Bad Cards or Bad Plays?
Team Full Tilt
Losing is part of poker and all serious players, including the world's best, can recount losing streaks that lasted for months. Often, the downswing starts with a particularly unlucky run of cards. A series of bad beats or impossibly tough hands eat away at the bankroll. As the bad run continues, and money continues to disappear, players are forced to confront one of the toughest questions in poker: Am I a victim of lousy luck or am I playing poorly?
John D'Agostino knows how difficult it is to find the correct answer. "Any time I lose a few sessions in a row, I start questioning myself," D'Agostino says. "But I know that some days, even if I play perfectly, I'm going to lose."
Erik Seidel notes that in tournament poker, months-long dry spells are to be expected. In the midst of such a run it's hard to know if you're a victim of expected fluctuations or if there's something wrong with your game. "It's really hard to determine," says Seidel, "but I think most of us tend to fool ourselves and tend to think we're playing better than we are."
Then there's the inevitable interplay between bad cards and poor play. The pros report that in the midst of a bad run, bad luck can lead to bad decisions. Jennifer Harman notes that when things are going poorly, she has a tendency to push hands. "Let's say I have Ace-King and I don't flop a pair," says Harman. "I'll be in there raising. But there's no point. My table image is bad and nobody thinks I can flop a hand, so I can't bluff. I might as well wait till I flop a pair. At that point, my opponents are going to call me down and pay me off anyway."
For D'Agostino, a bad run can lead to more timid play. 'I definitely made some bad days a lot worse than they needed to be. Sometimes, I started playing more passively. In the middle of a hand I'd be asking myself, 'How is this going to go wrong?' But if I played the hand the way I usually would, I'd have won the pot earlier on." D'Agostino says that when he has that sort of mindset, he's likely to miss bluffing opportunities.
Such a streak can destroy a promising player. Harman says, "There are a lot of players who have gone on losing streaks and can't recover. They start playing bad and thinking that they're doomed forever. And all of a sudden, they're on the rail."
How do the pros get a handle on their play and determine what's causing the downswing? Harman recommends sharing hands. "I'd ask people to watch me play or I'd jot down hands and ask friends 'Did I play this right?' If they said I was playing it wrong, I'd have to reevaluate my play because I was letting the losing streak affect my play."
"Just book a win," says D'Agostino. He notes that confidence is critical at the poker table. So, in the midst of losing streak, leaving a session with a win - even if it's a small one - can help a player regain that mental edge. "Once you can feel confident about yourself, things will start to roll," he says.
Finally, a winning player needs to develop an honest, self-critical nature. Seidel notes that he rarely talks poker, but when he and John Junada chat about a play, the conversation usually begins, "Listen to how badly I played this hand.."
When playing online, there's every opportunity to assess your play. Save your hand histories. When a session is over and your head is clear, review your actions and see if you can spot problems in your play.