When to Quit a Poker Game: An In-Depth Guide to Cashing Out


There is rarely a losing poker session in which you aren't ahead at least ahead a few chips at some point in the night.

And after booking a big loss in a session we all have the same thought: "I should have left when ..."

Knowing when to quit a poker game is just as important a skill as knowing when to play. It's the large-scale version of knowing when to fold.

Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you to cash out when you've made x amount of profit in relation to your bankroll or something equally as dumb. But there are many scenarios and situations that should be the session kill switch when encountered.

No matter what you feel, wish or hope for, sometimes there is simply no money to be made from the game you're at. Other times, there's only money to be lost.

It's up to you to recognize when you're in these situations and pull yourself away. All of the following scenarios are as relevant for online poker as they are in a live game.


Phil Ivey once said that if he's winning he'll stay at the table until he has every chip or is too exhausted to continue playing.

2016 WSOP Phil Ivey 2
Even the greats get tired.

No matter how great or poor your session is going it's not possible to play optimal poker while exhausted.

Mental fatigue affects your basic brain functions and diminishes thought rate and clarity. One of the most common symptoms of mental fatigue is significant loss of attention.

All three of these symptoms impair the most critical skills you need to play strong poker.

You may find it difficult to tell if exhaustion has begun to set in - much like how a drunk will misjudge his own sobriety. One of the simplest ways to keep track of where you are mentally is to keep an eye on your watch. A standard session is thought of as 8 hours of poker.

Your personal timeframe will vary greatly depending on personal factors along with the type of poker being played. A player can sit at an easy, casual live game much longer than she could playing 12 short-handed tables online.

Tough games take more concentration, thus lowering the maximum time you're truly in your best state of mind.

Those personal factors include everything from age, lifestyle and health to your activities in the past day or so.

Did you party until the waning hours of the night? Have you eaten properly? Overexerted yourself physically? Underexerted yourself physically?

Taking all these factors into consideration, keep a close eye on yourself. If you find yourself starting to slump, prop your head up in your hands or miss details such as four to a flush on board, it's time to shut'er down for the night.


As difficult as it is to play poker while exhausted, playing while enraged is even more difficult.

Mike Matusow
Can you keep yourself off tilt?

Slow, distracted thoughts are preferable to a lack of thoughts altogether. When a person starts to steam, all logic and reason is suppressed in favor of pure emotional response.

In all aspects of life, every person has seen or done things in a fit of rage they have later come to regret. A person in a rage is prone to commit irrational, often aggressive, acts with no regard to consequences or outcomes.

What caused the rage is irrelevant; the outcome is almost always disastrous.

For some players, stepping away from the table to take a little break is sufficient to calm down and regroup. Unfortunately, mostly due to adrenaline and endorphins, the majority of people are unable to truly shake off all the rage without an extended break.

Until the rage-induced chemicals have run their course, returning your brain to its previous state, it's not possible to completely reset. Some people can function just fine in states such as this; most only think they can.

Even after coming off of tilt, putting your body through extreme emotions and adrenaline highs is taxing and exhausting. After successfully coming off of tilt you should expect debilitating exhaustion to creep up on you far sooner than you would otherwise have expected.

Excessive Distraction

No matter how clear, precise and quick your thought process is at the moment, it means nothing if you can't focus any of your concentration on the game.

I've often seen great players in a good state of mind completely engrossed in a sporting event on TV. If you obviously would rather watch the game than play poker, that's exactly what you should do.

2016 WSOP Watching the match
If you're watching the game, you're not watching the game.

Wait until the event has finished and you can turn your attention towards the game at hand.

I've seen people out on dates in the poker room. This is a bad idea, considering the most likely outcomes:

  • You pay no attention to your date. Successful session of poker, failed relationship.
  • You pay no attention to the poker. Successful date, failed session of poker.

One of these is a waste of time for the other half of the date; the other is one of the lamest and most expensive dates you could have taken someone out on.

Playing poker online allows for countless distractions at the tips of your fingers. With the Internet in your hand, games, instant messengers, blogs, movies, music, Facebook, e-mail and porn are all lying in wait to steal your brain power.

Some players seem capable of multitasking, such as playing a few tables of poker while watching a movie. Even this, though, is an exaggeration. It's not possible to watch a movie and concentrate on another task at the same time.

You can listen and follow along with a movie and play poker or you can autopilot the poker and watch the movie.

If you don't believe me, wait until your movie gets to an exciting action scene at the same time as you're dealt pocket aces. See if you have to pause the movie or rewind it when you've finished the hand.

