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Hard Lessons and Revelations from Moving Up in Stakes

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  • Hard Lessons and Revelations from Moving Up in Stakes

    This is something I've been meaning to write since I got home last week Sunday. It's going to be quite honest/candid because a lot of the reason I'm writing this is for myself (catharsis, closure, and analysis). The background is that I went to a casino---Parx in NE Philly---to play two tournaments and cash, and I decided to take a shot at 2/5; I did extremely well on Saturday then got crushed on Sunday and felt absolutely awful. I realized how much my mental game needs work in so many ways.

    This post is meant to summarize the lessons I learned and need to live by from now on.

    1. Do Not Ignore Bankroll Considerations; Shots Should Be Rare, Well-Planned, and Disciplined
    Fitting that this is lesson #1. We all know this one in theory but I failed to stick to it in practice.

    On Saturday I took my shot at 2/5 and it felt great. I cashed out for the most I ever have: $1610 after buying in for $500 total (note: I bought in at 1/2 for 300 while waiting, ran it up to 500, then bought for another 200 when I got called for 2/5). I felt like I belonged at the table and I played very well. I was dancing around happy as can be, with a literal spring in my step, when I woke up Sunday morning to go play again.

    I don't think it was fundamentally wrong to try 2/5 especially because I only bought in for a small amount (an amount I was used to from 1/2). I got pretty lucky to do well. But that was my undoing: I got overconfident and decided I was now a 2/5 player without the bankroll to do so. Ironically, if I had lost on Saturday I would probably have gone back to 1/2 and realized I wasn't ready yet from a bankroll standpoint (note: I do feel like I could play 2/5 if I had the bankroll; even on Sunday I was one of the best 3 players at the table at any given time, in my estimation).

    By getting overconfident and failing to think ahead and have a plan---probably should have played 2/5 only on Saturday to give it a try, then back to 1/2 on Sunday---I completely squandered the $1100 I won on Saturday. My live poker roll is in its infancy and I do have a well-paying job that makes it less important, but it's still extremely important. I should have been happy to put that $1100 in my roll and continue to build it at 1/2. Instead I allowed hubris to convince me I could ignore one of the most important aspects of poker.

    One aspect of this error is that I was not prepared for the swings that can happen from just a few hands. I didn't mind the larger pots but I am not properly rolled to replenish my stack after making a $300 call on the river. It wasn't necessarily that I was blindsided or that I was playing scared most of the time, but more that I underestimated the differences.

    I also was playing scared at the end of the session before losing the rest of my stack; I had told my wife how much I won on Saturday and she was happy for my success. On Sunday I looked at my stack after losing a big pot and thought, "how am I going to explain that I didn't win so much after all?" At that moment I should have immediately left. That brings me to my next point.

    2. Be Disciplined and Stick to a Plan for the Session; "One More Orbit" Is a Dangerous Phrase
    It is incredibly hard for me to maintain discipline in two related ways: (1) when to leave the table and (2) how much to allot for rebuys/top-ups.

    I told my wife I would be home for dinner around 7 (from about a 2-hour drive away); she doesn't think very highly of my dedication to poker so I knew it was important to get home and show her she needn't be concerned (Note: advice on this issue would be appreciated). I had somewhere around $1500 in my backpack when I walked up to the cage after busting the Sunday tourney around 2:00. Everything at that moment was great.

    But I failed to stick to my plan of leaving at 5:30 and I failed to even have a plan as to how much I should allot to the session. Instead I allowed 5:30 to come and go because I was down a couple hundred and wanted to get it back (we all know that temptation). What a stupid gambling-addict mentality! And around 6:00 I lost the biggest pot I have ever lost ($1,150 specifically; I'll post about that hand later on) and reached for another couple hundred to replenish my stack instead of literally cutting my losses and leaving (or better yet, leaving at 5:30 and avoiding that hand altogether). And around 7:15 I had lost the rest of my stack and my backpack had only maybe 1/4 of the money I'd had that morning.

