Handling the Swings

I decided when I started writing this journal that I would only write in this section when I was losing, not having just lost, but on a skid. A skid as it’s used here is a run of losses that ends up seriously crippling your proceeds for the month or actually has you down, either financially, spiritually or mentally.

            Even though I think grinding is protected from short-term luck, I think it requires definition. I saw Annie Duke comment on short-term luck on TV once, and she said there is no long-term luck, only short term. I have great respect for Annie Duke, specifically her Omaha 8 play, and her opinions about poker, but I think, and actually have researched, the incompleteness of this idea.

            Anyone who has played in a tournament knows the effects of short-term luck. You play solid and smart, survive most of the field, get to the final table and the chip leader is playing like a chipleader: bullying, opening a lot of pots. And maybe he calls you with a half-way decent hand (again this is another notion of Schizophrenia, where the typical chip leader starts bullying with junk, then sees KJ or Q10 suited and thinks he has the mortal nuts. He hasn’t made the adjustment he should have. He starts playing off the power of his stack, forgets that, and thinks if bad cards are winning, then decent cards should crush. Remember to be able to break your mind from your aggression back into solid play when someone plays back at you), and you get busted. Even though you started the hand with the best of it, the short-term luck snapped you and now all of your work that day is for nothing because you finished out of the money and never made a mistake.

            What is incomplete about short-term luck is that the odds can get upended on just enough hands that you can go 3 months without a profit. There’s nothing short-term about a three month skid on solid play, no matter how often you’re sitting behind a hand of cards and a small (dwindling) stack of chips.

            Now if Annie and the rest of the big name pros consider long-term luck anything less than five years, then okay. But don’t be fooled when your solid play keeps showing a profit even after a few big losses and think it will never end. You lose some, you win a lot. Be prepared for the worst.

            I would imagine that there have been several people who have set out to grind just a little, maybe 500 a month for a little extra cash or vacation money or whatever. And these people have their bad runs right off the chalk, end up quitting and never playing much again save a small home game or two.

            Myself I started with a big month, $1500, had another month of $800 then $1200, then -$-700, which is where I’m writing from right now. 2 weeks ago there was $1500 folded in the drawer by my bed. Now there’s $200. I feel like killing someone. Something I realized driving to lunch today was that I don’t have anything good to think about. Usually, when I’m up I can think to myself what fundamental things I did, nothing fancy, and beat all the check-raisers, the guys in sunglasses, the too anxious suckers who are so excited to be playing cards that they can’t fold a hand. I just think of my solid play, maybe a good read I put on someone, the fact that the lady to me just said “I haven’t seen you lose a hand all day.” When I’m up I can think over the feeling of putting my arms around all those chips, tipping the dealer well, and taking three hands to get it all stacked up while the table goes silent, and in concert realizes that the most solid player at the table has all the chips. When I’m up I can not only think of those moments, but that at that point I can bully the table for about 10 minutes just based on the realization of my reputation and table image (that is until someone gets AJ or better and forgets everything that’s just happened in the last half hour, and then I go back into playing solid).

            When I’m down, my good play feels like a curse. Last night I played with my friends, Joel and his wife and some others players common to my poker camp. I raise in late position with AK offsuit to 15 after the gun raised to five and Joel called the five. They both call. Flop is K Q 9 rainbow. First position makes it 10, Joel thinks it through and his body is throbbing, something we all do. I figure Joel has me beat and the first to act raised into that strength. I put her on a set of Qs, which was stupid of me and Joel on J10 since he only called. I folded when it got to me. First position had a set of 9s and Joel had KQc.

            Everything they did revealed their hands and I could see it, but I couldn’t interpret it right. Yet, I did know I was beat and got away from the hand cheaply.  I made a good play. However, because I’m skidding right now all I can think about is that I get AK, which I’m typically not that fond of, in late position when another player gets KQ suited and another has nines and they both flop better than me, even though I improved and had one player dominated. On a typical day the same thing happens except the flop is K J 4 and I hurt Joel but get the initial bet from first to act.