Lack of Enjoyment

If you're not enjoying your time at the table, you should find something else to do.

If you're not enjoying it, shut it down.

Either you're going to be able to play high-quality winning poker or, more likely, the lack of enjoyment will cause you to play poorly and cost you (possibly a lot of) money.

Even if you're playing well and turning a decent profit, you have to ask yourself if it's worth it.

No matter what your talents are if you don't enjoy what you're doing you should find something else to do. It's always better to be a useless hockey player having the time of your life than a miserable baseball MVP.

In an ideal world what you're good at will always align with what you enjoy and are passionate about. In the real world, most people aren't so lucky.

For most players who aren't enjoying the game the reality is they will have little to no chance of making money on the session. If you're miserable, typically you don't care about your actions or results in the moment.

The only way you will make money is to fall ass backwards into a setup hand.

All players will experience this: no matter how much you love the game, you'll find yourself at a table or two making yourself miserable.

It could be the game, the players, the room or other aspects of your personal life leaking out at the table. Whatever the reason, when you're not having fun, it's time to find something else to do.

Arterial Bleeding

No bleeding is harder to get under control than when you have an artery wide open. With each marginal hand dealt another spurt of chips bleeds into someone else's stack.

Do you know when you're bleeding?

When you're bleeding your chips you're making mistakes left right and center; maximizing your losses, losing hands you should have won, getting involved in pots you have no reason to be in.

It can be hard to tell when you're bleeding out. Often, poker players convince themselves they're victims of rotten luck rather than mistakes.

Only long after most or all their chips have disappeared will they realize they had an artery open.

Bleeding typically starts with the player relaxing his or her concentration and lowering the overall quality and strength of his or her game.

Most commonly, bleeding starts after the player has accumulated a large mass of chips. Feeling secure and "on a roll," the player will open up, start to gamble and fool around.

When this new style causes a sizeable loss the player often tries to overcompensate in an effort to get back to where s/he was. The more s/he loses, the more s/he'll try to compensate, causing still greater losses.

The best cure for a bleeding problem is to take preventative measures. If you practice constant vigilance, and play your top game regardless of your current stack situation, you will never experience a significant bleed.

If you do catch yourself starting to bleed, it's not always as simple as just deciding not to bleed any more. Often the bleed has put you into a form of tilt - the realization of your mistake helps to entrench crappy play.

It's rare for a player to be capable of stopping a bleed enough to regroup and rebuild. A short break is almost certainly required. For some, the only answer is to call it a night.

The Game Dries Up

No matter how well you're playing, how badly you want to play or how good you're feeling while doing it, if there's no money to be made at the table there's no reason to be at the table.

Steve Landfish
No action, no money, no fish, no reason

You can't get blood out of a rock! If the entire table suddenly turns into a card-hot rock garden, you're not going to make any money.

With the entire table playing nothing but the nuts, and hitting the nuts often, the only money made at the table will go to the players on the good end of a setup.

This turns your session into a complete gamble. You're sitting around folding hands hoping your AA runs into KK and not the other way around.

Even the most profitable games are prone to drying up. The fish lose and the action-player winners take their money and run. The game is left with decent players and tight, small stacks.

No action, no money, no fish, no reason.

When you see your game dry up it's time to move on. Find a new table to play at or, if there are no more tables to choose from, go home and come back some other time.

You can always find something more fun to do than sitting at a dry table.

One of the advantages to playing online poker is the great table selection. At most limits, especially the lower to moderate limits, there are more tables active at any time than you could hope for.

If the one you're on dries up it only takes a few seconds to grab a seat in a fresh game.

Other Engagements

Poker is fun, entertaining, exciting, challenging and (for some) profitable. That being said, if you're a regular player with a previous engagement, or something else worthwhile to do, you should be doing just that.

Love what you do.

If you're a regular player playing daily, or multiple times a week, unless the game promises to be a legendary match that will be talked about for the ages, you can always play another day.

To be the best poker player you can, you need to achieve a semblance of balance in your life.

I've seen players skip school, call in sick to work, stand up dates and even call taxis to pick up their kids from school -- all to stay seated at a poker game.

I'm not talking about the final table of a tournament. I would do any of those things to stay at a major final table. I'm talking about regular cash games that run 24/7/365.

You need to go out and live some sort of life. Become an experienced, well-rounded person if you want to really bring your best game to the table. If you play for a living you should treat it as just what it is: a job.

People work 40 hours a week; most poker players I know play between 40 and 100. Even working more than the average bear is alright as long as you don't let your life suffer just to see a few more hands.

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