Strange: Big losses by keeping poker streaks alive

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2002) in Poker Digest.

Most players, even serious ones, suffer much greater poker losses than they should. That makes me sad, so I’ll try to fix it.

One reason is that their losses are “reversed manufactured.” Now there’s a fancy term. What does it mean? Reverse manufactured means that those losses are the necessary byproduct of trying to manufacture a winning streak.

Oh, fine, but what does “manufacture a winning streak” mean. Ah, now we’re getting right to the heart of it. You might have manufactured some yourself and not realized it. You’re probably manufacturing a winning streak (and, in fact, manufacturing wins) if you like to brag about the number of times you’ve won in a row. If you go around telling anyone who will listen, “I’m on an 18 day win streak,” more likely than not, you’re manufacturing wins.

How can you manufacture a win? It’s amazingly easy. All you have to do is refuse to settle for a loss and accept small wins whenever you need to. The only requirement is that you fight back when you’re behind, hoping to break into the plus column, then quit happy if you succeed, rejoicing in the notion that you overcame adversity, struggled to restack your chips, and are now going home to rest victorious. It will feel like a proud accomplishment to you, but it shouldn’t.

How you won

Let’s look at how it might have just happened. You’re a medium-limit player, not competing quite large enough to make a good living, but large enough to supplement your income or to barely get by without a job when required. In this way, you’re like the majority of winning poker players – somewhere between just eking out a profit and professional wage-earner status.

Anyway, today you sit down in a $10/$20 hold ’em game, supposedly hoping to make a profit by showing off your Sunday-best poker skills. Sad stuff happens right away, though. Down goes a king-high heart flush, which you flopped, when a player holding the ace of hearts and deuce of diamonds sees a fourth heart come on the river. Next you flop three jacks, but they finish third when two opponents hit straights. Then there’s that devastating hand where you got bluffed out of your birdcage by Bruno, who never, ever did that before. And it gets worse. The little medium hands that can go either North or South, all go South. Losses pile up. Misery surrounds you.

But somewhere deep, deep inside, you maintain your faith and conviction, and the spirit strikes you. You fight back. Hours pass. You grow weary. Hours pass. You fight to stay alert and wait for your luck to change. Hours pass.

It’s now 3:40 in the morning and you need to be up at 8:30. Suddenly several pots are pushed to you. Then a small setback. Then you win more pots. After a string of pots go your way, you win a really big one. Is your recovery complete? You don’t know, because you haven’t had time to count your chips.

“Deal me out one hand,” you tell the table. You need to stack these newly won chips, count them, find out where you stand. Down $135, put 10 of these $5 chips here, down $85 now, put these two $25 chips off to the side, down $35, oops, three more $5 chips under a $20 bill, exactly even, and that leaves these three $1 chips, change from the rake, so up $3! You did it! Your winning streak continues!

Time to go

“Deal me out!” you announce. “It’s getting later than I thought.”

“Don’t you wanna play till your blind?” someone asks. “You’ve got another hand coming.”

You’re tempted, after all, you can just fold everything except aces – even aces if you really want to. But you just wave away the suggestion. “Nah, deal around me.” And within minutes you’re cashed out and on your way home. As you’re leaving, a friend asks you how you did tonight. Your chest puffs out proudly and you say, “I won a tiny bit. Nothing that matters, but that’s 19 winning days in a row.”

Signs of trouble, my friends. Bad signs of trouble. You’re manufacturing that win streak just so you can make yourself feel good about it. But you’re not manufacturing profit. Sure, you think you’re making profit, but really you’re putting your bankroll at risk. You have tallied a lot of wins – a couple when you got off to a fast start and kept on winning, a few short ones when you started fast, but faltered and quit before you found yourself in the negative column, some where you’d come from behind and quit when you got ahead. And, of course, tonight when you’d stuck it out and turned a major loss into a tiny win.

Speaking of tiny wins, that’s exactly the kind you’re likely to have when you strive to extend a winning streak. That’s simply because you’re willing to settle for them. You’ll quit with small wins when you’ve been winning more to keep from dropping below break even. And you’ll gladly cash out with a small win if you’ve been losing and get ahead. However, there is no such thing as a small loss. You won’t accept one. It’s either a win or a big loss. You need to keep that winning streak alive if you can, right?

The wrong time to play

But, all together, this strategy means you’re playing more hours than you should when you were losing, because you’re trying to catch up. And it means you’re playing fewer hours when you’re winning, because you’re eager to cash out and add to your win streak. By manufacturing a win streak, by forcing small wins, you’re also putting yourself in grave danger of manufacturing huge losses – you simply won’t experience them as long as your luck holds and your winning streak is extended.

You see, when you try hard as you can to dig yourself out, you risk digging yourself deeper. It’s like that popular advice, “When you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” I think those words were tailored for poker. Beware! On the few occasions that you won’t be able to experience the glory of cashing out with that $3 profit and puffing up proudly, you’re likely to suffer painful losses and depart pitifully from the poker table, all chance of recovery now hopeless. Maybe chance of recovery tomorrow will be hopeless, too. You will have lost way more than you should have. And I’m not talking about a magic stop-loss or predetermined limit on how much you should risk in a game.

Listen closely. I’m saying something different. I’m saying you lost much more than you should because you played poker in the worst of circumstances. When you’re winning, opponents are usually intimidated by you. They’re less likely to play their best games, less likely to make daring bets and raises with winning hands and extract every penny of profit from you. This means you can make value bets that can push your profits to the limit. Opponents who are intimidated usually keep calling in frustration, but seldom raise with anything but obviously strong hands. In doing so, they neglect to take advantage of all their edges, so you rule the table, and your profit soars.

Conversely, when you’re losing, opponents are inspired. They play better against you specifically. They think, “Hey, there’s someone I can beat. There’s someone who’s unluckier than I am.” And they single you out for money extraction.

So, I don’t like to hear about long manufactured winning streaks, because I know that those invite huge manufactured losses, too. And, in the long run, long winning streaks usually mean that you’ve played most of your time under bad circumstances and limited the time you’ve played under good circumstances. And that isn’t a smooth path to poker profit.  — MC

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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.


3 thoughts on “Strange: Big losses by keeping poker streaks alive”

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  1. Constant Fallacy by Caro – CFC – analysis works well ONLY when you are a full time Cash player.

  2. Mike,

    What about the occasional night doing this to eek out a small profit and what it can do for you psychologically? I agree that it shouldn’t be your goal long-term, but maybe once in awhile?

    1. Hi, Mike —

      Taking a small win, if you’re about to quit anyway — rather than playing a few more hands — seems okay to me if that will provide a psychological boost.

      But you should try to maneuver your mind into understanding that a small win shouldn’t give you a psychological boost. It matters about as much as breaking even or taking a tiny loss or not playing at all, in terms of the overall battle for success.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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