I’m posting an old piece piece I wrote, from two years ago, about the emotional stress of the game for me specifically. I wrote it right after I’d been knocked out of a tournament by playing a hand very badly, and while I was very frustrated with myself.
I’ve been planning on reading and reviewing Jared Tendler’s The Mental Game of Poker as soon as I get some extra time, because I’ve been hearing good things about how it helps with tilt and frustration issues. I kind of wonder if it will help me, because I think I have some specific emotional challenges that most people don’t have. For one thing, I’ve struggled with depression and anxiety most of my life. Things have gotten better for me in the last few years (as they say these things often do with age), but I still occasionally suffer from frequent anxiety and very dark moods. That’s one major reason why I’ve never really considered myself cut out for a high-stakes poker lifestyle, and it’s probably why I have such a love/hate relationship with the game (as some readers of my book have noticed and commented on). If anyone can relate to such feelings, I’d love to correspond with you through email.
Okay, here’s the old blog post:
People who don’t play much poker tend to think it’s the strategy, the situational awareness, the knowledge, that is the main challenge of poker. To me, it’s not that. Those things are challenging, for sure, and take more than lifetimes to master.
But those things are intellectual in nature, and if poker was purely intellectual many more people would be winners. There are many smart people playing the game. There are not many smart people with the emotional fortitude to handle the grueling nature of the game, whether it’s the ups and downs of variance, beating yourself up for your own bad play, or the stresses of often being in such a competitive setting.
I sometimes wonder whether it’s possible to gain the emotional distance needed in poker just from experience. I myself have played a lot, but I still don’t feel like I’ve made much headway in the area of psychological toughness, of the basic ability to put things out of your mind and focus on new challenges.
In short, things haunt me. I still remember with a visceral disgust the time in a $5-10 Pot Limit Omaha game when I lost a $1,000 dollar pot by folding the winning hand for no bet on the river. I was playing with two players (who I read as weak) and I was betting the hand the whole way. On the river, everyone checked to me and I folded my hand, which was a pair of 2’s, not even considering that they were good. The two other players split the pot with K high, both had straight draws. (Had to take several days off to recover from that one.)
Or, most recently, I spent 12 hours playing a $400 buy-in tournament, with 80 players and a 1st place prize of $16,000. I made the final table, went out 5th, and because of my bad play on the last hand I played, I spend the next two days reliving that hand, wondering how I could play perfectly all day long only to throw it all away with one stupid hand.
You’d think I’d be able to put these things behind me. I’ve learned from all of the mistakes I’ve made. But still they haunt me. These hands cause a painful sensation in my brain whenever I think about them.
The only way to get past these painful situations is to recognize that you are continually learning. No matter how good you are, you will make mistakes. It is inevitable. You can’t let those mistakes eat you up inside or make you play worse. You have to try to get the most learning you can out of that specific situation and move on, easing the pain of the moment by realizing that the chances of that mistake happening again have been greatly diminished. It might not ease the immediate pain, but it’s all you can do. Maybe write about it, too, honestly – this seems to help me.
It’s a form of forgiving yourself, which can be very hard for perfectionists, which winning skilled poker players often are. Poker players should remember that learning poker involves constantly testing new strategies in often new situations. It is inevitable that mistakes will be made – you just have to try your best to get the learning from them, and to forgive yourself and move on mentally.
I’ve come to the conclusion many times over the past few years that I’m not cut out for cards. I know there are people who are just more emotionally resilient and cold-blooded when it comes to these things. I know I am more sensitive than most to short-term variance and my own specific shortcomings. Poker has the capacity to leave me kind of shell-shocked for days. Am I making a bad decision with my mental health to play the game?
It’s funny because I used to play only cash games, and now that I’m only playing part-time it seems I’ve ramped up the stress level by playing more tournaments. It’s a weird dilemma to be in when you are a winning player but still feel that it may be negative EV psychologically to play poker.
But, on the flip side of all this stuff, I’ll leave you with the quote from Stu Ungar: “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser”. I think there’s something to be said for beating yourself up for making mistakes, but ideally you’re not beating yourself up so much to the point it impacts your happiness or ability to play well.