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Coping with Poker Losses

Ttraining-in-frustrationhere is nothing like a hot streak. All of your decisions are correct. Your opponents are making the mistakes, not you. You are hitting your draws and getting action on those pocket aces. You feel in complete control, capable of taking on Ivey and Negreanu.

Life is good behind a big chip stack. It is easy to be positive when you are in the lead. But you can’t play poker without facing the darkness of losing.

The statisticians will tell you that regression is inevitable. As such, you should expect a fairly equal quantity of cold streaks as you do hot ones. This articles is not about reducing the quantity of cold streaks but their quality. After all, the odds tells us that we are all equally as likely to be dealt the same cards over the course of our poker lives. The results will vary by our ability and at the invisible hand of variance. However, decision-making, as I’ve noted previously, is a skill heavily influenced by emotion. Therefore, how we react emotionally at the table is key to how we cope with losing streaks.

It may seem odd to do, but to understand losing, let’s start with winning.

Your pat on the back

It feels good to be recognized for something we’ve done. Getting an award, earning a raise, or simply getting a slap on the back makes us feel good. Isn’t great to be judged favorably? Of course it is. But it is still a judgment. If you rely on the approval of others too heavily, you will learn that disapproval can be very painful. Whether it is positive approval or negative criticism, remember that it is still judgment. In poker, if you are euphoric in victory you are more likely to be equally as devastated in defeat. The external outcomes can keep us on a yo-yo, emotions dancing on a string.

Ways to cope with losing

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Coping with losing can be addressed from two points-of-view; the preparation perspective and the reaction perspective.

Reaction Perspective

One way you can deal with a loss is by dealing with how you react to losing as you are reacting to it. This is just like dealing with a burning house by improving your fire hose skills. These are valuable skills, especially when dealing with a devastating loss at the table. The next hand happens quickly and having your wits to stay focused is extremely important to avoid making mistakes in judgement. Everyone has struggled with leaving a bad hand behind them. Coping must be done quickly or risk the slippery slope of tilt. I’ve written about reacting positively previously and the good news is that it isn’t that difficult to get better with a bit of a plan.

Preparation Perspective

By contrast, you can strengthen your coping skills preventively. To continue the analogy, this is like building a house that is more fire retardant. Taking a 10,000 foot high view on the game is typically more helpful when a big loss or losing streak happens. Think of it as a tree that has healthier roots, able to withstand the elements that nature has to throw at it.

Understanding the ego goes a long way to understanding the relationship between performance and emotions. I am partial to citing Eckhart Tolle, a spiritual guru, for his eloquent analysis of the ego. The ego, he notes, strives to stand out. It fights to be in the limelight. Whether it is pride or pain, the ego is like a mountain. It demands to be seen. As peaceful as they are, valleys go relatively unnoticed.

Understand the ego and your game will improve, if not only for the fact that the ego is at the heart of your tilting. It is also the driver of irrational and grandiose feelings that you are unbeatable when you are on a hot streak. It lives on the edges and will try and drag you there whenever it can. However, most people don’t worry about the winning feelings because they like them. More commonly, thoughts such as I am unlucky, this is unfair, I’m such a donkey etc. receive most of the attention. They come from the ego’s attachment to an identity that is under threat. If you see yourself as a great player, any evidence to the contrary challenges your investment in this identity. Consequently, the ego, and a bunch of awful feelings, flare up.

Detachment from the ego is key to coping with the swings of the game. Just remember that the true you is the one who listens to those thoughts, not the one who creates them. Yes, that might sound crazy and many others can explain these nuances better than I. However, take a moment to think about the last time you felt the most like yourself, even beyond the game. Were you lost in a lot of thought? Were you in your head? Or were you calm and mentally peaceful? A vast majority of people I have asked this say that the ego is nowhere to be found when the feel the most like themselves. This is no coincidence.

Prepare for losses by realizing that the ego fuels itself with the fixation on winning or losing.  This is how people can be so reactive. Playing well over time is about having a calm, healthy perspective in addition to solid skills. Great poker skills are often thrown away because the ego takes over and poker becomes too emotional to bare.

Getting better at poker

Most people put little to no time at improving their coping skills. It takes a big loss or losing streak to realize how important it is to prepare for the pain. Preparing for loss is as important as preparing to win. Whether you wish to get better at your emotional reactions from hand-to-hand or you want to have a healthier perspective on the game, there are many ways to start improving today.

Kelly Doell, PhD is a mental performance consultant. He is always ready to speak to you about your mental game at www.KellyDoell.com

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