In the opening scene of the cult classic poker flick “Rounders” (1998), our hero Mike McDermott spoke the hard truth:
Unfortunately for most poker players out there, spotting the sucker is a simple matter of looking in the mirror.
Despite what big-time tournaments and high-stakes cash games on TV might tell you, winning consistently as a no limit Texas hold’em player is easier said than done. Sure, you’ve probably walked away from the table a winner on occasion, but over the long run of a poker player’s lifetime, achieving profitability is immensely difficult.
Between the random fluctuations of statistical variance — better known as “luck” to all those suckers out there — and the steady erosion of your stack created by the casino’s rake, just breaking even represents a Herculean task for all but the best.
And even for the best players on the planet — professionals who put food on the table sweating flops and folds for a living — losing is part and parcel of the business they’ve chosen.
Just ask Daniel Negreanu, a six-time World Series of Poker (WSOP) gold bracelet winner and the winningest tournament player to ever live with a hair under $40 million in lifetime earnings.
Despite his unparalleled success on the felt, “Kid Poker” posted back-to-back losing years in 2016 and 2017 while grinding the biggest tournaments in the world. He admitted as much in a detailed blog post on his personal Full Contact Poker website, explaining that even though he cashed for $2,792,104 last year, his $2,874,164 in buy-in expenses left him $86,140 in the red.
And in 2016, while playing in 49 tournaments, Negreanu racked up a whopping $1,246,693 in losses.
Always willing to let poker fans into his world, Negreanu outlined how “winning” in the seven figures can actually produce a net loss, even for the elite talents like himself:
“I think my 2017 was a good illustration of the illusion that players cashing for $2 million in a single year is a great accomplishment.
In the old days, before super high rollers, you could all but guarantee that cashing for $2 million would mean the player had a winning year.
Well, the truth is, if a player plays the full high roller schedule and cashes for $2 million, they are all but certain to have had a losing year, and that’s before expenses.”
Suffice it to say, winning ain’t easy when poker is the name of the game.
Compounding this problem is the propensity of most lower-level players — the folks grinding $2/$5 cash games and $200 nightly tournaments at their local card club — to make excuses when the cards fail to cooperate.
When all the pots are being pushed their way, and every draw seems to come in by the river, players like this love to pat themselves on the back. In their eyes, they’re the best player at the table, destined for bigger and better things — maybe even a trip to the WSOP to tangle with Negreanu and his fellow pros.
But when variance rears its ugly head, when every premium pocket pair seems to get cracked and they’re going bust right before the bubble, these same players just can’t seem to wrap their minds around what’s really going wrong.
Instead of reflecting on their strategic thinking or analyzing their results objectively in hopes of improving down the road, players like this simply brush the losses aside as mere “run bad.”
Of course, neither end of the spectrum is exactly true. These guys and gals aren’t world-class players just because they’re experiencing a heater, and downswings can never be chalked up to bad luck alone.
In reality, the players who perform the best will win out in the end, despite all the excuses you’ll hear to the contrary.
To help you escape the excuse trap and focus solely on becoming the best player you can be, check out the list below for seven of the most common ways losing players justify their own poor play.
If you find yourself nodding along in agreement with any of these excuses, get that mirror out and take a good, hard look to see if the real sucker at the table is staring back at you.
1 – I Was Card Dead All Day, Even Daniel Negreanu Couldn’t Win Playing These Rags
“Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.” – Jack London (1876-1916; American novelist and journalist)
The most tired excuse in all of poker concerns the cards one is dealt during a losing jag.
In a game like Texas hold’em, the 52-card deck creates 169 unique starting hands (leaving aside suits) for players to work with. But the problem for losing players is, of the 169 potential hands you can peek down at to begin with, only 20 or so are considered “strong” or “premium” holdings.
Top-20 Starting Hands in Texas hold’em
That list becomes a rough approximation towards the bottom, of course, with some players preferring small pocket pairs like 4-4 and 5-5 over the mid-range suited connectors and vice versa.
In any event, though, the 140+ hands that fall outside of this narrow range — your J-4, 10-3, and 7-2 type combinations — are generally regarded as “trash,” “junk,” or “rags” by rank and file poker players.
And for that rank and file — the folks who generally play a “tight/cautious” game while waiting for monsters — putting even a single chip in the pot while holding rags is a nonstarter.
But therein lies the rub…
If you commit yourself to playing that top-20 range alone, you’ll have only 11% of the potential starting hands in Texas hold’em at your disposal.
That means nine out of every ten deals on average — or just once per orbit around the table — will the deck divine to give you a “playable” hand.
Throw in a little randomization thanks to statistical variance and probability, and you might find yourself folding 20 or 30 hands in a row while waiting for that perfect spot to present itself.
That all sounds well and good in theory, but in reality, poker’s use of blind bets (small and big) and antes (generally used in tournaments) causes a slow and steady erosion of your chip stack.
