it more likely that you will continue to lose. Because your straight and flush draws just “never” seem to turn into straights and flushes, you stop calling, raising, or semi-bluffing with them. Because your opponents have been hitting miracle cards on the river against you, you fold too easily when a scary card hits. Because you’ve been taking a lot of bad beats, it just takes one or two bad beats to put you on tilt.

After a streak like this, your “unlucky” self-image thus starts to create a reality where you are not playing your best game. You continue losing, but it isn’t because you’re still unlucky. It’s because you’re shell-shocked and aren’t playing well.

If you experience a streak like this-and if you play enough poker, you will-I think it makes a great deal of sense to end the streak by quitting while you’re ahead one day, even if it means quitting a good game, or quitting a bit earlier than you would normally.

Suppose you’re the kind of player who has the self-discipline to refuse to lose more than $200 (your own number might be $20 or $20,000, I’m just picking $200 as an example) in a single day, and you’ve lost your limit the last six times out. Now comes a day when the game is good, your cards are good, and you find yourself ahead $300.

While it’s possible that by getting up and leaving, you are foregoing additional profits for the day, you are also guaranteeing that you have broken your losing streak. You are ensuring that you’re driving those “I just can’t win anymore” thoughts out of your head.

Over the long term, I think quitting this game and “booking a win” is very good for your poker health. Sure, you might win another $150. But what if things start to go badly and you find yourself losing? Now you’re back stuck in an “is this EVER going to end?” mentality that can wind up costing you a lot of money in future sessions.

Naturally, if you have the emotional control of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, you don’t need to worry about this issue. But most poker players don’t have that sort of control, especially at the lower limits. That’s one problem I have with a number of poker writers, they seem to assume that everyone can play like a machine, while the reality is that the vast majority of us are all too human. Sure, it’s good to aim for eliminating emotional weaknesses in your game, but I think it’s silly to pretend they don’t exist while they still do.

I ran into a variation on this theme today. My own side action play has been up and down lately-win, lose, win, lose, lose, win, etc. It certainly hasn’t been the hottest streak of my poker career. It hasn’t been the coldest streak either, but I haven’t felt very lucky for the last month.

So this morning, when I headed over to Bay 101, in San Jose, CA, for a supersatellite tournament, I’d pretty much decided ahead of time that I was just going to play the tournament. If I got knocked out, I wasn’t going to play anymore.

Happily, I did not get knocked out. I won the event, which for a paltry $36 entry fee (and a couple of rebuys) earned me a seat in Bay 101’s $1,050 entry fee Shooting Star tournament. Up for grabs in the Shooting Star will be about $115,000 in prize money and three $10,000 seats for the Big One at the World Series of Poker. (As an aside, I also snuck into the Shooting Star cheap last year, via a supersatellite, and wound up winning about $7,000 in the main event).

So here it was, about 3:00 in the afternoon, and I was feeling pretty good about myself. Certainly I got lucky to win-you can’t win a poker tournament without getting at least a little lucky. But I also felt that (with one glaring exception that thankfully took place during the re-buy period) I had played well throughout the tournament.

So here I was, flush with victory, feeling good about my play, and also up a few hundred from a side game I’d been playing in waiting for the tournament to start. Many people would consider this an ideal frame of mind in which to play poker.

I left.

I didn’t bolt straight out the door. I thought about it for a while. I felt very good about winning my way back into the Shooting Star on my very first supersatellite try. So I did a little cost/benefit analysis.

If I stuck around and played in a ring game, I might win more money, or I might lose. I was already feeling very happy; if I won more money, I probably wouldn’t feel any happier (unless it were a LOT more money). On the other hand, if I lost in the side game, I know myself well enough to know that I’d have been cursing myself on the way home: “You were happy! You were thrilled! What did you have to gain by sticking around?”

The pure mathematicians/money players would say “you had money to gain.” Maybe yes, maybe no. I was certainly feeling good and playing well and so my guess would be I’d have had a better than normal chance of winning. Of course, no-limit tournament play and limit ring game play operate at VERY different speeds, and being in the right gear for one doesn’t necessarily mean one is going to be in the right gear for the other.

Money wasn’t the only thing on my mind, though. The money matters, no question about it. But I also play for the intellectual challenge, the competition, the camaraderie, the chance to exercise my sneaky side (something I won’t do in a personal or business relationship), my desire to improve, and for the thrill of victory.

By leaving after my tournament win, I “locked up” not only some profits for the day, but also an afternoon/evening of feeling good about the event. I also pretty much guaranteed that it will take more than two or three bad beats to get me into a negative frame of mind the next time I play.

I’m not saying you should “hit and run” anytime you book a small win; most players play better when they’re winning than when they’re losing, and it’s usually right to strike while the iron is hot. But if poker isn’t solely about money for you, consider stopping to smell the roses once in a while. You’ll certainly feel good that day, and if that isn’t reason enough, those positive feelings will probably increase your chances of winning the next time out, too.

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