By Chris "Jesus" Ferguson -- In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart tried to define what may or may not be considered obscene under U.S. law.
In the end, he determined that no definition existed, but that when it comes to obscenity, "I know it when I see it."
The same holds true when you're talking about running badly at the poker table. You may not be able to identify what's going wrong, but you know its happening. As far as I'm concerned, there's no single definition or criteria for "running bad" because it means something different to everyone.
For some players, it's posting 10 or 12 losing sessions in a row. For others, it's losing a dozen coin-flips during a single session. "Running badly" depends on the individual and on the metrics they're using to judge their performance.
Whatever the definition is, the fact remains that everyone runs bad at one time or another. What separates successful players from those who go bust is how they handle themselves and their bankrolls when their cards go dead.
For me, running bad doesn't mean having a few losing nights or taking a few bad beats over the course of a session. That's variance and it's an inevitable part of the game. In my mind, running bad is something bigger that happens over the long term.
If you're not sure whether you're really running bad or not, start by stepping back and analyzing your results over a statistically significant timeframe. If you see a consistent pattern of losing sessions over a matter of weeks or months, then it's likely that you're having some real problems with your game.
The key to getting back on track is figure out what's actually going wrong. For many players, running badly is a vicious circle; they suffer a few losing sessions and begin to tilt, which leads them to alter their playing styles in order to change things up. Soon, they do actually start playing badly, which leads to more losing sessions, and a continuation of their downward spiral.
They lose because they're running badly and they're running badly because they're losing.
If you look at your game and believe that you're actually playing well but are just getting unlucky, then maybe you are. Aces get cracked by lower pairs. Sets get beaten by flushes, and hands get drowned on the river more often than you might think.
My advice in these situations is to walk away from the game for a while. Take a break, regroup, and come back when you're mentally refreshed and are ready to start playing again. Don't, however, begin changing your game to compensate for bad luck. Focus on the fundamentals, look for good starting hands, and try to play the most solid poker you can. In time, your luck will change.
Whatever you do, however, don't try to step up in levels to try and recoup your losses. I've seen many players go bust at times like these because they're too focused on trying to rebuild their bankrolls by gambling rather than by playing smart poker and moving down to play at a lower level.
Think about it; if you've been losing, chances are that you're playing on a smaller bankroll than normal, which means that you'll be risking a higher percentage of your remaining funds by playing at higher stakes. With a smaller cushion behind you and more of your bankroll at risk, it doesn't take long for things to go from bad to worse and for you to lose everything you had left.
On the other hand, by moving down a level or two, you'll be risking less in the short term while you try to rebuild your bankroll. Sure, the pots you win may not be as big as those you win at higher levels, but weighed against the odds of going broke, it's a trade-off I'm willing to make.
What's more, by moving down, I may only have to play at a lower level for a month or two to recover my losses whereas if I go broke after moving up, it could take me a year or more until I've recovered. That's a pretty persuasive argument if you really value your time.
While I can't tell you whether you're really running badly or not, I can tell you that your mental state does impact your game. If you're feeling good, chances are you'll play well and, if you're not, chances are you won't.
Rough patches are part of the game and learning how to handle short-term adversity without losing your confidence or your bankroll will make you a better player in the long run.