Coping When All Goes Wrong

Every poker player has been there. You've done everything right. Picked the right seat in the best game, and played quality starting hands in proper position. But your aces got cracked. Or you flopped a set and lost to someone who caught two running cards to a straight. This happens time after time, you lose when you really should have won. Head in hands, you ask yourself, "is there anything I can do when fate is conspiring against me?"

Unfortunately, there are no magic elixirs that eliminate the short term fluctuations everyone experiences when they play poker. If it helps, you can console yourself with the knowledge that we've all been there. But when you want to take it a step further, remember this: there is opportunity in adversity. In fact, losing provides the best opportunity to examine your poker mistakes and refine your own game. Think of it as poker psychology.

Most players do not spend much time in careful self-examination when they are winning. It's too much fun to stack the chips and revel in the money that's rolling in. Losing, however, turns us from expansive extroverts into brooding introverts whose inner-directed thoughts send us in search of reasons and strategies that will prevent losses like these from ever happening again. We go over and over each decision we made, wondering how we could have improved it. "What could I have done differently?" we ask. Again, we're drawn to look at the psychology of poker.

While no guarantees about future losses are available, there is one course of action we'd recommend to any player mired in a losing streak. We all change gears during a poker game, sometimes consciously, as a planned poker strategy, and sometimes we simply wind up playing differently than we began. When you're losing, consider gearing down. Way down. This is a time for lots of traction and not much speed; a time for playing only the best starting hands. Not marginal hands, not good - or even very good - starting hands, but only the best hands. That means you'll be throwing away hand after hand, and it takes discipline to do this, particularly when some of these hands would have won.

When losing, most players want to minimize fluctuations in their bankrolls and grind out some wins. Gearing down accomplishes this, since you are not playing any of the "close call" hands you normally might. By playing hands that have a greater chance of winning, you are minimizing the fluctuations that occur with speculative hands. Of course, you're also cutting down your average hourly win rate, but it's a trade-off, since you are less apt to find yourself on a roller coaster ride. You can still win as much; it will just take more hours at the table.

Gearing down also prevents your opponents from kicking you when you're down. When you are winning, your table image is quite different than when you're losing. Win and you can sometimes bluff with impunity. You simply can't do that when you're losing. After all, your opponents have watched you lose hand after hand. They believe you're going to keep losing. When you bet they'll call - or even raise - with hands they might have thrown away if you had been winning steadily. Now they're using that poker psychology against you...

Since every hand is totally independent of hands played before, this kind of strategy has absolutely no mathematical validity, but try telling that to human nature and its complicated psychology. In many games, especially low limit games, players are heavily influenced by what they've experienced lately. Never mind that you may be the biggest winner in that game over the past year. If you've lost the last two times they've played with you, and you're losing now, they're going to take a shot at you.

In the eyes of the beholder your table image is shattered, and it doesn't pay to begin rectifying this image until you've won a few big pots. Once they start perceiving you as a winner, you have once again opened the door to the psychology ploys in your arsenal. Only then can you go back to bluffing or playing some borderline hands. Remember: to a certain extent, it is the way your opponents perceive you that provides the necessary face validity for these ploys to work often enough to show a profit.

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