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Pro Blogs: Know When to Hold'em by Alec Torelli

Pro Blogs: Know When to Hold'em by Alec Torelli 0001

Alec Torelli's latest blog focuses on long poker sessions and knowing when to get up.

A Personal Story: The Never Ending Session

It was Sunday afternoon when I finally quit. Sixty-eight hours ago, when I started playing, I never dreamed that I could win more than a thousand dollars in a single session. I also never thought it was possible to feel that tired — exhausted to the point of delusion. I simply could not continue. When I walked out of the poker room, I looked back at the table. They were still playing.

What I was attempting is impossible. I had tried to beat a game that cannot be beaten. I learned something that day.

You can win money at poker, but you can't beat poker.

Winning means to leave with more money than you started with. Beating the game implies that you are going to somehow outlast it.

Where poker differs from a video game is that there is no ending, no conclusion. It is constant, eternal. The next morning, when I went back, there were new faces, but the game was still there.

The Problem: Knowing When to Quit

Is it when you're up, down, or tired, that the game breaks, or when the fish leaves, or never? Depending on the circumstances, the answer can be any of the above. Tommy Angelo, author of the excellent book The Element of Poker, says it best: "Walking away is easy. The hard part is standing up."

The Reason: We Love to Gamble and Hate to Lose

Nearly every time I quit, I still want to keep playing. Let's face it, we love to gamble. The reason quitting is so tough is because we have to accept that you cannot do it anymore. This is particularly difficult while losing, because it means accepting the loss, or worse, defeat. The ego is damaged and will do anything to avoid the temporary pain, even if it costs us more money.

Pro Blogs: Know When to Hold'em by Alec Torelli 101

The Options

When Winning

I often quit when I'm winning, but sometimes I quit specifically because I am. If the money I am risking is more than what I want to lose, I'll rack up. If a sudden loss significantly affects my mood, and possibly even forces me to play bad tomorrow, I will call it a night. In my article, How to Get Over Massive Losses, I talk about "Win Cap," which is opposite of a stop loss. It's a preset limit which, if hit, means it's time to quit.

When Losing

This is the one we struggle with the most. The urge to get unstuck, particularly in a juicy game, can keep us there for hours, even days. Unfortunately, this is also where the wheels come off and we dig ourselves into a deep hole.
Our stop loss should constantly be adjusted to whatever amount we can lose without caring about the money.
Once we pass this threshold, derailing begins. Let's assume we know that point to be exactly when we are stuck three buy-ins. In a $10/$20 no-limit game, where the buy in is $5,000, we would be stuck at least $15,000.

Stop Loss

In this scenario, the case for quitting solely because we are losing deserves more credence than when we are ahead. After we pass our threshold for pain, it becomes hard to discern whether the loss is from poor play or bad luck. More specifically, it becomes difficult to be disciplined enough to play well in the small pots. And if we're not careful, they can add up quick.

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It doesn't stop there. Sometimes, when I'm buried, I go into autopilot and my play becomes very predictable. I often tell myself, "Okay it's time to play tight so I don't lose more." While in this state, it's not that I'm necessarily misplaying my big hands, but I am passing on profitable opportunities to steal pots, and exchanging aggression for passivity due of fear.

Remember, our win rate doesn't only come on our edge rate versus fish, but in the difference between our expectation against other regulars. The bigger we play, the smaller the margins are. Only a slight deviation from our A-game can be the difference in a winner or loser.

Becoming Jaded

My hypothesis is simple — losing leads to worse play. Worse play costs us money. Thus, losing is the often the most important time to enforce strict discipline.

Skeptics, consider this: It may not make us play worse, but is it safe to say it doesn't make us play better?
Another reason for quitting while losing is when our perception of money is such that we force the action to get unstuck. The small pots begin to lose significance and those simple mistakes (whether or not to continuation bet, for example) are going to cost tons of money. In the big pots, we become more likely to gamble in a marginal situation. The moment we feel it, it's time rack it up. To illustrate why, let's explore the two possible outcomes of this scenario:

  • Outcome 1: I take a bad gamble and win! Now, instead of being stuck $15,000, I've reduced the loss to $10,000. I'm slightly happier than being stuck $15,000, but am still having a bad day. I'm unlikely to completely return to my A-game (once it's gone, it rarely comes back), although the win will calm me down enough to cruise at my B-game, a significant increase from the C-game I was playing earlier.

Whether I play long enough to recover on the day, is neither here nor there. We should view our entire poker career as one session and evaluate each decision to quit independently.

  • Outcome 2: We gamble and lose. Now we're stuck $20,000 and we completely derail.
    If we rebuy, it's going to be bad. We know we should stop immediately after busting, but that only happens if we are practicing good discipline, which we aren't. Stuck $20,000, how can we focus on whether or not to call a $60 raise preflop. We bleed off chips for 20 minutes, trying to get it back before we calm down enough to quit. Now we're stuck $21,700, nearly another 100 big blinds. In that moment it seems easy to do. The worst part, what we would normal consider a good day's work (80 big blinds), has just been lost in the span of a few orbits. Brutal.

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Time to run the numbers. Let's say the professional plays 250 sessions per year. He expects to lose three buy-ins only a fraction of the time, perhaps 30 of those sessions. Of those times, he loses an average of $1,000 (50 BBs) that he wouldn't have lost had he quit earlier.

At the end of the year, that's $30,000. In a nice high rise condo in Las Vegas, that's his rent for the entire year.
Remember, not losing is the same as winning.

For all my blogs and content, visit 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

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*Lead photo, "Invalides de Guerre (1920)" by Otto Dix

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