I made the greatest mistake anyone has ever made in a high/low declare stud game. Little children learning this game for the first time don't make this error. Old people, infirmed from Alzheimer's disease, with the few remaining intact synapses are keen enough to avoid this mistake.
But I made it. Boldly, obliviously, obviously – blatantly.
With an ace-high flush and no cards other than the ace below an eight, I declared low! I meant to go high. I thought high thoughts. And then, inexplicably, I grabbed no chips in my hand and released no chips on the table during the declare.
I realized my blunder just as I saw no chip dropping to the table from my hand. "Oh wow. I meant to go high – I have a flush. You win it all," I said, concluding any discussion about the hand. I half hoped he'd give me half the pot, but realized that with my obvious error I had no claim on even a penny. He correctly took no pity and scooped the pot.
The pot was huge. Though this was a friendly, longstanding, relatively small-stakes game with a $1-5 betting limit, the pot had been engineered by me to mammoth size – about $140. Though the loss didn't affect me financially it really bugged me. Here I was, the "pro", looking absolutely moronic with such a baby blunder. What to do?
Fortunately, I don't make a habit of mistakes like this. My normal game is very attentive and clear. Amidst the literal haze of smoke (of legal and illegal origins) and figurative cloud of alcohol that surrounds the game, I've always managed to be clear-headed and focused. But this was really setting me off.
Does this ever happen to you?
It could easily have been a miserable three more hours – shaken up and upset, I could have gone on tilt, betting and raising aggressively and thoughtlessly, or calling and checking mindlessly. As it was I managed to minimize the damage, though I couldn't shake the feeling of embarrassment and humiliation.
Were I in a casino I would have walked away. That's my typical antidote for experiences that tend to put me on tilt. I just go and grab something to eat or drink – away from the table – until the anxiety subsides. But being as I was in a small basement room in someone else's house, I didn't have that luxury. No, if I wanted to resurrect my game and save face and dollars I'd have to do it there, in full view, while playing.
Here's what I did. I'm no superman; I knew that it would take me a while to calm down. I didn't want to draw attention to my self-disgust. So I continued to play. But I set a limit. I made a mental note to allow myself two hands to calm down – two hands to play inattentively — two hands for the other players to forget my mistake and resume their normally relaxed soft game. I put my game on autopilot for just that long. I then took a bathroom break. I paused an extra minute or two before returning. I sat down. I was still steaming. In spite of my break I was still cursing myself for my earlier stupidity.
This may all seem like an overreaction for a mistake. No matter. It was real for me. I thought about leaving. But it was only 9:45 – two hours and fifteen minutes before the game normally breaks. It was too early.
I tried concentrating on the cards at hand. OK, this is hold'em, I thought. I have 9-3. "Fold," I said. I tried concentrating on the other players. Still, the loss of the large pot kept creeping in. If I had declared correctly I'd be up $50 instead of down, I thought. How could I have been so stupid? My mistake kept grinding on me.
Finally, I did something I rarely do. I spied some Bacardi rum on a shelf. I poured myself about two fingers of it. I sat back down and sipped the rum. This is great stuff, I thought. I looked at my next hand, in Omaha. 4-5-9-T. "I fold" I said. The hand continued. I sipped some more. No wonder people drink, I thought. This is great. I sipped some more.
It was my turn to deal. "Stud high-low declare," I said. I watched the up cards as I dealt them off the deck. . I dealt myself the . I looked down and saw J-3. I folded when the action came to me.
The combination of the break, the concentration on the hands in play, and admittedly the mild intoxicant of a few sips of rum did the trick. By the time the next player dealt I was no longer ill at ease and no longer thinking about my embarrassing error. My head was in the game. I was back.
I'd like to conclude the story by saying that in the final two hours I came roaring back and managed to win a few hundred. Not so. I ended the session down $90 – a fairly large loss for me. But it was the result of bad cards and bad circumstances, not bad play. I didn't steam or tilt. I managed to play the rest of the night without error, at least without any that I noticed. I returned to my selectively aggressive form, and saved myself a lot of money because of correct reads on other players, managing to resist the temptation to toss in a few more dollars when I knew I was beaten. I'm not saying that other players might not have done better with my cards. But I'm sure I played up to potential the rest of the night.
The lessons for me are clear. Recovery takes time, even for thoughtful, good players. Recovery takes intent. And for me, a little strong alcohol helps settle me down, absent enough time to do the trick. Most important, recovery takes a willingness to recognize a dangerous situation and one's own imperfections. Without that knowledge I could have easily busted through two or three hundred dollars with wild, thoughtless, and emotional play.
Good poker players aren't perfect; we all are capable of even the most ridiculous and embarrassing mistakes. But we are able to recover by force of will and action.