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The Psychology of Losing

aokrongly joined the FTR community in January, 2005. He has posted a number of helpful articles that go into a great deal of detail. Thanks to aokrongly for making FTR a better place. T

How does knowing “the psychology of losing” help you? You’re going to win!! Well, there’s psychology there too, but that’s for another post. It helps because if you know what subliminal drivers kick in when you lose, then you’re better prepared to address and combat them, which will decrease your loses. I’m not a psychologist, but I play one online. Enjoy!

Losing is relative. The psychological effects kick in at different times for different people, based on your tolerance and history. Someone with a $1000 bankroll who loses a $5 tournament with a bad beat as an isolated incident won’t blink. The same loss to someone else may put them on serious TILT. For instance, if you have a $49 bankroll, that WAS a $100 bankroll and you need to withdraw your money before your wife finds out, but the site won’t let you withdraw less than $50, plus this is your 5th “bad beat” in a row, etc. Then it’s a mortal lock that psychology will come into play.

The basic psychological and physiological reaction to losing:

Boiled down to its absolute essence, losing hurts! Not in an abstract way, but in a very real way. It makes your stomach churn, changes your blood pressure, constricts thousands of muscles and causes physical and mental anguish. Throw emotion on top of that and you have The Psychology of Losing. It’s real, we’ve all felt it, and it’s no fun.

So what?

So this… when humans experience pain and discomfort we want to make it GO AWAY!! How do we do that? You’re sitting in front of the computer so you click into another game as fast as possible. The best way to make the pain of losing go away is to WIN!! And you want to win as quickly as possible. Add to that the fact that you’re still kicking yourself for losing (whether justified or not)… How could you play so smart for 2 hours (at a ring game or MTT for instance) and then implode so quickly? And you have a recipe for disaster.

Your body wants to feel better. Your mind wants to prove its worth. Your ego wants to regain its self-respect. And maybe, you’re loses are causing a financial pressure. And it’s all relative. You could have started with $100 and grown it to $310 over a few session or weeks of play. Now you’re back below $220 and you’re scared to see that number go below $200 for no real reason other than ego. In reality you’re up, but it doesn’t feel that way. (Alternately it could cause an ACTUAL financial stress, which is worse). So, all this combines into an unstoppable urge to keep playing. Maybe even at higher stakes. If it took you 3 weeks to build that bankroll, you don’t want to have to start another 2 week process because you had a bad few hours. So patience and reality go out the window and you increase the stakes to “recover faster.” Or start Multi-tabling where you weren’t before. When the loss of a single hand triggers this response, then that’s what most people see as “going on tilt.”

Does any of this sound familiar? If not, it’s because you’re playing with points and not money or have been playing for only 30 minutes. It happens to everyone at every level: Micro, Tournament, High Stakes, etc.

The important thing to understand is that the symptoms you feel when you lose are out of your control. They are as physiological and automatic as your heart beating or sneezing. The other important thing to remember is that good poker play requires PATIENCE, ABSTRACT THINKING, and A NEUTRAL TO POSITIVE OUTLOOK. You will lose money if you are in a hurry, distracted by your own body and worried.

SO WHAT DO YOU DO?

1. KNOW THYSELF. Understand when this kicks in for you. You could lose 5 tournaments in a row, but your expectations are to win 1 out of 6, and you have the bankroll and history that makes it all “normal.” This may not kick in until you lose the 6th tournament. Or you may expect to win money 2 days out of 3 playing limit, so it doesn’t kick in when you’ve had a few hours or a day of negative income. But you need to know what your expectations are regarding losing and “know thyself.” When you feel the first tinge of physical or emotional response to losing then the affects above are kicking in, the solution is to stop playing until you get yourself back under control (more on that below).

2. KNOW YOUR EXPECTATIONS. (This is a secret to life in and of itself, so take note.) I don’t know the secret to happiness, but I DO know the secret to unhappiness. It is UNFULFILLED EXPECTATIONS. You expect your life to “change” and get great when you graduate high school, and then it doesn’t. You’re unhappy. Why? No reason, everything is fine, you aren’t being shipped off to a prison work camp, you have food and friends and activities. But reality didn’t meet your expectations and you have Unrealistic Unhappiness. It happens for women post marriage. They expected this married fantasy bliss, and it’s not there after about the first month. They get unhappy. Why? They’re married! They have a handsome husband, new apartments… etc. Nothing is REALLY wrong, but they have UNFULFILLED EXPECTATIONS. So they are unhappy.

