The Patience of Job

There’s a certain sense of inevitability about that next bad beat when you’ve had a run of seven beats in a row. You’re all in, the guy turns over a flush draw and you put your best sarcastic voice on: “I wonder if you’ll hit?” you say.

Whether you are a pro or not, there will be periods in your life when the Poker Gods seem like they are rewriting the Book of Job with you as the central character. “What, all my oxen got outdrawn?” says the hapless biblical character as his set of Aces goes into the muck. There follows much to-ing, fro-ing and lo-ing as a large drove of livestock gets shipped to the lucky winner. Sorry Job, say the Poker Gods, pestilence and famine just ain’t what they used to be. We figured the only real way to test your patience was to deplete your bankroll in a rather modern form of torture called “death by a thousand muppets”. If you look hard enough, there’s a gag in there about the fish feeding the 5000.

For the pro, the option of giving it a break for a while is not great for paying the rent. When I’m keeping tabs on the psychological part of my game, I often give myself a free reign on when I can play. The only trouble is, in those periods I don’t tend to play that much – there’s always an excuse as to why I’m not feeling 100%. Even when I was a recreational player, there would be little correlation between when I was in my A-game mood and when I actually played.
In fact, I recently made a visit to Bluff Towers to discuss details of our forthcoming Bluff Europe Poker Academy seminar series. One of the lectures is about luck and variance, and I was showing the guys graphs from PokerTracker of how some of the big name pros are doing. How we guffawed at Gus; how we swooned at Durrrr’s swings at Omaha. And then Richard piped up with a question about my bankroll. Erm, well it’s . . . kind of . . . flat, actually. So just to prove I’m not a hypocrite Richard, here’s how I’ve been running since January 1st. Not exactly setting the world on fire, but at least in credit (more than can be said for Gus).

Notice especially the $4k downswing in the week that I split up with my girlfriend. Bankroll variance is supposed to be down to luck, right? At least that’s what I’ll be telling you if you come along to my seminar. The strange thing is, if I look back to the last year or so of poker I’ve played, the major downswings seem to coincide quite neatly with the faith-testing swings of fortune in the rest of my life. Could it be that I’m a bit of a tilter, really?

All of which brought me to thinking about advice for playing through the bad patches. The simple advice is not to let it get to you – stick to your game and if anything, take fewer risks and be more conservative. But that’s a bit too glib and general, I think. We should all be a bit more emotionally disciplined at the tables. But how do we tranlate that sentiment into practical wisdom? Here are four pointers for playing when stressed, running bad, or more prone to tilt than usual:

  1. Experience counts. Many times a session, Doyle’s wisdom about going with your instinct will echo in my head. For sure, your instinct can be wrong, but as time goes on that instinct will become honed and sharp. The more times you find yourself in a situation where you simply “cannot believe” that this has happened to you again, the easier it becomes to believe. To put it another way: yes, this really has happened to you again; he’s hit his hand, and he’s not clever enough to be bluffing on that board; just fold your hand and move on.
  2. Don’t start forcing hands. Calling down aggressive players with sub par hands both preflop and post flop is a killer. If you remain passive, you allow your aggressive opponent to make the decision about whether to escalate the pot or not. This is a great strategy if you are on your A-game and have a good read on a wild opponent. If you’re a bit off-colour and your opponent is a wily and aggressive player, you are playing to the advantage of his style. Effectively, you are no different from the fishy players who, let’s face it, are doing exactly the same thing as you, i.e. remaining passive calling down with marginal hands.
  3. Don’t start pushing with scant values. This is the aggressive version of the above mistake. Instead of calling with rubbish, you start raising and betting with it. Once again, this can be good play if you know what you’re doing, but tilty players tend to care less about who they are up against and more about making the play. This is not good poker. Pick your spots and enemies wisely. Learn the difference between an opponent who is calling you down because they want you to keep betting and one who is drawing and will give up on the next street. Marginal hands should only be pushed against the latter.
  4. If it’s a difficult table, get up and play somewhere else. There are two times when you are more vulnerable to the machismo that you can outplay your decent opponents regardless of the situation: when you are running bad, and when you are running good. At neither time can you afford to do it. Look for, and play against the fish. If they outdraw you, suck it up and move on. As a pro you have no business being on a table of great players; as a recreational player, you’ll have more fun if you’re not burning money while you play.