The Risks of Losing at Poker

By Ashley Adams | May 13, 2011

We all know the obvious risk of losing at poker. The risk is you lose your money and go broke. Big revelation. Some insightful poker theorist I am. But there’s more – much more to consider when it comes to the risks of losing.

Aside from the most obvious, I have identified three distinct risks from losing that may affect your poker game – and then their antidote. Let’s take them all in turn.

#1. Loss of self control (steaming):

Self control is one of the twin towers of winning play (the other being correct poker strategy). Knowing the correct move for the situation is absolutely irrelevant if you don’t have the self control to execute it. If, for example, you have a well defined and winning list of starting hands to suit your situation but you are too impatient to fold the hands that aren’t on your list, then it hardly matters if you have a list of correct starting hands in the first place.

Losing puts that self control at risk. In its most apparent manifestation a player loses a lot and then goes on tilt – unable to keep his inner demons from corrupting his optimal game. The deeper he sinks into the red, the less self control he has. He enters what I call a “death spiral” of bad decisions, more losses, and decreasing control – ending only when he has run through his entire bankroll or leaves the room.

Antidote: Loss Limit

A loss limit is the setting of a predetermined amount of money that, once lost, is a trigger for you to leave the game, no matter how good or bad you believe the game to be. So, for example, if you are a $2/5 no limit player, you might set your loss limit as two complete buy-ins of $500. If you lose $1,000 you leave – no matter what.

Admittedly, this goes against the strategy that has you continue to play poker as long as you gauge the game to be good. But it acknowledges that when you have lost this amount of money you may not be good enough to beat the game.

Not everyone falls victim to a loss of self control when they have lost a considerable sum of money. A small percentage of us are experienced, even tempered, or skillful enough to be able to maintain our best game even when we are losing. For these players this antidote doesn’t make sense. Stay as long as the game is good, play your optimal game, and all will be well. Still, for the rest of you, setting a loss limit makes sense – to stem the losses before a lack of self control has you losing everything you have..

#2. Futility

This is a variation of steaming, but it has a unique flavor. Losing sometimes triggers a sense of futility. Once you lose a lot of money, you become more willing to shove in your remaining money even if you know it’s not likely to be profitable for you to do so. Here’s a real world example of what might happen.

You bring $1,000 to a $2/5 no limit game at your friendly neighborhood poker room. You optimistically buy in for the maximum of $500. You’re tight at first, and hit a long string of hands that you deem unplayable. Your stack sinks to $450 or so in the first 15 minutes as you literally fold everything that isn’t a blind. But you’re no rookie – so you’re not worried.

You finally get a playable hand – two black Queens in early position. You raise to $25 – perhaps a little too exuberantly because of your early drought. You get a caller on the button – and the big blind calls too. The flop is ahjh3s. The small blind checks. You hesitate a bit as you wonder if either of your opponents has an Ace, and then you bet $75. Both opponents surprise you by calling. The turn is 9s. The board is now ahjh3s9s. The big blind bets $100. You wonder why he makes such a small bet. The growing pot, now about $400, tempts you. You think about whether he might be pushing a flush draw; you think it’s more likely he had a weak Ace and just made two pair. Or maybe he started with J9? You’re not sure. But for $100 you’ve got to see the bet. So you call as does the third player. The qh hits on the river, making the board ahjh3s9sqh. The big blind checks. You have just hit trip Queens, but you’re worried about a flush or even a straight so you check. The third player bets $300. The big blind pauses a long time and then calls. You think you’re probably beaten – in fact maybe third best. Still, you look at your trip Queens and think about all the hands that they could beat. You realize that the third player may have just been betting his position, figuring to steal the pot with trash. The big blind may be calling with a hand as weak as two pair just to stop the steal. And you have two pair beaten. You’re have to kill yourself if you folded a winner when getting 4:1 pot odds on your call. So you call. You lose to a flush and Jacks up.