What are your expectations? Are they realistic? Do you expect to lose? You should not expect to always win. Do you expect to be Mr. Poker with only 3 years experience? (Yes, it takes a long time to get as good as you expect! 3 years is nothing.) If you’re new to poker, you really need to examine your expectations. May I suggest that you expect to pay a “learning tax” and make the most of what you learn. If you break even, or win then it’s a bonus. But, if you put your mind and effort into it, then you will eventually start collecting other players’ “learning tax.” AS you get better that income increases and you can make good money if you want. Or you can play break-even poker – which is free excitement and entertainment. But, have your expectations match reality. Because if you don’t, the PAIN RESPONSE will kick in and you’ll “go on tilt” – which is another way of saying you will succumb to the Psychology of Losing.

The solution to this is to adjust your expectations (more on this below).

How to do what you need to do to reverse the Psychological Effect of Losing.

There’s more that could be said above, but these 2 points are the main points to address in this post. So here are some suggestions and thoughts on how to execute a recovery strategy.

1. Stop Playing

If you can’t turn off the computer and walk away then you have a problem. And you should see it as a problem. You don’t have to rush off to a 12 step meeting. But if your poker is affecting your life and relationships with others in a negative way, your job, life finances, causing depression, etc. Then you probably should get professional help. Poker isn’t that important!!

(If you have this problem then you probably already suspect it and don’t want to face it. Let me just say this, and if it sounds like a public service add, then it does. If you acknowledge to yourself that you have a problem and realize that your life and family are more important than the problem, then you will overcome it. You just need some professional help and counseling. You will live the life you want and not a life of cyclical pain and self-destruction. You can have that great life you imagine without poker, guaranteed!)

FOR MOST OF US THOUGH, the problem isn’t a life problem. It’s an issue of minimizing our losses and increasing our positive poker sessions. So here are some things you can do.

Again, turn off the computer. Call the session done! So you lost?? OK. Accept it. Put it in perspective. Did losing give you cancer? NO! Did it make your wife leave you? NO! Did it cause your beautiful lawn to sprout weeds? NO! OK. There’s no Real Damage!! There’s no Real Danger… Your body is registering a Danger Response to an imagined danger. Understand and accept it. Physical separation from the stimulus (i.e. the game) will let your body calm down, will let your mind start to digest what happened, and will keep you from blowing the money you have left in a vain and fruitless attempt to “recover.” You can’t recover the money right now, but you can recover yourself right now, by walking away.

Do something else. Something physical is best. It will disperse the physical effects more quickly and occupy your mind. Clean something!!! Yea! That’ll also make the wife happy and you’ll get satisfaction from that. Imagine how much your wife will LOVE the fact that you play poker if when you win the family gets money and when you lose the house gets clean?? That’s a win-win!! And it’s a win-win for you. When you win money you get warm and fuzzy feelings of power and ego, and when you lose you get SEX!!!

You could also take a walk, mow the grass, clean the gutters, take a drive with the top down (I have a Jeep) or the windows open. Get some fresh air! Play with the kids!! They’ve been waiting for “Daddy to get off the computer” for 3 hours. They’ll love it.

Don’t watch a movie or read a book. You’ll keep stewing and they aren’t as effective as something physical.

What if your loss was late at night? Take a piss (you’ve been waiting until a break), take a sleeping pill – not the whole bottle haha – and go to bed. Honestly, take a sleeping pill. They aren’t addictive, you have work in the morning and you don’t need to miss sleep thinking about why you reraised AI with 66 against a reraiser with AA. You’ll feel better in the morning.

If you want to play more the same day, then you need to take a good, long, physical break. Go do something that will make you feel good about life. Work out! You’ll help your health. Go out to eat at a nice restaurant. You’ll help your outlook on life. Etc. But, if you aren’t 100% relaxed, 100% patient and 100% prepared to play poker the way you know you should and feel you can, then you’re not ready to play yet.

What if you’re in the middle of a tournament?? If you can click “deal me out,” recognize the symptoms and do what you can to dissipate them. Take as long of a break as possible. Recognize that YOU MIGHT LOSE AND THAT’S OK!!! Come to grips with the prospect of losing and decide that it’s not the worst thing in the world. Then decide that if you are going to lose it’s not going to be because you went on tilt. You’re going to invest your time, skill and energy to the best of your ability until the last hand. If you do lose, you won’t feel as bad as if you tilted out!!

Enough said? Recognize your response to losing is physical and psychological in ways you can’t “decide” away or ignore. You have to DO something else.

If you’ve taken a particularly bad loss or lost your entire bankroll, you may need to take a longer break. It may take days, weeks, even months. If you have money online it’ll still be there 6 weeks later, which is more than can be said if you play on tilt. Take some time to study your play, read a book or two, learn more, and change your game. Re-read the book that helped you learn to play well in the first place. Take notes. Poker won’t go away during your break. There will probably be 1000 new fish on the site when you return and the shark that spanked you around may have moved to another site or higher stakes. Don’t return to playing until you feel you have the skills and mentality you need to win.

