Three Common Poker Ideas to Banish From Your Mind
Do you want to make more money at poker? If you do, you’ll have to change how you think about the game. Why? Because everything else flows from that. Your strategic and tactical decisions all arise from your thought processes. If your thoughts are contaminated with wrong ideas, bad decisions will result.
Out of the countless ones we could discuss, let’s arbitrarily pick three false ideas common among poker players that you should immediately banish from your brain.
1. “I’m on a losing (or winning) streak.”
Nobody has ever explained what is wrong with this line of thought better than Tommy Angelo, in his book Elements of Poker:
All of my good streaks and all of my bad streaks of every length and depth have had one thing in common. They did not exist in your mind. They only existed in my mind. And this is true for everyone’s winning and losing streaks. None of them actually exist. They are all mental fabrications, like past and future. Everything that ever happens happens in the present tense. But how can you have a “streak” in the present tense? You can’t. And therefore, if you are in the present tense, which, in fact, at this time, you are, then at this moment there is no streak in your life. There is no inherent existence to streaks. The streak is there when you think about it, and when you stop thinking about it, it goes away. It blossoms and withers, all in your mind. And when your mind invents a streak, you believe it exists, because you believe what your mind tells you. But the truth is there is only the hand you are playing.
On first reading, this may strike you as new-age psychobabble. But it’s true — profoundly true.
If you can’t quite wrap your mind around the concept of streaks not existing, maybe you can do the next-best thing, which is to realize that all streaks end. If you feel that you’re on a losing streak, it has to end sometime, so why not today?
Refuse to be fatalistic and assume that you’re going to lose again. If that’s your attitude, you’re better off not playing at all until you can bring a positive mindset to the game.
Conversely, if you’re feeling that you can’t lose because you’re on a winning streak, think of Larry David and “curb your enthusiasm.” That streak could end at any time — and it’s more likely to end today if your feeling of invulnerability causes you to play recklessly.
2. “I’ve got to keep playing until I’m back to even.”
This thought might be responsible for more damage to poker bankrolls than any other. Purge it from your mind!
Playing poker involves losing sometimes, and there is nothing that you or any other poker player can do to change that truth. Moreover, you don’t get to choose on which days you’ll emerge a winner and on which you’ll take a loss.
Of course, that is not to say that winning or losing is pure luck and utterly beyond your control. But the control you have over it is far from absolute, and it is exercised in much smaller units than “win today” versus “lose today.”
All of the control you have comes from a myriad of small decisions. These start with the choice whether to play at all, given how you’re thinking and feeling, then picking what game and stakes to play and which table to sit down at. After that your control is limited to how best to play each hand and when to stop playing.
Sometimes the sum of all those decisions — even if all are made correctly — is that you chalk up a loss for the day. Deal with it. Shrug it off. Don’t let a small, manageable loss turn into a big, unmanageable one by continuing to play when you’re off your game, when opponents are stronger than usual, or when the cards just aren’t falling your way.
There’s a technical term for poker players who keep rebuying in an ever-more frantic effort to get back to even: losers.
3. “I never win with pocket aces.”
You can substitute into that thought pocket kings, queens, jacks, ace-king, and other premium hold’em starting hands. The thought is equally false with all of them.
If you really believed, deep in your bones, that you always lose with these hands, then the only rational response would be to fold them preflop. But you don’t. Why? Because you know that it’s not true that they always lose.
There’s no mystery as to why you hear so many poker players say such palpably false things. It’s because the memory of the pain associated with losing with aces (or whatever) is more vivid than the memory of the pleasure of winning with them.
Our brains are evolutionarily hard-wired to remember pain more forcefully than pleasure. Experimental psychologists have found that we tend to experience about twice as much pain from losing some amount of money as we experience pleasure from winning the same amount. That mismatch sows evil, counterproductive seeds in your mind.
When is pitted against five random hands, it wins only about 49% of the time; in other words, it loses more often than it wins. Does that make it a bad hand to play? Hell no! If you run that scenario 100 times, you will, on average, take half of the money put into all of the pots, while having contributed only one-sixth of it. That’s $3 of pot for every $1 you put in. That’s not just a bargain — it’s like printing money.
Of course, you don’t get to choose which hands you’ll win and which you’ll lose. All you can do is play each hand the best that you can.
With the “top ten” hands, that means being aggressive enough to get maximum value from them, while still being able to get away from them when the evidence is telling you that you’re beat. If you can do that, playing these premium hands is one of the most reliable ways that you’ll make money during the hours that you’re playing.
Welcome the aces. If seeing them brings to mind a painful memory of the last time you lost a big pot while holding them, banish it! Such thoughts not only do you no good, but they actively interfere with playing this hand correctly right now. And that is your one and only task as a poker player.
The philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” It’s true in microcosm, too — our poker game is what our thoughts make it. Every false thought that you banish from your mind is one that can no longer sway you to make a bad decision.
If you find any of these thoughts taking center stage in your mind, send them away; refuse to grant them your attention. Better decisions will follow, and that translates directly into more money in your pocket.
Photos (lower): “Portrait of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Roman artwork),” Jean-Pol Grandmont, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported; “Pocket aces,” Eliya Selhub, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.
Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the “Poker Grump” blog.