You don’t throw your cards or have a tantrum, but you’re very upset. You are pissed that you started out ahead but failed to win the pot on the river when you hit trips. You see the poor play of your opponents and are convinced you’re the best player at the table. Armed with this thought you buy in again for $500 – determined to make back what you’ve lost and then push on to at least doubling your bankroll for the day.

You win a few small pots with large raises that force everyone else out. And then you lose a couple of hands much like the first one – starting out ahead, playing correctly, correctly putting your opponents on hands, and then getting outdrawn on the river. Despite your skillful play your stack goes down to $200.

It’s now seven hours into the session. You’re tired, and angry, and at the same time a bit numb from being down. You realize that with only $200, it’s highly unlikely that you will finish the session even – and a near impossibility that you’ll end up reaching your initial goal of winning $1,000. You didn’t bring any more money – and you are very wary of borrowing money or using the high-vig credit card machines. You stick around because you figure there’s still a chance you can turn things around – convinced as you are that you’re at a great table. You’re not on tilt.

You’re dealt five or six unplayable hands and then get ad9c in the cutoff seat. There’s a raise in early position to $25 from a loose and wild player – and then another loose player, with a huge stack, pushes in $75. You figure that you’re just about ready to go home anyway – and you only have $200 – so you might as well get as much bang for the hand as possible – so you shove for the entire $200. Everyone folds but the three-better who calls you and then flips over his black Queens. You don’t improve, you lose the hand, your stack, and your bankroll for the day. You’re done. You leave, walk up to a credit card machine that charges 7% juice plus a $10 fee. You have the sense to shake your head and leave, disgusted with yourself and with poker.

Had you won early on you might have been fine. You would have continued to use your skills and may well have finished up $1,000 against what were probably players inferior to you. But when you got down to your final $200 you essentially gave up – flinging it in carelessly (had you used your good poker skills you would have realized that you were either a small underdog if the re-raiser was raising with a medium or small pair, a huge underdog if the re-raiser had a bigger Ace, or a medium underdog if the raiser had a big pair.)

Your sense of futility at being down to your last $200 prompted you to lose it thoughtlessly.

Antidote: Leave with a short stack

If your stack is short, and you’re either unable or disinclined to buy back in for a full stack, leave.

#3. Desperation

For some players, losing money triggers an uncontrollable desire to get back to even for that session. There may be real world reasons for this. They may not be able to afford to lose money, or they may owe money they must repay. For whatever reason, when they are down a certain amount, their desire to play is controlled by their desperate need to win back what they’ve lost.

Typically, to do this they become more aggressive – taking more chances than they would be taking if they were playing their optimal game. In their desperate hunt for a stack restoring large pot, they’ll throw in their chips without the proper pot or implied odds.

At their worst, they’ll move up to a higher stakes game, figuring that it’s the only way they can make back quickly what they lost elsewhere. The results are sometimes positive. Sometimes, a $2/5 no limit player, down $1,500 for the session, can move up to $5/10 or $10/25 no limit game, play wildly, get lucky, and win back his losses. It does happen. More often than not, however, it is a sure route to the poor house – as skillful poker players eat his sad lunch.

Antidote: Leave and consider giving up gambling

Of all the risks to losing, this one should concern you the most, as it’s a sign of compulsive gambling. The initial antidote is much like those in the earlier two examples. If you are feeling, desperately, that you can’t lose, that you must at all costs win back what you’ve lost, then your best course of action is to leave the game – since you’re no longer playing thoughtfully. Similarly, if you find that you cannot control the urge to play poker, even when you know that losing more money will hurt you, then you might want to give up the game entirely and stay away from all forms of gambling.

In sum, losing at poker presents risks that linger beyond the initial hit to your bankroll. In general, if being down causes you to deviate from your best game, then you should leave the game before a small or mid-sized loss turns into a catastrophic one.

By Ashley Adams

Ashley Adams lives in Boston, Massachusetts and has been playing poker for decades. He is the author of two poker books and his specialty is 7-card stud and no-limit hold'em.


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