Stay the course

May 17, 2009

 Here’s a question for all the poker enthusiasts out there…one that I’ve pondered myself this week as the situation arose. Do you find yourself playing different depending on how much you’re wagering?

Think before you answer, what you realize to be the truth might surprise you.

For me, the answer is yes, and I apologize for the visual, but I realized it when I was sitting on the toilet today playing live poker over my phone. It wasn’t for money, but it was against real people, and a real ranking was involved. So, technically, something was at stake. It wasn’t just a throw-away experience to kill time while I was punishing the porcelain (which I was, horribly.)

A few hands came up, early on in the game so the blinds were relatively low, when I had pretty crappy hands. 2, 4 off-suit. 10, 7 off suit…nothing to write home about…nothing to even consider playing. Yet for some reason, I did. I hadn’t even invested anything through the blinds, but I felt like letting loose and going in.

Now most poker players will tell you discipline at any level is key to shaping your poker mentality. Be prepared and calulating whether you’re betting a nickel or a million. You might learn something about yourself and your play that one time you’re betting a nickel which could lead to the same decision when it comes time to lay down the big bucks. Therefore, a good poker player should approach every situation as though the same amount is at stake.

For some reason, at least this week, I didn’t. Which was a shock, actually, because patience and consistency are two major areas I’ve been working on improving over the last year.

So why was it different this week? Why did I see myself playing sloppier and lazier when less was at stake? I wish I had the answer, but I promised myself it wouldn’t happen again. It might sound silly, but even if I had won all my hands, I wouldn’t have felt like I had earned it nearly as much as if I’d played poker the way the game is supposed to be played.

If I give the house or the casino money out of my wallet, could be $50, could be $300, those chips sliding through my fingers are absolutely worth their weight in gold. And I readily admit there’s a sensation going through your body when you have to control that increases in intensity the more money you have on the table. But the decisions affected by your ability to channel this emotion shouldn’t change depending on it’s intensity, and that’s what I allowed to happen this week during my gaming. It’s something I identifed, am ashamed of myself for, and am dedicated to avoiding in the future.

Something else I learned about this is that by playing lazy, or by allowing your decision to be affected by how much is at stake, you also reveal more of your game to those paying attention. You might think it’s the opposite, but in my observation I found that to be incorrect. If you’re playing looser, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re more unpredictable. On the contrary, you’re more likely to overbet too early or fold too quickly once a bet has been made. Sure, if you’re not put to a big decision (such as facing a pre-flop all-in), you can limp in on virtually anything. But just because you’re riding into a poker gunfight on a three-legged horse doesn’t mean you’re unpredictable.

And, I’ll add that it works both ways. It’s just as counterproductive to play ultra safe when a lot of money is on the table than playing sloppy when virtually nothing is at stake – provided of course we’re talking specifically about improving yourself as a poker player (and not necessarily what might happen to your wallet in any one sitting).

Each player needs to strike a balance. Building on that balance, tweaking it as you grow and learn as a player is inevitable, but completely abandoning your self-control as a smart player simply because you don’t stand to lose more than $5 is a poor approach to the game.