Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2013) in Poker Player newspaper.
It was a tiny scratch on my neighbor’s new car. And that childhood memory relates to poker in an important way. I’ll tell you about it in today’s self-interview.
Question 1: What color and make of car was it?
It was a black Pontiac, but what difference does it make?
Question 2: None, I guess. But you’re the one who brought it up. What am I supposed to ask? Don’t look at me that way! Stop staring, really. Okay, I think I know what you want me to ask now. How did the scratch happen?
It doesn’t matter.
Question 3: Well, what does it have to do with poker?
Finally! Let me answer this way…
I was in grade school, growing up in Aurora, Colorado. We weren’t rich and our house was modest. Next door lived a salesman and his wife, in a house only slightly upscale from ours. He’d been on a successful run, earning many recent commissions.
My parents seemed slightly envious when he drove up with a new 1955 Pontiac and showed it to them. He would treat it like a beloved child. He washed it in the driveway every other day or so. But then, about a month after the purchase, he ranted to everyone who would listen about a small scratch that mysteriously appeared after parking at a supermarket.
After that, he stopped washing the car in his driveway. Completely stopped. It grew dusty. He didn’t brag about it anymore. He didn’t show it to others with pride.
And that’s what happens to many poker players.
Question 4: Huh? I don’t get it. What happens to poker players?
In poker you’re going to get scratched. You’re going to get bruised. You’re going to be disappointed.
No car is going to remain perfect. Your poker play isn’t going to remain perfect, either. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll choose to call when you know you should have folded. This shouldn’t happen very often, if you’re serious about winning, but it will happen.
And when it does happen, you’re faced with a choice. You’ve been scratched. So, you can decide that it’s no big deal, just something that’s occasionally going to happen. Or you can decide that your game plan is ruined — no longer perfect.
Let me explain it this way: It’s like baseball. Maybe you’re a great shortstop. You have your signature major league season and only commit five errors all year. You win the Gold Glove award.
But what if you’d gone the first month without an error and you were proud as proud could be. You bragged about having no errors; you were psyched up by the accomplishment. Imagine it!
Now a slow-hopping ball, almost rolling, comes to you for the final out. Hop, hop, hop. You stoop to pick it up and to throw fast. But your fingers completely miss the ball. How embarrassing! You lose that game and you now have an error marring your statistics. What if, after that, you stopped caring as much? What if you sulked and slammed your fist against the dugout wall? What if you ended up with 50 errors that year? No Gold Glove award for you.
Things like that happen in poker and life all the time. It’s the scratched-car syndrome.
Question 5: I’ve felt like that. What can you do about it? Is there a secret?
Yes, there’s a secret. And we’re not talking about trivial poker tactics or kindergarten psychology. We’re talking about one of the core reasons why skillful poker players lose.
They begin each day at poker with new hope, thinking, “Today is finally the day that I will play perfectly.” Perhaps they’ve even made a serious vow to themselves.
But then it happens, a mistake. Perhaps they forget for an instant that this was supposed to be that unblemished day. And now it’s scratched.
So, strangely, it doesn’t matter anymore. And that scenario plays again and again. If you don’t believe me, watch it for yourself. When opponents first sit down at the table, most are playing much better than they will later.
For that reason, you need more powerful hands to enter pots against them, because they’re still emotionally stable and playing seriously to win. They also can be more easily bluffed early in their session, because they haven’t unraveled to the point where they feel compelled to call everything that moves.
But once the first mistake happens, today’s project is blemished — the new car is scratched, the error-free baseball season is not to be history — and often they begin to play awfully. Watch! You’ll see it happen.
And the poker secret is to strive for perfection, but to never expect it. Poker perfection is a goal, not a requirement — not even a possibility. When you make a mistake, pretend you’re at the helm of a sailing ship that is temporarily off course.
That happens. The solution is to just relax and steer in the right direction again. Always focus on that course now, beginning this hand. You are where you are and the past is the past. Are-are, past-past. Try to play perfectly, but expect to fail. Are-are, past-past.
Scratches happen in poker. Just don’t wreck the car. — MC