    Of course, poker is one long session so it's not that I should have "locked up a win" for the weekend or something like that. And I wouldn't walk away from an extremely profitable table just because I reached a certain threshold as long as I felt I was playing well (sidenote: recently, at an extremely profitable table, I stuck around despite being down 3 buy-ins and I actually cashed out with a healthy profit just an hour later---crazy games here in NYC). But playing on a tight bankroll while taking a shot means I should have had a better plan instead of reaching for rebuys with impunity (at a table that I should have realized was unprofitable).

    So after finally admitting defeat I had to admit defeat again: I had to man up and call my wife to admit the truth instead of giving some lame excuse about traffic; I had to sit in the parking lot and wipe away tears as I could hear the hurt, disappointment, and anger in her voice. I had to face myself at rock bottom and contemplate what this game is for me---a very dedicated hobby or an unhealthy addiction. And above all, I had to face that I reinforced my wife's misgivings about poker; while I hope that's not irreversible, it just might be this time.

    So what steps can I take to improve this aspect of my mental game? When I plan to leave at a given time, I will set an alarm and leave at the first opportunity (i.e. not during a hand I'm in) either at or beforethat time. It doesn't matter if I'm in the small blind and will miss a button opportunity (should have left when I was UTG then!). It doesn't matter if I just won a huge pot and will look like I'm pulling a hit-and-run. It definitely doesn't matter if I just lost a pot or if I'm down X or up Y or anything else like that. I will leave at that time. I will buy chips at the cage before the session and not use cash to buy back in; if I'm out of rebuy chips then I can't rebuy. (I actually did this on Sunday but failed to stick to it).

    3. Do Not Talk Strategy at the Table---In Any Form
    This is a very silly mistake to make, but an understandable one for someone moving up from a lower limit. First, nobody ever exploits information at the lower limits. Second, someone moving up to the higher limit wants to feel like they belong there and wants to prove themselves to the other players at the table.

    This is another thing I know in theory but failed to maintain in practice. I take in and utilize this type of information frequently: if someone demonstrates the way they think about the game (or lack of thought, as the case may be), I will definitely make a note. This is useful playing at my regular limit because most opponents are not what we call "thinking" players.

    My mistake wasn't something overt like trying to discuss a hand in-depth with an opponent. That would be an easy situation to notice and avoid. Rather, I inadvertently dropped a piece of information and left me open to exploitation (whether or not that occurred is unclear).

    When I first sat down for the Sunday session of 2/5, I was seated to the direct left of a weak player. I quickly realized he was betting larger when he wanted a fold; his bet sizing certainly looked like he did not want a call. Having noticed this, I tested the theory out by floating very wide and stealing the pot when he gave up by the river. I got a bit bolder on the second occasion, calling him down with king high; this time he did not give up but bet large again on the river, which incidentally gave me a weak pair (K7s, river was a 7). I called and he immediately mucked while I was flipping my cards over. He snorted in disgust and got up from the table for a smoke break, clearly tilting and angry.

    Here was the mistake: I turned to the two players to my right, with whom I'd been friendly, and said something along the lines of "that guy was so mad... of course I called down, he clearly didn't want me to!"

    This seemed innocuous in the moment but I have an unconfirmed suspicion that one of these two players later sized his value bets larger against me than he otherwise would have. Although I realized it may have been happening in the moment I had a bluff catcher that would normally be a call-down; I failed to consider that a bluff catcher was worthless against a clearly exploitative value bet. Now, this player was quite good and may have noticed the tendency for me to disbelieve larger bets without my pointing it out; however, pointing it out was an egregious error. Lesson #4 is related...

    4. Do Not Underestimate Your Opponents
    This is quite related to the last point: I failed to re-evaluate my read of the aforementioned opponent quickly enough to avoid losing a huge chunk of my stack. I saw a few hands that looked questionable and thought he was a weaker player than he was. By the time I left the game, he proved that he was likely the best player at the table.

