The following lecture was the 42nd Tuesday Session, held August 3, 1999, and later appeared in Card Player magazine.
Classroom Lectures: You’ll Never Be a World-Class Poker Player Unless You Can Handle Your Losses
Most poker players lose a whole lot more money than they should when things go bad. They complain about misfortune, but a lot of it is self-inflicted. You’ve got to expect things to go bad from time to time in poker. If you learn how to cope with these inevitable losses, you’ll have a lot more money to spend overall. The sad thing is that hardly anyone handles poker losses correctly. Today we’ll talk about that.
The following is taken from the 42nd in my series of Tuesday Session classroom lectures at Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy, with a few extra sentences added for clarity. The lecture was held on Aug. 3, 1999. The title of the lecture was ….
What to Do When You’re Losing
1. When things go well. It’s easy to keep your integrity when you have money. People who can afford to keep their word about paying back debts usually do. But the real test is when you can’t easily afford to repay a debt. That’s when character and integrity come into play. Well, a similar concept applies to whether you’re winning or losing. It’s much easier to stick to your game plan when the cards are running your way. Your true test as a player is how you handle losing. This is precisely when many otherwise skillful players fail the test and damage their bankrolls – or even go broke. Repeating, the main reason skillful players go broke is that they don’t know what to do when they’re losing.
2. Don’t forget poker’s most important secret. The secret is simply, ”Play your best game all the time.“ It’s a secret that’s easy to acknowledge, but hard for players to follow, especially when they’re losing. I believe that playing your best game all the time is so important that years ago, I created a whole audio cassette tape to drive the point home. Of course, it seems almost silly to make a big deal out of playing your best game. What kind of a secret is that? Everybody understands it already. Sure, but not everybody does it. In fact, almost nobody does it. That’s what makes it important.
3. Two types of dangerous losses. There are two types of losses that put otherwise skillful poker players seriously off course: (1) losing sessions, and (2) losing streaks. Losing sessions make some players forget their determination to play their best game hand after hand. Frustration takes over. Before long, they’re playing as poorly as the opponents they came to conquer – and sometimes more poorly. It’s sad, and it happens all the time. But, from now on, I want you to play as perfectly as you can, every hand, every decision. It’s those decisions that matter. As I’ve taught for almost 30 years, your lifetime profit will be the sum of your good decisions minus the sum of your bad decisions, and that truth doesn’t change whether those decisions are made while you’re in the middle of a winning session or in the middle of a losing session. Perhaps more damaging are losing streaks. Every poker player experiences them. Losses after losses, day after day – I know the feeling. It’s as though you expect things to go bad. One of the most destructive things players do during a losing streak is panic. They play worse because they need to win, but that’s the wrong attitude. You don’t need to think about winning. You need to think only about making good decisions, hand after hand, session after session. The wins will come when they’re ready to come. Winning isn’t your job. Making good decisions is your job. Winning is the eventual result of making good decisions consistently.
4. Let’s not even think of it as a session. You can let a losing session destroy you if you think about it as a single event to be won or lost. Whether you win or lose during a session, though, really has no bearing on your lifetime profit. A session is just something with an artificial beginning and ending. If you didn’t know what they were, you’d simply weigh your bankroll once in a while to see how you were doing. Sessions don’t really enter into the equation, so why even think about them as wins or losses? And remember during any “session” to be careful when you pass through “Caro’s Threshold of Misery.” That’s when you’ve lost so much that any additional damage doesn’t feel any worse. But you can encounter this dangerous condition only if you think in terms of sessions. So, don’t. The best psychological way to handle losses is to begin every hand fresh. You’re neither ahead nor behind. You are where you are when the next deal begins. Your good decisions will give you the best chance of rising from that point. But if you lose that hand, forget it. It’s on to the next one. Again, you’re neither winning nor losing. You’re starting fresh. You are where you are — again and again.
5. Don’t think of it as a streak. Streaks – winning or losing – are always something seen in the rear-view mirror. There is never anything in the cards that will dictate that the streak either will or won’t continue. So, you’re always starting fresh. Just as every hand is a new start, every session is a new start. Never give a streak the importance of something that has influence over your future.
6. Strategic adjustments when you’re losing. Here are things you should do when you’re losing, not because there’s any force causing the cards to be bad, but because your image is damaged and your opponents tend to play better: (1) Be more selective about your starting hands. (2) Don’t bluff (at least not very often). (3) Don’t raise as often. (4) Don’t bet “for value” with the hands that you normally would. That’s because opponents are inspired by your bad luck and tend to take advantage of their small edges. When that happens, pushing a hand for extra value fails.
7. Psychological tricks when losing. Try these: (1) Remind yourself that you are exactly even right now. (2) Remember that even though what you do now doesn’t seem to matter, there will come a time when it will matter. Things you might try during a losing streak: (A) If you need an emotional lift, take a small win and go home. Doing that won’t help you strategically, but it might lift your spirits and help you focus tomorrow. (B) Play in a smaller game. (C) Look for reasons why you’re losing. If you find reasons, adjust. But if you don’t find any, stick to your game plan and keep the faith. – MC