Poker Banter: The Vortex of Despair and Dealing With Losses

I’ve been on a huge losing streak for the past 6-8 weeks. Honestly it’s been so long since I came home really happy with my performance that I don’t even remember what it feels like to take a cab home because you have too much cash in your wallet.

I wrote the quote above on May 13, 2013 and my losing streak continued until about a month later, when I definitively decided to go on a break to get my mind right.

I’ve begun to call the period between April 1st and June 30 The Vortex of Despair. I imagine that it feels a little like going through a Stargate wormhole before the SGC compensated for interstellar shift. Dark, cold, and like the feeling of being ripped apart is never going to end. You come out on the other side shivering and barfy.

There were times in that period when I would play for hours, amass a huge stack, then get it in as a huge favorite and have some bozo double through me when they sucked out on the river. I’d leave about even, feeling like an idiot.

Running bad for a little while tends to get you down, but you get over it thanks to the knowledge that it will soon be over as long as you continue making good decisions.

Running bad for a long time inevitably snowballs, causing you to change your decision-making for the worse. You start to become more passive, you start dreading Aces or Kings because “someone will always suck out on you.” And other equally nonsensical things.

I consider my mental fortitude to be considerable. I take bad beats in stride. I almost never get tilted to the point where I have to stop playing. Perhaps I have an exaggerated view of my own mental toughness, but considering how long I was able to withstand horrendous losses without losing my mind, I’m sticking to my assessment.

Unfortunately, even the toughest brain is not impervious to the emotional perils of playing poker. You see, human brains are not built to consider each event on its own merit. We are not wired for randomness. Brains love patterns.

With each new dealing of the cards all mathematical probabilities reset. You can get deuces five times in a row and the odds of you flopping a set stay the same no matter what happened the previous four times. Logically, I know this, and so does every other mathematical player. However, your brain can’t overcome its desire to learn from experience. Illogically, it tells you that if you didn’t flop a set the previous four times, you’re definitely not going to flop a set the fifth time. As a poker player one needs to learn to get over this irrational reasoning.

Still, nothing you do can stop your brain from being conditioned, and if you run bad for long enough you will find it harder and harder to break that conditioning. This is why the best remedy for a brain conditioned to expect the worst in poker is to take a break.

You see, conditioning needs reinforcement in order to remain convincing. If you take yourself out of the situation for long enough, the “bad beat” conditioning gets weaker and weaker, until you’re able to make good, logical decisions again and break it.

If you look at a map of a person’s neural connections, you will find that the strongest synaptic connections are related to activities that are constantly reinforced. These connections are actually visibly thicker than weaker synaptic connections, and the thicker the connection, the harder it is to break. If there’s one thing you want to avoid as a poker player, it’s to strengthen illogical synaptic connections, because playing with a “clear head” is one of the most important things you can do to be successful.

If you doubt that what I’m saying is true, think of it this way: consider the ratio of vivid hand memories you have. How many of these memories are of hands where you played exceptionally well, or got exceptionally lucky, and how many of these memories are of hands where you experienced something negative, like a vicious beat or somebody outplaying you? I am willing to bet that the negative memories far outweigh the positive ones. There’s actually a scientific reason for this: our brains are wired to help us remember negative experiences in order to avoid them in the future, so those memories are always more readily available than the times you got extremely lucky or played like a champ.

Do not get sucked into The Vortex of Despair, if you find yourself running bad for a while, and nothing you do seems to change it, take a break before you cement bad playing habits. You will find these habits exceptionally difficult to break once formed.

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If one post per week is not enough for you and you want to see what I have to say more often, follow me on Twitter: @ZulyTweets

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