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Winning, Losing, and Keeping Score in Poker

Winning, Losing, and Keeping Score in Poker
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  • Ashley Adams looks at the many different ways people answer the question "Are you a winner at poker?"

  • No matter what your goals are in poker, keeping accurate records helps when tracking your progress.

The new year is well underway. It's time to look to the future, set goals, and make resolutions. It's also a time to reflect, take stock, look back, and see how we did. Regarding those two reasonable tasks, I'd like to ask you a question to start things off.

Are you a winner at poker? Seems simple enough.

You may want to define your terms before you answer. What does it mean to be a winner? If you win one hand of poker during the year, does that make you a winner? Do you need to show a profit for the year?

What if you're a tournament player and you won $1 million in the World Series of Poker Main Event in 2016 but did not finish in the money in the three $10,000 tournaments you played in 2017? Would you be a winner?

What if you won a $100,000 buy-in tournament and scored for $12 million, but lost $20 million playing $50,000 hands of blackjack and now owe everyone to cover your gambling losses? Would you still be a winner?

Figure out a definition that works for you. Then try to answer the question: "Are you a winner at poker?"

Think about this if you want.

I know a guy who plays in a weekly game. He plays against a group of 15 or so regular players. About 12 of them show up each week to play in a tournament series. Those who finish on top get points that are added together at the end of the year to determine who the best player is among them. He just finished the year with the most points.

He also plays bigger tournaments at a nearby casino, and goes to Las Vegas during the WSOP to play in some of those events. After winning the annual series against his peers and finishing in the money in a few tournaments, he added up all that he won and subtracted all that he spent to find he had finished down a few thousand dollars.

Would you rate him a winner or a loser?

I knew another retired guy who played poker. He played once or twice a week for 25 years at a nearby poker room, never keeping track of his poker wins and losses. It was his form of recreation — a place to make friends, relax, and keep his brain engaged.

He and his doctors estimated that playing poker allowed him to stay sharp for years longer than he would have had he not had a brain-engaging hobby. He really had no idea of whether he was ahead or behind over the 25 years he played poker. It made not a whit of difference to him, as he had plenty of money in his retirement. The stakes he played were minuscule compared to his wealth.

Was he a winner?

Here is how I approach trying to answer the question. Maybe it will work for you, maybe it won't.

First of all, I realize that being a winner at poker is not the same as being a winner in general. You can be a "winner" without being good at playing poker. You might be a great person, a great parent, a great spouse, a great citizen, or great at your job but lose money when you play poker. (You can also be a poker winner and a jerk, though that's a column for another day.)

But if you're going to define whether you're a winner at poker, you need to keep score. Tracking your wins and losses is how you do that.

Similarly, it is helpful to use some period of time when measuring your wins and losses. For me it's a year. I look to see if I am ahead each year, and by how much. You can set the goal posts wherever you like. There's no rule. Mine correspond to the tax year, as I pay taxes on my winnings for the year. But you can keep a running tally if you want, or look at periods shorter than a year.

If you use one year as your measuring period, be clear with yourself — and honest, of course (otherwise, what's the point?). If at the end of the year you have won more than you lost, then you were a winner at poker. If you lost more than you won, then you were a loser.

Include both your tournament results and your cash games. Don't include any other gambling. In other words, if you had a huge score on a football game, you don't include that in your calculations for the year.

Don't offset your losses by counting your comps, and don't deduct the cost of driving or the meals you ate. If you lost $5,000 at the poker table after adding up all your wins and subtracting all your losses, but "earned" $6,000 in comps, then you are still a $5,000 loser who got some nice bennies for being a frequent player.

You also don't subtract out the rake or time charge you paid. That means you might beat your opponents, but not beat the game.

You do include any money from high hands, bad beat jackpots or any other game-related promotions that you won playing poker. You do that because you paid into a pool, from your winnings, from which you may also win. So if, at the end of the year you add up all of your sessions and you won $7,000 more than you lost, and in one of those winning sessions part of your winnings was a $500 bonus for having the high hand one hour, then you were still a $7,000 winner for the year.

If you lost money but felt really good about your play and your hobby, then you were a loser who felt good. That's it. It's fairly simple and easy to figure out.

Of course, even after asking yourself all of these questions to assess whether or not you are a winning poker player, there's a bigger question you might ask yourself as well. How important is it to you to know whether you won or lost at the poker table last year?

If you pay taxes on your poker winnings, then it's a critical question. If you are a professional poker player, and your profit determines your lifestyle, then it's necessary to know. If you're thinking about moving up to a bigger game and want to first see that you can beat the current level you're in, then it's essential, too.

But there are reasons why your losses may not matter much to you. Maybe you regard your losses as the cost your graduate education at the table — money you're willing to pay as you learn the game. (But don't you want to know what that poker graduate school is costing you?)

Maybe you play just to have fun, and so the losses were just the cost of your entertainment. (But don't you want to know how much you're paying for that "entertainment"?)

Maybe you were working on your game, moving up, figuring things out, and ended the year only slightly to the bad after starting out way in the hole. You might see your year as a work in progress. (But even then, don't you want to know how much it's costing you to work on your game?)

All of these are completely legitimate conclusions.

The key for me is to set goals each year, and then see how I did for the year in reaching those goals. I keep score by accurately recording my wins and losses because for me, having a winning year is always one of those goals. So, too, might be learning a new game, playing more tournaments, playing poker in a few more countries, or moving up in stakes.

But whatever those goals are, I've found that keeping accurate records is a key ingredient in determining how well I achieved those goals.

Ashley Adams has been playing poker for 50 years and writing about it since 2000. He is the author of hundreds of articles and two books, Winning 7-Card Stud (Kensington 2003) and Winning No-Limit Hold'em (Lighthouse 2012). He is also the host of poker radio show House of Cards. See www.houseofcardsradio.com for broadcast times, stations, and podcasts.

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