Know When to Hold’em

Know When to Hold’em

A two part article on knowing when to walk away.  Part Two: “Know When To Fold’em” will be online on Friday, April 13th.


A PERSONAL STORY: The Never Ending Session

It was Sunday afternoon when I finally quit. Sixty eight hours ago, when I started playing, I never dreamed that I could win more than a thousand dollars in a single session. I also never thought it was possible to feel that tired, exhausted to the point of delusion. I simply could not continue. When I walked out of the poker room, I looked back at the table. They were still playing.

What I was attempting is impossible. I had tried to beat a game which cannot be beaten. I learned something that day.

You can win money at poker, but you can’t beat poker. Winning means to leave with more money than you started with. Beating the game implies that you are going to somehow outlast it.

Where poker differs from a video game is that there is no ending, no conclusion. It is constant, eternal. The next morning, when I went back, there were new faces, but the game was still there.

THE PROBLEM: Knowing When to Quit

Is it when you’re up, down, tired, that the game breaks or when the fish leaves, or never? Depending on the circumstances, the answer can be any of the above. Tommy Angelo, author of the excellent book “The Element of Poker,” says it best: “Walking away is easy. The hard part is standing up.”

THE REASON: We Love to Gamble and Hate to Lose

Nearly every time I quit, I still want to keep playing. Let’s face it, we love to gamble. The reason quitting is so tough is because we have to accept that you cannot do it anymore. This is particularly difficult while losing, as it means accepting the loss, or worse, defeat. The ego is damaged and will do anything to avoid the temporary pain, even if it costs us more money.


1) WHEN WINNING: I often quit when I’m winning, but sometimes I quit specifically because I am. If the money I am risking is more than what I want to lose, I’ll rack up. If a sudden loss significantly affects my mood, and possibly even forces me to play bad tomorrow, I will call it a night. In my article, “How to Get Over Massive Losses,” I talk about “Win Cap,” which is opposite of a stop loss. It’s a preset limit which, if hit, means it’s time to quit.

This is the one we struggle with the most. The urge to get unstuck, particularly in a juicy game, can keep us there for hours, even days. Unfortunately, this is also where the wheels come off and we dig ourselves into a deep hole.

Our stop loss should constantly be adjusted to whatever amount we can lose without caring about the money.

Once we pass this threshold, derailing begins. Let’s assume we know that point to be exactly when we are stuck three buy ins. In a $10/$20 NL game, where the buy in is $5000, we would be stuck at least $15,000.

2.1 Stop Loss

In this scenario, the case for quitting solely because we are losing deserves more credence than when we are ahead. After we pass our threshold for pain, it becomes hard to discern whether the loss is from poor play or bad luck. More specifically, it becomes difficult to be disciplined enough to play well in the small pots. And if we’re not careful, they can add up quick.

It doesn’t stop there. Sometimes, when I’m buried, I go into auto pilot and my play becomes very predictable. I often tell myself, “okay it’s time to play tight so I don’t lose more.” While in this state, it’s not that I’m necessarily misplaying my big hands, but I am passing on profitable opportunities to steal pots, and exchanging aggression for passivity due of fear. Remember, our win rate doesn’t only come on our edge rate vs. fish, but in the difference between our expectation against other regulars. The bigger we play, the smaller the margins are. Only a slight deviation from our A game can be the difference in a winner or loser.

2.2 Becoming Jaded

My hypothesis is simple: losing leads to worse play. Worse play costs us money. Thus, losing is the often the most important time to enforce strict discipline.

Skeptics consider this: It may not make us play worse, but is it safe to say it doesn’t make us play better?

Another reason for quitting while losing is when our perception of money is such that we force the action to get unstuck. The small pots begin to lose significance and those simple mistakes (whether or not to continuation bet, for example) are going to cost tons of money. In the big pots, we become more likely to gamble in a marginal situation. The moment we feel it, it’s time rack it up. To illustrate why, let’s explore the two possible outcomes of this scenario:

2.2.I Outcome 1: I take a bad gamble and win! Now, instead of being stuck $15,000 I’ve reduced the loss to $10,000. I’m slightly happier than being stuck $15,000, but am still having a bad day. I’m unlikely to completely return to my A game (once it’s gone, it rarely comes back), although the win will calm me down enough to cruise at my B game, a significant increase from the C game I was playing earlier.

Whether I play long enough to recover on the day, is neither here nor there. We should view our entire poker career as one session and evaluate each decision to quit independently.

2.2.II Outcome 2: We gamble and lose. Now we’re stuck $20,000 and we completely derail.

If we rebuy, it’s going to be bad. We know we should stop immediately after busting, but that only happens if we are practicing good discipline, which we aren’t. Stuck $20,000, how can we focus on whether or not to call a $60 raise pre flop. We bleed off chips for twenty minutes, trying to get it back before we calm down enough to quit. Now we’re stuck $21,700, nearly another 100 big blinds. In that moment it seems easy to do. The worst part, what we

would normal consider a good days work (80 big blinds), has just been lost in the span of a few orbits. Brutal.

Time to run the numbers. Let’s say the professional plays 250 sessions per year. He expects to lose 3 buy ins only a fraction of the time, perhaps 30 of those sessions. Of those times, he lose an average of $1000 (50 bbs) that he wouldn’t have lost had he quit earlier.

At the end of the year, that’s $30,000. In a nice high rise condo in Las Vegas, that’s his rent for the entire year.
Remember, not losing is the same as winning.

On Friday, April 13th we’ll wrap up the piece with more talk of quitting, some perspective and the most important factor in deciding when to walk away.

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  • Jessejcapps April 12, 2012 6:52 am

    You wrote it but I feel that poker is one l;ong session. IF your down $10,000 today and up $5000 tomorow your down $5000 for your session. The game never ends You have to quit when your not playing how you want but the game never leaves. By not leaving your hurting yourself in the long run and maybe watching some videos of people who tilt off will cheer you up or get you to walk away. What do you think are some good strategies to get yourself off the table? Or at least to stand up?

    • Alec Torelli April 19, 2012 5:42 pm

      Have a plan. Know the amount of time you're willing to play before going into the session and stick to it. Sometimes it takes trial and error to know when you play your best. For me, it's mid day – evening and I quickly fade as the night goes on. I've tracked my sessions to confirm this and my suspicion was correct. I do poorly when I'm tired. Find the leaks, plug them and take advantage of the flexibility you have to work around them.

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