So, I bared my soul last week and told you that, despite playing my first hand of poker a decade and a half ago, I have only recently considered myself to have moved from the beginner into the intermediate player category.
That sounds pretty dumb, right? Sam Trickett plays one pub game and then by the end of that week he’s got £16mil in the bank and hot chicks licking every part of his exposed flesh. I take 15 years to work out what ‘value bet’ means.
Kat, you got some mean-ass game right there, baby.
There was a major psychological switch-point for me, a revelation that changed everything to do with how I thought about and played, poker. It might have been a long time coming, but just like everything in life, we all need to get there in our own, sweet time. Before I tell you about this pivotal moment in my poker life, I want to tell you how I got there.
When I started playing online poker in 2000 I was the only person I knew who did it. If I dared to mention poker in a social situation, some fool always had to mention James Bond, or That Affleck Movie (whichever, whatever). I had nobody to talk to. I’m sure there were poker blogs and forums back then, but I didn’t know about them. I had learned to use a computer and the internet solely to play online poker.
There were a good few poker books, although not much available for beginners compared to the plethora of information we have now. I remember trying to read Super-System about 4 weeks after I played my first online hand- obviously, it meant nothing to me. I was alone.
In addition, the games were so soft back then that nitting up from the first hand on a large field tourney and jamming any Ace later on was a solid enough strategy to consistently cash, and occasionally bink. I made a clean £1500 profit in the 1st year, with no single stake higher than $10, and no cash poker at all. My new hobby was paying me, why would I think about my game when I was so obviously a genius?
I couldn’t play in casinos until 2007 when they changed the law and let casino staff in. This meant that my first live tourney was in a run-down Riley’s Snooker Club and I instantly knew I was making better decisions than those guys. They all sucked.
It was an awful environment for poker, and back then, not one Riley’s team member knew anything about running a comp or making any rulings, I knew more than them too. The false affect this situation created was that I was led to believe that I was a good player with extensive poker knowledge.
I was not, and still am not, a good player, but I laboured under this misconception for at least seven years. I learned nothing, I changed nothing, I read little, I assumed everything I did was brilliant and everything everyone else did was retarded. I would expertly justify awful calls and bets on my part, rage at the donks when they hit their three outers and never once did I turn the critical eye on myself.
It didn’t help that I was still winning. It’s easy to believe you’re good if you’re still making money. Truth is, I’ve always been an aggressive player, nay, I’ve always been an aggressive person, and aggression is such an effective tool at a poker table that it used to be possible to win whole tournaments on brute force alone, provided your opponents were pussies, which in online micro and live snooker-hall poker ten years ago, the majority of my opponents were.
Around five years ago, a combination of factors forced me to reconsider my game. Firstly, my opponents were getting better, and blind aggression was no longer a fool-proof strategy. Secondly, I hit my first prolonged downswing.
At the time, I didn’t even know what a downswing was. My instinct was to treat it as ‘mumbo-jumbo’. The whistful wafflings of someone who can’t play, akin to “she’s my lucky dealer”, or “I have to raise 45s from under the gun”.
“Downswing” just sounded like a fat excuse for being a shit-box and blaming it on maths.
One day, a very clever friend of mine (nothing to do with poker, he’s a statistician and mathsy type) found a great way to explain the nature of ‘a downswing’ or what he liked to call ‘mathematical variance’.
He asked me to imagine that we tossed a coin 100 times, and asked if I knew how many times, on average, it would be heads, and how many times it would be tails. I’m such a clever girl, I guessed about 50/50, and he gave me a gold star.
Then he asked me in what order those heads and tails might come out, and I blinked and dribbled a bit. What?
The exact order of 100 tosses of heads or tails was impossible to predict, but there is a fixed amount of permutations. I don’t even know how I’d work out how many possible permutations there are! I’d be interested, if anyone can tell me. (Edit- I’m still not 100% confident with this, but here is the Mathsy stuff via Wikki.)
