Consistently and accurately monitoring one’s own play during a game is one of the most difficult tasks any poker player faces. It is also one of the most important.
Very few of us go on tilt with the first hand we’re dealt. We usually sit down and play good, solid poker. Oh, sure, I know there are some players who are always on tilt, but this article was not written for the perpetually clueless. It’s aimed squarely at you. You’re a good player who cares about his game, and comes to the card room with every intention of playing well for the entire session regardless of whatever bad beats might come your way. But the sad truth is you don’t. Not always. Occasionally — and it may not be every session — you fly open and start playing hands you shouldn’t, even though you know better.
When you stumble over your own lofty standards and slip below them, like it or not there’s no one to blame but yourself. But that’s no reason to abandon hope. Here’s how you can avoid these lapses and keep yourself in check.
Letter From Home: “I am not paid to win pots. I am paid to make good decisions at the poker table — nothing more, nothing less.” Write these two sentences on a card and carry it in your wallet. Every time you make a bad decision, or play a hand that’s doesn’t meet your standards, take out that card and look at it. That “letter from home” will short-circuit any tendencies you may have to let one or two bad hands lead you down a road you’d rather not be on at that moment. If you feel foolish taking a little poker mantra out of your wallet, consider this: If you don’t take something out of your wallet to help change your play, you might wind up leaving the cardroom with nothing left in your wallet to take out.
Refresh Yourself: In the now-classic film The Hustler, there’s a scene when Jackie Gleason, as Minnesota Fats, and Paul Newman, as Fast Eddie, take a break after playing big-money pool for quite a few hours. Fast Eddie, the young up-and-comer, is winning. During that break Fats washes up, changes his shirt, spends some time assessing the quality of his game, and returns to the table as elegantly turned out as when he first walked in hours earlier.
Cocky and over confident because he has been beating the legendary Minnesota Fats in what amounts to nothing more than the early innings of a long match of attrition, Fast Eddie — never prone to introspection anyway — has a few drinks and yuks it up with the crowd. Eddie believes he has the swagger of a confident winner; in reality, it’s the smug arrogance of a loser about to take a bad beating. Even Eddie might be able to recognize himself for what he is if he looked beneath the surface of his own inflated exterior for just a brief moment. But, of course, he doesn’t; and guess what? The refreshed Fats proceeds to batter Fast Eddie from pillar to post, leaving him poorer though unfortunately no wiser, in the process.
In this little morality play Fats is clearly a better role model than Eddie, so follow his lead. Water does have miraculous restorative powers. So does a little introspection and analysis. When you feel tired, or see yourself slipping away from your finely tuned edge, try splashing some very cold water on your face. Getting some blood flowing through your veins also works wonders. Reach down, touch your toes. Do a push up or two. You may think you look foolish or seem silly but it will wake you from that desultory state of card-table hypnosis you’ve gradually allowed yourself to slip into.
Walkin’ My Troubles Away: The next time you take a bad beat and find yourself in grudge mode, bound and determined to get even, do yourself a favor. Get up, go for a walk, and don’t come back until you cool off. You’ll lose far more money staying angry than you did from that one bad beat. Walk around. Anywhere will do. Check out the coffee shop. If you’re playing in a small casino go outside and walk around the parking lot. If it’s raining or snowing, so much the better. Nothing like a bit of weather, especially cold and rainy weather, to help you chill out. And when you’re ready to come back, comb your hair, put a smile on your face, and make sure you play happy.
Changes In Attitude: You have it in your power to turn a bad beat around simply by realizing this simple truth: The more bad beats you encounter, the luckier you are. It’s a sign that you are playing against opponents who continually take the worst of it, and if you can’t beat someone who always takes the worst of it, you can’t beat anyone. While you strive to always take the best of it, they have been temporarily lucky — and the operative word is “temporarily,” not “lucky.” They will eventually give back all they’ve won and more to players like you, who play better cards, and as a result, seldom put bad beats on others. In fact, when you lose to a player who sticks around in the face of obscenely long odds only to beat you when a miracle card falls, don’t even think about it. Tell yourself, “That money I lost isn’t his. It’s just visiting.”
He’s Watching Me: Pretend you’re playing with my money instead of your own. But remember, I’m watching, and you’re on the payroll only as long as you make good decisions at the table. I’m not the kind of guy who cares whether you win or lose; but I do care that you play correctly. In fact, I’ve fired players who have made bad decisions, even when they win. I’ve also rewarded others who have are losing but playing correctly. I do this because I know I’ll come out ahead in the long run — and if you make the right choices, so will you.
Lou Krieger is the co-author of 'Poker for Dummies' and the host of Royal Vegas Poker.