Poker is a great game: the thrill of competition, the camaraderie with your fellow competitors, the triumph of taking down a huge score. When things are all going your way, it is a feeling of euphoria. During these runs, you seem to win every race, complete every flush draw and hit every set. You feel unstoppable.
Then again, this fickle game can also turn 180 degrees without warning. Out of nowhere, you lose every coin flip, your over pair gets cracked by two undercards, and your opponents repeatedly catch that runner-runner flush. You begin to question every decision and move you make.
With poker's intricate combination of skill and luck, many players blame their misfortunes on the cards. In the short term and in specific hands, this may be true. However, how do you really know that it isn't something more? How do you ride out these bad runs? Here are some suggestions, many of which come from amazing players who have ridden the ups and downs of the poker roller coaster and survived to tell their tales.
Critical and honest self-analysis
Day to day and month to month, poker is a game of streaks, some good and some bad. Top poker professionals, like J.C. Tran, suggest you analyze your recent tournament results. "You should look at all the tournaments you played in the last three months and figure out your percent cashing and your net gain or loss. If these have changed for the worse over the previous three months, then you need to look at what could have changed."
In addition to crunching all the numbers, Bill Edler recommends that each player engage in a critical assessment of his recent play. Edler, Bluff Magazine's 2007 Player of the Year, believes poker players are notoriously bad at self-analysis. "Most players fail to be objective and determine whether they were really unlucky or they were playing badly. Most of the time, it is the latter."
Recently, Edler had to look honestly at his own game. After an incredible 2007, which included a World Series of Poker bracelet, a World Poker Tour title and almost $3 million in earnings, 2008 was the opposite. "If you cashed in an event during 2008, you were definitely ahead of me," Edler joked. But the question is, why?
Upon reflection, Edler believes his dismal 2008 was due to a combination of exhaustion and bad play. "In 2007, I had such a big year. I always seemed to get deep and be in contention. However, in 2008, I was burnt out. I began losing patience and tried to outplay my opponents too often. Overall, I did not play well."
If top professionals can admit real mistakes and address their tendency toward certain bad plays, I am sure that most amateurs could do the same.
Remain confident and stay focused
Another top competitor, former tennis great Andre Agassi, famously said, "Image is everything."
Tran thoroughly agrees. "You have to keep your confidence up because image is important. If the other players see you are confident, they will fear and respect you," Tran said. "However, if you lose your confidence, you will tighten up, and this will ruin your game. Also, if the others see you less confident, they will lose respect for you and eventually come after you."
With respect to the cards, Jonathan Little, WPT Season VI player of the year, said "you should focus on avoiding bad situations that could lead to bigger mistakes. When you are running bad, you want to lower your potential variance."
Overall, you need to stay focused and not blame the cards for your bad streak. Lee Childs, who finished seventh in the 2007 WSOP main event, reminds players that "poker is a game of short-term luck and long-term skill. If you remain focused and play smart, your skill will outweigh the luck in the long run."
Take a break
Another piece of advice for poker players in a slump: Who says you have to play poker? When you are not running well, take a step away from the tables. Michael Binger, Bluff Magazine's 2008 POY runner-up, feels a break is helpful at times. "If I'm not running well, I will take a day or two off instead of trying to play through it," Binger said.
Edler completely agrees with taking some time off. "I took the second half of the year off in 2008. I feel fresher and think I will be more patient in 2009." Edler's time away from the felt seems to have helped, as he finally broke his cold streak with a solid cash (18th place out of 1,017 players) in January at the Borgata Winter Open Championship Event.
Time away from poker to enjoy some of the other parts of life is just good general advice. For me, activities like soccer or tennis with my kids take my mind away from poker, rejuvenating me physically and mentally.
Finally, poker needs to remain fun and not become a chore. "You have to make sure to enjoy life outside of poker and relax," Little said. "Make sure that you don't get burnt out by playing so much. You should want to play, not feel like you have to play." I hear many players say that the game is not as much fun as it used to be. This attitude is a recipe for disaster.
As a final side note, with the recent recession, tournament registration has been down 20 to 35 percent across the country. With less dead money in tournaments, compared to just a couple of years ago, fewer finishing spots are being paid per event. Thus, both professional and amateur players may find it harder to cash than previous years. Tran said, "Before you may have had to make the final three to four tables to cash, but now you sometimes have to make the final table just to make the money." Inevitably, more players will feel that they are on losing streaks in the 2009 poker world.
More than ever before, poker is a complicated game that is constantly evolving. At some points, you will find yourself in a rut. The next time this happens, take some time off from poker to reflect and perform some honest self-analysis. Remember to stay positive and focused, but above all, remember that poker is really about having fun.
Bernard Lee is the weekly poker columnist for the Boston Herald and author of "The Final Table, Volume I." He also hosts a weekly poker radio show, "The Bernard Lee Poker Show," on Rounders Radio and in Boston on 1510 AM. The show can be heard at 5-6 p.m. Tuesday and is repeated throughout the week. For questions or comments, e-mail him at BernardLeePoker@hotmail.com.