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If You Lose a Few Hands, Don’t Lose Your Mind

If You Lose a Few Hands, Don't Lose Your Mind

Here in the middle of winter and subfreezing temperatures, I found myself thinking back to a beach vacation with family from a while back. Adding to the fun was being able to spend time with my nephew, then just four years old. I remember at the time he hadn’t a ton of beach experience under his tiny belt, but nevertheless adapted pretty readily to the sun-’n’-fun.

One day at the beach he sat next to me carefully digging a hole with his hands while I read a book. Suddenly I realized he had stopped digging and had become upset. Noticing he appeared to be on the verge of tears, I asked him what was wrong.

“Little monsters!” he explained with a pained wince, his lip trembling as he pointed down the hole.

I peered down and saw no small sand crabs or other critters in the hole he’d dug, and quickly did my best to cheer him up. It didn’t take long for him to get over it, though, as soon enough a couple walking by with their dog quickly took his attention away from the hole he’d dug, thus leaving me to contemplate further those imaginary “little monsters” he’d feared.

Digging a hole

Most poker players are familiar with the phenomenon of “digging a hole” for themselves at the poker table. Experienced players get used to starting a session by losing a few hands and not letting the added pressure to get back what they've lost affect how they make decisions going forward. But even the most steady-minded players can sometimes become anxious after losing a few hands early.

Psychologically speaking, it’s completely understandable — and normal — to feel “down” when your chips go down. One of the more curious aspects of poker is how players not only tend to judge their play according to their results (and not by how well they play), but even will judge their results according to what are often arbitrary points of comparison.

Say you’ve just started out playing online. You deposited $100, and after a few days you have won enough to have $150 in your account. Then you sit down at a new game and promptly lose $15 in the first few hands you play.

At that point some players will consider themselves having “dug a hole” of $15 and will start thinking about playing long enough at least to get back that $15 and “get even.” But with the $15 loss you are still $35 ahead overall. In theory, that should be enough to temper that pressing feeling you might experience when wanting to get back the money you’ve lost early in a session. But it’s hard sometimes not to think differently.

The foolish desire to “get even”

Most who have written about the mental aspect of poker have addressed this problem of digging a hole for yourself and responding by wanting to get even. Writing in his book The Psychology of Poker a few years ago, Alan N. Schoonmaker listed this problem as one of the “deadly sins” most players — even the best ones — tend to share.

“The dumbest words in poker are, ‘I’ve got to get even,’ and most of us say them occasionally,” writes Schoonmaker. “Worse yet, we take foolish risks, which often put us deeper in the hole, making us more desperate and more foolish.”

Schoonmaker is referring to a player who after losing will decide to play hands he or she normally wouldn’t, or perhaps play more loosely or aggressively than normal, all in an effort to get back those losses. Even worse, sometimes players who are losing start to believe they are somehow doomed to lose — as if there’s nothing they can do to make things better. As Schoonmaker says, such players might think “perhaps the poker gods just don’t like us today.”

It’s a little like my nephew who dug himself a hole in the sand, then started fearing “little monsters” afterwards climbing up out of the hole to do him harm. Obviously his imagination built up the threat to be much more than it really was. So, too, does a player who starts out a session losing often begin to experience all sorts of emotions — including self-doubt — that can make things more difficult when it comes to playing well going forward.

Sometimes a slow start isn’t so bad

The late Barry Tanenbaum wrote a lot of strategy columns and one terrific book geared toward experienced fixed-limit hold’em players called Advanced Limit Hold’em Strategy. A lot of his ideas were useful to new players, too, including one he had regarding a strategy for managing one’s emotions at the beginning of a new session.

Tanenbaum used to recommend players keep in mind a particular phrase whenever beginning a new session — “Always Start Slowly.”

Like many authors and coaches, he advocated not posting the big blind right away when sitting down at a new table, but instead waiting for the big blind to come around and using those hands to observe other players and perhaps pick up some early information about their playing styles. Waiting allows you to get comfortable with your surroundings, too, before that first hand arrives.

Once you are dealt that first hand, Tanenbaum then suggested adopting a more conservative strategy at the start, not necessarily just folding every hand but rather avoiding marginal situations or taking big risks early on. Winning a hand early — perhaps even the first one you play — not only helps your own mindset going forward, but as Tanenbaum explained also helps create a “winning image” for you in the minds of your opponents.

I always liked Tanenbaum’s advice, partly because I know whenever I sit down to play I’m often so eager to get involved I tend to be a little too loose at the beginning. Thus the advice to “Always Start Slowly” helps me remember not to take unnecessary risks early on, thus chancing digging myself a hole which will then present me another emotional challenge going forward.

Focus on keeping an even keel, not getting even

If you’re the kind of player who is susceptible to worrying about “little monsters” or other threats once you’ve dug a hole early, you might consider Tanenbaum’s tactic of starting your session with a little more caution. Of course, doing so won’t guarantee you’ll avoid starting out losing a few chips, but when that happens — and as sure as the tides, it will happen — try not to become too affected.

In fact, if you can be like my nephew and find something else to focus on — like that dog passing by or, say, playing the next hand as carefully as you can — you’ll no doubt be better off.

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