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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Poker #1 : Knowing when to say when

How do you know when it's time to end a session of playing cash?

This a vital question for anyone who takes the game seriously and wants to actually make money over time. The conventional poker wisdom on the subject is: you should keep playing in a game when you are confident that you have an edge.

The catch here is that you have to be able to assess your edge pretty keenly. This turns out to be significantly more difficult in practice than in theory. While most of us are able to judge fairly accurately whether or not we are playing our "A" game, it's not always obvious whether our A game is good enough to prevail at a given table. And if, for any number of everyday reasons, we've regressed to our B game, it can be hard to say for sure that the B game isn't plenty adequate to prevail over the competition.

Should I stop playing the moment I know I'm not playing my A game?

In my view, not necessarily. There are a whole lot of circumstances in which my B game can handily generate profit. Maybe not maximum profit, but enough to make the game worth the candle. If we all only played when we could bring our A game, most of us would hardly play at all. And for a person who's playing small stakes, that's not going to be enough. Maybe if you're Phil Ivey you can afford to only play your A game. (But, hey, I've seen him looking pretty bored and disgruntled at the poker table, so I suspect he doesn't always bring his best to the table. On the other hand, his B game is more than sufficient to put most everyone else in the shade, so why wouldn't he play it at stakes he can easily afford? My guess is that when he plays for nosebleed stakes, he does in fact bring only his A game.)

Should I set a stop-loss and quit when I'm down a certain amount of money for the session?

In many cases, this makes a lot of sense. But not for the reasons you might think. It's not the monetary loss for any one session, in either absolute or relative terms, that matters. It's the cumulative effect generated by losing over the length of a session: eventually you can start feeling like a loser. And it's really hard to play well when you know in your bones that you are A LOSER. A stop-loss policy is fundamentally a tilt-management ~ not a bankroll-management ~ technique.

Should I set an earnings goal for the session and stop when I reach it to lock in the win?

Again, the conventional wisdom is no: if you're winning, and you believe your edge is such that you can keep winning, you should play on.

But there's a catch. Success is a double-edged sword. There is a such a thing as success-tilt; that's when, because you're doing well, you start to suspect you are poker god. The upshot of this excess of self-confidence is that you play less and less optimally, because in your heart of hearts you have begun to believe that you can do no wrong and that you are just that much better than your competition. You are fated to crush them.

Yeah. Not so much.

It would, actually, be better in those cases to quit while you're ahead. This has two benefits. First, you end the session on a positive note; you reward yourself by booking a profit. And you avoid the trap of hubris... which can lead to giving all your gains back and then some. The emotional crash that ensues when you turn a profit into a loss through success-tilt is even worse than a plain ol' gradual decline in a losing session.

A highly-evolved professional will get past being influenced by the highs and lows of session results. When you find such a professional, I will shake his or her hand and bow in respect. I will seek to be his or her apprentice. I aspire to attain that level of detachment myself.

But until I do, I think I'm going to institute some personal guidelines and see how applying a little session discipline to my live cash game works for me. The first one will be the requirement that I step away from the table for fifteen minutes when I reach 2x my buy-in. And that I walk away from the table for a full hour when I get to 3x my buy-in, and seriously consider not returning. The same time-out intervals should apply to losses at -1x and -2x buy-in.
To finish, here is a video of an impressive bluff :


  1. Thank you for the nice advices! i've been starting lately my love for poker, but i've played a little bit and it's really exciting

  2. excellent info man. i'm an extreme novice myself, but i have no problem playing with random people and getting some money. i believe last time i played, i won about 50$.

  3. stick with the blog its great, i am following ;)

  4. cool blog, I`ve been wanting to get into this since forever, supporting!

  5. Excellent post. And wow, that bluff in the video was awesome, and the wind really helped the mood. Nice blog by the way, followed.

  6. LOL epic vid ! i hope i can do the same with my friends !

  7. That video man... Ryan dies inside. Haha. Chuck some more vids in your other posts. I've just gone through and read then all. Very very good. Clear and makes perfect sense