The Play’s The Thing

“The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I’ll have grounds
More relative than this: the play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

–Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2
You know I’m running bad when I have to break out the Hamlet for the introductory quote. I, too, have also seen the devil, only it took on the unpleasing shape of bad beat after bad beat. The last 6 weeks have been testing my poker mettle, and the bad run reached its apex (hopefully) with a terrible session on Friday night at Hollywood Park. At least Paul and OJ were there to witness the beats, otherwise I might think the poker gods were playing tricks on me.
Luckily for me, I’ve never been a very results-oriented player. I think I owe that to the blackjack world. In the mind of the card-counter, every bet simply represents a coin flip where the coin is slightly in your favor. The coin falls whichever way it will, but all you can do is bet when you have a positive expectation. I remember counting cards for hours and being happy just to get a positive EV situation, where the count went sky high and I had a chance to win some money. Win or lose, at least I got a chance to play.
And in poker, usually the odds are strongly in your favor when you put your chips in the pot. But it’s still a gamble, even if you’re a 65% favorite (I’m picking a high number just to make a point here). Over and over again, I get emails/read posts/hear from new players that go something like this: “I’m only playing premium hands but I’ve lost $xxx in my first month, what am I doing wrong (or poker is all luck), etc. etc.” Poker is a skill game in the long run, but short term results of any repeated gamble answer to variance, not skill.
As an example, lets say I play 10 hours a week for a month, and average about 40 hands an hour. That’s 400 hands in a month. Suppose I play very tight, and end up seeing 20% of flops, because I only play premium hands. That means I’ve seen 80 flops with my premium hands. For simplicity’s sake, let’s assume that in each of these 80 hands, I’m a 65% favorite. What is the probability that I have a losing month? This simple model ignores the rake, but for simplicity’s sake, lets assume that the cost of the blinds is (40 orbits)*(1.5 small bets) = 60 small bets = 30 big bets. That means we must win 30 big bets just to cover the blinds, so let’s say that’s 5 pots (assuming each pot is 10 BBs, and we invest 3 BBs, then 5 pots nets us 35 BBs, give or take a few). Winning 45 hands will put us ahead for the month (since we play aggressively). Even in this dream-like example, where we always come in a 65% favorite, we will still lose at least 45 of our 80 hands 6.5% of the time. We lose at least 30 of our 80 hands 36% of the time, which means that every third month should be a break even month with our 65% favorite figure. Of course, all this stuff depends on game dependent variables such as looseness, aggressiveness, and so on. But it’s still a scary thought.
But enough math. The point here is that although poker is a skill game, it is still gambling. The last few weeks have been a test for me. The bad beats have grown too numerous to keep track of, and my only solace has been that my performance has been (for the most part) good, and I can reluctantly lay the blame on variance. However, adjustment to the bigger game has been a bit painful, as tougher games require different strategies. Adjusting to the aggression has been difficult, especially playing hands like KQo heads-up against aggressive players. But for the most part, the 15-30 players at Hollywood Park aren’t much different than their 6-12 counterparts, just a bit more aggressive and tricky.
Luckily, I have the wisdom of Sergeant Rock (Thanks Iggy) to help keep my focus on performance rather than results.
“Result = Performance

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