Thursday, October 08, 2009

Climbing out of the hole

At the end of July I published this brief observational post:

If you start off a poker session digging yourself a deep, ugly hole (as I did today), but manage to claw your way back first to even then to being up (as I also did today), walking away with what is objectively a pretty mediocre and pathetic $103 (which, yes, I also did today) feels like an absolute fortune in one's pocket.

If, conversely, one starts off like gangbusters, raking it in hand over fist, enjoys the pleasures of "stacks and towers of checks I can't even see over" (see here), then gives back nearly all of the gains, and one walks away with the same $103 net profit on the day, for the same number of hours of play, it feels like you've lost a fortune.

It's all relative. And, of course, it's all completely irrational. But like most of us, I have to confess to retaining pockets of irrationality in my brain.

I have, of course, experienced both sides of that relativity. But it's not often that I experience both sides of it in such close proximity as I did this week.

It was just Tuesday that I wrote up what had happened during my session Monday at Mandalay Bay, giving back virtually all of the profit I had accumulated. Today I got to be on the other side of things.

I went for an unusual (for me) afternoon session at Bally's. Bally's is not one of my favorite card rooms, but lately I've seen a spate of Twitter messages from Las Vegas Michael about his sessions there, and the seeming ease with which he has been walking away with ridiculous hourly rates of profit. This has made me think that maybe I should try playing there more than has been my habit. Hey, the Venetian is a much nicer place to be, but if there's a ton of low-hanging fruit at a less desirable venue, I'll grab for it.

Anyway, less than five minutes into the session, I had the two black aces on the button, flopped top set on a monochrome board, and ended up losing to a flopped baby heart flush. My opponent slow-played it until I was pot-committed; I basically had to call his all-in check-raise on the turn, because of the amount that was in the pot, even knowing by that point that I would probably have to pair the board to win. I didn't. That hand cost me about $145.

I spent the rest of the session digging out of that hole. It was pure grinding. Getting-back-to-even poker is never fun poker. But I did it. The pot that put me over the top ("the top" here meaning back to even) actually got me ahead by $21. My plan was to finish that orbit then head home, because I was planning to play in the Mookie tournament on Full Tilt. (See immediately preceding post.) But I got lucky and won two more small pots immediately thereafter and finished up the day ahead by $47.

At one point in the grind, I sent a text message to my friend Cardgrrl to apprise her of my status. After relating the AA/flush hand, I wrote, "Now up to -$85. Monday breaking even felt like a L. Today it will feel like a W."

And it did.

Now, trust me--I know that $47 for four hours of poker is nothing to brag about. But the strange thing is how triumphant it felt. After getting used to the fact that that money is gone and you can't reverse time and get it back, that becomes the reality. Then when one does get it back (not the same chips, of course, but they're fungible, so who cares?), it's like a gift.

But you know, even after writing that, I have to say that it's not quite right. There's nothing gift-like about it. In fact, that's one of the things that felt so good about the result: I earned it. I didn't go on tilt and steam off the rest of my chips. I didn't get desperate or despondent. I just realized--not especially happily, but at least with a quasi-professional equanimity--that I had a job to do and I'd better get cracking at it. And then I did it. I didn't get hit with the deck or anything, but I found the good spots to push and took them. I played well enough to get paid at a rate of right around $50/hour, which, in a $1/2 no-limit hold'em game is not too shabby.

Cardgrrl has written forcefully on several occasions about the feeling that results from this kind of cash-game grinding work (and let's not kid ourselves--it is work). See, for example, here and here. In fact, come to think of it, I wrote a similar post about a year ago, and rereading it just now I still like what I had to say there. Having a sufficiently even keel to recover from that kind of early knock-down is one of the necessary traits for long-term success in this game, and I take a measure of pride that on most days I possess that characteristic in pretty decent quantities.

Of course, it's a lot nicer when I can avoid falling into a hole early in the session. But some holes can't be avoided. When I'm in one, it's good to know that I have both the technical and emotional wherewithal to climb out of it and walk away a winner in spite of what was thrown my way.

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