            I just got back from the grocery not too long ago, and if you want to make yourself feels better, go to the grocery at 3pm on a Wednesday. There were mostly old people, staring listlessly, dressed in the same clothes they’ve been wearing all month, hooked to portable oxygen machines, befuddled at the prices nowadays. I thought about my health, that I am able-bodied, have an incredible wife and group of friends; an ever-growing group of people who respect my writing, my poker playing, piano playing, skiing, etc. That I love where I live and the life I have. I can see all this, but I am a Schizophrenic and can only zero in on how big of a loser I feel like when I’m down. It’s fucking sad, but this is how it is. It consumes you. Not poker necessarily but anything you do that you are passionate, compulsive or excited about.

            I think the worst thing about skids, well the second worst because the worst is losing money, is that inevitably, lesser players than you will be running good right then and the will be full of advice. I had a guy who recognized my patience at a table whisper to me, “You know if you’re running this bad, you really should move to another chair. I’m old I have lots of patience.” Point of fact he had been losing in the 5 all day, he moved to the 10 (I was in the 9), and the guy who sat in the five ran off 4 or 5 straight hands and was up 100 within 10 minutes of sitting down, and, you guessed it, wasn’t very good and was playing even worse.

            I bring that point up about moving chairs for a reason: I could give a shit about it. I don’t care one way or another. If you think this chair sucks, then move. If you think this chair sucks, but I don’t want to move and have someone else sit down and go on a heater, then stay. It makes very little difference. Sometimes the cards fall in waves, sometimes they trickle, sometimes they dry up, and if you can predict which seat is going to get the wettest, be my guest. But if you want to tell me your theory sometime about either side of the issue, just know that if I don’t tell you that you are a dumb son of bitch, then I’ll surely look at you like you are.

            I bring up the seat change to talk about where to draw the line with bad luck.

Currently, I am looking at two possible Prospecti from a friend who is a Ph. D student in Political Science at CU. He wants my opinion on which route he should take. If you’re not familiar with a Prospectus it is between a 30-70 page proposal on what you will write your dissertation on. After it gets accepted, my friend will take 12-24 months writing a book based on this.

            Now I don’t know much about political science or either topic and angle my friend has. I am not qualified to help him on this question. I’m not even smart. But he asked and I’m going to give my opinion as if it is valid.    

            As to where to draw the line with bad luck, I also have no answer. But I’ve had my share of it and this isn’t really a “How to” book so much as a “how I did” book, so I think my opinion counts. My honest opinion is that I don’t know. My other honest opinion is that no one else does either. Whatever their answer is, it’s some form of superstition. Whether they are saying not to be superstitious or to use some pattern of superstition, it is all based on superstition, which is just a way of coping with the unknown.

            Even after all this talk about short-term and long-term luck what I do and don’t believe, I think poker is a slot machine. It is impossible to win every time out. With that said, even if a computer learned to play perfectly it would still go broke on some days. On the other side of that, it holds true that no one can lose every time. Funny, I don’t believe it when I say it, probably because I am doing what I’m doing, but it has to be true. I’ve see too many idiots cash. Let’s just say it is true. Let’s also say, that someone who has an edge of any kind can win more and lose less, which is what I’m trying to, they still have those pulls on the slot machine that don’t pay.

            Here’s my slot machine take. For the sake of an easy polemic, let’s say a slot machine has 1 jackpot every 10,000 pulls; 10 smaller jackpots in that same 10,000 and 100 even smaller jackpots in the same; and 1000 that are even money payouts. So on average you get paid some amount on 1,111 times per 10,000 pulls. Looks pretty shitty. Quick note: never play slots. If you have any electricity sparking around in your head, don’t play. Not even to try and get a free Corona in Vegas. They’re bullshit. The people who play them pay for that casino to have lights and cards and dealers at your poker table, so there’s no reason to be mean to them, don’t even thank them, just let them quietly pay for your work. But treat them like Phil Hellmuth: sure they’re loud and obnoxious, but if you start to overlook them, they will cease to be.

