Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2013) in Poker Player newspaper.
Today’s word, “win,” relates to poker in ways that aren’t clearly understood by many players. In fact, what the word means to them is dangerous, so dangerous that it actually keeps some would-be professionals from winning. Confused?
Well, when we’ve finished with this self-interview, you won’t be. This stuff is important, so I’d consider it a personal favor if you zoomed in and focused on what I’m about to share.
Question 1: I don’t get it. How can players be confused about winning? When you win, you win, right? Maybe you’re the one who’s confused.
You aren’t exactly making yourself endearing as an interviewer. What’s your question?
Question 2: I thought my question was clear. Winning is winning, so why are you telling me that it isn’t?
There are different kinds of winning in poker. Some of them cost you money.
Question 3: Oh, great, just great! Are you going to explain that answer or just leave it hanging?
I’d be glad to explain, if you’d ask in a civilized way.
Question 4: Okay. You are one of the premier intellects of our time. Your devotion to poker has made this planet a better place, in many, many ways. So when, as the legendary “Mad Genius of Poker,” you explain that winning isn’t winning, I immediately know you’re right, as you always are. And, yet, I myself can’t wrap my brain around that concept. Is there some chance you could make it clearer for me?
Of course. When you take poker seriously, you’re trying to win. But “win” means to make a profit from right now until you play the very last hand of your life. The amount of that profit matters. But it doesn’t matter how you subdivide it.
You could break it down into decades, years, months, weeks, days, sessions, hours, or hands. Let’s talk about the last one, hands. Here’s where players stumble. Hands constitute the smallest common division for the terms “win” and “lose.”
But outcomes of hands don’t matter. Decisions matter. Once you’ve made your decision, pure dumb luck determines the outcome. Your poker goal is to make decisions that give you the biggest advantages or the smallest disadvantages. Nothing else matters. Nothing.
So, you get drawn out on and lose the pot. So what? You won! You put money into the pot with an advantage. Your opponent put money into the pot with a disadvantage. How do you think that’s going to work out eventually?
And that’s the term that should echo through your head if you want to actually win. Eventually.
Question 5. I can see how worrying about individual pots is wrong, but what about a whole day’s worth of play with hundreds of hands?
Well, that’s another mistake many poker players make. They care about whether they cash out ahead or behind. But that’s not really winning or losing, either.
Here’s the deal: Your poker career is just a sequence of hands. For convenience, let’s number them 1 to 2,000,000. Maybe tomorrow you play hands #954,123 through #954,470. The mistake is to place importance on whether those 348 hands end plus or minus. What if you won $10. But you start again tomorrow by going $200 backwards after the first 20 hands. So, now you’re losing from hand #954,123 through #954,490.
But players don’t look at it that way. They say, well, I won yesterday, and I’m a couple hundred down today, but after next hand I might be ahead. No! It doesn’t matter. All that matters is how you do in the long term, how much you win or lose for life after the very last hand you’ll ever play. Ever.
Players get this so distorted in their heads that they manufacture winning streaks.
Question 6. How can they manufacture winning streaks?
They do it by shifting their goal from maximizing profit to artificially making themselves feel successful. When they’re in a good game, they cash out with a small win to not risk losing. And when they’re losing under poor conditions, they keep playing in a desperate attempt to cash out “winning.”
The result is that they average relatively small wins and relatively large losses, when their recovery efforts fail. But yes, for a while, they often experience long “winning streaks” – manufactured ones. And all the while, they’re wasting too many hours in bad games and playing too few hours in productive ones.
It’s a mistake made from not knowing what the word “win” really means in poker.
Question 7. So, what’s the bottom line?
When you compete with a superior hand against inferior hands, you win. You win the war of decisions.
That’s the part of poker that’s in your control. The immediate outcome isn’t in your control. And, so, you should never gloat over short-term outcomes that favor you; and you should never whimper or whine about short-term outcomes that go against you.
Let the gods of fortune fret over what’s fair. It’s their job. Your job is to concentrate on making profitable decisions. That’s where poker eventually is won or lost. And one final thing: If you play long enough, your results – and the amount you win or lose – will closely reflect the quality of your decisions. And that’s what the word “win” means in poker. — MC