Weighing money in poker

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2007) in Casino Player.

If I told you that you need to make critical decisions whether you’re ahead or behind in a poker game, you’d probably agree. Most intelligent players would. But something strange happens in poker games when intellectually capable players get caught up in the action.

If they’re losing, they may play well for a period of time, but when the loss grows so large as to seem hopeless, their behavior changes. Often you’ll see reasonable players self-destruct in a poker game after they take one too many bad beats and fall behind a bit more than they’re able to tolerate.

If this has ever happened to you, today’s the day you’re going to learn the secret to saving a lot of money. First I’ll tell you what I tell my students: Money you don’t lose is exactly the same as money you win. In fact, you should stop caring about whether you cashed out winning or losing. If you won, but could have won more, the difference between what you won and could have won is a loss. If you lost but could have lost more, the difference between what you lost and what you could have lost is a win.

Repeat the previous paragraph until you have no problem accepting it intellectually. But wait! When you’re in the heat of poker combat, losing hand after hand, getting buried, I suggest that you no longer feel comfortable with that statement. Here’s what I mean: If you’re a medium-limit player, figuring that the worst that might happen is you’ll lose $3,000, your mind gets scrambled when you find yourself losing, say, $5,673. I suggest that when you first sat down to play, losing $300 in a pot (or winning it) meant something to you. It felt like real money.

Crossing the threshold

But now, I’m speculating that if you lose another $300 and find yourself down $5,973, it won’t feel any different at all. Actually, at this point, you’ve crossed Caro’s Threshold of Misery ­– the point where you’ve maxed out your ability to absorb emotional pain and where small additional losses don’t feel any worse. That’s a dangerous mental state to visit, because you stop making critical decisions.

This can happen in real-life, too, when romances or businesses fail. You’ve got to remind yourself that, even though the shock of what’s happened consumes you, there will come a time when your other decisions will matter. So, you’ve got to keep making them rationally.


Now I’m going to prove to you intellectually why losing $5,673 rather than $5,973 is just as good – and should feel just as good – as winning $300, rather than breaking even. Suppose you decided to devote a year to being a professional poker player, because you think you have the skill. But yours is a very unlucky adventure and by year’s end you’re losing exactly $200,000.

So, now I come up to you and say, “You know, I can rewrite poker history so that you’ll be even for the year. Would you like me to do that?”

And you say, “Sure, Mad Genius. I’d be so grateful.”

And I say, “There’s only one thing I need to know from you. Would you like me to rewrite poker history by adding a little to each win you had during the year, so that you break even instead of losing $200,000. Or would you like me to subtract a little from each loss, so that you break even instead of losing $200,000.”


You quickly respond, “Either way. Just so I get my money back, it doesn’t matter.”

And you’re so very right! If I shave $300 here and $1,800 there off your losses, the result is exactly the same as if I add those sums to your wins. It’s not sort of the same money or theoretically the same money, but exactly the same money. You can spend it.

I can take the right amount of money from the heavy side of the scale — the side that’s dragging you down — and we’ll have balance. Or I can add that same amount to the light side and we’ll have balance. In poker, your outcome is simply the difference between money lost and money won, as if weighed on a scale. Subtracting money from your losses weighs the same as adding money to your wins. It’s only the difference between the two sides of the scale that matters. And you want the side that represents wins to be heavier — which can be achieved by making the side that represents losses lighter.

That’s what I want you to realize next time you’re losing badly in a poker game. It’s no different than when you sat down and looked at your first hand. You are where you are right now. And, right now, every dollar less that you lose or every dollar more that you win matters equally. Each hand you play is your first hand, and you need to treat it that way. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


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  1. Caro’s Threshold of Misery, I have visited, but now after reading Mike Caro’ daily posts for years, every day Its visited
    a very, very lot less. Thanks Teacher!

  2. Mike you are so right. I always tell people that it’s not how much you win, when you are winning, but how much you don’t lose when you are losing. I had a really bad day Saturday. Busted out of a tourney with a bad beat and then promptly went on tilt at the cash table. I finally caught myself and got a hold on my game. Came back a little and left behind, but not nearly as bad as it could have been.

  3. Caro is so right Again ! i can stand losing AK to AQ (saw raymer bust out that way) and still do well, its the 64 97 etc that raise UTG and get lucky, there is no defense against that kind of play, turns poker into bingo and destroys my game

  4. In theory this is correct, but in theory if I sat down with 1k and had them all in $5 denominations I would have 200 chips to start. I know this and when I look down again I have 50 chips, I am a little disgruntled. grrr .
    I know the next hand is new and I’m back to even, but geez I want those 150 chips back! hahaha.. good read.. I have read this so much in different articles and books that it’s etched in the back of my mind.

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