Why You Lose the Most Money in the Last Hour of a Poker Session

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The final hour of a poker session is less cosmic and certainly less dramatic than it would be in a sci-fi novel or an end-of-the-world movie.

But most players have no idea how dangerous that final hour can be.

Over the years I've watched more players make more mistakes, cost themselves more money and self-inflict more grief during these final 60 or so minutes than you can imagine.

There are psychological reasons for this and if we understand them perhaps we can prevent future occurrences.

How the Final Hour in Poker is Different

when to quit a poker session
In the final hour, the money creeps in.

I hope you noticed that "we" in the preceding - that's because I include myself in that category of those who've screwed up during the last couple of orbits before cashing out.

This isn't a traditional poker strategy column but the issue is deeply strategic.

If you follow my advice it will serve you well in the future, as well as someone whispering in your ear, "Dump those wired jacks after you got raised and the big blind came over the top."

The final hour in a poker session is different from all others simply because we begin to contemplate, with special poignancy, the state of our bankrolls.

We become acutely aware of just how far behind or ahead we are. Of course, we pay attention to stack sizes constantly, but as the sands run down we add a mental footnote:

  • "Hmmm, I'm down/up X coconuts (or whatever you play for) and only another hour or so to do something about it."

The something has a lot of variations. If we're down, we think about how to get out on the night.

If we're up, about how to either hold on and book a "W" or take down a monster and make it a "session to remember."

There are other, specialized variations, of course, like the guy who sees he needs 18 more chips to fill a rack. Or the one who has 16 greenies and really, really wants to fill that slot. 

All are trouble and all invite you to make stupid decisions.

Plot Lines of the Final Poker Hour

  1. You're in the SB, stuck two buy-ins and seething. You've got to meet your bud in a half-hour. You're in middle position. A tight-aggressive player open-raises four BBs. It's folded to you. You think, "Hmm, 6-7o is a hand just made for felting this clown..."
  2. You're stuck three buy-ins. The plane is revving up on the runway. You're UTG with JJ. You raise; tight mid-position player re-raises; button goes over the top all-in and you... hmmm, didn't we cover this one already?
  3. You're up 20 BBs on the night. You've got the button; a maniacal type raises 3x the BB. The next six players call; you dump your 8-9s 'cause you really don't want to get caught up in a hand that could make you a loser on the evening.
  4. You're just about even. You've got pocket fives in mid position. It's folded to you and you fold, even though you can see the next two players on your right getting ready to limp.

In these, and a dozen other plot lines you can imagine or extract from your long-term memory, you have made an awful decision. And, in each case, you almost certainly would not have played the hand this way if it were not The Final Hour.

when to guit poker
Track your records.

In the first two you're unrealistically forcing a hand in the hope you can "get out" on the day. In the latter two you're playing like a wuss 'cause you're afraid to end up having to go home a loser.

How To Avoid Final-Hour Traps

So, how do you stay out of these traps? There's a bunch of ways, but here's the key:

If you only log wins and losses in individual sessions, it makes you focus on the bottom line for that session only. But this is silly. This isn't how you keep track of your personal finances.

If you're in business, you couldn't survive this way. There will always be good days and bad ones too. The stock market jumps 200 points one day and slips 150 the next. Orders are up on Monday and down on Tuesday.

Business booms in the summer but slows down in the winter. But you don't run about like some kind of nut trying to make a profit every day. You take a long view. Is the market up over a month period? Did I turn a profit in the last quarter, or the fiscal year?

worst hour in poker session
Are you up for the year? For life?

Poker is a Long-Term Game

This is how you should approach poker. You want to know if you're up or down; not today, not this week, but over the course of at least several months (and, ideally, your life)!

If you've been playing a $1-$2 NL game for nine hours and are $400 in the hole, don't even think about "getting even" for that session.

View it in the larger context. Are you ahead or behind that game for the month? The past three months? The year?

If you keep ongoing records you may discover you're ahead a couple of bucks on the year, even with the $400 hit. So there's no reason to start steaming in order to get even. You already are!

Same logic applies when you're ahead. If you're up $470, you do not need to do something intensely stupid to try to pick up a $30 pot to fill the rack.

In fact, forget the 20-chips-per-stack gimmick. Stick your chips in the rack in uneven stacks and let the cashier count it out.

If you've got $2,425 in green chips and absofreakin'lutely have to have a full rack, buy three more from the dealer, take those Jacks, dig a hole and toss 'em in.

Related Reading:

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When To Quit a Poker Session

By Sean Lind

There is rarely a losing poker session in which you aren't 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.

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.

Mental Fatigue Crushes Your Poker 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.

when to leave a poker game
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.

Playing Poker on Tilt is a Disaster

As difficult as it is to play poker while exhausted, playing on tilt is even more difficult. Slow, distracted thoughts are preferable to a lack of thoughts altogether.

quitting poker
Can you keep yourself off tilt?

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.

Further Reading:

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.

losing poker session
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.

If You're Not Enjoying a Poker Game, Leave

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

how not to lose at poker
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.

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Stop the Chip 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.

poker stop loss
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.

If Your Poker Game Dries Up, Leave

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.

time to quit poker
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.

Good Poker Needs Balance

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.

how to stop losing in poker
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.

What Everybody Gets Wrong About Poker Quitting

By Arthur Reber

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.

should you quit poker
Walk away when the time is right.

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.

The Mother of All Poker Clichés

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.

losing poker sessions final hour
Winning players outquit everyone.

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 you're not a bank teller; you're 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 Poker Players Out-Quit Everyone

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.

how to stop losing chips in poker

It's All Dopamine, Duh

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.

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Remove Yourself From the Poker Setting

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.

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.

More strategy articles from Arthur S. Reber:

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Peter Burrell 2011-11-19 08:46:04

Arthur another fantastic article. I have been searching the internet for days trying to find online poker strategies or articles that will actually help my game and all of them talk of nonsense i already know or find obvious. They say to keep track of your earnings and i have been keeping track lately only on whether or not i made money or lost money and ever since i have been consistently having losing sessions because i am too focused on this and ten to play poorly trying to ease the stress of making a winning session. well done again.

Iz 2011-11-15 10:13:18

haha.. this is so true. I have seen this with myself and a fair few other players when they are looking to wind up a session and are steaming to get even or scared to loose any money and end up being down at the end of the session, even if they pick up a very good hand they tend to play it very differently compared to the start of the session. Greed and fear!



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