An Idiot's Guide to Poker: Never play scared


No doubt you will remember last week's column in which I regaled - that's right, regaled - you with tales of a new-found aggression improving my game. I forced myself to play any old junk from any old position in order to both immerse myself in tricky spots and to promote a table image that I could later exploit.

It all went well. I played with guts and skill and made money. Shortly after telling you all about this I continued to play with guts and skill but lost money. Lots of it. So much of it, in fact, that earlier this week when I looked at my bankroll I curled up into a ball and wept for an hour. What happened? Lots happened. I lost big pots getting all my money in pre-flop with kings against aces. Fine, coolers happen. I lost big pots getting all my money in pre-flop with aces against kings. Fine, that happens too. I got outdrawn on rivers by fizzy, chaotic plums hitting their gutshots. Nut flushes would become meaningless against opponents hitting full houses after all the money went in. Top pair would look good on a benign flop but would look less good - ridiculous, even - against someone's tough-to-detect set.

You get the picture.

The upshot of all of this poker malfeasance is that, once again, I'm close to being poker-broke. It's okay, I've been close to being poker-broke before. Normally I'll squeak through the very bad times and then, through a mixture of study and rafts of luck, rise again.

This time, however, I'm not so sure I'll squeak through. I'm playing scared. I'm scared of both losing my slight bankroll and of the emotional impact of having to navigate another slew of bad beats. Consequently when I play, I do nothing. I check, check, check my way through every hand and hate myself for it. Occasionally I'll try and steal pots but will quickly retreat and give up if my opponent plays back at me. At every juncture of every street I'll convince myself that my opponent has the nuts and cower. The exhilaratingly aggressive style I played last week seems like a different era. A different person, even, playing in a different era.

This bundle of grim timidity, by the way, has been taking place playing cash. So I stopped playing cash games and switched to tournaments. Rebuys aside, in a tournament you can only lose a fixed amount of money. Such a format can be quite seductive for someone on cowardly-tilt with a slender bankroll.

Reader, I didn't do any better at tournaments. I didn't play disastrously - I played in position and scooped up pots that weren't really mine and 4-bet with muck against players who I knew could crumble - but luck hid in the shadows. With two thirds of the field gone in one tournament a pick up kings under-the-gun. I raise three times the big blind. The opponent to my left shoves in his remaining chips. Another player calls. The player to his left shoves in all of his chips. I shove, too. The only player who has more chips than me and can knock me out of the tournament - the one who flat-called the first shove - calls and turns over ace-four off suit. I know before any cards come down that I'm toast. An ace comes down immediately. I'm toast.

In another tournament I'm coasting along well and am happy to get all my chips in with AK suited against someone playing a short stack. He has A7. We end up splitting the pot. In the same tournament, just as we're hovering around the bubble, I'm equally happy to get all my chips in against a loose unthinking player on a J-X-9 flop holding K-J. He has KQ - I'm a 71% favourite to win the hand - and spikes a ten on the turn.

Not for the first time, I think about quitting poker. But I can't. I can't because I like it too much. I can't, because I'll miss the emotional, psychological and financial stimulation. And I can't, because I don't know what else I will do. I just need to get lucky - or, more precisely, not continue to get unlucky - then get good, then very good, then better. Wish me luck.

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