Anyway, my stats man pointed out that one of those permutations would be 50 heads in a row followed by 50 tails in a row. This permutation was no more or less unlikely than any other, in the objective infinity of maths. To my puny human mind, it seemed ridiculous that would ever happen, but the logic was unassailable.
Most of the possibles would result in a couple of heads, followed by a couple of tails, but many permutations would also have long strings of heads and tails, without any breaks.
Stats guy asked me what would happen if I had £50, and bet £1 fifty times on heads in a (unpredictable) permutation where all fifty tails came out first. I worked out that I would lose all my money.
He pointed out that I wouldn’t have done anything wrong. After a few tails were thrown, I would not be making a bad choice to bet on heads, as in the majority of permutations, a head would pop up after just a few tails. I would have made the best decisions possible and still lost all of my money. Great gambling.
I didn’t sleep that night. There was something baffling my brain, a horrible truth was realising. By the time the sun came up, I was wired, hysterical and scared. I’d realised there was a very high chance that I wasn’t such a good player afterall. If I could lose all my money by making good decisions, then it stood to reason that I could win money by making bad decisions; I’m smart enough to recognise that is not a sustainable situation.
From that day forward, I started reading, watching videos, questioning my own play first, before denigrating anyone else’s, and (I still consider this to be the single most profitable addition to my game) analysing hands after I’d played them.
I could see how my game was maturing, and quickly. I was making better decisions more consistently, and becoming a master of my aggression. I felt like I was growing into a force to be reckoned with… except now, I’d stopped winning.
Mid2010-Mid2011 was a horrible year for me. I felt like I was playing better than ever, but I still couldn’t get anything right. I was running into AA too often, every cheeky 3bet bluff was getting shoved on pre, I kept getting my money in 4/1 and then collecting my things and going to the bar. My poker life sucked the fat one that year.
One time, I cried; I actually cried.
I’d satellited into the online PKR Masters ($150) for $1 and I was excited. I played a great game and reached the bubble without a single showdown. I was buzzing my boobs off at the prospect of cashing for $200.
I was dealt QJ in the BB and it passed to the button who limped, sb folded (bubble fear). The flop came QJJ. I checked and he bet. I raised (bubble fear) and he flatted. Turn bricks and I jam (ludicrous bubble fear, 2.5xpot jam, smooth) and he snaps (no bubble fear). He flips AJ and the river spikes his A. I bubble and I burst into tears, right there at my desk, like a child.
Through my snotty sobs, I remembered my statistician friend’s words, and I felt a bit better. I hadn’t done anything wrong, possibly played the pot a bit clumsily, but not wrongly. I dried off my tears and registered for another tourney.
I have a friend who no longer plays poker, not seriously. He might have a drunken £100 on a cash table at the end of night out, but that’s it now. He and I had a very similar poker history, and yet, when he hit the rough side of variance, he gave up. He did not take the time to adjust, and his frustration then killed his love for the game. He wanted the game of poker, and all his opponents, to bend to his will, to do what he thought they should be doing, and that was never going to happen.
It is difficult to understand that you can be a good player who is slowly grinding down your bankroll, and that you can be a shite player and not have enough room in your wallet for your £50 notes, but, on the short term, that’s true.
Over 100 hands of poker, even I might beat Sam Trickett. Over 1000000 hands, I’m toast, and it is realising that truth that has kept me in the game- In poker, skill and knowledge will always win out in the end.
If I keep learning, keep growing and keep maturing, I will be better than enough people that even their good fortune at benefitting from the mathematically unlikely will not beat me, not on the long-haul, even if they send me to the rail tonight.
More importantly, I must never let my ego become bigger than my skill again. I’m not ashamed to say I’m not the best, I’m not ashamed to say I need to learn, and I’m not ashamed to cry when the passion of poker overwhelms me.
I am proud to say that I’m a developing player, and to anyone who won’t accept that about themselves, however good you are, please keep it up. You might be better than me now, but you’re on the path to becoming stale, and, if you don’t jazz it up, in a couple of years, I’ll be beating you; watch out!
Big thanks to my dear friends, Dr James Blood and Steven “Laptop” Burgess for taking the time to help me tweak sections of this article.