Sunday, January 09, 2011

Why I Quit Playing Poker For A Living, Pt. 1 – from the Poker Chronicles

As I research why we have lost players in this league - and can't seem to get any more, I saw this great article. Enjoy.

“A lot of people ask me why I quit playing poker. When people ask a question like that they're expecting a fairly brief answer, and unfortunately the full version is a long story that's hard to tell in any reasonable amount of time. So I usually give them the executive summary, which was that I felt it was time to move on. That's definitely true, though somewhat vague. But it's better than the answer they seem to expect, which ranges from "I went broke" to "I lost my house in a bad game of 5 card stud. Then my wife left me. And she took the dog," depending on how much they know about poker.”

Luckily for me that wasn’t the case. At one point I just knew it was time to find another path through life. Like a bad poker player who just got his pocket aces cracked on the turn, though, I kept pushing it. I continued to play long after my instincts told me give up and suffered the consequences. Had I understood myself better, I could have saved a lot of pain, and a nice chunk of money. But I didn’t. I overstayed my welcome and paid dearly for it.

Why it was time to quit, and why poker eventually ceased to be what it used to for me is hard to explain to someone who doesn’t play it for a living, and near impossible for someone who doesn’t even play as a hobby. I'll try my best for both though. To understand, there are a few things that one has to know about playing poker.

The most important is that no matter how well you play, you often lose. It's just part of the nature of the game, and, for that matter, any game largely subject to random events. Even the best poker players can lose for a very long time. Depending on the variant you're playing that could mean months, or even, in rare cases, years. Losing streaks are an unfortunate fact of life. In fact, for a professional poker player, they're the most unfortunate.

Another thing to understand is that in poker you can't fake it, or at least you shouldn’t. If you're a writer, or an accountant, or a lawyer, or have just about any other occupation I can think of, you can phone it in when you need to and nothing too bad will happen. You can go to work, fly under the radar for a day, not be your fully productive self, and you'll still get paid. They won't cancel your health insurance and you'll still accrue your vacation time. It's likely nobody will even notice, and if they did, they might be understanding, since everyone is in that position sooner or later. At some jobs you can get away with this for days at a time, and a lot of people make entire careers out of it.

Not so in poker. You can play badly for a day, but you're just costing yourself money. You might get lucky and win, or you might not and lose, but you'll win less or lose more than you should have. Either way if you're playing badly you're costing yourself money. In a game where the best player has only a one or two percent edge, playing badly is far worse than not playing at all. It's the only job I know of where, 100% of the time, you will only hurt yourself by functioning suboptimally.

Moreover, there's a huge difference between playing at 100% and 90%. Poker is a game of very fine edges, where you are rewarded for making a lot of good decisions that are, mathematically speaking, only slightly better than the alternatives. So while a programmer who is having a bit of an off day but is still almost as productive as normal can make progress, a poker player who is making almost as many decisions correctly as he normally does can actually go from being a significant winner to a significant loser. If you can't bring your A game to the table, you're better off staying home.

Poker is also an extremely complex game. So much so that computers are unable to function at even a passable level. (Contrast this to chess, where they are able to consistently outperform even the best humans.) As such, nobody plays their best game of poker at all times. It's impossible. Sometimes you're going to be off of your A game. We are irrational, emotional creatures. That's not our fault; we're a product of evolution, and those same emotions that once kept us from choosing the wrong mate or being eaten by a lion hamper us in daily life. And nowhere do they hurt us more than at the poker table, a battleground where cold math, logic and objectivity are a person's only assets, and everything else is a liability.

Playing badly happens a lot more frequently than one might expect, even for the players with the tightest reigns over their emotions (which I was once one of, but am no longer). And it happens the most when you're on one of the inevitable losing streaks. A losing streak in poker is almost inexplicable to someone who hasn’t experienced it. The best way I can translate it to normal people is this:

Imagine you go to work every day and do your absolute best. You work as hard as you can, do everything perfectly, or at least as close to it as humanly possible, and throughout the day, every 15 minutes, your boss comes over and tells you that you are an idiot. Each time he tells you that everything you do is wrong, even if you know it's not. Then instead of paying you, he forces you to write a check to the company.

That's about how stressful losing streaks are. You question everything you do. Every decision you're faced with seems tough, and almost every one you make turns out, in hindsight, to have been wrong. You doubt your ability, because as a human, you've been programmed to equate success with good decision making and failure with bad. You tell yourself over and over that you just have to keep playing the way you always have and it will turn around, but deep down you start to doubt it. You have no choice, it's operant conditioning in action.