2. Adjust Your Expectations

I’m posting this in the beginner’s area. If you’re a beginner or you haven’t “learned poker” then you really need to adjust your expectations. I don’t care what limit your playing. There are some players there who have studied poker, know it like the back of their hand, and have been playing for years and years!!! The higher the stakes, generally, the more experienced the players. That’s not a bad thing! You are getting your money’s worth for your “learning tax.”

If you think you have a 6th sense, a “feel for the game,” you can “spot weakness” naturally, etc. You don’t. I’m being frank. No one does. Those feelings aren’t feelings. They are based on experience, study, knowledge and statistical analysis. When all that becomes innate, then it looks like “feel.” But I doubt any highly successful player will say they have a “natural talent” other than their talent to learn and their experience and commitment to playing good poker. It’s easy to feel that way when you’re winning. But there’s always an element of luck, even playing AA there’s luck. You choose this time to go AI and someone calls with KK and you hold up to win. Statistics said you would probably win. But it was LUCKY that someone had 2nd best hand and a willingness to call your AI bet. We increase our chances by learning and experience.

One way to adjust expectations is to keep records. Past history DOES predict future results, all else being equal. Most people don’t understand that past records for thousands of hands is required. So they see streaks. But they are just small portions of a correct statistical sampling. Flip a coin 30 times and it may come up heads 20 times. Flip it a million times and the difference between heads and tails will be will within any margin of error. So don’t interpret small scale changes as trends. Adjust your expectations. When you haven’t played thousands of hands, then HAVE NO EXPECTATIONS!! You’re still building your statistical baseline to base any expectations on. You can study your hands and your play against “recommended” play and learn how to play better in the short term. There are plenty of helps regarding that here and elsewhere.

Adjust your monetary expectations. No one WANTS to follow the bankroll management advice on this site and elsewhere. Just understand that if you don’t then you’re going to see some swings that look scary and can take your entire bankroll. Don’t EXPECT to be unique in all the world of poker. You can’t play 50% of your bankroll on any given day and not suffer the natural and unavoidable consequences of that move.

We all see ourselves as unique, special, and talented. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that when you’re talking about poker you’re playing a game of statistics, skill and experience. You can’t change statistics. If you change your skill and experience (generally over a long period of time) then you can become unique, special and talented. It’s like that saying “ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL, BUT SOME OF US OUTGROW IT.”

Do you expect to be able to play 6 hours a day, when your family and other obligations don’t allow it? Adjust your expectations!

There are plenty of other “expectations” that need adjusting. Here’s the bottom line (in poker and in life). If you are UNHAPPY, then you need to look at what your expectations were, what actually happened, and either adjust your expectations to match reality or take the action necessary to adjust reality to match your expectations. If you hate your job it’s because you expected…. whatever. Make that happen, adjust your expectations or change jobs. Poker is just the same.

Knowing where you fit in the poker spectrum when it comes to skill, experience and your chosen game/limits, will also help you understand and deal with losses. They will also help you know when, where and how you need to improve. If that’s your goal then losing is a positive. If you didn’t lose how else would you know your weaknesses and know where to spend your energy.

Can you turn a loss into a positive experience? I do it all the time. I’ll be heads up in a tourney and have my hat handed to me by a skilled player, more skilled than me by a mile. I’ll watch everything he does and learn. I’ll make notes. I’ll replay it in my mind. I’ll add his tricks to my bag and be grateful for the experience. Let’s say I don’t make it in the money and the same thing happens (that’s losing). I’ll do the same thing.

1. Not every loss activates the Psychology of Losing reaction. Know what triggers it with you and learn to recognize the symptoms.

2. Adjust your play to reduce the opportunity for this loss reaction to happen often (if possible).

3. When it happens, recognize it and take steps to dissipate it. If you’re in the middle of a tournament and can’t just turn off then adjust your expectations very quickly, take a few hands off, and recover the best you can. You may lose anyway, but you’ll give yourself a better shot than you would have had otherwise.

4. If poker affects your family, life, finances in a serious way then get professional help.

5. Physical loss reactions require physical actions to clear up. Stop playing and do something else.

6. Know your game, know your circumstances and adjust your expectations to match.

Finally, if you’re not having fun over the long run, then why do it? If you love playing poker, life’s too short to deny yourself that excitement. And if it just seems like a constant struggle with no upside, then life is too short to waste your time doing it!!

Good luck and happy playing!

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