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The Last Word on Quitting
I've got to write this column. I know I shouldn't. Just a couple of weeks back I jumped all over poker writers who go on and on, giving advice about quitting.
How to quit, when to quit, what rules to use for quitting; ruminating over whether it's best to set proportion of bankroll limits or raw dollar limits; whether one should appeal to physical criteria ("I'm sooooo tired"), or emotional factors ("I'm tilting, tilting, tilt..."), or perhaps psychological thresholds ("My mind is a sieve with very large holes"). Whatever.
I hate this freakin' topic. But I gotta write about it, because everybody has it wrong. I need to begin by covering some boring stuff. Then, I'll tell you why all the honestly proffered advice isn't much good.
First, there's nothing special about quitting. By definition, we quit when the last hand is over. Every time we start we stop.
There are a lot of things that bring this about. Some of them are pretty obvious, like we've gone broke.
Tommy Angelo, in Elements of Poker, noted that when he was young (and stupid) he had a pretty simple rule. He would quit when he ran out of money and no one would lend him any. The modern version, of course, is: "Broke and maxed out the ATM."
Second, a lot of people are quite comfortable having no rule for quitting, other than their informed estimate of their edge in the current game. I've no quibbles with this. If you're a winning player with an edge in the game, then you shouldn't quit.
Even if they're smacking you around good right now, you should visit the ATM or hit up a buddy for another buy-in to keep in action, especially if you're doing this for a living.
But this isn't how most of us live our poker lives. We're not professionals and we don't need to do this.
Try this little thought experiment: You're a bank teller who likes to garden. It's Saturday, the sun is shining and gardening is good, very good. So you garden - all day long.
You're tired; you keep at it. You're getting calluses on your knees, thorns in your thumbs. It's great; you can almost feel the tomatoes starting their skyward climb, hear the bulbs thanking you. Keep at it.
Now it starts to rain. It gets cold and miserable. Forget the garden. It'll be there tomorrow. Go inside; have a cup of hot chocolate.
But if you're not a bank teller, but rather a professional gardener ... See the problem?
Third, think for a second about the mother of all poker clichés: "The game is all about decisions."Usually, the decisions are those concerning calling, folding and raising.
But there are others: when to play, where to play, when to move to another seat, another table, another game, another room.
Let's add one: when to quit.
Winning players fold more judiciously, call more carefully and raise more appropriately. They have better game-selection skills, change seats, tables and rooms judiciously, read hands more accurately. In general, they outplay their opponents.
They also out-quit them. Although, as Angelo succinctly put it: "Walking away is easy. The hard part is standing up."
Okay, that's the stuff you already knew, right? Now let's get to the deep question: What the hell is it that pegs us to our seats? Why is it so bloody tough to stand up, so hard to quit?
It shouldn't be, right? Like we said, we quit all the time; every session ends with a quit. We ought to be expert quitters. But we're not. At least most of us aren't, or else this idiotic topic wouldn't get chewed to death and written about ad nauseum.
Well, here's the answer; you may not like it. Too bad.
The thing that's pegging you to your chair is dopamine.
Dopamine? Yeah, dopamine. It's a neurotransmitter in your brain that is associated with rewards like food, sex, drugs and money ... and, importantly, the anticipation of such rewards.
When you're tired, bloody near broke, when you're tilting like a three-legged pinball machine and really, really should be going home you stop, look around, think, "Well, one more hand (or orbit, dealer change, hour, ...); then I'll get my sorry butt out of here."
That's the dopaminergic pathways in your brain talking. You've been conditioned. The setting is associated with the anticipation of reward and when you think staying thoughts, dopamine flows.
Now suppose you do manage to stand up, actually walk out. How do you feel?
Me, I always feel good. No more pull to play; no more nagging voice, "Come on baby, one more hand, just wanna play my button ..."
No more dopamine. The setting has changed. All the cues that had you had become conditioned to, that were fostering the secreting of neurotransmitters, aren't there. They're back in the cardroom, at the table, where you aren't anymore.
Angelo got close to the truth here. When you stand up, you begin the process of removing yourself from the setting that evokes the desire to play. Just by getting on your feet you've changed the context.
If it helps, appreciate that you, the devoted poker junkie, are not alone. Quitting isn't easy for a sculptor chipping away at a block of marble. It's a struggle for a lawyer who feels that she's finally getting some insight into the horrifically complex case she's working on ... or a gardener with a penchant for roses.
You can lay out all the gimmicks, gambits, rules, heuristics and principles. You can counsel people to set loss limits, win thresholds, win/loss windows, bankroll proportions. You can set time limits, vow never to play when you're tired, running a fever, feeling anxious.
But it won't do much good when your brain starts tugging at you, when the sound of riffled chips activates the nucleus accumbens (a brain area with a fondness for dopamine).
So, what's to be done about it? Nothing. I have no advice. And that's the name of that tune. Now, I hereby quit writing about quitting.
Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and coauthor of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.
Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
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