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Are You Winning or Losing? It Doesn’t Matter!

Phil Laak

Phil Laak has an inventive mind, and sometimes he turns it upon the language of poker.

For example, it is Laak who came up with using “felt” as a verb, meaning either to lose all of one’s chips or to take all of another’s chips, so that the loser is left with nothing but the table’s bare felt. “He felted me when he caught his flush card on the river.”

Laak and his buddy Antonio Esfandiari also together coined “POW,” which in poker terms stands for “pay-off wizard” — a derisive term for a player who can’t fold even when he knows, or should know, that he’s beat. It is often used in a self-deprecating way after making a bad call.

My favorite Laakism is one that never really caught on — “hopelatron.” Laak said in an interview way back in 2007:

The best way to describe a hopelatron would be to imagine the Middle Earth soldier guys from Lord of the Rings. Collectively very strong, but from individual to individual very weak. Nonetheless, their strength is that there are so many of them. You are sure to take a beating from a hopelatron from time to time. Even though they can nail you in a hand, they are lifetime losers at poker. It is the hopelatrons that keep the pros in the money. Thank the good lord for each and every one of them. Basically it is a term of affection for all the army of weak players that comprise the poker universe.

And a few days ago, he did it again, as reported on Twitter by his long-time partner, the actress and poker player Jennifer Tilly:

We all know the feeling of being “upstuck,” right? It’s a strange mixture of happiness and regret.

Seeing that tweet gave me occasion to reflect again on how foolish it is to be emotionally invested in being up or down at any given point in a poker session — or even at its end. After all, as we often hear, poker is just “one long game.”

I think we tend to hear that “one long game” expression as a suggestion of an alternative way to think about poker results, when the real and natural way is to think about it day-by-day, session-by-session. But the point of the aphorism is not to present you with a mental trick. Rather, it describes reality, and reminds you that it’s the session-by-session view that is artificial, arbitrary, and should be ignored.

Look, I understand perfectly well why it feels natural to take notice of each session as a separate thing. You get in your car, drive to the casino, buy chips, and start playing poker. Then when you’re done, you cash in your chips and drive home. There’s a clear distinction between the poker time and the non-poker time. The poker starts, and later it stops.

What’s more, you absolutely must keep track of your poker wins, losses, and time spent, so that you know your long-term hourly profit or loss. (You do keep excellent records, right? If not, that is a problem you should fix forthwith.) You can’t wait until the end of your life to tally up all your cumulative wins and losses — it must be done at the end of each session, or you’ll fall behind, lose track, and end up with a spotty, meaningless accounting.

To further ingrain the session illusion, in the United States the income tax code requires gambling accounting to be done by “sessions,” even though the IRS doesn’t provide an exact definition of that word. So I get that we all tend to think of poker in chunks defined by both the calendar and when we start and stop play on any given day. But I think it’s useful to remind ourselves, as often as necessary, that that is, in fact, a completely artificial, illusory way of thinking about poker.

If you have a well-defined long-term average hourly win rate, then it simply makes no difference whether you are up or down at the end of any given session or day. It makes even less sense to be concerned about being up or down in the middle of a session. Such fluctuations are literally just random noise in the inevitably zig-zaggy graph of one’s bankroll over time.

All that matters is your long-term average hourly win rate and how many hours you spend at the tables. Those two numbers multiply together to determine the rate at which your bankroll increases, completely independent of what the results of any one hand, session, day, or week may be.

And it does make a difference how you think about these things. If you focus on whether you’re up or down right now, or how that compares to where you were an hour ago, it is likely to undermine your play. You might be one who, when stuck, starts seeing any two cards as playable. Conversely, you might be one who, when winning, feels like you’re now playing with free money, with somebody else’s money, and therefore it doesn’t matter much if you blow it.

Are You Winning or Losing? It Doesn’t Matter! 101
You're up...

Learn to ignore whether you’re winning or losing, whether you’re up or down at any given moment, and you free yourself from bad decisions that irrationally take that factor into account.

Of course, you do need to be aware of stack sizes; that’s a crucial element in any poker math. It’s also important to keep in mind how other players will perceive you, if they know that you’re either winning or losing right now, so that you can exploit their perceptions about how that status will affect your play. But that kind of awareness is completely different from letting your decisions be influenced by an emotional reaction to the current status of your chip stack in relation to your buy-in.

Are You Winning or Losing? It Doesn’t Matter! 102
…then you're down, but still up...

As Mike Caro (whose poker advice I was praising last week) says in Caro’s Most Profitable Hold’em Advice, “The best psychological way to handle losses is to begin every hand fresh. You’re neither ahead or behind. You are where you are when the next deal begins.”

Make yourself impervious to the pernicious psychological effects of being either up or down by thinking of every hand as a new session. What you bought in for is exactly what you have in front of you. Now your only task is to make the best possible poker decisions for this hand. When that one is finished, you’re starting all over again — a new session, and the chips you have in front of you are your buy-in. You’re exactly even, exactly where you started, because you’re starting right now. All you need to do is make good decisions for this one hand. When that’s over, do it again. And again. And again.

Are You Winning or Losing? It Doesn’t Matter! 103
You're "upstuck"!

Another of Caro’s tips that I like and often use is to think of yourself as being on somebody else’s payroll. You get paid your long-term average win rate — not as long as you’re at the table, but only as long as you’re making good decisions. If you’re making good decisions, you get paid your hourly rate, without regard to results. But when you start making bad decisions, you’re off the clock and not being paid.

Even better is to realize that that’s not just a psychological trick you can use — it’s an accurate reflection of what is actually happening.

So while I enjoy and admire Phil Laak’s clever coining of new poker words, know that his latest one comes with hazardous psychological baggage for most of us. To use the term upstuck is to demonstrate care about the state of one’s chip stack compared to where it was at some point in the recent past — when that is an utterly unimportant, irrelevant, and even potentially dangerous way to be thinking.

There is no up or down. There is only where you are now. And your only job is to make good decisions in the only poker hand that matters, which is this one, right now.

Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the “Poker Grump” blog.

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  • Stop fretting over being up or down in a given session and instead focus on playing each hand as well as you can.

  • Phil Laak's latest poker neologism "upstuck" highlights the dangers of worrying over being up or down in a session.

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