A bad run of starting hands can be a frustrating experience. No one enjoys folding for hours on end while watching other players at the table contest pots and stack chips. If you’re going to take poker seriously, though, you have to accept these “dry spells” as par for the course and learn to handle them with the discipline of a champion. Failing to do so will be a very expensive mistake.
Fundamentally, you have to decide why you are playing poker. Do you enjoy the strategy of it? Are you trying to get better, move up in stakes, and win money? Or are you there to gamble? Are you willing to lose money in the long run in order to have the thrill of the sweat, the ups and downs, the cruel delight of outdrawing a big pair with your garbage hand as well as the sickening sight of your own cracked aces?
Either way, you should be honest with yourself, because you can’t have it both ways. Proper, winning poker involves a lot of folding. The big pots are few and far between. If the adrenaline spikes of winning and losing are what you’re really after, my honest advice is to head to the pit for some craps or blackjack. Of course the house has an edge in those games, but not as much of an edge as your opponents will have if you get bored and start calling raises with trashy hands in a no-limit hold’em game.
If your goal is to play winning poker, then you need to understand what you can and can’t control. Believe it or not, winning is secondary. All you can control are the decisions that you make. If you consistently make the right decisions, then money will follow eventually, but there’s no guarantee that it will happen tonight, or tomorrow, or even this week or this month. Losing is part of the game, and learning to keep your losses to a minimum by not tilting or playing badly as a result of boredom is a big part of being a winning player.
Think of it this way: over the course of your career, you will have many winning nights and many losing nights. Whether or not you win on a particular night is not going to matter to you 10 years from now. What will matter is the grand total of all those wins and losses, how much money you netted after a decade of poker.
There are two ways of increasing the size of that total, and you should strive for both:
- You can increase the size of your winning nights by learning to extract more money from strong hands. (That’s where most poker players focus their efforts.)
- You can also decrease the size of your losing nights by building up the discipline to endure a run of bad cards.
In my opinion, the latter is easier to do, and in the end reducing your losses is worth just as much as increasing your wins. A penny saved is a penny earned, after all.
Once you conceptualize your goal as making good decisions rather than “booking a win” or standing up from the table with more money than you had when you sat down, a bad run of cards can start to look like an opportunity.
When I get under the gun, I know that the odds are in my favour, but I also know that I’m likely to face a lot of tough decisions. Even if I win the pot there’s a good chance that I won’t play perfectly. Should I limp-reraise or just open for a raise? If the latter, how big should the raise be? Should I continuation bet the flop or check-raise? If I’m called, I face the same decision on the turn. If I’m raised, do I call, move all in, or even fold? There’s plenty of room for error even when you have the nuts.
By contrast, it’s easy to make money with -offsuit under the gun. All I have to do is peek at my cards, toss them towards the centre of the table, and then congratulate myself on a job well done. Unlike with the aces, I know that my play was literally perfect. The best player in the world couldn’t have done any better than I did. I’ve never lost sleep over folding nine-deuce before the flop.
Folding doesn’t have to be boring. Instead, look at it as an opportunity to work towards more of your goals, such as gathering intelligence on your opponents and practising your hand reading. When you aren’t involved in the pot, it’s the perfect opportunity to study your opponents. Without the distractions involved in pondering how to play your cards, you can focus on looking for physical tells and betting patterns.
Although it may well happen and you should be prepared for a it, a bad run of cards doesn’t have to mean a losing session. Often, a winning session consists of no more than one or two big pots that go your way plus the absence of big losses. You can’t force big pots to go your way, but while you’re waiting for those golden opportunities you can work on the “absence of big losses” part by continuing to make the right folding decisions.
Some nights that big pot will come along eventually and you’ll book at least a small win. Other nights it won’t, and you’ll book a small loss. There’s always tomorrow. Your future self isn’t going to remember or care that you bought in for $200 and cashed out for $140. But that future self will be happy to have an extra $140 because you didn’t get bored and bluff off your stack while trying to “get even” with a hand you shouldn’t have played in the first place.