Tuesday, October 06, 2009

My most expensive dollar ever

Fortunately for me, most days that I play poker I still actually enjoy it. After three years, I'm still not feeling burned out. I like playing, and on any given day I will basically keep playing until the game goes bad, I'm feeling too tired to continue, or I just feel like I want to go home and do something else.

There are days, though, when, for whatever reason, it feels like a grind and I'm just putting in the hours to collect the money. I don't hate the work, but I'm not really having fun, either. Which is, I suppose, how most of the world's population feels about their work most of the time. When I'm having a day like that, my tendency is to set some arbitrary goal for income for the day (usually $100 or $200 or $300--the amount depends on how ambitious and energetic I feel, how the bankroll has been doing lately, how pleasant the poker environment is, and other intangible factors) and call it quits when I get there. I very much like Tommy Angelo's advice: "[I]t's okay to quit while citing this to yourself as the reason: I want to have fun. I am not having fun. So I will stop this unfun activity, now." (See here.)

Yesterday was one of those days. I was at Mandalay Bay again. I made the first $100 fairly quickly--$70 in the first hand, in fact--so I decided that when I got to a $200 profit I'd call it a day, go home, and finish watching a Netflix movie that I was in the middle of.

About two hours into the session I counted my stack after winning a pot and found that I was up by $199. So close. Just one more pot and I'm done, I told myself.

But I lost the next one, and was then at +$183. I thought about leaving, but it felt like it would be lazy to quit short of my goal--like I hadn't really put in my honest day's work. So I kept going.

I lost the next pot, too, and was down to about +$160. Now I was annoyed because of the extra time it was going to take me to grind back to where I wanted to be. But the table was soft, I wasn't especially tired, and there wasn't anything I really needed to be doing anywhere else, so I decided to put my nose to the grindstone for a while longer.

Grindstone? That's the wrong word. Millstone is what I should have said, because there was one tied around my neck and I was sinking. Next time I counted, I was at +$120 or so, then +$101 (I remember that one exactly), then about +$85.

Just. Could. Not. Win. An. Effin'. Pot.

As far as I could tell, nothing had changed. The table had not suddenly gotten tougher. I had not gone on tilt and started seeing promise in trash hands or making desperate calls. My most objective assessment (though I recognize that one's ability to analyze these things deteriorates and may not always be reliable) was that it was just a bad streak: my draws not getting there, opponents' second-best starting hands catching up, being dealt my best hands in worst position, etc.

So I shrugged it off the best that I could and kept playing.

And I kept losing.

+$85, +$60, +$35 came and went. I finally crashed down through the break-even point.

I reassessed, still felt reasonably good about the EV of the situation, so kept going.

Long story short, I bottomed out at about -$80. I seriously thought about quitting then, because this trend showed no signs of reversing. I still couldn't see that there was anything in particular that was wrong. However, I have enough experience with poker to know that sometimes there is something that is adversely affecting me in some insidious manner and I just can't diagnose it in myself until later, in retrospect, when I'm removed from the immediate situation. I was therefore wondering if this was another of those cases, and, if so, whether I should just take my loss and run away before losing the rest of my stack.

Fortunately, right about then, I finally won the first meaningful pot of the last couple of hours, and was back to about -$20. That gave me some sense of confirmation (rightly or wrongly) that I was OK to continue at least for a while more. And, sure enough, I soon thereafter hit another winner that took me back over the most critical psychological threshold. I left with a big $4 profit to show for my 4 1/2 hours of work.

I could have stayed longer, but I had enough uncertainty about whether there was something I wasn't perceiving about my own play or about the situation that I thought discretion was the better part of valor. There's always another game another day. So I left technically a winner for the day, but, of course, feeling like I had actually lost $195. Which sucks.

My buddy Cardgrrl recently had a similar night. As her readers know by now, a few months back she set up for herself an incentive plan to help her get up from the table when she has won enough to be content with. This was to avoid the awful feeling that results from giving it all back. Last week in a cash game she had bought in for $200. Her incentive plan involves doubling the buy-in, so when she was at about +$180, she texted me to say that she should be done and heading home soon. But it was not to be. Just like me, things started heading south. If I remember correctly, over the next few hours she lost not only the accumulated profit but the original buy-in, too. (If I have that wrong, Cardgrrl, my apologies--the days all start to run together in memory after a while.) Had she been content with a $180 profit, instead of chasing that last $20, it would be in her pocket now.

