Let’s face it, no one likes to lose. Losing any game can damage your ego and frustrate your competitive spirit. We especially don’t like to lose if it involves real chips; money for which we’ve worked hard to earn. In poker, the reality is there are fewer winners than losers. In a tournament usually only 10% of entrants make the money. In cash games, one player wins at the expense of another. Even the best players in the world may not win more than 55-60% of the time in cash games and they finish out of the money in most tournaments they will ever play. So for any real money poker player, one can’t avoid losing on a regular basis even if you are a long term winning player.
Facing the prospect of loss can create significant fear and frustration. Managing your psychology in the face of the inevitable loss is one of the penultimate challenges for a poker player because your confidence is key to making good decisions.
If we accept that losing is a part of the game. How do we adjust our mindset so we can play our best? This article will look at areas of poker where we have to face fear and frustration and how we can choose to deal with it more optimally.
It can be argued that the fear of losing is more damaging to our game than dealing with the actual losing because it saps our confidence and can often incapacitate us. In the fear of potential loss, we refrain from taking any risks, no matter how prudent. This is the death knell for a poker player. let’s look at some specific instances in poker where fear can hinder our development as poker players.
Freerolls and Play Chips
Players who only frequent freerolls and exclusively play chip poker can often be limited by fear. There are hundreds of thousands of people who play freerolls and play chip poker at every possible opportunity. They enjoy the game, its challenge and stimulation. They seek to do the best they can. They pride themselves when they accumulate tons of play chips or cash in a freeroll. Ask them if they want to consider taking their game to the real money games and they shrink in fear. “What do you mean? Lose real money? I could go broke.” Yes, you could, but you could also transition the foundation you’ve learned from playing so much play chip poker into becoming a micro stakes winner where you gain a sense of satisfaction from defeating your opponents for monetary gain.
Freeroll and play chip players are seeking to avoid any sense of financial loss. They want to remain in a comfort zone of having no financial ramifications for their decisions. Their fear of potential loss paralyzes them from building off their foundation and experience from so many hours invested in playing free poker to becoming real money players. Numerous players, if they let go of that fear of potential loss, could transition into solid long term winning players.
Many currently big time poker players honed their early skill in freerolls before taking the plunge to play for real money. The advantage of online poker is it allows for such micro-stakes play, as little as .01-.02, that you can easily find a level where it won’t cost you much to experiment with your game. Another factor that can help you overcome your fear is observing that you have a skill edge over your opponents. When you become familiar with poker probabilities and equity, you can see where you are making long term winning decisions where your opponents aren’t, whether it be the hands you play or getting your money in ahead regularly. Focusing your game on making these good long term decisions (e.g. + EV) can give you the confidence to overcome your fear of losing.
In tournaments, your chips are your life. Once they are gone, so are you. There is tremendous fear that permeates players at certain stages of tournaments. For instance, when a player’s chip stacks start to dwindle relative to the increasing blinds, they fear to make a dramatic move that might jeopardize their tournament life. They keep folding, hoping and waiting for Aces or Kings so they can more assuredly double up (i.e. blinding out). As a result of their inaction and fear, other more aggressive players are stealing their chips. By the time they finally get a hand or make their move, their chip stack is no longer imposing and some player who has been more aggressive and accumulated a good stack will call them down with a mediocre hand and possibly beat them. Players need to understand the math of the game and realize that in certain chip and hand situations you must make moves regardless of the fear of busting out. You must risk to advance and accumulate chips or you will never win a tournament.
Playing no limit cash games can be very intimidating to poker players because of the fear you can lose your entire stack in any one hand. You may have the best hand and lose to a bad beat, or have the worst hand, lose, and look foolish. That process can be repeated in the very next hand after you rebuy. That fear paralyzes players from taking risks or making bold moves. As a result, some players choose not to ever bluff or play too tight to avoid ever being behind.
Overcoming your fear comes with experience of knowing that sometimes you will lose, deservedly, but sometimes you will win, undeservedly. It is all part of the game. Focusing on making the right decisions based on the math, probabilities and equities involved in poker can give you the confidence to make the necessary profitable long term plays.
