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Can running good be bad for you?

Posted by Matt Bolt

Despite my running good lately, my motivation level is wavering. Does that sound crazy to you? To me, it describes 99 percent of poker players out there. The temptation to quit while you’re ahead is a trap that I struggle against nearly every day.

The funny thing about poker is that all of man’s natural instincts towards the game — namely, that we’re tempted to quit when we’re ahead — are totally wrong. When I began my poker career, complacency would set in when I was running well. When I was making 10 cents a hand, I’d grind out 200,000 hands. But when I was making $1 a hand, it was easier for me to slip.

This mentality isn’t uncommon amongst new players, which is why almost no one is naturally good at poker. The brain wants us to quit when we’re ahead. We like the feeling of being up money and booking the win. Conversely, when you’re losing, you tilt and you play worse and worse, rather than better. You refuse to quit because you want to win back what you’ve lost earlier that day. These long sessions tend to be the ones where people lose the most. Nobody wants to quit when they’re stuck. They only want to quit when they’re ahead. This applies to 99 percent of poker players.

This mentality makes no sense. When you’re running well, you’re at your best. Something is going right for you. You might be thinking well; your instincts are right; you might just be running good — whatever the case, these are the times you should keep playing.

I’ve worked with mental-game coach Jared Tendler on improving my natural upside-down thinking, and it’s helped a lot (though I’m far from perfect). My natural instincts tell me that if I play two hours and make $10,000, it’s a good day’s work and I should call it quits. But I’ve learned to stay in the chair so I can continue to ride whatever wave I’m on. I’m getting better, but I’m not totally fixed yet.

My dad, who is a low-stakes player, is totally indicative of a player’s backwards mentality toward the game. He plays 10 NL an average of 200 hands a night. I’ll look at his graph and see that in one session, he played 800 hands and lost $40, while in another he won $7 and quit after 18 hands. What he doesn’t understand is it’s a game of the long run. What you win or lose today is part of a continuum; your career is just one long session.

My dad, who is a good player, has a hard time wrapping his head around this. When he wins, it’s skill. When he goes on a downswing, he thinks the games are rigged. “They have to feed the fish,” he says.

Then I ask him, “So what’s happening when you’re winning? Are they feeding you? And what’s the deal with guys like me and Dusty – are we just the two most blessed guys on PokerStars?”

When people are losing, their reasoning abilities go right out the window along with their cash. Show me somebody who says poker is a game of luck, and I’ll ask that person to explain Nanonoko’s graph to me. That’s the most solid proof out there of poker being a skill game.

As for me, I’m back in the black for the year, which is pretty good given that I was down six figures after March 1. Even given what I just explained, I still experienced variance so bad that I struggled to comprehend it. I ran so ungodly bad for the first 2½ months of the year it was ridiculous. I’m proud that I stuck with it and worked hard. You can learn a thing or two during a downswing …

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