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The Only Way to Win: How to Manage False Poker Expectations

I am in the Rio in Las Vegas playing and working at the World Series of Poker (WSOP).

I've just been eliminated from a $1,500 buy-in event and decided to sit down in a $1/$3 Pot-Limit Omaha cash game because the list is too long for the No-Limit Hold’em tables.

I sit down with $300. Once I lose the $300 I will go home; a promise I made to my wife, who worries when I play cash games because I have a propensity to turn into the Hulk when I lose.

I build my stack up to $1,200 and I am feeling good. Then I lose a hand when I am way ahead. It happens again, and again, and I am broke. I pull a dollar bill out of my pocket and put it on the table.

how to win at poker
"Why can't I win?"

“I’ll be right back,” I smile. I am not smiling on the inside. The Beast has a hold of my brain and is shaking it, screaming throughout the halls of my limbic system.

“Why don’t you ever win!”

“Why can’t you be the lucky one who wins a million!”

“Why don’t you ever get a good start when you come to the WSOP? If you had a good start you could weather the later losses and have a great season!” 

“Why does this always happen to me!”

False Poker Hopes

I'm back in my seat. I don’t remember the trip to the ATM and back. I sit down with another $600 and I get it in, chasing, in the very first hand.

We run it twice. I lose both. I get up and leave with the vision of nine vultures all squawking streams of laughter behind my back.

I feel shame, remorse and guilt. I have lost money that I cannot afford to lose. I broke a promise to my wife. I am an idiot - again.

Stephen Pfleiderer is a certified interventionist, addiction specialist and recovery coach. Stephen studied Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) under the wing of David D. Burns, the author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy.

It's a book that has sold in excess of 5 million copies worldwide. Both Stephen and David have been guests on my Alcohol & Addiction Podcast.

I told Stephen the same tale that I narrated to you. I also told him that for as long as I can remember, when I lose a bet, cash game or poker tournament, I feel a compulsion to find a way to win that money back in the fastest possible time.

It’s not good enough for me to wait for tomorrow’s sure thing. I need instant gratification.

Related Reading:

The 10 Cognitive Distortions

I wanted Stephen’s view on what I see to be a common problem amongst the recreational poker players I have played with over the years.

cognitive distortions poker
Stephen Pfleiderer

“There is a lot going on under the radar here,” says Pfleiderer. “What is going on happens very quickly and it’s a spiral where you go from 0-100 and think, 'how the hell did I get here?'”

It does happen very quickly. It’s as if I don’t have time to assess the long-term effects of the decisions I am making in the moment. 

I feel like someone has hijacked my motor functions and is steering me to the ATM and the All-In button.

“You are playing a game and something doesn’t go your way,” says Pfleiderer. “You go into the game excited to go and armed with the fantasy of 'this time I might win the big one and my problems will be solved.'

"Your thought process is similar to, ‘I can’t wait to get drunk tonight because it feels so good.' It’s that anticipatory delight. You have set up an expectation to win and, when you don’t, you are naturally very angry, frustrated and disappointed.

"People play casino games and poker because they are excited about the potential to win. Suddenly, something happens and the game doesn’t go their way. The thoughts begin: ‘Why does this always happen to me? Why don’t I have a good start?’”

Related Reading:

take notes poker
Write it down

Write It Down

have interviewed enough of poker’s elite to know that to become a professional poker player you have to learn to balance expectation.

On one hand, you need to be confident in your ability. On the other hand, you need to enter every situation with the understanding that you are more likely to lose.

What can I do to turn this knowledge into action? 

“Your negative thoughts are merely cognitive distortions,” says Pfleiderer. “We need to identify these distortions, and to do that we need to turn these damaging and limiting rhetorical statements into statements.

"The best way to do this is to write them down so we can begin to see if there is any truth to them in reality.”

NUGGET #1 - In your post-game review (and you should have a post-game review procedure if you are serious about the game) write down all of the negative thoughts you had during the game and turn them into statements. Next, identify the cognitive distortions and then create more positive thought statements.


  • I never get off to a good start
  • I never win
  • I never get any luck in this game

Next you can use David D. Burns' checklist of cognitive distortions and identify which ones align with your thought statements. It’s a powerful lesson. Then change your negative statement into a more accurate and positive thought statement.


