The following lecture was the 16th in the series, held January 12, 1999, and later appeared in Card Player magazine
When to Keep Playing and When to Quit Playing
I can’t stand it! I’m going on tilt! And it has nothing whatsoever to do with poker. Or does it?
Obviously, I’m talking about the Los Angeles Times. What else could possibly put the Mad Genius on tilt? Let me ask you a question. What would you think if I taught you how to position your hold ’em hand so that winning energy could rush up through the cards and invite a harmonious flop? What if I told you – quite seriously – that you should sit in a chair facing southwest or that if someone had ever died who had previously played in your seat, that seat inherited bad luck.
If I told you any of that, would you think that I’m an expert? No? Well, then why the hell should anyone read the Los Angeles Times and think that it imparts any expertise whatsoever? It is soiled and sullied, and I’ll tell you why. On the front page of the Sunday Real Estate section a feature has appeared about Feng Shui by Kirsten M Lagatree. This is the newspaper many trust to give them accurate information about building trends, mortgage rates, housing prices, and more. But here comes this column that provides advice to a potential buyer of a home where a death had occurred, “This house, where so much tragedy has occurred, is permanently scarred. Even if you hired the most learned feng shui master on the globe to perform cleansing and purifying rituals, you’d still have a house with a tremendous amount of negative energy.” Do you see what I’m getting at? This is not a just-for-fun feature. It is dead serious, and if I used Card Player to promote anything similarly idiotic about poker, you’d rip the pages to pieces. And you should.
A logical person might say only that the house could have diminished value because other people might consider it to have negative energy. But, no. The Times is providing a service, informing us of negative energy. Not an opinion piece – a regular feature meant to inform. Lagatree then went on to devalue my home by advising potential buyers that “a sloped ceiling can be oppressive… and a source of negative (sha) chi.” Don’t know what that is. Don’t wanna know. But she said it could result in marital or health problems. Ridiculous? So what? So, this is the Los Angeles Times, people. And you thought I was nuts when I warned you a couple years ago about “hippie remnants” taking over editorial positions in the American press. That column was called “Why Sixties People Can’t Win at Poker.”
I read even more lunacy in the Times. Serious advice about placing a small mirror in front of a poorly positioned house to deflect “noxious forces.” A couple of my closest friends actually practice Feng Shui. Another friend has come to my home and told me I was in serious trouble because the foot of our bed faces a doorway. I’m merely amused by this, but I’m not amused by the Times efforts to promote this nonsense as if it were valid. All this provides me with two observations: (1) Superstition must be in vogue and that could be good for poker; and (2) aren’t you glad you’re reading a credible publication like Card Player?
Where was I? Ah, superstition. Did you know that’s one of the main reasons players decide to change seats, play hands, and quit poker for the night? But it shouldn’t have anything whatsoever to do with how you make those decisions. Today, we’re going to examine rational reasons about…
“When to Stay and When to Quit”
- Poker is business.
Think of a poker game as your business. In order to succeed you need to do business in the right location. In poker, you get to choose the location where you’ll do business every time you play. Choosing the right location – meaning the right game – is so important that it doesn’t just determine how much you win. It often determines if you win. And once you’re in a game, deciding correctly whether to stay or quit is critical.
- The poker tide.
Good games eventually get worse, and bad games eventually get better. In good games, the weak players eventually leave or go broke. They are replaced by tough players trying to capitalize on the game that was better earlier. Strong players eventually leave solid games out of frustration and go searching for easier opponents, and these games become easier. So, it’s predictable like the tide. Expect loose games to eventually get tighter; expect tight games to eventually get looser.
- Where you stand.
You should never stay in a game hoping to get even, because you already are even. Your bankroll is always as large as it is when the cards are shuffled.
