I’ve been going through a months-long streak of poor performance in poker tournaments that’s actually got me troubled. In the last few weeks, I’ve played in several high-stakes tournaments where I’ve come within a few players of making the money, only to bust out. And last Friday night, for about the fifth or sixth time in three months, I busted on the bubble, that rare position that is the highest ranking player not to earn any money. Previously, in the past six or seven years, I busted on the bubble only once that I can recall. Yet lately I’ve done it 5 or 6 times in three months.
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I recently posted on Facebook about my final table in an online WSOP.com tournament, and though I beat out almost 500 players to finish 5th, it was a small buy-in tournament I played for fun (and out of boredom) and made a couple hundred dollars.
I pay for my own buy-ins, unlike many professional players who get wealthy backers to stake their entries in return for a percentage of winnings (if any). The most successful players get more money from endorsements, book deals, teaching courses, and other promotional work than they do from their actual winnings, so they can afford to buy into tournaments multiple times until they eventually build up a big stack and finish high up in the rankings. At least that’s my understanding.
Now you can argue that I don’t need the money—and I’ve had many people tell me that—and that I’m playing just for fun—and it is fun—but the money is a sign of success, and I’m not feeling very successful as of late. And it bothers me. It’s only fun to sit at a poker table for eight or more hours straight, seeing cards fly by in constant motion—sometimes stuck next to a rude, annoying, or even smelly player—if I get rewarded once in a while, not so much by the money (though I definitely do appreciate the money) but also by placing high in the rankings and preferably at the revered winner spot. The money is a sign that I’ve become skilled and accomplished at my game.
When I hit a long losing streak, friends often respond, “that’s poker” or “it all depends on the cards,” which are both true but not completely comforting. For example, if I’m skilled in any activity, I should win more than I lose unless 1) I’m not actually skilled or 2) there’s so much luck involved that maybe the game isn’t worth playing. I’m constantly evaluating my play; I’ve seen incompetent people lose—in many endeavors, not just poker—and blame their loss on everything but their own incompetence, because they believe they’re highly competent. This is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, based on a study by a psych professor and his grad student at my alma mater Cornell. I’m always afraid of being one of those unaware incompetent people, so I’m always reevaluating my skills in all fields.
In analyzing my own recent poker play, I found a few plays that were arguably wrong, but I think they were borderline moves. In other words, I think you can justify doing what I did or doing something different—folding or raising for example. I can think of only one hand where I made an obvious mistake and knew it immediately when I did it, because I did it once before, a few years ago. I held two big clubs in my hand. The flop had two clubs, and I was so intent on getting that third club for the flush that when the river card was a club, I got excited and ignored the fact that there was a pair on the board. I bet. The other player raised. All I had to do was call his bet and we’d show our cards to see who won. Instead, in my excitement, I shoved and, he called to show me his full house. I had no reason to raise him. As poker pro Tony Dunst says, only a better hand will call that raise. A worse hand than mine would fold to my raise, meaning my raise was pointless—I’d get the same amount of chips regardless of whether I called or raised. The only player who would call my raise was one with a better hand than mine—a full house (or quads). I lost some sleep over that one.
I’ve also considered whether I just tire out as we get to the money, usually around midnight, and start making mistakes. I played racquetball when I was younger and used to peter out toward the end of the match when I got exhausted. One friend in particular would just save up his energy until he saw me tiring and then come from behind to beat me. Am I doing that mentally in poker? So Friday night I focused hard, and I think I played the perfect game. In fact, I built my stack up to perhaps the largest in the entire tournament. Certainly the largest at my table. People were shocked at the success of some of my plays, and told me so.
For example, I had been dealt A♠K♠, generally considered a really great hand. I was the table chip leader. One short-stacked player shoved. Another player with a stack close to my size decided to call him. I showed everyone at my table that I was folding “big slick,” the name for AK. And mine were suited (i.e., both were the same suit), which makes it an even better hand. What many players don’t understand is that it’s not a great hand unless you’re short-stacked and need to double up to survive. Heads up against one other player, big slick is very good, with a decent chance of winning. In a three-way match, it actually isn’t very good. My chances of winning are about one out of three. Why risk a lot of chips on 33% odds? As it turned out, the big stack also had big slick, reducing my odds of winning even further, to about 8%, since two of my “outs,” ace and king, were already out of the deck and in my opponent’s hand. The short stack had QJ, and a J came out to give him a pair and the win. Had I called the bet, I would have lost a lot of chips.
There was a woman at the table whom I’d played against a couple times before. She sauntered up to the table late in the tournament, slapped down her chips, and said to no one in particular, “I can’t believe I have so few chips. My stack is so small that I can’t stand it. I don’t even know how to play with such a small stack. Everyone who knows me knows that I always have a lot of chips.” I thought this was not only rude, but she inadvertently gave me information that she was going to be very aggressive, including bluffing, to try to increase her chip stack. She shoved on her first few hands just to get more chips.
