Managing the internal narrative
Wrote this for my blog so the tone is a bit different, but anyway...
I've had an interesting few poker days and it's got me thinking about the way I think about the game. If you'll bear with me I'll try and explain.
First of all I had a fantastic run on the rings in a session a couple of nights ago followed by the worst losses I've sustained since the move to 50NL. What was a good night nearly became an incredible one and ended up a $40 loss over about 1500 hands.
This thread Lucky I don't tilt
documents what happened, and as you'll see I made some nice moves given the context (a massive donk giving his money away) and got repeatedly outdrawn when way ahead.
Earlier this evening I got knocked out of the Cardschat Full Tilt tourney when I called an SB allin steal with Q9 in the BB and Ranny turned 47o (SOULREAD IMO ).
The 4 on the flop did for me
Then about ten minutes ago as I write I was knocked out of a $10 rebuy in 125th (of 2151 starters) by this hand,
Game #16347299071: Tournament #81875998, $10+$1 Hold'em No Limit - Level XVI (2000/4000) - 2008/03/29 - 20:17:16 (ET)
Table '81875998 115' 9-max Seat #9 is the button
Seat 1: sickdonkeyfi (167370 in chips)
Seat 2: kashvii (107807 in chips)
Seat 3: Chris333KK (72092 in chips)
Seat 4: potstabber10 (199371 in chips)
Seat 5: jedi1066 (135786 in chips)
Seat 6: leg177730 (147288 in chips)
Seat 7: martin69 (224963 in chips)
Seat 8: Irexes (45225 in chips)
Seat 9: kalltkaffe (70881 in chips)
sickdonkeyfi: posts small blind 2000
kashvii: posts big blind 4000
*** HOLE CARDS ***
Dealt to Irexes [Kh Ks]
potstabber10: raises 6000 to 10000
leg177730: calls 10000
Irexes: raises 34825 to 44825 and is all-in
potstabber10: raises 154146 to 198971 and is all-in
*** FLOP *** [Ac 2d Jd]
*** TURN *** [Ac 2d Jd] 6♦
*** RIVER *** [Ac 2d Jd 6d] 3♠
*** SHOW DOWN ***
potstabber10: shows [Ah 4h] (a pair of Aces)
Irexes: shows [Kh Ks] (a pair of Kings)
potstabber10 collected 109250 from pot
(HH edited to make it shorter)
4 hours down the drain for a small profit.
However in all these cases I am very happy to say it registered barely a flicker of emotion and in terms of impact on my play I don't think they registered at all. I regularly say that I don't tilt and I genuinely mean it. For me controlling the anger or emotions generated while playing is a huge part of the game. Letting someone not only take your money but also knock you off your game and cost you more is as big a hole in your game as playing unsuited aces under the gun. The trouble is that it's harder to spot in Pokertracker and too easy to write off once the steam stops coming out of your ears.
But how do you watch the fool above with A4 reraise allin and hit an ace on the first card out against your KK without wishing to put your foot through the monitor? How do you reload in ring against the superdonk without becoming one yourself? I think the answer is to control the dialogue which is taking place in your head while you are playing.
While we play we talk to ourselves, we tell the story of the game, the narrative of what is happening, why it happened, our role in it and most importantly we tell ourselves what is going to happen next. Of course objectively the fact that we may be on a downswing, or superdonk just took half our chips is irrelevant to the way we should play the next hand (metagame considerations aside) but in practice we tell ourselves "I'm due a win", "He can't be lucky again" or most dangerously that playing badly is justified by the bad play of others.
These negative thoughts make for a great story in which we cast ourselves as the hero. In our imaginations we are always going to come back if we have a chip and a chair and a double up with KJo is a racing certainty. Sometimes we do the opposite, we approach a hand with the fatalistic expectation of defeat and this is of course the best way to ensure a win! Because reality will confound whatever we expect to happen and the romantic in us knows that in the story the last minute 3-pointer always goes in.
In really bad cases I hear people tell themselves they are just unlucky. This is a wonderful way to avoid confronting either the reality of bad play or failing to grasp the role of variance. It's seductive though to hand over control of your fate to a perceived tendancy to get outdrawn because the martydom it easy and beating yourself up in public is rewarding to a certain kind of person, and it's short step from there to the ultimate "story" of OMG RIGGED!!
My repetition that "I don't tilt" is as much about developing a self-fulfilling prophecy as anything else. I have decided I don't tilt, so I don't. There are a few people who have decided they are lucky (coughBBBcough) and amazingly they seem to be so. Of course this "story" is no more true than the "I'm unlucky" gang, but the advantage in attitude that such an internal dialogue gives must be huge when harnessed correctly.
What I tell myself constantly is that the wins and the losses are part of one long continuum, that when I am losing I am playing as well as when I am winning. "Meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters both the same" said Kipling, and he's absolutely spot on. The player who has a big MTT win out of the blue and decides they are a world beater is as deluded as the poor chap who drops 5 buy-ins in a ring game and decides there must be a hole in his game when he's just been unlucky.
It's tricky but the eyes must forever be on the horizon, on the 60% ROI over 1000 tournies or the BBs won every 100 hands, not the tourney win or the $200 pot. The trouble is that poker is seductive in it's appeal to the storyteller in all of us. In the films the ace comes on the river, the gambler finds redemption or crashes to oblivion and good guys always win. It's hard to tell a thrilling tale about Sklansky bucks or hundreds of thousands of hands, but that is where the money is really won and that is the story we should be telling ourselves.
So when I find myself in situations like those above and I lose a few quid, I don't think OMG the universe is out to get me, I think hard about whether I made any mistakes and then move on to let the real story of my poker adventures continue, and that is a very, very long tale, which I tell myself will have a happy ending.