Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2013) in Poker Player newspaper.
Over decades, I’ve identified one of the main reasons that the majority of skillful poker players fail to win. It’s surprising, and it isn’t what you think.
It has to do with their inability to “stabilize.” And in today’s self-interview, I’ll explain what I mean.
Question 1: What does the word “stabilize” have to do with poker?
A lot. Like I said, it describes one of the primary reasons that poker players lose.
Question 2: Before we get to that, you said it was “one of the primary reasons” for failure to win. What are some of the other reasons?
Besides an inability to stabilize, which I’ll discuss shortly, presuming that you ask relevant questions, there are several reasons for failure.
Going on tilt is one. Competing against too strong a group of opponents is another. Being cheated is one, also. Not treating poker as a business, playing too large for their bankrolls, playing too creatively, entering too many pots, not choosing the right seats, and poor game selection are others.
Question 3: Wow! Interesting list. Is going on tilt really that common a reason for losing money at poker?
I can see that you’re obsessed with the list I provided. That means this interview will probably degenerate into a discussion about it, rather than failure to stabilize. But that’s okay, because I can explain stabilization quickly, whenever you get around to asking.
The answer to this question is yes. Going on tilt, also called “steaming” by some, means losing emotional control and playing substandard poker. It’s so common that almost all superior poker players lose considerable money because of it.
The best ones end up making a profit despite this grave deficiency. But many are destroyed by it. Tilt happens because poker is frustrating. You can wait hours for the perfect cards in the right situation and get crushed by an inferior hand that shouldn’t even have been played. You can be embarrassed when you make a daring call that loses. You can be frustrated by a long drought when no playable cards come your way.
It’s human nature to want to get your money back right away. So you force the issue and play inferior hands, make desperate bets and raises, call too often, whatever. You’re on tilt.
Solution: Pretend you’re taking over for someone else right now. So, in effect, you’re starting even. And you really are. Each hand is a new beginning, and you’re starting even. Say that to yourself, over and over: “Each hand is a new beginning, and I’m starting even.” Really, I mean it. Say it. Make it a habit. Soon, you won’t be a tilt victim anymore. And, better still, you’ll actually be making money from players, even if they’re a little superior to you in theory, simply because they will go on tilt sometimes and you won’t.
Question 4: Good. I get that. What about the next cause of failure you listed, competing against too strong a group of opponents?
Okay, I see where this is going. I simply listed those things off the top of my head. There have been other things I’ve talked about that cause players to lose. But let me humor you and save you the trouble of asking about each problem I listed individually.
Competing against opponents stronger than you are is obviously not a path to poker profit. And being a very strong player won’t necessarily make you a winner. Why not? It’s because the gap between your performance and your opponents’ is what matters. That means a less-skillful player in weaker games might make a living at poker, while a superior player in strong games might go broke. It’s the gap. Period.
And you should always be vigilant about being cheated and report your suspicions to cardroom management or others. If you’re in an honest game 90 percent of the time, that probably won’t be enough. The few times you aren’t can steal all your profit and more. And treating poker as a business means that you respect your bankroll and don’t spend it on things other than poker, believing that your good luck will see you through. And if you play uncomfortably large limits, you’re almost certain to run into a bad streak that will destroy your bankroll.
And if you constantly try to impress opponents with fancy plays, your creativity will destroy you, because usually the most obvious choices are the most profitable. And you cannot win at poker unless you’re more selective about the pots you enter than your opponents. That’s because your opponents’ main weakness is that they have a bias toward playing hands, rather than folding. So, you have to play more disciplined than they do or there’s no advantage.
And, for maximum profit, you should choose seats that let you act after loose opponents and after dangerous, aggressive ones. Timid, tight players belong on your left, because they don’t use their later position to full advantage. And if you routinely select challenging games, rather than easy ones, every hour you spend at the poker table will be less profitable or not profitable at all.
Okay, that takes care of the list. Now what’s your next question?
Question 5: Is it back to me? Okay, final question: What was it you said about needing to stabilize?
One thing that destroys poker bankrolls is failure to stabilize. It simply means that you need a basic, high-profit game plan to fall back on.
It should be your everyday strategy. You should only change tactics within that strategy when there’s a compelling reason. Changing at whim or when unnecessary costs money. Big money.
Sometimes you can make more money by adapting to your opponents. That’s great. Do it. But be sure you have powerful reasons for that change. Otherwise, keep your game stable. The problem here is that most players who adapt don’t unadapt soon enough.
Always be ready to return to your basic game play – stabilize. So, the trick is to repeatedly ask yourself if you can stabilize at any given moment. Stabilizing should be your primary objective, just like keeping a ship on course in the ocean.
When you ask yourself if it’s time to stabilize, you’ll be surprised how often the answer is yes. And then you can steer straight toward the money. But if you don’t ask yourself the question, you’ll squander money by staying off course for no reason. It’s just that simple. — MC