Last night I played in a £10 rebuy tournament in my local pub and watched with fun, amusement and a tinge of awkwardness as my good friend bought in 21 times during the rebuy period.
Was he unlucky? Did he have a bad beat story (or 21 of them) to tell?
Not really. He had lost it.
It’s one of the common problems in the lower levels of the game and something that will likely cost you more money than any technical leak you may have.
So I enlisted the help of a man who knows more about tilt than Ray Kroc knows about making hamburgers: the author of The Mental Game of Poker and The Mental Game of Poker 2, Jared Tendler.
“So many people come into poker having previously experienced wins and losses in sport, chess, or many other forms of competition,” Tendler says, “where the playing field is more equal.
“In poker you have to recognize that there’s another entity besides you and your opponents that will dictate results.”
“In golf it’s called the ‘rub of the green’ and in poker we know it as ‘variance.’ To pinch a golfing analogy, variance in poker is like hitting a perfect drive down the middle of the fairway and continually watching it bounce out of bounds.
“It’s like having somebody that is truly insane, someone who has no perspective in reality, influencing results. And if you don’t understand that entity you will be the one who is driven insane.”
So with a better view of what variance is, what can beginners do to harness that awareness so that its power doesn’t influence results beyond what it already will?
“The best way for beginners to befriend variance,” Tendler says, “is to look at their results and pinpoint instances where they were favorites and lost.”
Record and Review
There’s an old adage that says, ‘You Cannot Manage What You Cannot Measure.’ If you want to improve your game then you need to start recording your hands and spending enough time reviewing your play.
“Review the specific instances where you had an advantage,” Tendler says, “that was eliminated by factors that neither you nor your opponent controlled.
“You are mostly going to see this when you are all-in. So, if you are ahead at any point when you are all-in, and you lose, then you got unlucky and that result was entirely down to variance.
“Then you have to look at the other side of that. What about the instances where you were behind and got lucky?”
With that understanding of how I have no control over variance, and therefore that it has nothing to do with my level of skill, what other measures can I use to help me identify skill deficiencies in my game?
“One measure that players use a lot is “all-in EV (Expected Value”) and they use it to determine how lucky or unlucky they are. However, this is just a starting point.
“Many seasoned players make the mistake of placing all of their eggs into this particular basket. They over use all-in EV as a pure measure of how they are running and this is not true.”
Learn to Lose
“There are a lot of people who hate to lose,” Tendler says. “As a poker player your job is to get really good at losing because it’s going to happen a lot.
“You have to embrace the reality of losing. This doesn’t mean you are accepting it without doing anything about it because this is a mistake. It’s being too passive.
“But review your play to get a view on whether you have made the best decision or not, and begin to focus more of your energy on quality decision-making relating to your game and less on pureness of your results, because results can be so influenced by luck.”
What About Monetary Measures?
“It’s one measure and it’s an important measure,” Tendler says, “so we don’t take it away or disregard it. But we are also not going to overestimate or overvalue it.
“Instead, I would suggest reviewing any hand that you were confused over or found really tough. If you haven’t made a decision in the first 10-15 seconds playing online then you need to review that hand because there’s something to learn.
“Even if you got the hand right there’s still something to look at to encourage the learning.”
“Another big area for beginners to be aware about is anxiety,” says Tendler.
“This concept is still not talked about enough in poker and one of the reasons for this is so many people don’t relate to anxiety as well as they should.
“For example when your mind goes blank, you can’t think or your thinking is just so basic – it’s important to know that this is anxiety.”
Once you’ve recognized anxiety what are the solutions to prevent it from injuring your game?
“It depends what’s causing the anxiety,” says Tendler. “Is it a fear of failure? A fear of making mistakes? A fear of looking stupid?
“Look inward. Be true to yourself. Be self-aware and then start working on those issues.
“The beginner has an advantage because in the beginning the anxieties are very small. When you address small stuff when it’s small you’ll be able to avoid long-term problems and make your progress a lot more efficient without some of the bigger ups and downs.
“It’s not all bad though. Anxiety is the twin cousin to excitement. So anxiety, at low levels, can be the fuel to really power on at a higher level.
“If you look at the most elite competitions in poker and sport, that anxiety, and that nervousness and excitement, can all blend together with a bit of adrenaline to allow you to perform at levels that you were never previously allowed to do.
“So anxiety is not a bad thing if it’s not present in excessive levels. It’s easier to be honest with yourself when you know that avoidance is only going to make your situation worse.
“There is no solution that has ever come from pure avoidance. More and more of my clients come to me having been blocking out problems for so long and eventually they blow up in their face.
“They didn’t realize that by blocking the smaller anxiety issues out, or not recognizing them, they would create bigger problems further down the line.”
So Self-Awareness is the Key?
“Absolutely,” Tendler says. “Raise awareness about how you are feeling and why you’re doing everything you are doing. Don’t stop thinking.
“This is one of the clearest ways where my book can come in handy. Beginners can read the book for building awareness.
“It gives them a primer for issues they don’t even have yet. And possibly they can even prevent them.
“It can also be a great idea to look back into their own personal history: sport, relationships, previous jobs – has anxiety been present?
“If you’ve had issues before in other walks of life then they are likely to pop up again in poker if you’ve not resolved them.”