This attitude will save you the fate of many poker players who destroy their bankrolls chasing an elusive and meaningless goal. You don’t need to book a win tonight. You just need to make your best decisions time after time. That’s where the money is. Whether you win or lose for a particular session should not be important to you. In the long run, you will earn or lose money in accordance with the quality of your decisions. Nothing more, nothing less. And you are always exactly even when then next hand begins.
- It’s OK to lose back what you won.
There’s no disgrace in turning a big win into a loss. It’s no worse than quitting now and then coming back tomorrow to meet bad luck. If you’re in a good game where you believe you should earn money, then the main consequence of quitting is the same as it would be with any other job: You’ll get less work done. And that means you’ll make less money.
Poker’s all-time stupidest question is, “Why didn’t you quit when you were $600 ahead?” Does anyone ever ask that after you stay and win $3,000? Think about it. If you lose $300 for the night, your friends are likely to say, “You should have quit when you were winning $600.” Has any friend, in the entire history of the world, ever chided you after you won $3,000 with the words, “You should have quit when you were winning $600”? The fact is, you have no idea whether the next hour will bring you a win or a loss, so there’s no way to know – based on dollars won alone – when to quit.
- Manufactured streaks.
Don’t manufacture a win streak by quitting with small wins when the game is good and staying to recover when the game is bad. Lots of players brag about their win streaks. They’re just playing mental games that cause them to put in fewer hours and earn less money. It’s easy to put yourself on a win streak. Just quit every time you’re a little ahead. And when you’re behind, keep playing as long as you can, because there’s always a chance that you’ll book a win. Yep. That works. You’ll have longer streaks and a better win-loss record than I will. But you’ll have many small wins and notable big losses. And you’ll just cost yourself profit.
- How to move up.
When you’re successful and ready to promote yourself to a bigger game, you don’t need to play that game all the time. Stick with your previous limit and make occasional forays into the larger limit. Always watch both games, and be ready to jump from one to the other. The larger limit must be much better than the regular limit to justify playing it. This advice is particularly valid if your bankroll is limited.
Reasons to stay in a game: (1) Game is good; (2) Your image is good; (3) Your spirits are good; (4) There is laughter; (5) You are alert.
That laughter part is important. I always tend to stay in a game where people are having a good time. This generally indicates that they are playing poker for fun and not for profit, and I encourage this attitude in my opponents. Silence is a bad sign. It means your opponents may be serious about the game and making carefully considered decisions. There’s usually less profit in such games, and that’s why “silence” makes the list below.
Reasons to leave a game: (1) Game is bad; (2) Your image is bad; (3) You’ve been losing, inspiring opponents; (4) Silence; (5) Your foes play selectively, but aggressively; (6) Game is too loose for your bankroll (loose games are generally more profitable, but require larger bankrolls, due to increased fluctuations of outcomes); (7) You can’t actually spot mistakes opponents are making; (8) You’re worried about cheating (this will eat up mental energy, even if it’s false); (9) You feel “glued to your seat.”
Notice that I said you can quit because you’re losing. This is not superstition. When opponents see you lose, they play better against you, believing that you’re vulnerable. When you’re winning and your image is dominating, you’re a force to be reckoned with and opponents are often intimidated, predictable, and easy to beat. They’ll call more with weak hands because they are numb, frustrated, or amazed. And they’ll raise less when they have an advantage because they are less confident. So, you should be less willing to quit early when you’re winning.
Also notice that I warned against foes who are selective about the hands they play, but aggressive when they do enter a pot. These – as a group – are your least profitable foes.
You need to be able to identify mistakes opponents make. If you can’t spot opponents making choices that you know are unprofitable and that you wouldn’t make yourself, there is probably little profit to be made in the game. So, consider quitting.
- Caro’s Threshold of Misery.
The main rule of quitting: Never cross “Caro’s Threshold of Misery.” I have defined a point that your losses are so large that your agony is already maximized. Beyond that, additional losses don’t register, and they feel no worse. Then you will have a hard time making meaningful decisions. Quit before you get anywhere near this threshold. – MC
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