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Poker Strategy | Beginner's Poker

Losing in poker

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The importance of knowing when to quit is a truism among poker pundits. You should leave the game, they opine, when any of the following factors are present: You are tired. You are on tilt. A beatable game with lots of weak players has suddenly changed, whether due to the addition of a few tough spots, the departure of opponents whose play is weak, or the tightening up of someone who has been giving a lot of action suddenly gets even and starts playing his hands more selectively. You should also leave if you are upset about something outside the game - if that is affecting your play (if you’re worried about problems at home or at work, or have a deadline or other preoccupation). Or if you’ve set a monetary goal and reached it, or if you’ve set a stop loss and have lost the amount you promised yourself would be the most you’d allow for that session.

All of the above is true. But I have found in my own experience of playing that there is another reason to quit that is equally important. You should quit if your gut tells you it is time to go. If warning bells start to go off in your head, no matter if you’ve played 10 minutes or 10 hours. If you just have a feeling - for whatever reason - that you have won the most you are going to win in this session, get up from the table! Let’s say a new dealer sits down and you just have a funny feeling. You try to brush it off - it’s just superstition. It doesn’t matter. Trust your instincts, like Obi Wan tells Luke Skywalker to trust the Force. Go!

When it comes to playing poker, I hate to quit. More than once, I have played a session that lasted over 20 hours. I’ve often done well in long sessions - it seems that sometimes I play tighter when I’m tired, or I go into a zone of concentration that helps me know instinctively when to fold and when to apply pressure. But mostly, I simply hate to go home. I’ve even managed to convince my exhausted self to stay in a game until dawn because it will be easier to travel when it’s light out.

Nevertheless, the last few sessions I’ve played have reminded me that, for me, one of the primary mistakes I make is not knowing when to heed my own premonition. The signal that it’s time to leave. My sixth sense telling me that I have done the best I can this time - my gut feeling.

I hadn’t played poker for a while when I sat down in a $10/20 limit holdem game a few days ago. I bought in for $300 (a bit short but I was feeling confident). I soon had a sense that my goal for the session should be to win about $400. That seemed reasonable for the kind of game it was, and the limit.

I lost the $300 quickly and re-bought, this time for another $400. With my second buy-in, I reaffirmed to myself that I would leave when I’d won $400. I went on a rush. I soon had $1,100 in front of me.

Now I started a silent mental debate. I’d reached my goal of winning $400. But it had happened so fast! I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t on tilt. The game was great. I was having fun. I’d only been playing a couple of hours, and I wanted to have more fun. I wasn’t ready to leave. But I had a strong sense that this $400 that I’d “won” (referring to it that way because it’s not a win until you cash out), was the best I was going to do that day.

I know it’s all one long session and somehow that too became a reason to stay. (Really, when I want to play it is hard to convince myself that any reason to leave is valid.) So I stayed.

I soon suffered a bad beat. Then another. Then I loosened up my play in early position, a big mistake. Before I knew it, I was back to even. Aha, maybe this was the time to go. There is a tilt factor that comes into play when one loses back a win during the same session, and in retrospect I’m sure that was happening. So I got stubborn: it was still early, the game was still good. I was going to dig in and win - again. So I stayed. Instead of winning, I got stuck - again. I finally left with just over $300. I had lost almost $400 after being up $400. I promised myself - never again.

A similar thing happened during my next session. Fortunately, the result was not as bad, but it still rankles. I am often too cagey for my own good. I outwit my better judgment - the instinctive part of me that says, “Time to go. You’re up. You’ve suffered no bad beats, no tough confrontations or decisions.”

This time, I was playing a nifty $5-10 NL game. I normally don’t play that big, but there was a tournament going on and the game was very, very good. I bought in for $1,000. There was no cap on the buy-in but that was what most of my opponents had in front of them.

After seven hours, I had $3,000 in front of me. I was up $2,000, and had won a lot of it from a guy who re-raised my check-raise, and called my re-raise of his re-raise, with A-10 off suit against my two pair (Aces and Queens) on the flop. I don’t know why he decided to give me $1,000, but I was delighted to take it. As he walked away, the player next to me whispered that it had been “a gift.”

A new dealer sat down. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, I got that feeling that it was time to go. Why should I risk the nice win I’d achieved? Besides, I was going to be in the blind soon and then we were going to have to pay time. Mostly it was that deep dark instinctive time-to-go feeling. But the worst player in the game had just re-bought. The game was still great, etc., etc. It was going to take a crowbar to get me out of there - a crowbar, or a beat.

I promised myself to play extra solid. I took the big blind. Everyone limped in (about 6 players); I looked down and saw a K-7 off suit. I checked and the Flop came K-7-9 with two diamonds. The aggressive player in the small blind made a $20 bet. I raised to $60 and got called in two spots - the small blind folded. The Turn came an off suit 10. Now I had a weird feeling. There were several straights on board: King high and 10 high. Even a jack-high straight was possible if someone was holding a J-8 (a not impossible hand in this particular game). So I checked. The guy I have called ‘the worst player in the game’ bet $200. He’d been paying everyone off all night. The other player folded. I called and I called again when he bet his remaining $225 on the river. He showed me 8-6 off suit for a 10 high straight. I had been right about the 10. But it had cost me $425 to be sure - plus the $70 I’d put in before I started checking and calling.

The signal that it was time to take Time came on. I quit the game. I was up $1,500 for the session. But I had regrets. Once again, I had not followed my gut feeling. I got punished by hitting a hand that I normally would not play - and losing with it

The point is that as soon as I start to think this way, that it’s time to leave, that something bad could happen, that I might have won all I can for that session, no matter how good the game is, it’s almost always a self-fulfilling prophecy. The instinct to leave often creates the necessity to leave. It was better to win $1,500 than nothing, but I will regret for a long time losing that $500 that I would have kept if I had not taken the blind and hit, and been stupid enough to call two sizeable bets from a player who normally just called.

My mind had checked out of the game when my instincts had gone into departure mode before my body could catch up. I hope I have learned my lesson from these last two sessions. If not, I hope you have learned something from this story.

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