Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Running Bad

“The cards do not know who you are, nor do they care.” -Anonymous

I’ve been on a long 4-week losing stretch. I’ve been through my database, I’ve run post-mortems, and I’ve double checked my stats. I’ve also looked at my EV plot and replayed dozens of hands… and the conclusion I draw is that the poker gods just don’t like me lately. I’m actually playing pretty good poker and making good decisions, but the cards have not been cooperating. Said another way: I’m running bad.  How bad? Think running with the bulls in Pamplona bad. That’s pretty close.

They say you can’t escape death or taxes in life, but I think a third item to add to that ignominious list is bad stretches of cards in poker. Everyone, if they play long enough, will encounter negative variance stretches that challenge one’s sanity. When I first learned poker at the knee of the Guru, I went 13+ months straight without a losing month (this was back in the Party Poker days, when winning was much easier than it is today). In a way, I think those thirteen months of easy profit actually did some harm to my game; i.e., it made the 14th month when I lost that much more difficult to accept. Winning was just part the game, right? What do you mean I’m losing-- even though I’m doing everything right? WTF is this so-called “bad run” thing? Poker isn’t very much fun, is it?

Every one of us has experienced long stretches in a cash game or a tourney when we can’t catch cards. While the other players around you seem to get dealt big pocket pairs every other hand, you’re catching seven-deuce after seven-deuce. This, folks, is actually very common, and it’s just a micro-type of running bad. What I’m currently going through is the macro version of a bad run. And if you play this game long enough, it will happen to you.

Getting through the pain and misery of a macro bad run is what separates the men from the boys in the game. After several weeks of misery, most players will begin to think they’re cursed, and will either burn through a lot of money trying to break the curse, or else will consider quitting the game entirely to end the suffering. Neither of these things is necessary.

First and foremost, you need to remember that bad runs, like bad beats, are part of the game. You’re not the only poker player who’s had a bad run. We all do. Even the Phils goes through it. When it’s your turn, use the experience to review and plug leaks in your game. Go through your data base and replay hands. Try to separate the part of poker you control (read: your decisions) with the parts you can’t (read: what cards you’re dealt, how your opponents play, and the outcome of any given hand).

Here are a few more things to consider (and, yes, I’m doing pretty much all of them right now):
  • Stick To One Game At A TimeIf your normal MO is to play multiple tables online at once, now is the time to restrict yourself to just a single table. Focusing on one game allows you the maximum time to make good decisions and play as perfectly as possible. One game allows you to practice correct starting hand selection, and then to implement REDi as fully as possible in those hands you see a flop on. Focus on making perfect decisions in a single game, rather than merely good decisions in multiple games.
  • Lower Your StakesThere’s no better time to take your stakes down a step (or two). This has the immediate effect of minimizing your losses. I pits you against weaker players, where you should have a significant edge. It also gives you a chance to play out your bad run at stakes less damaging to your bankroll (yes, this is unsound from a pure mathematical point of view, but psychologically it’s actually quite valid). You can always return to your original stakes when you get your groove back.
  • FocusRestrict playing only to periods where you’re enthusiastic and energized and ready to put 100% of your attention into the game. Playing when you’re not focused (or disillusioned) leads to bad play, which leads to losses, which in turn leads to you turning a normal bad run into an abnormal catastrophe. Don’t sit down to play when you’re brain just isn’t ready to concentrate.
  • Stop BluffingAnother way to say this is: Go back down in stakes and play ABC poker. Minimize bluffing when you’re on a bad run. Bet only for value. Put your money in the pot when you make strong hands, and don’t when you don’t. I’d suggest not even stealing as much as you normally do. Just wait for good cards and play them strong. Your EV won’t be maximized doing this, but you losses will be minimized.
  • Discipline, Discipline, DisciplineStay true to your game. Don’t start playing hands you normally wouldn’t. Stick to the basics. Variance grows larger and points more vertically downward the worse you play.
  • Take a BreakSometimes, the best thing you can do for your poker game is to give it a short break. The Guru used to mandate time-outs of 1-5 days to his students that were struggling or on bad runs. Use that time to watch some poker videos, or read a strategy book…. or, even better, just take a vacation to Europe (like I’m currently doing) and think about something other than poker. Trying to “play through” the bad run, taking beat after beat, can destroy even the most mentally strong among us. Don’t fight the current; just sit on the shore for a while and put things into perspective.
Remember, there is no set duration for a bad run. When negative variance hits it can strike for a day, a week, a month, several months or even years in extreme cases. Worse, variance is completely blind to whom it affects; it has no memory. The secret to dealing with a bad run is to start with acknowledging that it’s actually happening to you. And then take some steps to address. If you don’t, the bulls are going to stomp all over you and your bankroll.

All-in for now…

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