Common Reasons Winning Players Become Unprofitable
The final section of this ebook will widen back out to talk about the broader game of how to be a successful poker player, and more importantly, make poker a healthy part of the rest of your life. Just as we can look at the expectation of micro level decisions in poker, so too can we use some of those same techniques to think about how to approach the game on a macro level.
Becoming unprofitable is the direct result of an inability to maintain focus on good thinking about expectation. To describe different aspects of what I mean, here are some stories. For almost all of these, I have real players in mind, but gave them cheesier screennames. It is of course possible to fall victim to aspects from any of these descriptions. As you read, think about what in each of these stories sounds like you.
“BayesGetsBabes” rose up quickly through the HUSNG world, starting at the 20s and then playing the 500s within a year. As he moved up, he soaked in knowledge from everyone around him, assuming that his game required a lot of work to get where he needed to be. However, once he got to his peak, he desperately wanted to feel like he had “arrived” in poker, and was entitled by the skills he had developed to keep winning. As you might expect, this caused him to stop improving, but something else happened, too. More and more frequently, in-game, BayesGetsBabes would make decisions impulsively, not based on expectation. He’d start seeing pocket threes 40bb deep and occasionally think “I’m going to make a potsized 3-bet this time”. The old BGB would have stopped himself and decided “no, that has worse expectation, I have no reads to do that”. The new BGB assumes that because the play came to mind, and because he’s a creative enough player to well after it (and has made six figures lifetime playing poker), that the play must be okay to make. Suddenly BGB is check/raising flops against infrequent c-bettors, barreling off against calling stations, and losing gobs of value from senseless attempts to trap. With a much lower ROI, BGB tries to play more tables to get his hourly rate back, but that only leads to even less thinking about decisions with expectation in mind and even more whim-based play. After a while, it’s been thousands of games, and BayesGetsBabes is no longer making money.
After reading the Table of Contents for this ebook, “the50percentclub” was perhaps most looking forward to this particular article. That’s because the thought of becoming unprofitable is the one of the most crushing thoughts in the world to her. Despite the fact that her graph for the most part only goes straight up, the50percentclub finds it extraordinarily difficult to take risks. She plays most of her games against recreational players, frequently checking her EV line, highly concerned about whether the games will stay good. Even though the50percentclub lives a fairly low variance poker life, whenever she has a 15 buy-in downswing, she is absolutely crushed, waking up the next morning feeling utter contempt for the putrid aftertaste in her mouth from last night’s losses. Eventually, after one of these bad runs, she will look around at the HUSNG landscape, with more and more players moving to hyperturbos while she gets less and less of a share of the recreational players, and decide to play less and less poker. It will have been a good career – the50percentclub will always be able to say that she made tens of thousands of dollars playing poker on the internet.
“DeweyDfeatsWiki” came up the way most players do, earning a healthy winrate from recreational players. However, after establishing himself at the 200s, he started to get into some entanglements with other regular opponents, as he was never afraid to be combative and start a duel with a player he did not like. However, after a while, poker became much more about those duels to him than it was about making money – he had developed a fairly passionate dislike for certain players and would almost always sit them whenever he saw them in the lobby. Eventually, he ran into one of those players who was significantly better than him, but his ego did not allow himself to let go of trivial internet disputes and focus on expectation. After a few occasions chasing losses at higher stakes and developing new enemies there, DeweyDfeatsWiki had blown through most of his bankroll.
After turning professional a few months ago, “MeitnerWasRobbd” just isn’t feeling it anymore. He wakes up every morning, has a bowl of cereal, and turns on the poker client, registering for the same lobbies as he has done every day for the past month. Grinding is not a hobby anymore, but rather a job, and being up five buy-ins for the day now just feels like breaking even, and breaking even feels like losing five buy-ins. And losing five buy-ins? That just means he has to work both Saturday and Sunday to keep pace. Every day, it feels like him against the world, silently clicking the same buttons over and over again, wondering if he is killing his body because humans are not evolutionarily designed to sit in a chair for this much of life. Once in a while he tries to do things to spice the poker experience up, playing some larger tournaments here and there, messing around with regular speeds, turbos, and superturbos, even starting a coaching business, but nothing really works. MWR’s volume dwindles and eventually he decides just to go back to his old job.
There are more types of stories, In fact, I had planned to write one about a poker player at Sapphire in Vegas, struggling to keep up with the demands of being such a baller all the time, but at press time, I have nothing worthy of a screenname. What each has in common is a way that players lose sight of expectation, either by being too risk-averse or too risk-seeking, by isolating away from any sense of community or getting too caught up in it, by making suboptimal plays out of an egotistical lack of discipline or being stubbornly opposed to altering strategies.
Not everything you do as a poker player has to be about your expectation in terms of money – ultimately, what you’re probably trying to do is maximize is your expected utility in life, and those two concepts are not always correlated. Still, it is best to recognize that just as deciding whether to go all-in or just call with a flush draw are two decisions with two different expectations, so too are broader poker choices, like deciding which games to play and how many, picking which poker education resource to invest in or none at all, and figuring out whether it is beneficial for your long term poker development to go after an odious competitor, or let it go. These questions are sometimes very difficult to answer, but sometimes all it takes is an awareness of the problem we are actually trying to solve.
There is one story I did not tell, and it is one that people often like to tell the most: Johnny was a winning player, but the games got tougher and now no matter how hard Johnny tries, he can’t keep up with how much the games are improving. The omission was intentional – while games do get more difficult over time, pretty much everybody who was able to become a winning player in the first place has the ability to keep up with the gradual evolution of poker. The more you keep your focus on expectation and on getting better and not on seeing yourself as an established player who does not need to improve, the more likely you will be to avoid the common reasons winning players become unprofitable.