Because of the variance, poker is also a game in which very little can ever be known for certain. The high fluctuations make proving any useful theory only possible in hindsight. You can mathematically examine your past results and prove that you are a winning player or a losing player to a high degree of certainty, but it takes such a large sample size that once done, it's entirely useless. You can determine that your wins over the last year (if you played a hell of a lot of hands over that time) were outside of the range attributable to luck. You can discover your realistic minimum and maximum expectation for that time, and if the bottom of the range is above zero, you're mathematically certain to have been a winning player.

But that was last year. The game has changed. You've made changes to your game, and aren’t playing the same way anymore. Your opponents are different. Maybe you moved up a limit or two so they're a little tougher, or maybe you stayed at the same game but the field changed. You can't prove that you are a winner, only that you were. So on a losing streak, you can't simply turn to math or logic to console you, because it can only help explain the past. Ask it if you are playing well right now and the only answer you get is "I don't know. Play a year and ask me again."

The other option is, and many people take this approach, to simply never question yourself, no matter what. Just keep playing the same way and assume that any bad runs are simply due to luck. This, too, is extremely dangerous, because the minute you're wrong, you're headed for broke. The Peter Principle will ensure that you will, at some point, hit a level of competition that's too strong for you, and your ego won't let you adapt. You'll march blindly into the poorhouse.

So being good at poker, at least professionally, means walking a fine line between the two extremes. You must be willing to consider that you should adapt, but not be too hasty to do so, because changing a winning game can be just as bad as not changing a losing one. You must simultaneously have faith in your own abilities and question whether or not you could be playing much better. It's a delicate balance, and one that takes an incredible emotional toll on you.

This is, in a nutshell, why playing poker is often referred to as a "hard way to make an easy living." It's all the stress of the losing streak. To put it in perspective, I once met someone who quit a job as an air traffic controller, long considered the most stressful job in existence, to play poker for a living. He did it for a year and claimed to have made about 25% more than he would have at his job, but went back to his old career because, as he said, it was "far less stressful".”

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent article. Really hit home for me as I am currently on a break from live poker, due to a horrendous bad streak. No meaningful cashes in about 2 months. No cards, bad luck, and bad timing all hitting me at same time.
Luckily for me my online game is running real good.

Punk

Anonymous said...

Quit poker. Play the horses!

BH

P.S. I have a book coming soon....

Anonymous said...

Truth be told is that poker is not a difficult thing to master.

Case in point- if BigBriMar and beer hog can play and win then anyone with a speck of common sense can.

Geez - was this latest post sounds like it was written by some wimpy liberal. Poker is tough! Winning will not come easy.

I used to think this was a conservative blog but posts like this only give evidence that it will at the forefront of the "Obame 2012" campaign.

Anonymous said...

"Case in point"?
I guesss that would leave 4Putt out, common sense should tell you to take your apron off before you play your yearly round of golf with Faldos' group. Then again, old habits are hard to break.

Pre01 said...

Good perspective, but maybe it's simpler than that. I've been in a couple of golf leagues with the same problem - loss of players and poor recruitment.

Any 'league' requires a commitment to show up on a regular basis. Online poker, for most of us, is attractive because we can take a spare hour, sign up for a SnG, and within minutes - or seconds - be playing.

Add to it the inherent distractions of playing from home - kids, wife, TV, phone, whatever - and you really do either have to be on your game or locked in a little soundproof closet (builder's plans available on request).

Maybe we're just 'too busy' or have too many distractions to make that committment. At least with most golf leagues, paying the big nut up front is a motivator to attend.

I enjoy the league very much, but I have to miss the first Tuesday due to a once a month live game. Maybe you need a quarterly 'iron man' prize for perfect attendance - LOL.

Matchy said...

Good article. As a guy who came in at the tail end of live play at Nik's Poker Palace I was introduced to Pokerstars simply as an extension of you basement Mike. Back then it was mostly the same guys playing online that were playing live, we all knew each other. Now that has obviously changed, which is not a bad thing because the games are bigger. However I suppose I will never be a "true" poker player in that I prefer to play with people I know for the social aspect, not to try and win money from people I do not know. This is certainly why I love home games and rarely visit casinos or charity rooms. Plus my kids have grown and are busy in sports and after school stuff, so life is usually in the way on weekend nights. Anyway I rarely logon on to pokerstars at all on my own time, but I still LOVE me a home game!
Matchy
PS I am a litlle distressed at your email regarding your heart rythym, I hope they get that stuff figured out bro!

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