    This is a shorter lesson because it's quite self-explanatory. Although I made a point to assume everyone at 2/5 was competent until they proved otherwise, I overestimated my ability to tell what constitutes "proving otherwise."

    5. Control and Understand Your Tells
    I alluded to this above, but I play almost entirely online because I have very little opportunity to play live poker. Still, I have a decent understanding of poker tells and I try to pick up on reads where I can.

    Also, as I have played more poker I have realized how much easier it is for me to control myself and avoid giving off tells. I used to have a very annoying nervous response when I had a strong hand or a bluff: shaking hands, rapid heartbeat, the whole nine yards. Now I notice that I am very controlled in these situations, for the most part. I have learned to control my face, posture, etc. while bluffing or strong.

    Sidenote: the chips at Parx casino are absolutely disgusting, which is especially unpleasant because I often have my hand on my face in certain postures (it helps me maintain control)---not like Phil Hellmuth's hand-turtleneck thing, but usually I have my left hand on my face in some way.

    But because I can't play live very often, I sometimes find it's hard to get back into things especially if I have a coffee or something. During this particular session I felt like I couldn't control my heartbeat and really needed to slow down and control things. That should be a sign that I'm not ready to take a shot at a higher stake.

    But I also occasionally employ subtle reverse tells when I think the opponent is a thinking player (or, if they're not, then there's no harm). One example is leaning back in my chair a bit to appear relaxed and strong when I'm bluffing.

    On Sunday, though, I made an error by misunderstanding and misapplying a tell. I alluded to this hand above which I'll post on it separately, but essentially I had top pair (jacks with KJ) and bet flop and turn then checked river after several draws missed. Before checking the river, though, I considered betting and I even counted out some chips first, knowing that the opponent likely knew about this defensive tell indicating a marginal hand (I hoped to induce a bluff). [Important note: this wasn't entirely conscious or on purpose---I didn't set out to do this necessarily, I just sort of allowed myself to do it hoping I would induce a bluff].

    The reason this was a major, unforgivable error is twofold: (1) I DID HAVE A MARGINAL HAND; and (2) I failed to consider that the opponent may not have had a bluff/busted draw. Essentially, I turned my hand face up against a value hand by assuming I was against a bluff, allowing him to bet large to get a crying call from a decent hand. Another thing: he probably would've bluffed a busted draw to a check without me making some stupid show of it. Doing this without the nuts or without a strong read that he was weak was a stupid, stupid blunder. Again, I can't even be sure it made an impact or that he noticed, but this was still a mistake and it was based on a weak mental game.

    6. Seat, Table, Game Selection Is Crucial Even for a Socially Anxious Player and Even When Seats Are Scarce
    I almost never change seats or tables. I tried to scope out the 2/5 game on Saturday before deciding whether to play 2/5 and where to sit if given the choice, but Sunday made some mistakes in this regard. I'll list the mistakes below, but first will discuss what I believe contributed to these mistakes.

    The most critical contributor to my mistakes was that there was a long 2/5 list and very few seats opening up (and I was short on time as discussed above). I was on the 2/5 list while playing 1/3, itching to play 2/5 while watching the list like a pot of water on the stove. So when they finally opened a new table, I played 1 more hand and then jumped up to leave (note: another reverse tell situation---I racked my chips and got ready to go, then checked my cards and "decided to play 1 more hand"; unfortunately these particular 1/3 players did not pick up on that sort of thing, to say the least.

    Anyway, being totally antsy for a seat and not having many options was one contributor. But once the table opened, it wasn't full for a while; I could have moved seats at various times.

    Another contributor: a little bit of anxiety. It's hard to put myself out there in this sort of way. I feel uncomfortable standing up and scoping out other tables, especially when many of the players are 2/5 regs and I'm a newcomer. I also feel uncomfortable moving to somebody's left and declaring "I think you will give me your chips."

