Monsters Under the Poker Bed

Voitto Rintala

It occurred to me the other day that I rarely write about "good" things in these columns.

In fact, without doing any careful analysis, my sense is that I write about "bad" stuff about 10 times as often as I write about "good" stuff.

The reason is actually pretty straightforward. Good stuff in poker, like good stuff in the rest of life, isn't really very interesting.

Oh, sure, it's fun to get hit in the head with the deck; it's a welcome relief to suck out on someone (especially someone you really, really dislike), and if you play professionally, you need more "good" days than "bad" ones or you're going to end up looking for work elsewhere.

But, at least to this here psychologist, the reason "good" is uninteresting is because everyone pretty much reacts the same way, which I find boring. When they're running good most folks do fine, play aggressively, make money and are happy campers.

But when the bad stuff happens, when the figurative s**t hits the fan, that's when we peel away the layers of illusion and see the real "you."

Do you pull a "Hellmuth," ranting and raving and stomping around the room? Do you sit there stewing in your own juice? Does your confidence wane? Does a vague sense of anxiety and fear begin to creep into the caves of your psyche? Do you see monsters under the bed?

From an online cash game (and I am not making this up; hell, I wish I were):

First hand after sitting down: Max buy-in. AA and get it all-in pre-flop against KK. Rag, rag, rag, rag, K. Reload.

Two hands later: A J. Raise. Two callers. Flop: K 9 4. Bet, one caller. Turn 6c. Bet, get raised, reraise all-in. Call. River 6. Shows me K-6. Reload.

Twenty minutes later: UTG with JJ. Raise. One caller. Flop: J-T-4. Bet. Raise. Reraise. All-in. Call. JJ vs. TT. Finally! Nope. Turn rag. River case T. Shades of Daniel and Gus (famous High Stakes TV hand).

Four hands later: AA in BB. Everyone folds.

Being online is like being in a vacuum; they can't hear you scream - although my cat freaked out.

In the next couple of hours I raised with A-K at least a half dozen times; with A-Q another five and either raising or calling with medium pairs to high pairs. I didn't hit a single flop. Not one. I stole a couple of small pots but never even got a tickle from the board. Reload, one mo' time ...

For a good three hours I literally could not win a single hand of any magnitude. Nothing worked. If I held decent cards someone would hold better. If I did hit, someone would suck out. And, like Doyle likes to say, "I got broke." A bunch of times.

Notice, this wasn't "running bad" where you see endless hours of 9-3; K-4 off, J-6 off, etc. I was getting quality hands, but I crashed and burned with them all.

Okay, so you've been there too. We all have. The question of interest is: "How did I handle it?"

I took a whole bunch of deep breaths and reviewed my play. I was making mistakes because, I realized, I kept seeing monsters under the bed, and in the closet and the drawers of my night table. But, of course, like the monsters of every child's nightmares, they were illusions, figments of time past, of cards dead and gone. I needed to reaffirm the illusion, block the tendency to reify.

If you think the monsters under the bed are real you will not raise with 8-8 on the button because you are sure the BB has 9-9. But, in truth, he has 9-3 and if you don't raise, he'll hit his 9 and cement your belief in ghouls and goblins.

If you are certain the chimeras in the closet will get you, you will check on a suited board and give the free card that runs your two pair down.

If you let the harpies play with your head you will fail to draw when the odds say you should 'cause "I can't hit anything anyway ..."

But, since these are all mythical creatures and exist but in legends and dark bedrooms, we need psychological tricks for surviving. Here are mine.

I like 'em, but they're mine. I found them by thinking about these situations. You can use them or go find your own.

  1. Be sufficiently bankrolled: If you've got a big enough roll behind you, these siren-filled sessions shrink back into the natural flow of the game. If you're letting yourself get a bit "short," their impact will be far greater. Think of your bankroll as a number of "units," not a dollar amount. Pay attention to the proportion of your bankroll placed in jeopardy each time you sit down. If it's small (i.e., 5% or less), then even the worst of monsters cannot hurt you.
  2. Remain calm at all times: Panic is the mother of disaster. If you go on tilt and start playing weak hands or hands out of position or, worst of all, hear yourself saying things like, "He can't hit every hand; it just isn't possible. I call." or "I'll show you, you rat, you can't push me around," you are going to really find yourself gettin' broke. Chant with me: "I can only play the cards I am dealt, I can only play ..."
  3. Breathe: Yeah, breathe. Deeply and slowly and then look for that quiet spot, the one on the gently sloping beach, so quiet you can barely hear the water, with the white sands raked by gentle curling waves. Check your hole cards. Raise if that's best, fold if not. Breathe.

It's just the natural variance of the game. Without it there would be no game. Without the lows there would be no highs. Without the pain we would not know joy. Without the monsters the game would be so much less interesting.

Oh yeah, broke even on the night.

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 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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MH 2009-01-09 17:11:00

Very good article, I must say. I go off steaming way too often and you've caught some of the thoughts that usually go through my head at those times spot on.

Arthur Reber 2008-12-21 01:05:00

Cris23 is right. I didn't need to put in that "broke even" line. It was self serving and weakened the point I was making. Mea culpa.....


Cris23 2008-12-15 03:45:00

How to keep playing good poker while running bad is a good topic. He undercuts the point a bit by concluding "I broke even on the night." There's no need to imply that good play will bring you back in short order. That doesn't happen all the time, even when playing good poker.

Steven 2008-12-14 00:55:00

I agree with Andrew (and Arthur). There has been written a lot about how to minimize your losses, but not about how to maximize your profits. Because in a way, it's exactly the same thing. Winning 200 instead of 300 is in a way the same as losing 300 instead of 200. Both are -100 (in a way).

Andrew1 2008-12-12 18:47:00

Interesting... No one seems to worry too much about what they're doing when they're "running good".

Shouldn't the same attention to maximizing profits and minimizing mistakes be applied to heaters as well? Of course the answer is yes but mistakes are glossed over by big profits... that could have been bigger?

Could be a topic there...

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