In three out of last six months and five out of last 11, I have lost money playing poker. In the 12 months before that, I lost money in only one. I am playing the worst poker of my life. And it doesn’t seem like I am any closer to turning things around.
I am writing this on a Sunday, the biggest day of the week for a poker player, dropping today’s grind. Before I play another hand, I have decided to take a break to investigate what the fuck is going on. And hopefully, you can use some of this to steer out of your own downswing if and when it occurs.
At the end of each month, I take stock of my poker results and add notes on events that influenced the results. Thanks to this, I have a clear hindsight and I can see my current downswing rooted in the past.
Without data, I can't say for sure that I have run bad or it is just selective memory bias. Any half-decent poker player will tell you that they don't remember the times they sucked out on someone else as much as when they were on the receiving end. Keeping this in mind, I do believe that I ran below EV in critical spots in tourneys or in big pots in cash games.
The number of hours I spent playing went down considerably - 'Didn't play enough' features in my notes in 6 of the last 9 months.
This is a problem. Putting in volume is a way to deal with variance. Poker players pride themselves on making decisions which may turn out to be wrong in that instance but are +EV long term. The long term is achieved by playing a lot of hands so that the variance evens out and the effect of your +EV decisions shines through. And the shorter and fewer sessions I put in didn’t help in this regard.
3. Distributed effort
I am primarily a cash game player but I’ve experimented with tournaments with decent success.
Mixing cash and tournaments is actually a pretty good strategy but I went in without any proper plan. I played tournaments without discretion (although within the rules of BRM). This reduced my cash game time (which is my main source of income) and introduced more variance.
While I watched more videos, I did much less off the table hands-on work. In terms of pure technical knowledge, I know more than I ever did in my poker career. But I executed a much smaller percentage of what I learnt.
Why I didn't apply those skills is the mental game weakness.
5. Mental Game
I’ve been a professional when it came to dealing with swings, bad beats, or with someone saying bullshit in the chat. But the mental game slump sneaked up on me - the first big red sign was when for the first time I started considering moving up to cover the losses (which thankfully I didn’t pursue for long).
Often I showed up with my B-game or C-game. Auto-piloting, just clicking buttons. When I was all in a certain spot with say an over-pair against top pair, I would expect getting five outer-ed. I knew I’d lose flips or get my Aces cracked against Kings or run into Aces with my Kings and not get there.
There was a tangible shift in mentality, it was like I had resigned to the idea of losing even in way ahead situations. I would hero call in spots where I knew the villain is never bluffing, and make over elaborate bluffs and then wonder why did I get called.
As to the reason why this happened, it could be as simple as not paying attention to the mind. The way our body needs exercise to stay fit, the mind also needs workout to keep it in good shape, whether it is by meditation or reading books. Furthermore, it is also affected by your life outside poker.
1. Higher Expenses
In the last 12 months, I have spent twice the amount I spent in the 12 months before that (I got married and went on more vacations).
If I am honest with myself, I do think that higher expenses brings pressure and affects the game. It is not all about the money, but also about missing days where I could have put in a grind instead. Unlike a salaried employee, every day we are not on our job, we don’t get paid
I am a flow-player meaning that I perform better when I am playing on a regular schedule. Even though I relished the wedding and the vacations, these breaks ruptured that momentum. Having said this, it is a lifestyle I chose - traveling, enjoying life and playing poker. So the onus is on me to get better at managing the breaks.
2. Unfit body, unfit mind
I have become a not so proud owner of the Indian epidemic called the beer belly. Binge drinking and smoking became a norm. My food habits aren’t the best. And I have nothing to show for in the name of physical exercise.
It should surprise no one that this has a direct correlation with my performance. Alcohol and drugs affect the ability to focus for a sustained period of time. The morning after, I felt drowsy and not capable to think deeply about spots. I felt returning to auto-pilot mode often because I had no stamina left.
Goa monsoons didn’t help either. At the onset, sure it looked green and beautiful. But with time, when I couldn’t go to the beach for a run, or see the sun for days, my mood became as overcast as the sky above.
Even before getting married, my wife and I stayed together - so there was no change in that. The friends I had here moved away either geographically or emotionally. With the kind of lifestyle I (and my wife) have - working from home, rarely stepping out - I didn’t meet a lot of new people either. During most days, I said hello to more birds and animals than humans.
This solitude of living in a Goan village got to me. I grew concerned about my mental health as I could see it precipitating into something more serious.
4. No creative outlet
I wrote five articles in 2017 and 13 in 2016. In 2018, I published one.
The reason I got into poker was to sustain my writing. But somewhere along the way, I forgot that initial purpose and focused just on poker. At least I thought I did. What actually happened was that the unsatisfied creative urge to produce something bred discontent and disillusion with poker. The dissatisfaction manifested itself in a sense of futility and a lackadaisical attitude towards the game.