    And another contributor: thinking I was leaving soon, so I didn't need to move (and shouldn't move or I might end up staying longer---HA!).

    The mistakes:
    (1) Immediately jumping to the new table instead of hanging back to allow weaker-looking players to sit down. This is the perfect time to select a seat without looking like it's intentional. I did end up sitting to the left of the weak player I mentioned earlier, but mostly because he looked like a competent, aggressive younger player (instead he was a weak, aggressive player, so it worked out). If I waited longer I may have sat there anyway, but I would have had options.

    (2) Not moving to the left of two middle-aged nits. I'm not entirely sure this was a mistake because these guys didn't play a lot of hands (and usually limped when they did)---so they weren't exactly handing their chips away (in fact they did quite well by cashing in on strong hands against players who didn't adjust---case in point: the weak ATM to my right busted and left when one of these nits had the most obvious pair of kings in his hand and Mr. ATM paid them off anyway). But the most consistently open seat at the table was the one to their left---several people moved there from other positions at various times in the session---so I should have taken it because...

    (3) Not moving away from my specific seat, which was two to the right of the strongest player at the table (the guy mentioned above). I would have saved a lot of money simply moving anywhere else---this guy was in position or the blinds every hand against me and I vastly underestimated the impact.

    (4) Not looking around at the other 2/5 tables to see whether I should request a table change. This one's simple, and I can't estimate the impact because I'm not sure other tables were necessarily better. Again, I thought I was leaving soon and shouldn't go somewhere to start over with my reads/table dynamics/etc.

    7. Take Breaks, Especially When a Dynamic Changes
    On Saturday, I busted the tournament and took a break for about an hour, electing to get a beer and a burger at the pub in the casino (shout out to the pub at Parx, the Liberty Bell, which was shockingly reasonably priced for a good burger and beer). This allowed me to decompress, think about and discuss (via text with a couple fellow players) some hands from the tourney and get them out of my mind, and shift gears to playing cash right before the evening rush. I really feel like this break helped me immensely and contributed to---or at least didn't sabotage---my huge session on Saturday.

    On Sunday I did the exact opposite. I was stuck in the tourney with a short stack for far too long, and my remaining time for poker was waning quickly. There was a long 2/5 list and I wanted to get as much time as I could. I busted and immediately put my name on the list, then played 1/3 until I got called. I didn't allow any time to decompress, change gears, form a plan of action, or even consider whether I should play 2/5 instead of 1/2 or cash at all instead of leaving. I don't know whether this changed anything but it definitely was silly.

    I have since learned from Dr. Tricia Cardner (a few days late unfortunately) that we can only exercise our brains heavily for 4-hour sessions generally. I'm used to playing for at least 8, but I hear professionals discussing their much shorter sessions---clearly they know more than me, so I should start emulating them instead of stubbornly sitting rooted to the seat.


    8. Take Care of Your Body
    This is so crucial and intuitive that I can't believe I have to remind myself of this point. Don't get me wrong, I try to do everything right---drink water consistently at the table and occasionally coffee or a coke if I need a bit of a boost---never alcohol except at the rarest home game of a certain type. Stretch and look around and think about something else for a moment.

    Sometimes I need to remind myself to eat more than just the snack I brought to the table. And I need to realize more often when to stretch and take a hand off here and there (which I do, sometimes). Perhaps the most crucial thing I need to work on is posture. As we are all aware, poker tables are too tightly packed and the seats are usually terrible for posture. I have not found a good resource for this and would love any recommendations.

    9. Poker Requires a Strong Commitment, But How Strong?
    This one is basically a summary of the overall point---dedication to the game requires working on the mental aspect---but requires a bit more explanation as to my specific situation.