A little while later, I got dealt pocket As. I did a small raise under the gun, and she called in the big blind. Everyone else folded. The flop was small cards, maybe 872. I made a decent sized bet, but not too large, expecting that she would raise to try to bully me out of the hand. I knew she didn’t expect that I had aces. As I predicted, she did a very big raise. Too big to be legitimate. If she had a great hand, she’d want to keep me in the hand rather than scare me out. It looked very clearly like a bluff. After all, what hand could she reasonably have with that board that would beat my aces? So I “thought” for a bit before shoving. She sighed, looked directly at me. I stared back, not flinching, and she folded.
Shortly after that, she was short stacked on the button, and I was in the big blind with QJ. I had a very big stack, probably 5 or 6 times hers. Everyone folded, but when it came to her turn, she shoved. I knew she was frustrated with her small stack, was still angry at me for my previous beat, and also because I had called the dealer on her in the game. She had a habit of being on the phone—which is actually not allowed when you’re playing a hand---and then folding without looking at the action. Several times, she folded out of turn. This gives information to the people upstream who then know that there’s one less person who will bet or raise. And, intentionally or not, she had a good friend to her right who was profiting from this extra information.
When I called her out to the dealer, she said some things about me to the player next to her, said some things to me under her breath that I couldn’t make out—something about me being “scratchy” or “shady,” and then shot lasers from her eyeballs into mine. I didn’t flinch. I just shrugged and said, “those are the rules.” And I continued to stare back until she turned away.
I knew she was on tilt and wanted to intimidate me, so I called her shove. She showed J2 and the players at the table were again shocked. “You called with QJ but folded AK?”
But in this case I was playing the player as much as I was playing the cards. She was angry, aggressive, and I could afford to lose some chips if she beat me. I believed she shoved just to intimidate me, especially since I have a reputation for playing tight. She busted out.
The point is that I think I played perfectly that night reading the cards and players right, and using my conservative reputation to my advantage. As we got closer to the money, the blinds got bigger and my stack got smaller, since I just wasn’t getting great cards and a lot of players were shoving, trying to build up their own small stacks. I was able to shove at opportune times—sometimes because I was dealt a great hand and sometimes because I was able to bluff the other player into folding rather than calling me and risk busting out. I was really happy with my play.
At the final table, with 8 of the remaining 9 players to be paid, my stack got very low—about 3 big blinds—and I was positioned on the button. I had KQ and everyone folded around to me. I only had to beat two players, the small blind and the big blind. And being the smallest stack at the table, it was critical for me to double up before the blinds came back around to me. So I shoved. Unfortunately the small blind called with A8. Given that my stack was so much smaller than his, calling with an ace and a mediocre card wasn’t a bad decision, especially since they were suited. As (bad) luck would have it, neither of us connected with the board, but he didn’t have to. I once again busted on the bubble. Six hours of play with nothing to show for it.
I’m encouraged, actually, by Daniel “Kid Poker” Negreanu, one of the best players in the history of poker, who recently won $3 million in the Super High Roller Bowl tournament. He admitted that he had lost more than $1.1 million while playing at the World Series of Poker and had just gone through a terrible, losing two years. Like me, he recently bubbled the $50,000 buy-in Poker Masters when his pocket As were cracked by pocket Js. He said, “The last two years have been really, really difficult mentally because I know my game is better than ever… I know when it’s me making mistakes, and it isn’t… I hate whining about bad luck. It's the worst. Nobody wants to hear it. My wife, when I come home she feels what it's like. It's so frustrating to feel like you're playing well and the results aren't there.”
My wife Carrie can certainly relate to that.
There’s also a third possibility, that the Universe is out to get me. Maybe I’m like Job in the Bible whom God punishes for no apparent reason. I keep feeling this way, because I think I’m a really good player (though still possible that I’m just wrong about that). Like many times in my life, I’ve worked hard at some project only to see it fail for inexplicable reasons. I always get depressed for a day or two—sometimes a week or more—then become determined to work even harder and try again. Or move onto another project. Rationally I know that cards are random just like many events in life are random, but emotionally when I work hard and make great decisions and things still don’t work out, it feels like the Universe is just designed to test me. And defeat me. Like I’m living in the Matrix.
When I eventually become more rational, I’ll ask myself whether I should keep up poker or move onto my next endeavor. I guess you’ll know when/if I write my next poker blog. If you have any advice for me, leave it in the comments.
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I think the problem is obvious, and I also think its pretty awesome that you self-identified it. There is something faulty going on in your play when you get close to the money...that much is quite clear. Statistically, you busting out at the same point in the tournament so many times can only mean one thing...that you are not adjusting your play to meet the new demands of the tables as you and your competitors get close to the money.
Maybe it's time to review some high-quality poker advice about adjusting your play near the money. One thing is certain...it cannot hurt. Best of luck to you and thanks for the interesting reads.