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The Pain of a Poker Tournament Exit

The Pain of a Poker Tournament Exit

Do you rip cards when you lose an 80/20 to exit a big tournament? Do you feel a burning in your eyes when you bubble a final table? Let me suggest a balm for your tournament exit pain.

Many argue that we should gradually exercise an unaffected state, by force of will and practice. That yes, being knocked out hurts, bad beats hurt, but we can build up mental calluses to help us feel a little less the brunt of these mental assaults.

So under this scheme we are to present an image of placidity, suppressing instincts to become angry, frustrated, despondent or otherwise affected, as they bubble up inside. You train yourself to have little to no reaction — about something that really matters to you — and somehow by osmosis this reduces the duration and intensity of your tilt.

This approach is essentially an exercise in cognitive dissonance and I think criticism of it is essentially right.

Why Do Tournaments Hurt?

Tommy Angelo once wrote that in tournaments, “the pain equation is way out of whack.” Dara O’Kearney, long-established MTT beast, cogently argues that blowing off some steam after busting from a tournament is fine. Since you aren’t actually playing poker, he explains, being in an angry or frustrated state is of zero consequence to your bottom line.


I hate to critique two towering and thoughtful poker minds in one go, but I think there is an underlying premise to both of these positions that I can’t buy into. And I am pretty confident you probably more or less agree with it.

The premise is this — what happens in poker tournaments matters.

First, let’s imagine the goal of the stoic approach, namely, to appear unaffected by the bad fortune that has befallen you. What if you didn’t perceive it as bad fortune in the first place? What if it was simply meaningless noise, that a player of some skill level relative to you hit a flush draw to knock you out? Or that the worst hand won three times in a row on some bubble? What if it was all just sound and fury, signifying nothing?

What if your instincts, your beliefs, your actions all worked in a harmony, a harmony that didn’t perceive any reason to be frustrated?

Here is a different question — are you tilted by the manner in which the clouds arrange themselves in the sky? Why not? Because you never think about it like that. Or you never think of the clouds at all. You don’t look at the clouds and think, “Man, that is a particularly tilting arrangement. Look at all those friggin’ cumulus donktards!”

What is different about the particulars of whatever random outcome befell you in a poker tournament? Because you imagined some alternate future? That was your first mistake — getting ahead of yourself. Particularly if you consider yourself a professional or aspiring one.

And you don’t actually believe the hype that some tournaments are prestigious do you? Or a championship of some game or region or year or season? You’re not a sucker, after all.

Endgame: Happiness

Angelo talks about the goal of a poker player being to stay in action, doing what he or she enjoys, playing cards. And he talks a lot about happiness — that is, about happiness being the endgame for any aspiring gambler.

I agree that we should aspire for happiness. And therefore, our happiness should not hinge in any way on meaningless outcomes.

One measure of winning, then, is the distance between your moods (1) when you took a big shot the day before and won the tournament, and (2) when you took a big shot the day before and received nothing for it, perhaps in some particularly unlikely sequence of calamity. The smaller this difference in moods between (1) and (2), the more you are winning.

This past autumn I took a shot in a tournament and played the World Championship of Online Poker Main Event on PokerStars, a tournament with a $5,200 buy-in. I had the great majority of my own action — perhaps inadvisable both because of the percentage of my bankroll this represented and because I was (probably) slightly negative expectation in the tournament.

I played nine hours and didn’t cash. Afterwards I was tired, went to bed, and was quickly fast asleep.

A few hours after I had woken up the next day, I was walking home from breakfast. I remembered that, oh yeah, I had played poker the day before.

Now this is just my opinion, but this is what winning looks like and feels like. And the essential ingredient to experiencing it is realizing that, when you got involved in poker tournaments for the first time, in your unbridled, understandable enthusiasm, you fell under that collective delusion to which our brains are vulnerable, an error in perception, a mistaken perspective, that what happens during the play of a poker tournament matters whatsoever in life.

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  • Tommy Angelo once wrote "the pain equation is way out of whack" in tournaments. How do you handle it?

  • We should aspire for happiness in poker. And our happiness should not hinge on meaningless outcomes.

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