    I am very dedicated to this game and I think about it and study it constantly. Part of this is thanks to my somewhat obsessive personality. In fact, as I have realized in the last few years, I tend to follow a cycle: I pick up a new (or old) hobby and obsess about it for a few months until I eventually move on to a new one and essentially drop the previous one. I've done this with chess, a few video games (not a huge gamer but a couple have been caught in my cycle), guitar (several times), poker (the first time around, back in 2012), and even gin rummy. Relatedly, I tend to follow a similar cycle at most jobs I've had where I start out extremely diligent, dedicated, punctual, etc., until one day a switch flips and I can only unflip it with self-reflection, diligence, and sometimes a good vacation.

    My hobbies follow such a predictable cycle that I started naming my computer log-in passwords, which must be changed every 3 months (right around the timing of my hobby cycle), after the current hobby as an inside joke with myself---don't worry, it's not something stupid or simple like "chess1234" so I am totally comfortable sharing this tidbit.

    I've said "this time is different" a few times---mostly chess and guitar---and yet those times were not in fact different. Poker, though, really seems different. I have stuck with it for way longer this time than anything else, and I've been more dedicated than anything else. Most critically, I have a support system that I didn't have with anything else: my two best friends don't play chess or guitar but they do play poker quite a bit, plus this forum (which has been an invaluable resource many times) and two study groups on Discord.

    This obsessive cycle is the bane of my wife's existence sometimes and other times has been a funny sort of quirk to joke about. With poker it's been the former, unfortunately.

    But even if poker is different this time, two revelations came from this crucial weekend epiphany regarding the dedication to this game: (1) I already know improvement comes from more than just time on the table, but being committed off the table requires the study of much more than just strategy---it requires the commitment to and study of all aspects of the game and the self; (2) growing as a player requires a substantial investment of time and energy (not to mention money) that is either (a) too much for my life and my wife or (b) less substantial than I have been giving (i.e., I can tone it down and still see improvement).

    I have improved and grown so much as a player through my obsessive focus on the game. Other than law school, I'm not sure I've ever shown such visible, tangible progress over a relatively short period of time. But the simple, harsh truth is that I need to find a better balance or I will have to give it up. Poker's important to me but I ain't ruining my marriage or career over it. (Hey, maybe that's a good sign).


  • #2
    Never play when you are rushed, when you are expected elsewhere or when you would rather do something else. Whenever I am rushed I try to force plays and I play far off from my A game and quickly realised I would have been better off shopping on the bankroll money rather then playing. I convinced my relatives that poker was worth it by taking pictures of big stacks and then taking them out on the bankroll money. One of my close relative tough poker and all of the casino games were pure gambling/luck and after showing up a few pictues of stacks I told this person if its all gambling and luck then why do I take the money home everytime? (9 out of 10 times to be fair!) It worked for me. Spending my bankroll is a bad leak but it helps keeping in mind that this is well worth time and effort and that this is not monopoly money! Imagine you baught 100$ of flowers and showed up early on sunday with tales of sucess! Dont put poker between you and your wife, make it an acessory to your sucess!

    I have read or heard somewhere from someone more competent then me that players that do bad hollolywood tells dont stick around very often because good players pickup on them.
    Preflop, players subconscially tell the opposite of what they have, when someone talks loud and looks strong most of the time it means a weak hand, when a player looks at his card for one second and then turns very quiet and attentive to strong action it most of the time means strong holding. When you go "Ok I will play one more hand" it sounds to me like bad hollywood and a weak holding as you are projecting strenght.

    I like to read your stuff I think you are a strong player and Im looking foward to see the hands from saturday and Sunday!


    • #3
      Heh...we have a lot in common. I got obsessed with chess in school and spent every weekend pushing plastic pieces around a piece of cardboard in a college lunchroom.
      Then I played competitive racquetball for a few years, got to the top of my class and moved on. Now it's geocaching, which is actually a great companion to poker. I'm out in the woods moving around and thinking about the last tournament or new concepts from JL and AF.
      Back when I played mostly cash years ago (I'm talking 10-20 and 20-40 LIMIT HE) the hardest thing for me to learn was when to just give up and leave, as you've alluded to.
      The first time I got up from the table with still $40 left after a 14 hour session was actually a breakthrough. Some of you know what I mean.
      Fortunately my wife supports me 100%. I don't have the wild swings that I used to, and I have a job that pays the bills...

