Poker continues at the nice slow pace I've intentionally set. I've hit a little bit of a wall here lately, where I'll make a big score early and then slowly get wittled down to my buyin again, so that's a little frustrating, especially yesterday when I found a total ATM machine to my right. Unfortunately every time I was in a position to punish him he'd come up with a hand, so instead of walking away with his cash, he took mine and spread it around the table. Oh well, that's poker, and I'm sure I'll see him again when his luck isn't quite so good. In the walk of a hundred miles one has to expect to stub your toe occasionally.
Yesterday brought some pretty ugly beats for sure. Nothing soul crushing, mind you, but ones that a few months ago would have seen me chopping my desk in half with my hand Samauri style. Strangely enough, my biggest reaction was a shrug of the shoulders and a quietly muttered "fuck" under my breath. Amazing how much easier it is to control your emotions when you're not under a ton of stress from outside resources. This leads to the meaning of this post and my first dabble into the Psychology of Poker. Please keep your hands inside the ride until it comes to a complete stop.
Those of you who have been playing poker for any amount of time knows how the game is. You do everything right, by the book, and in the end your chips... YOUR
chips slide off in the wrong direction. Baffled you look across at the opponent and see a complete crap hand that turned to gold with the flip of the last card.
What happens next depends not at all on how you played the hand, or what the hand was, for that matter, but rather it depends on events so far outside the game as to not even be readily considered relevent to this immediate event, but never is it more relevent then at this exact point in time.
Much of how you play your game is decided outside of the actual play, indeed before you even sit down at the table, depending on the emotional state your in at the time. Ask any professional competitor what the most important part of their game is, and they're almost certainly going to talk about preparation. Now to us in the poker playing world, this is obvious. Most of us know the importance of study and mental preparation, but there's one thing that seperates decent poker players from real pros, and that is emotional control.
Again, many of you are thinking in your head, "well, duh". We all know that the guy who gets beat on a hand and starts flying off the handle is probably not going to sit back down and play his "A" game. A good player knows that once he's hit this point it's long past time to rack up and head for the pool. Obvious tilt is, well, obvious. What kills many games though are events that have seemingly nothing to do with the actual table action. Consider:
Our subject, we'll call him Joe, is a part time grinder in online poker. He has a regular job that pays the bills, so poker is a source of completely disposable income for him. Joe likes his job, but lately there has been talk around the office of downsizing and the possibility of an office relocation. Joe figures that he can't control what happens in relation to that and figures that his best bet is to continue doing his job the best he can and hope for the best. Why stress out about something he has little to no control over?
After an average work day of kicking ass and taking names, Joe chows down a quick dinner and sits down for a stint at the tables. Things start off well enough, and before long Joe notices the guy across from him at the table is the classic overaggressive fish. Joe's eyes light up. "It's payday", he mutters as he looks down to see suited Big Slick and raises it. Fishboy and a blind are all that ride along. When the flop comes A29 Joe starts hammering. Fishboy is nice enough to bet out and Joe figures he's on some sort of ace and pops it for a raise. The blind runs for the hills and Fishboy calls, solidifying in Joe's mind that he's dealing with a smaller ace. The Turn comes a 4 in a suit not matching anything and Fishboy bets out again. Joe's sort of curious about this, but since this guy has shown a complete lack of understanding for the game already Joe figures Fishboy must have forgotten about the raise last street. Joe pops a raise in again but this time Fishboy three bets him. Joe's wheels are turning. Did he hit his kicker? Joe calls it down, weary but unconvinced. When the river brings a beautiful K to match up his kicker, Joe and Fishboy raise to the cap. Joe triumphently turns over his two pair and fishboy flips up...
35o for the straight.
Joe hits the desk with his fist and shouts and explitive loud enough to send the cat scurrying for cover.
Really, what happens after this is irrelevent. Joe has departed from his A game, likely never to return to it for this session. The question is, why did this reaction happen? I mean, Joe seems like a pretty even keel guy, and it's not like he's never been beaten by idiot hands like this before. Indeed, Joe is well aware that this happens with regularity at the tables. Indeed, Joe's day at the tables was decided long before the chips ever flew. Stress got the best of Joe, not the cards.
Stress is for some people so insidious their first hint that they're really under stress is when they completely melt down. Never the less, its effects are apparent to those who know what to look for. Those that "handle stress well" are still subjected to and experience stress. Handling it well doesn't make it "go away", it instead sits there and begins to erode away your foundation, including your basic ability to deal with things that anger you. And we all know that anger leads to tilt, which leads to chip bleed.
What makes me Dr. Phil all of the sudden on this? Well, last year I was Joe. I had a job I liked, and I did well at, but the industry, as has been well documented, is a disaster and getting worse. I worked for a company who was contracted by another company that thanks to the Bankruptcy laws, was free to have it's way with us, and did they ever. The net result was, even though I had a great job that I loved, there was always that nagging doubt that any day now we'd get our walking papers. The stress of this was started to effect me in ways I didn't readily notice, including my poker game, which slowly deteriorated. In the end, I went on a horrible slide that ended with me throwing in the towel for a few months. In review, yes, the cards were very brutal on me, but half the problem was, I was overreacting to the things happening on the table. I was in a hurry to "get through" the bad run.
The moral? If your game is suffering, don't forget to consider what sort of stresses you might be under outside of the immediate game. If you have stress in your life, trust me, poker is a lousy escape from it for what should be obvious reasons. Most of us play to win, and that just adds stress. To maximize your success, remember to constantly assess your stress level before you even sit down. If the answer to the question "I might lose today" is anything other then "so what", this might not be a good day to be playing cards.