  • I never get off to a good start (Negative Statement)
poker distortions
Turn negative into positive

Cognitive Distortions: All or Nothing Thinking, Over Generalization, Discounting the Positives, Fortune Telling, Magnification and Personalization; Blame.

Positive Statement

Sometimes I get off to a good start and sometimes I get off to a bad start. But I am more likely to get off to a good start if I work harder on my game, particularly my mental game, and do the necessary work to eliminate negative thought statements that are nothing but cognitive distortions

NUGGET #2 - Don’t wait for your post-match review to do this work. As soon as you notice a trigger that you are about to lose control, take a break from the game, find a calm spot, and do the work. You can use your Notes function on your mobile phone or take a pen and notepad with you.

“If you are in the midst of the maelstrom, and you don’t push the pause button, you are likely to end up in a spiral of descent and chaos,” says Pfleiderer. “'I won’t be OK until I have that money' is a powerful force. To interrupt the sequence we are writing down the thoughts we have in our mind.”

Related Reading:

False Expectations

“You need to develop a more realistic approach to the game and this allows you to detach from the outcome,” says Pfleiderer.

“Your statement: ‘I need to win,' is driving the whole system. If I have a need that needs to be met by this game I am in a vulnerable position. If I can detach from the outcome, the tension goes away.”

How do I do this?

“It’s a skill that can be practiced and cultivated through preparing oneself before entering a situation like this,” he says. “The term equanimity: not being attached to things if they go well or poorly.

how to win poker negreanu
Master of good feelings

"Being balanced and centred when you have gain and loss. Being able to sit and allow the positive to come and the negative to come and not allow it to push and pull you in either direction. Those negative and positive thoughts are the masters in that very grounded and confident space.”

And then I see it. I am not accepting the reality of the situation. To pinch a phrase from James Altucher, 'I am time travelling.'  I am in La La Land where the world doesn’t contain negative outcomes and only positive ones.

If this was my reality then nobody would ever become a long-term winner in poker.

Daniel Negreanu, for example, has won over $33m playing live tournaments because he suffers when he loses but allows that suffering to pass through. He also doesn't get carried away with the feelings of winning.

“There are some people in poker who are not upset by these thoughts," says Pfleiderer,  and others get completely unravelled. The exciting thing is once we start seeing our reactions that’s where the power of change comes.

"Now the same thing that was bothersome is no longer as bothersome.”

I know when I help people recover from alcohol addiction that they have to learn to suffer. Interesting that I am not using that same knowledge and understanding in my game.

NUGGET #3 - Create your own affirmation recording or listen to recordings from the likes of Poker Mind Coach Elliot Roe before you play and at times when you are feeling triggered. Change those expectations.

Related Reading:

Stick With the Right Conversation

I listened to a short Daniel Negreanu VLOG the other day. He was talking about David Sklansky and his myopic views on the mental game of poker.

Negreanu said that improving the mental game is a lot to do with study of the game. If you want to improve all aspects of your game, including your mindset, you have to be committed to sticking with the right conversation.

poker tips how to win
Stick to the right conversations

You need to be talking to the smartest minds in both the technical and mental side of the game. Watch the best coaching videos, read the best poker books, and listen to the best podcasts.

This is what I mean by sticking with the right conversation. It’s a choice.

“These are patterns and habits and if we have been reacting to certain things for a while it takes time to change,” says Pfleiderer.

“The desire when you are upset to write thoughts down and look at them - you don’t want to do that. You want to be miserable and angry.

"But when you are not activated and the flight or fight thing comes on, if you do the work ahead of time, practice with this, working with your negative statements when you are in a calm space is a powerful exercise so when you are in that you have more awareness and you can talk back to it easier.”

Related Reading:

The Only Way to Win

To become successful in poker you have to learn to bypass the desire for instant gratification and focus on long-term gain. It’s the only way to win in this beautiful game.

With that understanding comes patience. Without patience, there is no poker. A lesson that we should learn to adopt not just on the felt but in our lives. Learn more about Stephen Pfleiderer and his work here.

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