      You wrote a lot of good stuff, but your 2nd concept is the one that brings back the most painful memories and was the hardest for me to overcome.

      I don't really take many shots at higher levels. I've moved from 200-500 entry fee tournaments to 1200-1600 and I'll take a shot at the main event again.
      Since last summer, every time I've won something in a tournament I've put it away in a WSOP account for me and my wife, mostly not even using it to enter fututre tournaments.
      So we call it our vacation money and will use it to play poker over 10 days or so in July. I'm ready to go!!


      • #4
        Hi Kjholt, Thanks for sharing and i like what you share , its interesting and real, and i mean real i mean most of us will somehow have similar experience or have seen someone have similar experience. Actually alot of theory , some of us know but rarely do we practice all the time. its like we know eating healthy , stay away from sugar , exercise more , use our time wiselly , altho some of us know but not all of us can implement it disciplined and there are situation we may look like a weirdo we will be outcast or dont look appropriated . Live poker is a game play with people if we create unnecessary attention we will be the target .

        i have my own problem for poker too , altho i dont think my technical skill is lack of , but my mental strength is still not as good as i want to , and i dont have a well paying job that so call can help me fund my bankroll. i know i need volume in my poker to win a stable and reasonable income , from my own stat , i should able to do it , but in reality when the swing come i will stop , take a break and it slow down the volume i can have in a month.

        to convince someone outside of poker world that poker is worth pursuit? i would like to say , when we bet with an edge we are not really gambling , but when we bet without an edge we are gambling. The house take the bet from the gambler, the gambler is gambling, but the house is just doing his business , because the house always have the winning edge. most gambler thought they have an edge when they went to casino but they are fooling them self, even some poker player assume they have the edge in the poker table, but in reality are we able to see clearly do we really have the edge .


        • #5
          Hello everyone, I want to share my observations, I believe that the real guarantee of a successful poker game, no matter how corny it sounds, depends only on experience. The more you face extraordinary situations, the more you bluff and in general, the more you play poker, the more experience you get, and the more often you will make the right decisions in familiar situations. It is very important, especially for beginners, to be able to observe, since many players do not improve at all, since they do not have enough of their own knowledge. In such a situation, the question is about getting your experience, and not coming from somewhere.
          In order to learn how to play competently and well, you need to spend a lot of time learning many tricks. Now I will describe some little-known situations that will help you increase your level of knowledge and experience.

          1. When you are faced with a new situation for you, try to remember your every step and the steps of your opponents. The mistake you are making should only be made once.
          2. Carefully analyze each step you take in new situations.
          3. Learn everything you can. If you have friends who play poker, you just NEED communication with them, it will always help you.
          4. Look at the game from the outside, as often as possible, put yourself in the place of other moves, analyze situations, reflect.
          5. You shouldn't be targeting world-class players. Of course, it is very interesting to watch the game of different famous players, but these, I repeat, are world-class players and they play with players of the same class. You shouldn't compare their game with yours, because their game at the table is not optimal for the tables at which you will be playing.
          6. After each game, take some time to reflect on all the hands. After thinking, pay attention to any mistakes you have made, and consider how you could have played out the session differently.
          7. If you are playing with a buddy or friend, keep track of all situations and hands, pay attention to his contribution. Try to understand what you did wrong, which caused the error. Major mistakes in poker are due to smaller mistakes and flaws.

          Every time you start a game, you have a great opportunity to advance your skills in the game. Make a choice towards acquiring new knowledge and skills. Paying attention to every game, every table is not easy, it takes a lot of effort. You must remember that it is your money in the game. A good, correct game takes a lot of practice and a lot of effort!Click image for larger version

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