A four-stage journey
Editor's note: This is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of The Poker Mindset: Essential Attitudes for Poker Success, by Ian Taylor and Matthew Hilger.
Some players tend to react very well to losing a big pot (and, indeed, other adversity in poker), while others tend to react badly. Experience helps in some regard. A seasoned pro with years of playing experience will tend to react better than a new player just getting used to the short-term swings. For most players, learning how to react well to hands that go badly is a journey that lasts a long time.
However, it is a mistake to think that this journey is linear or inevitable. Some experienced poker players still blow their tops when they take a bad beat, while some beginners have an instinctive Zen-like calm in the aftermath of even the most horrific hand. In fact, it is more useful to think of the journey as a series of four stages, where each stage represents a better response (and a better underlying attitude) than the last.
Stage 1 - Anger
A player at this stage sees only the monetary value of a pot that he loses. When he loses a big hand, his initial reaction is to be angry, in the same way that someone who has had his wallet stolen would be angry.
This anger may be directed at a number of possible targets, depending on what happened in the hand. The most common target is the opponent. This is especially true if the player believes that he lost the pot as a result of a bad play by his opponent. For example, the opponent hits an unlikely draw when the correct play would have been to fold.
If the pot was lost as a result of bad cards (for example, the player flops a straight but loses to a full house), the player might look for another outlet for his anger. In brick-and-mortar casinos, the dealer is often the unfortunate recipient. Online players might start to question the randomness of the card shuffler. More diplomatic players may simply blame their bad luck on fate, the poker gods, or whatever deity they believe in.
It is very difficult to be a successful player while at this stage. You might be a good technical player, but this will rarely compensate for the money you will lose by playing when angry.
Stage 2 - Frustration
Players at this stage have learned to remove the more destructive emotions from their reaction when they lose a big pot. Losing big pots is still painful, but this pain manifests itself more as frustration than anger. Players at this stage will be frustrated at the randomness of poker. They will often think about the "if onlys" of the hand.
- If only the river had been a blank.
- If only my opponent had folded on the flop like he should have.
- If only I had protected my hand better on the flop.
- If only he hadn't been dealt A-K when I had A-Q.
- If only I hadn't hit my draw while drawing dead.
The problem for players at this stage is that they are still fixated on short-term results. This is not necessarily an ignorance thing. Many players stuck at this stage realize that the results of individual hands are not important; it's just that they haven't really embraced this fact. Frustrated players understand the realities of poker; they just haven't accepted them yet. They still have not fully removed themselves from thinking about the money that was in the pot.
Sometimes strong players get stuck at this stage because they keep looking at pots lost in terms of their win rate. For example, if their win rate is one big bet per hour and they lose a pot worth 10 big bets, they think, "That's ten hours of profit down the drain." They don't realize that their one-big-bet-per-hour win rate already takes into account the fact that they lose their fair share of big pots.
Undoubtedly, you can be a successful player at this stage, but your attitude will be hindering you. While you won't be as prone to steaming as stage-1 players, you may well make a number of bad plays through frustration, and you will be prone to tilt, especially the loose or passive kind. This is especially true when losing several big pots in a short period of time. To fulfill your potential, you will need to embrace the idea of playing for the long term, and allow yourself to move to stage 3.
Stage 3 - Acceptance
Players at this stage understand and accept the realities of poker. They understand that the game contains a lot of short-term luck, and as a result, they are destined to lose big pots sometimes. If they are beaten by a poor player hitting a long-shot draw, they will tend not to react badly because they know that in the long run, they make money when their opponents chase unprofitable draws.
That is not to say that stage-3 players are not sensitive to the results of pots. They still will be pleased when they win a big pot and displeased when they lose one. They have just learned to put short-term results in perspective and concentrate on what is important.
Players in the acceptance stage are far less likely to tilt than players at stage 1 or 2. They realize that their opponents' mistakes make them money even if they lose an individual hand. They still might be vulnerable to minor bouts of tilt after taking a particularly vicious beating, but this will usually be subconscious. They will never intentionally alter their play as a result of even the toughest hand.
At this stage, you have a good attitude toward losing big pots, and will have every opportunity to be a successful player; and, indeed, this is the attitude that most successful players eventually learn to adopt.
Stage 4 - Indifference
It takes an extremely disciplined player with remarkable self-control to reach this stage, and very few players will get there. A player at this stage will not register any mental anguish from losing a big pot. Rather than feeling anger, frustration, or even acceptance of the hand, he will be focused entirely on how his opponents played and what can be learned from the hand. Whether he won or lost is an irrelevant detail.
Stage-4 players realize that the long term in poker is the only thing that matters. The result of one hand is irrelevant, and not even worth thinking about. The only thing that matters in any one hand is whether they made the right decisions. If they did, it was a good hand.
Players at this stage have the perfect attitude toward losing big pots. If they ever go on tilt, it certainly will not be because of short-term results. This gives them a huge advantage over players who are unable to adopt this attitude.
In my next column, we will look at an example to demonstrate the four stages.
This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
Matthew is the owner of Dimat Enterprises, “Publishing Today’s Best Poker Books”. The Math of Hold’em by Collin Moshman and Douglas Zare is available now at pokerbooks.InternetTexasHoldem.com.