Playing poker for a living is definitely an occupation that requires substantial mental toughness. Sometimes it feels like everything that could possibly go wrong is going wrong. Out of nowhere all of your bluffs are getting called, your big hands are running into bigger hands and none of your drawing hands are getting there. You see good hand after good hand get squashed and you think to yourself, "What happened to my money? If only this had gone differently and I hadn't done that."
I can tell you from 7 years of experience (both my own and from watching other people) that the natural reaction is to go completely nuts. Your heart tells you "Get in there! You better win this pot now! You can't wait for the next hand you have to win this one!" Some players listen and play every hand as aggressively as possible and take wild chances in a desperate effort to get that money back. Others manage to ignore their heart and listen to their brain which is telling them "Stay calm. Wait for a good hand. It wasn't that much money. IT'S OK! DON'T PLAY THAT HAND YOU IDIOT! FOLD! FOLD! FOLD!"
Hanging on to your composure when you start losing pot after pot is like charging into the ocean trying to make it to a boat. If the waves are small and spaced out you can make it, but if they are huge and come one after another then even the strongest person will be repelled.
Similarly, losing a few pots close together isn't hard to handle if they are small and losing a big pot here and there is ok too. It's just part of the game. But if you lose several big pots in quick succession wiping out days worth of profit it's almost impossible to stay totally calm and think rationally.
The trick is being able to let that emotional response pass and get back to playing your best as quickly as possible. It might take 5 minutes or 5 hours or 5 days depending on the amount of money involved and the way things went down. Part of being a pro is getting back on track right away.
Lately I've been trying to focus on having the mental toughness to bounce back as quickly as possible. Luckily for me no matter what happens or how upset I am, my absolute worst is still pretty good. While I'm not sure how good my "A game" is, I'll take my "F game" against almost anyone's.
Unfortunately I had the chance to work on my mental toughness today under extreme circumstances. I was in 6 NL cash games and I lost all of my chips in 4 of them in the span of about 3 minutes. First I lost $200 when I made a straight on the turn at the same time that another player made a flush. He made a huge bet and I decided that there was about a 45% chance he had a flush and a 55% chance that he didn't. I was wrong and lost. Just after, I picked up QQ and lost $200 to a player with AA. Then I lost $100 with AQ to QJ when the flop came down Q J 5 and I didn't improve.
At this point I was not happy. Not only did I just blow through $500 in no time at all, if I was playing really great I probably could have saved some of that money. Of course they were all tough spots and I certainly didn't make any big mistakes, but it wasn't like there was no way I could have gotten away from those hands and I was doubting my decisions.
Maybe 45 seconds later I picked up JJ and I thought to myself "Pleeeease make this one easy on me." Someone open raised the minimum (to $8), another player called, I made it $24 and they both called. The flop came down J 7 3 with 2 hearts. Ah Ha! I bet $40 and one of the other players moved all in. Not only did I have the best possible hand, but no matter what my opponent had I was at least 75% to win and most likely they were either a 10 to 1 underdog or drawing dead. I guessed I was up against a flush draw or an over pair so when the turn came an 8 and the river came a 9 I was sure I'd won. For a fraction of a second I considered that they might have pocket tens, but then I realized that made no sense. When my opponent turned over A 10 of hearts and took the pot it felt like I'd been punched in the chest. Another $400 pot headed the wrong way.
That money isn't that important and I've lost literally thousands of $400 pots in my lifetime, but man, losing that pot right after those other three really hit me hard.
Then I thought "This is actually great, because it gives me a chance to work on my mental toughness!" If you believe that I have some magic beans I can sell you for only 11 easy payments of $49.95.
Happily, I did manage to have a total luck 180 right away. While the turn and river were coming out in the hand with the jacks I got dealt AK on another table. I raised, flopped an ace and some doofus with 89 which was no pair, no draw, decided to blow all in and I doubled up. Over the next 300 hands or so I managed to pick up 5 or 6 medium pots and finally one more big one (along with the standard compliment of little ones). After the big one I saw I'd recovered $685 of the $700 I blew through. At that point I promptly called it a day feeling like I'd been battered by enough waves for one day.
I'm still on target for my May goals. I've played 33,000 of my 60,000 hands for the month and I'm only slightly off the pace of playing 30,000 hands in the 10 days of the pokerstars double FPP promotion. I've had 9 winning days and 5 losing days so far, but my biggest losing day was under $300 and I've had three winning days in the plus $1,000 range.
There's never a bad time for a good streak, but since I'm going to need an extra $2,500 or so for my trip to the WSOP and Jen is going to be too pregnant to work right around the corner this has been good timing.
Almost 1,000 posts since 2006 about poker including, tournaments, cash games, anecdotes, the overuse of exclamation points, and run on sentences from a retired poker pro who lives and plays in the Bay Area and is currently preparing for the 2023 WSOP.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Mental Toughness Required
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