Think about it for a minute.
You’re sitting in a juicy $2/$5 cash game with $200 in front and a plan to attack only when you catch a top-20 hand.
Suddenly, the deck goes “cold,” and you can’t seem to squeeze anything but junk, leading to a long lineup of folds for three straight orbits. Just like that, you’re down $21 — or the sum of the blinds ($7) multiplied by three passes around the table — leaving you with $179 to work with.
Then, when you finally do pick up pocket rockets, your opening raise immediately forces rapid-fire folds around the table. You may have picked up the blinds for a $7 uptick, but because of your tight approach, everybody at the table knows a raise from the “rock” in the game represents a super-strong hand.
Playing like this is a fool’s errand, which is why every competent poker player prides themselves on taking any of the deck’s 169 starting hands to war — when the circumstances warrant.
Between your position at the table and the previous bets and actions before you act, you should be perfectly willing to mix it up with trashy hands that don’t seem playable at first glance.
That doesn’t mean splashing around for whole stacks when you have nothing at all, not by a longshot. You still need to assess the situation and make the best possible play given the circumstances.
But unless you’re willing to loosen up and learn how to play mediocre hands effectively, a waiting game predicated on premium hands only will almost always result in your stack bleeding off to the point of oblivion.
2 – I Tried (and Failed) to Get Back at the Guy Who Cracked My Aces on a Bad Beat
“The strong point in poker is never to lose your temper, either with those you are playing with or, more particularly, with the cards. There is no sympathy in poker. Always keep cool. If you lose your head, you will lose all your chips.” – William J. Florence (1831-1891; American actor, songwriter, and playwright)
The beauty of poker is that the game is personal, perhaps more so than any other gambling activity.
Instead of squaring off against an impassive dealer representing the house, you’re engaged in ritual combat against up to nine opponents, all of whom are trying to take your money.
This dynamic creates a breeding ground for conflict and strife, with “bullies” targeting the table’s soft spots through relentless aggression.
And when you add in the inevitable arrival of bad beats, a poker game can quickly devolve into a cutthroat contest in which players take things personally.
When you’ve been playing patiently and grinding up a stack, there’s nothing worse than getting your stack in with the best of it, only for the table fish to topple your premium hand with junk.
Most players feel a sense of entitlement when they wield a hand like pocket aces or pocket kings, believing that every chip contributed to the pot rightfully belongs to them.
Then, when a small suited connector somehow sniffs out a straight, it can feel like the whole world is against you. That feeling is often magnified when you’re up against a particularly nasty type of player, the folks who love “needling” opponents after beating them.
All of a sudden, a perfectly enjoyable poker game devolves into a pissing contest, with players looking to one-up one another at every turn.
In a perfect world, negative emotions would have no place at the table, but that’s just not the case. All of us have succumbed to the scourge of tilt on occasion, letting our anger and frustration take the wheel.
This phenomenon is only natural, but until you learn how to control your tendency to go on tilt, all it takes is one bad beat to derail a previously productive session.
Don’t worry about avenging previous losses or playing back at a big stack bully who keeps trying to steal your blinds. It’s just not worth it. Keep your focus on the task at hand — playing each pot to the best of your ability given the various circumstances involved — and these things have a way of taking care of themselves.
If you’re playing well and approaching each hand with a sound strategy, bad beats are simply the cost of doing business.
You’ll usually have the best of it against inferior opponents, which means their only avenue to victory involves coming from behind.
When this happens, simply shrug the result off and move on, letting the fish continue to play poorly while you continue to play well.
3 – I Found the Perfect Table Full of Fish and Wanted to Show Them Who’s Boss
“The commonest mistake in history is underestimating your opponent; happens at the poker table all the time.” – General David Shoup (1904-1983; American military general, recipient of the Medal of Honor in World War II)
Speaking of fish, many players seem to overestimate their abilities when sizing up the opposition.
If you sit down against a lineup of recreational players who are clearly worse than you, don’t let that fact change your basic strategic foundations. That sounds easy enough on paper, but when the cards start flying, you’d be surprised at how many of us overcompensate by trying to become the table captain.
Raising early and often to establish your presence. Three-betting liberally because you’re sure the weaker opponents can’t handle the heat. Playing from out of position based on the “fact” that you can outplay the others post-flop.
These are all common symptoms of overconfidence, telltale signs that you’re going too far. By adopting this approach, even highly skilled players can put themselves in bad spots, and from there, all it takes is a little negative variance to level the playing field.
When you’re sure the other players present aren’t as good as you, stick to the script and play your standard game. Anything else is just asking for trouble.
4 – I Wanted to Test My Skills Against the Best Players in the Room
“Most of the money you’ll win at poker comes not from the brilliance of your own play, but from the ineptitude of your opponents.” – Roger “Lou Krieger” Lubin (1938 — 2012; American professional poker player and author)
On the flip side of that coin, proficient poker players often feel the need to prove themselves by playing against even better opponents.
