For his latest blog, poker pro Alec Torelli discusses how to get over massive losses.
This is a two-part series on recovering from downswings, shifting perspective, maintaining a positive outlook and general happiness. It is in response to “Saxophone,” on TwoPlusTwo, who is struggling to recover from losing a $500,000 bankroll.
Preface: A Personal Story
Walking through the Bellagio, I see a large crowd gathering around a bunch of screaming people. I stop to see the cause of the commotion. “What’s going on?” I ask a man huddled at the back.
“Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are playing blackjack.” I nudge my way to the front. The group erupts, hands flailing into the air. In the process, a drunk man nearly spills his beer on my head. They must have won a fortune.
When their hands came into view the first thing I noticed wasn’t their bets, but Kevin’s watch. Massive, embedded with diamonds, it shined, even on the dimly lit casino floor. My eyes followed his wrist down his hand and then his fingers. It can’t be. I squinted to make sure, but the two neatly stacked red chips were unmistakable. They were betting $10 per hand.
The Reason: Stimulation
Even though they were barely playing, the excitement created a lot of fuss. On the other hand, a high stakes poker player with a fraction of the net worth can win three zeros more then them without flinching. How is this possible? When we gamble our minds develop a tolerance to the stimulation, no different than the alcoholic who can put back 10 shots. Excessive becomes normal.
There’s only so much fluctuation we can handle before the money becomes real. Once we pass this threshold, emotions return.
When we win, joy and euphoria. When we lose, pain and panic. The losses are always worse than the wins. They are so detrimental to our state of being that I refer to the tipping point for pain as the pain threshold (PT). PTs vary depending on frequency of play. For two athletes who rarely risk money, the least amount of volatility is exciting.
The Problem: Compulsion
If one chooses to gamble, crossing the PT is unavoidable. It can be avoided by implementing stop losses before they are reached or taking breaks after significant losing streaks. Nevertheless, while these tips are good in practice, they don’t always work.
First we have to cross them to know where they are. And also a big game with a lucrative spot is often too irresistible for even the most conservative poker player to turn down. Let’s face it, we like to gamble. The real problem, then, is how do we recover when the inevitable happens?
The Physical Solution: Taking Action
The life of a poker player desensitizes one to money. Personally, this is a constant battle because I'm nowhere near rich enough to justify such an indifferent mindset. The biggest hand I’ve lost is $475,000. The biggest downswing I’ve had is $1,000,000. Following both, I experienced a sense of loss, despair and a void, similar to the pain of a bittersweet breakup. In my experience the best way to recover from such a traumatic experience is to compartmentalize the two distant realities: poker and life.
I know that my PT is the most I can lose without losing perspective. Win cap (WC), is the opposite. When either of these lines are crossed, I take a day off to do something explorative, creative, and new. Something as simple as trying a different restaurant, walking through a unseen part of town, or exercising can make the difference between a successful reset or a stressful morning.
For further therapy, I make a small reward or recovery purchase. This reinforces the truth that the money I make in the poker world has value in the real world and motivates me to play better.
Sometimes I don’t have the liberty of a day off. A lucrative cash game compels me to grind, or even more imminent, I cross my PT during a session and want to continue playing. The quickest way to refocus is a bit disturbing, even blasphemous, but it works. I rip up money.
That’s right. I walk away from the table, take out a $1 bill, tear it to pieces and throw it away. If you just cringed, that’s good. It’s intended to be painful and remind us that our distress is not because of the money, but that the brain is addicted to the stimulation.
In order to recreate this spark, we need more fuel and higher levels of fluctuation. This petty $1 sacrifice saves thousands at the table.
Lastly, we must remember the thing that trumps all — happiness. When debating whether or not to play poker, we shouldn’t make our decisions based on EV (expected value) in dollars, but on how it will affect us mentally, hEV (happiness expected value).
Physical recovery is important in the short term: losing sessions and bad days. But in the long term, for losing months and busted bankrolls, a mental shift is required.
For all my blogs and content, visit www.alectorelli.com. Your feedback is important to me. Feel free to share your thoughts, ask me questions or leave a comment. Follow me on Twitter at @AlecTorelli. For other matters you can email me at email@example.com.
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*Lead image by Paolo Rivera