            In a ten-handed game you will be playing in the vicinity of 10% of your hands, minus 1-2% for hands that never materialize, ones that get awful flops, ones that get run down. And then let’s say somehow you win the rest. This is an average, but it’s around 10% of the cards you see. And again, this is low-limit, risk little situations where you cannot use a chip lead, bluff much or put most people in a pot on a hand. So there’s our average, ten percent.

            Now you do well for a few months, nothing crazy. You comment to your wife that of all the nights you cashed that there was one pot each night and if you had won that, you would have had an extra hundred in your pocket, times playing 15 times a month. Well, babe, I’d have doubled my winnings. And it sure seems that other people are winning those fuckers so someone’s doing well. But anyway, if you’re up then you’re up. And you’re up so no complaints. Now here comes the 9,000 pulls that ain’t gonna pay. Try as you might, you can’t move slot machines. You can’t play for the minimum now that you’re running bad. Here’s where you define the true player. But other books just say what I just said: true players are defined by what they do when things go bad. I believe it, but so what? It’s goddamn hard to keep going everyday, keep watching bad cards come and your blinds go, and find it impossible to complete a hand, and when you do it’s second best. It’s hard to stomach, but it’s even harder to keep playing solid. We all know what we should do, but this is an emotional game and even though I’m better than most about not playing bad cards or bad position in bad situations. But don’t think I haven’t done it more than I’m proud of.

            The thing is you can’t stop pulling the one-armed bandit. You have to see it through. You feel stupid, agitated, like you don’t know anything about the game. If you’re like me you go around all day and wonder if you have just gotten lucky all these months, if you really can play or if you’re just like all those young kids who come in and lose a rack in a hour and shake their heads at the cards others turn over.

            It has been 9 times in a row now that I have gone to the games where I normally play and lost. A $900 straight skid. Sometimes I lost 220, sometimes 45. In every one of them except yesterday, I was good not to lose more. Yesterday, I was finally up, just a little. I think 65 at my highest point. I kept getting pocket jacks and was unable to get them to play. The last time I had them I was in later position and the JJ was on overpair. The flop was six high, then it brought a ten. My check-caller turned into a lead-better. I had seen him turn over 10-6 earlier in the day and when I called his last bet, then called out his hand before he flipped it over, that was it for me. I still had about 75 in front of me. I could have walked being down 25, which at this point is a fucking victory. But I did what most people, what I’ve never done, and I blow up. On the button I raise with 10-7s and I get a few callers. I don’t get anywhere close, but I’m still going to bet. I get one caller. There were a couple of clubs and 10-6 calls me. I figure I can run him out by continuing to bet if a club or some otherwise scarecard doesn’t come. I know this is a mistake, but I had come to the conclusion that I could not win by waiting on cards and then hoping they would hold up. Also I have chosen a decent time to bluff. There was nothing scary on the flop and I bet everyone out but one, so this bluff proved to be very timely. Of course a club hits on the end and 10-6 bets into me and I fold. I’m down to 19. Now I have KK in late position and I raise to five and get several callers, like a hundred or so. An Ace hits and I know I’m beat but I don’t care. I get everyone out but a guy who started lead betting but now he’s checking and calling. I normally would figure this guy for a weak Ace, but he’s flipped over only good cards all day so I’m thinking A-9 or 8 offsuit, since he was the blind. I think it was A-6, but it was good enough and I was on my way home.

            At the peak of my day, I hit two hands in a row. I had 99 and the board was 8833? And I think I got called on the end by an ace or something like pocket 44 or 55. The next hand I had KK. I flopped top set, turned a boat, and this time 10-6 had three nines and he starts betting into me. I have a player behind me so I don’t raise cause I want him drawing to his flush or straight or whatever. Unless he has AA, which he doesn’t, He can’t beat me, and unless that last nine falls, this pot is mine. I made a mistake not raising the 9, because I thought the guy after me would call. I knew better. I should have raised. Even if the last guy folds, the trip 9s would call. But I didn’t. I was up my 65 at that point, having been down 65 earlier in the day.