The Power of Position
It is human nature to fear the unknown. It is one of the reasons that position is so important in poker. When the player with position bets, we fear what possible hand they might have. Bluffing is effective for a similar reason. We fear that they could have a better hand than we do, so we fold. Sometimes the reverse scenario can also be true. We refuse to fold a hand that is likely beat because we are scared to fold the best hand. You are scared of being shown a bluff. Fear doesn’t prevent our thought process, but rather kills the confidence in execution. Examine the source of your fear. Is it losing money? Looking foolish? The next step is to take action, preventing the fear from immobilizing you. Breathe, relax, be in the now and make a decision. When the decision, in hindsight, was a poor one, look to adjust accordingly. Gain from the experience of playing to develop confidence in your game and conquer your fear. Poker is only a game and money won or lost is just that. Manage your game and your fear so that you can play fearless poker.
There is no avoiding facing regular frustration in poker. Sometimes you have the best hand and it gets drawn out on. Sometimes you put your opponent on a certain hand and they show up with a much better hand. Sometimes you plan what you think is a perfect bluff and it fails. Because there are so many situations where you will face poker frustration, the sooner you can become familiar with the most common situations and how you can deal with them, the sooner you can avoid the potential to tilt and start playing badly.
Every player will face the below seven common situations a certain percentage of time, so it behooves you to let go of the frustration and move on to the next hand unencumbered with any negative psychological baggage.
1) Overcard on flop – You hold K’s or Q’s and an Ace falls on the flop. Now your strong hand is compromised, as many players will play some A,x combination. Against one opponent go ahead and bet out, representing that you hit the ace yourself, but be prepared to release your hand if you face significant resistance. With more than one opponent try to get to showdown as cheaply as possible.
2) A walk when you have a good hand – You are dealt aces in the big blind, only to see the entire table fold around to you. It is frustrating to get a walk on the 1 in 221 hands you are dealt aces, but it happens to everyone. It’s only one hand.
3) Facing maniacs – Playing at a table of loose and passive players when you aren’t hitting hands. No matter what you do, unless you are making hands, you will get called down. No matter how well you try to bluff your opponents, you will likely fail. Reduce your bluffing and select hands that play well in multi-way pots (e.g. small pair, suited connectors). Bet firmly when you have strong hands.
Facing a maniac on your left can be a very frustrating experience. They seem to raise you every time, putting you in uncomfortable spots. You are always out of position in inflated pots against an unpredictable opponent who can show up with any hand. It’s best to tighten up and try to trap them with your strongest hands, looking weak then check raising them.
4) Doubling up a short stack – It is frustrating to play against desperate short stacks because you often have odds to call with any two cards but knowing you are going in significantly behind. If they had a larger stack, it would be an easy fold.
5) Running into coolers – Anytime that you flop a good hand, like a set or straight, it is likely you are rightly going to put a lot of money in the pot. A cooler is when you hit a good hand, but your opponent hits an even better hand (set over set, straight over straight, nut flush over flush). Another cooler might be having Q’s and running into K’s. These situations are more common that you think. You will profit on both sides of coolers so just consider it part of the variance of the game and move on. You likely did nothing wrong.
6) Flips – These are common situations where one player has a hand like A,K, the other player has a big pocket pair like Q’s and all the money gets in the middle. It is around a 48%-52% split, often called a coin flip, which is unfortunate to run into but is a regular occurrence in poker.
7) Chasers get there – Your opponents seem to play weak hands that outdraw you. No matter how much you bet, your opponent won’t let go of their flush draw. You bet big, they call and hit on the turn or river. You played the hand right, but your opponent got lucky. Do you pay them off out of frustration?
Each situation is frustrating, but the sooner you realize that it’s just a part of poker and the odds of the game, the sooner that you can learn to minimize your losses and frustration in these situations. It is the players who can best manage their emotions in the face of these situations that will most likely prosper in poker.
People underestimate the role that player psychology plays. Fear and frustration are strong emotions that undermine your confidence and optimal play. Those players who develop self-control over theirs and an insight into how their opponents are dealing with their fear and frustration surrounding their loss will be at an advantage always.