I remember the feeling of waking up in the morning and springing out of the bed so that I can study and play poker. I don't feel that way anymore. The motivation to play the game to enjoy it is not there. Sure, I want to play the game for money but it's not like before where I used to play because I actually enjoyed the game.
5. Indifference towards money
I became numb to losing money. Some of my biggest single day losing sessions came in this period. I stopped caring about money not because I am super rich but because I don't see more money equaling more contentment or happiness.
The detachment with money comes as part of the job description. When we see daily swings which can sometimes equal someone's monthly salary, you stop looking at money as something that is hard to get. It is not bad per se but when it affects your decisions on the table, when you make that big hero call because ‘Fuck you, fuck me, fuck everyone,’ then it becomes a problem.
THERE HAVE BEEN SOME POSITIVES
The losses haven't been that big because of my low volume and a conservative BRM. I am disciplined with my bankroll management and that has allowed me to not worry about my personal financial situation.
I dropped down the stakes. So the mistakes I make are not as costly as before.
I still believe in my ability to bounce back. Self-confidence, which has come from hours of study and playing is holding me in good stead.
PSL Season 2 runner up spot was pretty sweet.
WHAT ARE MY SOLUTIONS?
If you are not doing well in life with say your relationships or mental health, it is unlikely that you will get good results on the felt. A single bad beat will bring forth all the negative emotions and cause you to play worse. So my focus is on improving my life outside poker first.
1. Moving to Bangalore
At the end of this month, I will move to Bangalore. When you are in a rut, a change of any kind can work wonders. And I am hoping it does.
The move will solve a lot of problems in one go. I have a lot of close friends there which should help curing loneliness. The sports and fitness infrastructure is better so I can do a physical activity regularly. Additionally, I hope to channel city’s energy into my life outside poker.
2. Getting fitter, eating healthier, quitting smoking
These are non-negotiable not just for poker but for life in general.
3. Creation over consumption
The easiest way to find time for writing would be to forego Netflix and such. I also intend to fill my days with things that give me contentment like art and culture. The idea is to live everyday and not postpone it to an imagined future.
4. Mindset training
Even though I wrote about a daily meditation habit, I haven’t been able to put it in practice. That is going to change.
I also want to read more Non-Fiction (Books like When, Deep Work are great to help you live at the peak of your abilities). And of course poker specific - The Mental Game of Poker (I read this early in my career. Now it needs refreshing and reading of the second part).
1. Staying at lower stakes till I get my winning mindset back.
2. Designing my grind as a professional
An elite athlete in any sport probably has a schedule for his work out, practice and pre-game rituals designed to put him in a situation where he can perform at the peak of his abilities. I need something similar.
So the days where I lazily open a lobby and stumble upon a table would be gone. Instead, pre-session rituals, vigilance and restorative breaks, autopilot checks will come in. A target for number of hands/hours to play per week, which tournaments to play will be set. This structure should also help in allowing me to play well even between vacations solving another problem.
I still have a lot of work to do on what it means to be a ‘professional’ in this game. I'll probably post a short post when I have it in proper form.
3. Studying a lot more in a structured method
HH reviews, working with software, videos and a coach. Setting a target for number of hours/week for each of these.
One last thing I want to talk about is envy.
I never got into poker thinking that I want to be the best poker player in the world. But seeing endless brag posts of people made me crave that too. The FOMO kicked in and when I looked at others succeeding, I wanted that success for myself. Even though my definition of success was not about making a certain amount of money or winning a marquee tournament. I accepted, mistakenly so, other people's ambitions as my own without realizing the trade-offs they are making.
I don't know if envy had an affect on my game but it certainly degraded my mental health.
The hardest thing in life is to find your own truth amidst all the noise and the gyaan and have the courage to pursue it. The Instagram culture we are a part of, induces a feeling of discontent at not doing cool things.
What I would suggest to you is to find your own truth, whatever it may be. If it is to grind 16 hours a day for a cash games leaderboard, then go for it. If it is to be able to have a regular source of income while working a day job but still be able to play some tournaments on the side, then so be it.
The truth for me is to write, play poker at a competitive level, be able to pay my bills, save for the future, travel and be fit. Creating a balance between them is my responsibility which I need to work on away from the table. And I hope to be back as a mentally, physically and skillswise improved professional.
If you want to talk about poker, mental health or life in general, feel free to ping ( mj [at] mayankja [dot] in ). I may not be an expert in this field, but I have found that letting your feelings out is often the first step in healing. As a sounding board, I am here. Cheers and good luck on the tables.
Wait But Why’s article on Choosing a Career has a useful exercise on creating priorities when you want to do a lot of things. I am going to do that and I’d recommend it to you too.
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