            When you consider that I pretty much lost 165 dollars straight, it’s hard not to think I’m one of the suckers. Sure I have a pretty good read on players in a game that makes it difficult to read others. I have no problem laying down a loser for 2 extra dollars. I am patient. I know by the texture of the board when I’m beat. I’m really good at calculating my odds/chances from any position. And I’m pretty brilliant at building a big pot cheaply when I have a drawing hand like QJ, J10, 109 suited. But I can’t win. The game just baffles me anymore.

            When I went on a skid last summer, I remember thinking “If I can just go in there and get lucky….” I also remember that thinking that way is about as bad as it can get on a poker player. We don’t believe in that. When you don’t have it, we know. When you’re drawing to it, we know. When you have AA, we know. When you’re trying to bluff just so you can show it, usually we know. Those things are not governed by luck. Has nothing to do with luck. That’s a skill, an edge gained from observation and experience. And when a poker player is more concerned about that cards that come out and not how to play the game, well that’s as bad as it gets.

            The last day of my skid this summer was the first day I played live action at my cardroom. I lost 163, coming off a brutal trip to Vegas with my sisters. The game was 4-8 and it literally made no sense to me. I came home and as soon as I saw my wife I started crying like a child. She hugged me and through my own embarrassing tears I kept saying “I’m such a loser.” She comforted me and was the great wife she always has been even when she doesn’t know what to say or how to fix it.

            That weekend I had to play in a $50 tournament back up in Fort Collins. I had already paid for my entry a few months before, so it almost felt like a free ride. Between my crying fit and this tournament I did a lot of thinking about the game, about luck, about how to approach both of them. I realized that I was making some fundamental mistakes in the 4-8 game, the kind of shit I’ve been talking about in here. But I remember thinking I had to make my own luck, play the game I want to play and if someone is going to play crap cards and beat me, then fine. I knew how to spot a hand when someone makes it. I’ll just play aggressive, steal blinds, not be afraid and see what happens. I won that tournament. Actually me and the last guy split first and second place. He had the chip lead, about 2:1, but it was late and he was tired. I brought home 415. It was my biggest take to that point. The next Tuesday I played in the 4-8 again, this time with my new strategy and mindset about blinds and loose calls and out of position plays. I won 420 that night. Then 503 in a Pot Limit game not long after, thus the 1500 for the month.

            But here I sit not being able to see my way out of this. I have around sixty bucks in the bankroll, which for me is not just for poker, we pay bills and everything with it. We try to pay cash for as much as we can while leaving me with enough money to play on. 1500 that used to be in here only had 900 taken out for poker losses. The rest is other junk. And still I’m up 2700 on the year, which isn’t bad considering I’ve only be playing about 10 hours a week, but I haven’t been to the ATM in almost 6 months. I can’t exactly walk into the 4-8 game with sixty and expect not to come home early and broke. So I’ll have to go to the buy-in machine before I hit the game.

            I don’t really have any specific images or details to describe how much this sucks. If you look at my records, there were losses every month, big ones at that. Ones I kicked myself about, wondering if I could have lost just a little less, 25 less on each time and I’m up 100 more for the month, which is almost 9% more than I had. But this is not fun. When the pros are on television talking about how they don’t wish this on anyone, right after some color man says they’re have won more money than anyone who has ever played poker ever, it does seem odd. But that should be the lesson. People who have made millions being good at this game, don’t wish the kind of ugliness that poker can force on you on anyone. That winning millions also means losing millions. And if you think winning a million is fun, think of the opposite feeling of losing that much. Well, when you play for millions and only come out of the game with 5000, you’re still making money, good money at that, and can pay some bills. If you’re playing for hundreds and you come home with 5 bucks, you can’t buy anything.

            Playing at bigger stakes is for another day. Today I’m just wallowing in my own misfortunes and trying to convince myself that it is because of bad circumstances and not that I have been lucky up to this point to be winning. But my experience and my records have taught me something.

