Why winning is dangerous to the poker player

We all know that many poker players get in trouble when they are on a losing streak. They can go on tilt, raising maniacally to recoup their losses. Sometimes they get ultra-timid, because the voice in their head sees monsters under every bed and they play scared. The better players are aware of their tendencies to make mistakes when running bad and they watch their hand histories very closely for signs of tilt or bad play. There is a strong incentive to study when you are running bad, because you want to stop losing. This prevents the better players from losing too much due to tilt, because they are alert to the risk.

What many poker players do not realize is that winning can be equally dangerous. Many players will call down much more loosely when they are running hot (this is my personal vice) and they will tend to throw chips around pre-flop more than usual. For some players who play too tight and predictable in general, they might actually play better when they are on a rush. Most players don’t play better. They become calling stations with any pair or bluff much too aggressively. They may never figure out why they don’t win enough money, because they don’t scrutinze their winning sessions very closely.

Here is a specific example to illustrate the point. If the perfect player would have booked sessions of +$1,000, +$800, +$400, -$500 and -$1,200 for a net result of $500 in winnings, the tilting loser might book sessions of +$1,000, +$800, +$400, -$700, -$1,400 for a net result of $100 in winnings and the tilting winner might book sessions of +$700, +$500, +$400, -$500 and -$1,200 for a net result of -$100. The worst thing is that the tilting loser has a better chance of finding his mistakes, because he will concentrate on his big down sessions to find leaks. The tilting winner is not likely to study his “big wins” closely, because he will think that that the -$1,200 session must have been his problem, even though he played that one perfectly.

Hot streaks and cold streaks happen to every poker player. When a game has the element of chance, this is inevitable. The difference between the expert and the novice is (as always) the degree of both. The expert will win more and lose less. This is the source of your edge in poker. When an opponent misses bets against you with his monster that you would have extracted from him, you win. You might lose money in that hand or that session, but in the long run that is really poker, you won that money as sure as if you had taken it home that night. When you extract that extra value bet with a marginal hand that your opponent would not have captured, your long-term advantage over him grows.

I’m running ridiculously hot at 30/60 and having a blast doing it. I’ve hit the zone where I feel extremely confident in listening to my instincts and playing my natural game. That voice in my head that tells me when I should bluff or call down or fold is coming in loud and clear. Sometimes I just can’t find the frequency to tune that voice in. I think I’m still a good player when I don’t hear it, I just rely on math and book-learning and make the “correct” play and I think I am still a small winner when I do it that way. When I have that sixth sense engaged, I’m a much better player. I find the right spots to take pots down that I don’t deserve and I get the right decisions in the ten thousand marginal situations that rule limit poker much more often than I do when I’m just playing by the numbers. I never hear the voice when I multi-table and I don’t like to play a bunch of tables as well as a result.

The above paragraph illustrates the final danger of winning. It feels really good and tends to inflate your ego. You are winning because you are a genius and you deserve to win. The other guys are chumps, so it is not shocking that they should lose. An overwhelming sense of happiness is just as bad for your game as the self-doubt that accompanies losing. Don’t fall into the trap — search your game for leaks just as hard when you win as when you lose. This is the path to excellence.

By Nsidestrate

I'm a hard-core limit ring game poker player who is becoming a degenerate sports bettor. I'm sure it will all make more sense if you read on.