And while testing yourself by taking a shot against elite competition definitely has its place — that’s the only way you’ll get better, after all — doing so too frequently is a recipe for bankroll disaster.
All things being equal, the most effective way to win at poker is through savvy game selection. When you’ve identified a table at which you’ll have a higher edge than usual, why would you rack up and head over to the lion’s den?
Alas, this temptation traps many an unsuspecting card sharp, as it’s only human nature to push the boundaries and see how far you can go.
The only thing is, poker’s economy is a zero-sum game.
The better players will always beat their lesser-skilled counterparts in the long run, which is why it’s in your best interest to seek out worse players than yourself.
In the movie “Rounders,” Mike McDermott might’ve got one over on “The Master” Johnny Chan with a well-timed bluff, but that was only a single hand played in a single session. If he had to compete against Chan day in and day out, those three stacks of high society would wind up in the pro’s pockets 10 times out of 10.
5 – I Was Running So Well I Couldn’t Quit the Game Until I Won X Amount of Money
“True luck consists not in holding the best of the cards at the table; luckiest is he who knows just when to rise and go home.” – John Milton Hay (1838-1905; American statesman, diplomat, author, and journalist)
For whatever reason, poker players have a funny way of setting arbitrary endpoints on their profits or losses.
When you’re running well and crushing the game for a nice $920 profit, some quirk in the brain’s calculations decides that cashing out for an even $1,000 would be the icing on the cake.
From there, you might chase a few unnecessary draws hoping to hit your mark, or maybe you’ll start stealing blinds a little more often trying to get over the hump.
But all of a sudden, these departures from your standard operating procedure start causing leaks, and that $920 profit dips down to $800 or so. At that point, you’ll probably decide that you can’t leave until you get back to that original $920 mark, or even $900 just to save face.
A few hours later, all of your chips have been divvied up and divided amongst your peers, leaving you with nothing but regrets.
Establishing win or loss limits in this fashion is one of the easiest mistakes a player can make. The thing to remember is that your poker play really represents one long session over your lifetime.
Don’t get caught up in trying to win X amount or avoiding losses of Y dollars. Just play well and cash out when the right time comes around.
6 – I Played Way Too Tight Because I Needed That Money to Pay Bills
“Poker may be a branch of psychological warfare, an art form or indeed a way of life, but it is also merely a game in which money is simply the means of keeping score.” – Anthony Holden (Born 1947; English writer, biographer, and literary critic)
Some players adopt a tight and conservative approach by default, and that’s all well and good if you prefer to play things close to the vest.
Unfortunately, far too many players allow external circumstances to affect how they view the chips in play. If money is tight on the home front, pouncing on a perfect spot to three-bet a light opener can be made much more difficult. As the faulty reasoning goes, why take an unnecessary risk with money you might need later?
But before long, failing to capitalize on the opportunities that come your way will leave you in the same spot — broke and busted.
If you can’t afford to lose the money you’re playing with, the solution is deceptively simple — just don’t play.
Tend to your financial affairs away from the poker room first, and when you’re able to bring a little expendable cash to the table, only then should you enter the arena.
7 – I Just Couldn’t Hit a Draw to Save My Life, Nothing You Can Do About Bad Luck
“Luck, bad if not good, will always be with us. But it has a way of favoring the intelligent and showing its back to the stupid.” – John Dewey (1859-1952; American psychologist and educational reformer)
A losing player has no trouble lamenting all the times their drawing hands fail to deliver. In their mind, flopping an open-ended straight draw or a flush draw becomes a foregone conclusion, as they’ll almost always chase that potential through the turn and river.
Of course, the odds dictate that these draws will miss much more often than they’ll hit — that’s why they’re called draws in the first place.
If you find yourself consistently looking to missed draws to explain away a losing session, consider studying the stats a little more closely and reassessing how you play drawing hands.
There’s no shame in folding the nut flush draw when the pot odds offered don’t add up. Sure, you’ll see your gin card hit the felt a few times here and there — and this will never be a pleasant sight — but over the long run, the chips you save by playing cautiously essentially turn into wins in their own right.
Play enough poker, and you’ll soon realize that winning and losing is a 50/50 affair. In other words, the game’s odds tend to dictate that most of us will win roughly half the hands we play, while losing the other half.
The trick that separates winners from losers is quite simple, though — the best players maximize returns from the positive portion of that 50/50 split, while minimizing the damage from the negative side.
Another trait shared by consistent winners at the poker table is a refusal to make excuses.
Instead of bemoaning their fate after a bad beat, whining about cold decks, or complaining when the fish somehow bite back, true sharks just keep swimming.
If bringing your poker game to the next level is a personal priority, make a point to exclude excuses from your mentality altogether. Suck it up, enjoy the ride, and keep on grinding until your hard work and perseverance push you through to the right side of variance.
Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for GamblingSites.org since early 2016. ...
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