            I just looked at my books and remembered back to the nights I played and how much money I had in those games. I usually buy-in for 100 at the casino and 100 in the 4-8 game. In the 4-8 I am a little underchipped, but it is the standard and plenty as far as I’m concerned. As I’ve stated, this is one of those things you may never figure out, but my records tell a different tale. Only two times that I have been down and had to buy back in have I ever come out ahead. I got 200 into a 4-8 game, somehow built it up to 265 and cashed 65. The other I got down to 50 at the casino and just repumped for another fifty. I cashed 277 and was up 127. Twice. 12 losses, two small victories. The casino victory was in my early stages of going up there and I didn’t have the tempo down just yet, and then I got put on a table of rookies and ran it over with A-anything. A specific situation that doesn’t happen very much. So let’s just say once since the casino was an odd thing and I was only in for another 50.

            So 1 in 12. At this point, playing in the 4-8 or the 2-5 is worse than chasing a gutshot. If the numbers were different, I would approach it differently. But for now. I’m only risking 100 to win an infinite amount. According to my records, the first month I would have won 100 more. The Second month, 200 more. Last month, I would be down 250 less. That’s 550 more in my bankroll that at current. These are my numbers. I am fairly streaky, when I’m on get out of the way. When I’m off, I can’t beat an egg. Players who win twice and then lose once might have a different take. From jan 21 2005 until I see other evidence, will be 100 in the lower limit games and that’s it.

Not only did I go out and break my own preset rules, I did it with style. I just walked into my 4-8 game at the club. Half the players I had played with before, the other half I hadn’t, but the game is such that it really makes little difference. We were 7-handed and when we started I was on the small blind. I think I paid the blinds twice. Inside of 15 hands I saw A-10 suited, raised and mucked on the flop. Then 8-8, raised, a ten fell and the small blind leads out. Now you think you’re running bad when someone beats you with a ten, but how about the three players in the hand other than me all had 10s. I mucked on the flop. Then K-K, raised from the middle and got several callers, which is fine, flop comes 10-10-7. This is scary to me because with that many hands out there someone has to have a 10. Point of fact no one does, but someone bets, 3 callers. The turn is a queen and everyone checks so I’m pretty certain I have the best of it at this point and that any queens can now call a bet on the end, and that the flop bet was just to test the waters. On the end is a nine; it’s checked to me and I bet. Guy behind me with a Q calls and the guy holding 99 raises with his full house and now I have to call.

            I don’t know if I’m steaming or not, but I am shaky, like when you get too close to the edge of a cliff. This is a new feeling for me at the poker table, not the usual bad beat feeling but something pretty strange. I am pretty low at this point, chipwise and otherwise, and feel like those monkeys who play up at the casino. I have become dead money. The next hand I play is KK and I’m in the small blind. I raise, against my own rules and a couple of guys already know what I have because I make and amateur move and they’re not afraid to tell me about it. Nothing special hits, I say that I have to bet now since I raised and I get two callers. I don’t notice the diamonds and of course another one falls and I lead into it and get raised. Of course I call because I’m dead money, and I figure the only way I can when is if another diamond falls, which it does, and I lead into it and get raised by the nuts.

            Against my own rules I buy another 45, which is all I have on me. I get 99 and limp, someone raises and I call. Nothing special on the flop and I muck. Blinds hit but I can’t play. I have 27 left. A-A is my next hand. I raise to 8, get raised and two callers back to me. I cap it and there are four of us in for 16 to the flop. A friend who deliberately plays junk in big pots in case junk hits announces that he’s sorry before the flop because he’s notorious for breaking hearts that way, so I know he has low cards. The other guys has to have JJ, QQ, or KK. There;s no othe possible hands to make it twelve with the call the last raise. People won’t do this with AK in this game. Flop is J-Q-K with two hearts. I check it hoping to get it all in right here so that I can go home because the’re no way this guy hasn’t made a set. And I’d say that when the turn came an 8 of hearts that I only went all in for my last 7 because I had the A of hearts, but the truth is I didn’t remember. I was beat and new it. River comes a Q to make the guy’s Jacks Full, and here I am writing about it.

New Personal Record: $145 in 15 hands, 25 minutes.