These stories aren't told as criticism of either my own decision or Cardgrrl's decision to stay and win a little bit more. These things just happen sometimes. In both cases, staying was presumably +EV, and just didn't work out as expected. In both cases, the next pot could just as easily have gone my way (or hers) as the other, the goal would have been met, and there would have been joy in Mudville.

That's the thing about poker sessions--kind of like with the stock market, you can't ever tell where the peak is until after it has passed. Especially when playing no-limit, the next pot could double or triple your money, or, conversely, leave you staring at the felt, facing the awful decision whether to rebuy or go home loser for the day, and wishing you had quit one hand earlier. And on the other side of the equation, it's entirely possible that packing up for the day after hitting some arbitrary amount of win is a mistake because the next hand would have doubled your profit for just three more minutes of work. You just never know. There have been plenty of times that I've kicked myself for not leaving when it first occurred to me that I should, but there have also been plenty of times when I've gone on to win a lot more money after that point, and ended up thinking, "Good thing I didn't listen to myself!"

Most of the time I don't have any particular need to employ a stop-loss or stop-win mechanism. (I'm well aware of the arguments for and against such devices, but don't feel like engaging in that discussion at the moment.) But at least for the foreseeable future, I think that when I'm having a "poker is just a grind at the office" kind of day and I have set some arbitrary income amount, I'm going to remember the sting of last night's cost of chasing that last damned dollar, and be willing to cut things short when I get within shouting distance of whatever that amount is.


Sean G said...

Isn't that one of the keys to improving your game, remembering how a particular situation made you feel and the sort of resolution that came with that feeling? I suppose the ability to remember these things at the right time, consistently, is what helps you move up that ladder. Good luck.

Rakewell said...

I actually don't think that's one of the keys to improving your game--or at least if it is, one must be very careful how it's applied. If you get all your money in with pocket aces and lose, you might feel terrible. If you learn from that to play aces timidly, in order to avoid the bad feeling that came from losing, you're headed in the wrong direction. The disconnect between good decisions and outcomes interferes with our natural learning process in truly insidious ways. This is good insofar as it keeps bad players playing badly (they get perversely rewarded for stupid decisions). But it can either help or hinder your progress as a serious player, depending on how carefully you separate your feelings about the quality of decisions from your feelings about the results.

Anonymous said...

Nice post... I play limit here in Arizona but nothing is worse than sitting down and winning a few big pots in the first fifteen minutes and thinking you should leave, but saying, "I just got there, I can't leave." Then watching the stack slowly shrink back to buy-in over the next two hours.

Anonymous said...

since you play poker for a living and thus need to pay your bills with your winnings, I would suggest that the next time you are +/- 10% of your daily set goal, you get the hell out of there. If you don't, then why set the goal at all. Plus, you can't help but play differently when you are in that "bubble time".

Those 4 quarters or 10 dimes cost you the amount of money needed to probably pay 2 or more utility bills, or 40% of a car payment, or 20% of a mortgage payment.

WindBreak247 said...

Great post. I think we've all been there before.

Incidentally, I recently read a couple of related posts that you may or may not be interested in.



Grange95 said...

Playing with any arbitrary dollar goal or barrier is always difficult, whether it is an amount you want to win, or an amount you want to protect (putting part of your stack on "lockdown" when ahead). It is quite difficult to play your "normal" game when you throw in the added psychological effects of your goal. Of course, your personal situation is compounded further because you play for a living. Your budget for living expenses almost requires you to set--and meet--certain goals.

I've struggled with the same issue from time to time, and don't really have any great insight to offer, other than if you find yourself thinking how nice it would be to leave if you hit a certain goal (whether it be getting to a particular amount of profit, or leaving while you still have a certain amount of profit), you probably should leave at that moment, since your play going forward will be affected by your setting of an arbitrary goal.

I think this psychological phenomenon is related to the "chips/money" phenomenon. As long as chips are nothing more than scorekeeping tools, your play should be optimal. Once chips start looking like money, and start feeling like a mortgage payment, car payment, nice dinner out, new clothes, etc., it's time to cash out.

unaha-closp said...

Maybe try setting your targets in time rather than $$?

Feel lousy, find a soft table and play for short time. Feel great, find a soft table and play for a long time. Set the time before you play.