Winning Strategy: Avoiding the Poker Death Spiral

I love old movies. And one classic scene, repeated hundreds of times over the years, is the death spiral.

It generally goes like this: A military airplane is dramatically shot down in combat. It then goes into a spiraling dive, trailed by smoke, accompanied by the doppler sound of a failed engine falling away, before bursting into flames as it smashes into the ground.

Death Spiral

Crashing and burning at the poker table is an avoidable disaster if you can keep your wits about you when it starts to happen. (Image: Ashley Adams)

This happens at the poker table too. It is not quite as dramatic, lacking the trailing smoke and fiery crash. But the effect on the bankroll is the same: complete destruction!

Death Spiral at the Table

Our poker-playing ace starts out fine, taking and returning fire while progressing smoothly. After a while, he hits some turbulence –a hand that starts off well, but misses the flop, or he gets out-drawn on the river. He handles it well initially, staying in control. But then, something else happens. Something unanticipated and jolting.

Maybe it’s the third time he’s out-drawn, or he goes card dead for an hour, or he gets light-headed from the unexpected altitude of a few large wins. Whatever it is, our hero falters under pressure. Rather than recovering as he normally does, he lets his emotions get the better of him. He panics. He stops thinking about his decisions and starts to lose control.

He doesn’t nose down and crash right away but, as he falters, he slowly starts to spin out of control. His typically well-controlled and intentional game is replaced by erratic, emotion-driven play. He loses his stack when he shoves on the river in a desperate attempt to blow his opponents off their hands. He loses another stack, thinking an opponent was bluffing when he wasn’t. He flashes a sick smile at the futility of his play as he loses again – and continues spinning down out of control.

After losing the money he came with, and then losing his daily ATM limit, he impulsively decides that what he should do is move up in stakes so he can quickly win back his money and at least leave the session even. He taps his credit cards – and the spiral deepens.

Final Crash

Our hero buys into the bigger game, but then plays scared. He’s tight, but not aggressive. His timidity is like blood to a shark, and his opponents aggressively pick him apart until, down to his last few hundred, he impulsively and fatalistically shoves all his remaining chips in a dramatic do-or-die move.

He loses and is out of money, emotionally depleted, exhausted, and down many more multiples of his buy-in than he ever won. There is no final blaze of glory in the defeat – only the final death spiral crash of this pathetic, defeated, dejected, sorry loser.

Could our hero have done anything differently to avoid this tragic end? The answer is surely yes. Five things could have saved him, and could save you too.

5 Keys to Avoiding the Death Spiral

1. Set a loss limit – and stick to it

Some poker experts recommend that you should stay in a game as long as a game is good, no matter your losses or wins. But the truth is, when you’re under severe duress, you’re probably not an objective judge of whether the game is good or bad, or whether you’re playing well or poorly.

Sometimes, in spite of the theory to the contrary, the best barometer of how you’re playing is how you are doing. The safest course of action when we are doing really poorly, and have lost our pre-set limit, is just to get out of the game and stop the dizzying descent.

2. Set a time limit – and stick to it

Once again, I can hear the experts chirping that you should be willing to stay in a game for as long as it’s good and you have a positive expectation in it. Fair enough. But, how do you know you still have the chops to beat the game? How do you know, when you’ve taken three bad beats in a row or lost multiple buy-ins — and it’s 20 hours into a session — that your judgment, including your ability to assess the game, isn’t clouded by your circumstance?

If your altimeter is shot out, how do you gauge your altitude? It’s better to leave after a set period of time, even if the game seems good, you’re winning, and your skills of discernment are keen. Losing an opportunity to win more money is often smarter than staying too long and running the risk that your judgment and play are both seriously diminished.

3. Get a poker buddy to sweat you

Have someone you trust and respect sit behind and watch your play for a while. A co-pilot will help you avoid the death spiral in two ways. Your friend will be able to get a sample of what you’re doing, providing you with useful feedback when your session is over. That feedback might alert you to potential risks of the death spiral you didn’t see yourself.

And, the very fact that you are being observed will make you more self-conscious, serving as a check on your more extreme and erratic tendencies.

4. Register your tilt triggers

We all have things that set us off. Maybe bad beats or getting coolered really messes with our heads. Perhaps chatty winning players bother us to the point of distraction. On the other hand, winning knocks some of us for a loop. Others steam from sleeplessness, get frazzled when playing against certain opponents, or are bothered by games that are a little too big or small for their bankroll.

Search yourself for these triggers. Avoid them. And if, in spite of your efforts, you find yourself in a situation with one or more tilt triggers, immediately get away from the game. You can change tables to avoid irksome players. You can leave the game temporarily hoping they’ll leave. Or you can even leave the poker room entirely and go home if you choose. Whatever your situation, be aware that there is no prize – surely no cash prize – for playing your best under bad circumstances.

5. Keep a running tally of how you’re doing over time

Many players focus on whether they leave a session as a winner or a loser. This is a mistake. It’s the long run that matters.

Players who think in daily terms often end up with huge losing sessions and small winning sessions as they stay far too long trying to avoid a loss, even as they leave a great game too soon just to lock up a very modest win. There is truth to the cliché that it is one long game.

No matter how skillful you are when you are playing your best, your bankroll can be destroyed in one giant, tilt-induced death spiral. In the stressful and heated warfare that is a poker game, you may not be able to avoid the turbulence or the enemy fire. But with the five avoidance maneuvers described above, you should be able to avoid crashing.

Written by
Ashley Adams
Venerable grinder, 7-stud enthusiast, host of "House of Cards Radio" and author of Winning Poker in 30 Minutes a Day (D&B Publishing, 2020).

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