Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Perhaps I'm not losing my mind after all

The chips above are two new ones that I picked up at the Excalibur poker room tonight, where I was playing for a while.

November ups and downs

As I've explained here many times, I don't usually discuss much about my results or income, for a variety of reasons. I don't usually disclose on any given day or week whether or how much I'm winning or losing, and I try to keep my writing about poker unconnected to my results of the moment.

But once in a while I break that silence for some particular reason, and this is one such occasion.

November has been a highly unusual month. It started out like gangbusters. I couldn't lose. I had nine cash winning sessions and a big tournament score, punctuated by just one losing session.

Then things went all to hell. From November 12th to the 22nd I endured six consecutive losing sessions, for a total loss of $1526. (That's fewer sessions that I would usually put in during an 11-day stretch because I was taking days off in between the losses trying to get my head straight and not play with a mindset of making up for them, which is a deadly, sure-to-lose perspective.)

Losing that much money in that short a time frame stings, there's no denying that. But I can take the loss financially. It's what the repeated losing does to my head that I'm going to try to describe.

It's not terribly uncommon for me to have a week or two in which I just spin my wheels, with losses roughly equally balancing wins. That's kind of annoying, because it feels like I've just been wasting my time without accomplishing anything useful. But six substantial losses in a row is pretty darn rare for me. Even the couple of bad, prolonged losing spells that I've written about here before haven't been loss after loss after loss; they have been, rather, a long series in which the losses continued to exceed the wins in both magnitude and number, but there has been at least some winning going on along the way.

One losing session rolls off of me like water off a duck. Two in a row annoys me, but by the next day I'm fine again. Three in a row starts escalating the frustration. And at four, frankly, I start losing my composure. I shouldn't, I know. I should be able to shrug off as many consecutive losses as there are, because such streaks will happen no matter how soundly I play, and I'd better get used to that fact. But I'm not to that point of zen-like equanimity yet. (I try, without much success, to emulate Tommy Angelo's way of seeing losing ten times in a row as practice for the next time that he will lose ten times in a row.)

I tell you, losing that many times in a row does strange things to my brain. A task that was routine, ordinary, and even habitual (i.e., winning at least modest amounts at poker) suddenly became impossible. It feels like getting in a car, and you no longer can remember which pedal is the accelerator and which the brake, or how to make the thing turn. Worse, you keep crashing into things. It's not just discouraging, it's seriously disorienting. It's like I have forgetten how to be able to dress myself, or even speak coherently, after a massive stroke.

During such a spell, it seems to cease to matter what I do. I can play tight or loose: I lose. I can play aggressively or passively: I lose. I can play well or badly: I lose. I can have a table of experts or fish: I lose. I can pick any cardroom in the city for the day's work: I lose. I can move from one table to another, or even one casino to another: I lose. None of that makes any sense. None of it is how it should be. It is, I think, what experimental psychologists (those sick bastards who come up with new and devilish ways of torturing lab animals) call learned helplessness. It is poker futility writ large.

Cardgrrl on losing

My wonderful friend Cardgrrl has written about losing in poker as eloquently and thoughtfully as anybody I know. For example, this:

I think running bad is a little like getting lung cancer when you're a
non-smoker. It happens; you didn't do anything specific to bring it on, but
people keep asking you if you did. Everyone has advice on how to get better, but
few of them will hold your hand (or your forehead) while you go through chemo. A
lot of people will just disappear from your life, or avoid talking about "it"
altogether, as if your daily routine were continuing as normal otherwise and you
ought to be able to compartmentalize, for everyone else's sake as much as your
own. But some of them, often cancer survivors themselves, will offer sound,
practical advice on diet and exercise, recommend good physicians, listen to you
vent without judgment (as, if they were lucky, others did for them), and offer
strategies for coping with the rest of your life while you're ill. When you are
in remission, they will celebrate with you and also help you find equanimity in
the face of the possibility of recurrence.

If you are fortunate, you will actually emerge from the illness stronger,
more self-aware, with better habits for maintaining your well-being and a keener
understanding of what is and isn't within your control. And if you are truly
blessed, you will have learned how to live well even under the most adverse

In a long post from about a year ago, Cardgrrl details one astoundingly horrendous trip to Atlantic City where nothing, nothing, nothing would go right. (Let's try not to dwell too long on the part about her making out with another player at the table, OK?) Rereading it makes me glad that I either have never experienced days quite that bad, or I have blessedly blocked from conscious memory having done so. A couple of other old posts describe painful, though somewhat less dramatically concentrated, losing streaks: here and here.

But her best work on the subject is in three posts that I think are just too good in their entirety, too insightful and eloquent and wise to excerpt or try to summarize. It would be an injustice to them and to their author. Go read them in toto, here and here and here.

The pain does end

I'm writing this now because tonight this particular fresh hell (hat tip: Dorothy Parker) seems to have run its course. One of my tricks for breaking a losing streak is to head to one of a few places that I dislike as poker rooms (because of heavy noise and cigarette smoke problems, bad dealers, etc.) but which are reliable cash cows. The Luxor was the choice of just such a place tonight. And it came through for me: Up $316 in about 80 minutes.

I crossed the tunnel into the Excalibur (another such room), and hit again: $150 in exactly one hour.

I plan to describe a couple of the hands in a separate post, but not here, because exactly how it happened is beside the point. The point is that, as suddenly as it began, the just-can't-win streak is gone. Winning was easy again, the way I'm mostly used to it being. It feels a bit like a tornado suddenly ripped me out of my comfortable home, spun me around, bonked my head against a bunch of flying debris for 12 days or so, but then dropped me down again and went on its way, presumably to torment some other grinder.

Now I just have to brush myself off, and go about picking up all the hundred-dollar bills that got blown out of my wallet in the process.


Conan776 said...

Of course you aren't losing your mind. This game is just like every game in Vegas -- it's designed by nature to make some percentage of bad players hit so they come back and lose many times more. It's just variance when you are on the wrong end of it. I play online 300/hands an hour, full ring, so at least against 45+ other players at a go, and 60%+ regulars at a time. It's not hard at all to lose 4BIs at a stretch and that's just for starters. Live play is a different beast, I believe and know, but you can't escape the math. Summer of 2007 I was 4-tabling, and lost to set over set on all 4 of them basically at once, and then 3 more times minutes after that, and proceeded to tilt off the rest of my roll and was on the rail playing freeroll tourneys for months afterwards. Playing small pocket pairs how I did was a small leak, but heck if I had to figure that out all at once! But I regrouped and readjusted my game. I know tourist traffic is down in Sin City, and I don't know much about your game, but I hope you can do the same adjustments if you need to -- but, either way, variance happens!

Anonymous said...

I love this post. Why? Because you're human, like everyone else. As rational as we are, or strive to be, we can never hit that obscure summit of cool, where we are unfazed by life, perfectly un-emotional, and 100% composed in all situations. It's not even as wonderful a place as we might think, even if it helps our poker results! Anyway, thanks, and I hope this gives you a bit more room to allow for a modicum of non-rational behavior on the part of others, without being overly harsh about it :)

Anonymous said...

Timely post....I'm a small grinder on Full Tilt who happened to bink a tourney for a few hundred with literaaly my last $5 on line. The following few weeks were unbelievable. I'd lose at every game, every level, full tables, HU, 6-max, didn't matter. Flop top set and get it in and watch runner, runner, flush get ther time after time. You get gun shy and see every card and flop as the worst one possible for you.

Glad to see it turned around, I guess we all realize at some point all you can do is keep playing and hope the fog lifts with the next hand dealt.