Stop Complaining: It's Killing Your Poker Game

Allen Bari

I'm writing this column in the spirit of a 12-stepper. You know, the 12 steps that a recovering alcoholic takes on the road to long-term sobriety.

I'll start with the first stride in any "long, tortured journey": confession.

I am a reformed complainer (well, almost reformed).

I used to whimper with the best of them.

I would beat my breast, and scream to the heavens about the awful and rotten things that happened to me at the poker tables.

"Sir," someone once said to me (with an evil smile), "would you like a little cheese to go with your whine?"

Two hours of just sitting there feeling the calluses form on my butt and I would start flashing my 8-3 and J-2 to the guy on my right just to try to garner a little sympathy.

Two more hours and I'd be muttering about any hand that I didn't win.

Two more hours and, well, I'd be toast and down to the felt.

Leak? Me?

It began to change about three or four years ago (these things take time, you know).

A good buddy who has played professionally for years pulled me aside one day and said, "You know, prof (he called me that and some still do), you got a huge leak in your game."

"What?" said I, "Leak? Me? Moi?"

After I put my head down for the obligatory 10 seconds while I tried not to say anything really nasty or provocative, I looked up, humbly, and asked him what it was.

Phil Hellmuth
Imagine how many bracelets if he didn't pout?

"Bitching," he said. "You have got to stop complaining so damn much.

"It's killing your game."

Being a reasonably good poker player, I knew when I was beat so I stopped being defensive and took my friend over to the local watering hole where I bought beers for the next couple of hours.

And, being a good psychologist, I listened carefully and accepted the truth when it was laid out.

Here's what my buddy explained:

1. When You Complain You Shift Your Focus Away from the Game

It's distracting and you pay less attention to the elements of the game that need it.

If you're showing your 503rd muckable hand to the fellow on your right, you're not noticing that the guy two seats to your left is making oversized raises pre-flop and that he's been doing it for some time now.

You really, really need to know this 'cause it's a key factor in determining what kind of hand you need and what you're going to do with it when you finally decide to enter a pot.

2. When You're Bitching Out Loud, It Becomes a Public Display

Now, lots of displays of this kind are seen at poker tables, but few are as financially debilitating as whingeing (as the Brits say).

The other players at the table notice it and begin to target you. When they do, you become grist for their mills.

Astute players will begin taking advantage of your state. They will begin to play more aggressively against you, particularly on draw-heavy boards.

Allen Kessler
Your table image goes in the toilet.

Since you have put yourself in one of those "everything sucks" modes, you will tend to believe that they have hit their draws when they bet on these hands and you'll end up dumping the winner.

They will also play more tentative hands like 7-5s or Q-4s, knowing that if they do get lucky it will have a greater impact on you than on another player.

The expected value of these marginal hands is increased when played against you and, as a result, you invite opponents to make moves against you.

3. By Focusing All Your Energy on the Rotten Hands You're Dealt, You Fail to Recognize That Some of Them Actually Have Value in Some Situations

If you're playing mid-stakes No-Limit Hold'em (my usual game) you've got to occasionally play hands like 9-7 in late position or open a pot with a raise in early position with 5-5.

But if you're investing all your psychological energy in bitching about how you keep getting dealt hands like 9-7, you're going to miss out on situations with long-term positive EV.

4. Your Table Image Goes into the Toilet

 You look like an amateur and any weakness in your game (above and beyond the whining) is magnified.

Your opponents no longer respect any moves you might try to make and when you finally get a hand and bet like you've got the goods, everybody folds.

In short, you force yourself into becoming the worst kind of player - "weak-tight."

5. By Constantly Complaining About How Unlucky You Are You Begin to Act Like the Classic "Helpless" Individual

There is a well-known condition that psychologists call "learned helplessness."

It is when someone gets beaten and beaten (literally or metaphorically) and eventually comes to believe that nothing they do will stop the pain.

Once in this state, it becomes exceedingly difficult to extricate yourself.

David Paredes
You won't make friends, and you won't have fun.

And if you constantly focus on the bad, painful things that have been happening, it's even tougher.

6. You're Not Going to Have Many Friends and You're Not Going to Have Fun

And, let's face it folks, not many of us are really there to win the rent money.

We're there to play a little poker, enjoy our leisure time with friends and have a good time.

It's hard to have a good time when all you're doing is bitching.

Well, that pretty much covers what my buddy told me.

He wasn't trained in psychology but he had a really good understanding of it. I'm grateful to him for setting me on the road to recovery.

Now, there are only five or six more steps to go before I'm officially sober.

Author Bio:

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 co-author 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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