Why You Struggle at Low Stakes Poker

In “celebration” of two years of playing for a living, if not exactly “professionally,” I am going to offer a reflection on the game. I’ve been thinking on the subject of those struggling to win, getting stuck (both ways) at 1/2 and feeling frustrated in general by poker. We’ve all been there, but some of us are in a holding pattern where we won’t quit but can’t seem to improve.

Low stakes purgatory.

How does one come to this state? What is this really about?  It’s probably not because you didn’t read the hot new book or didn’t latch on to the latest trend. Nor is it lack of inherent talent: no one was born to sit around trading plastic rectangles and disks with people they don’t like for hours, days, and years on end. Yes, it could be you have some glaring technical flaw holding you back, some giant pimple you’ve been ignoring, but if you know to read this boutique blog in the poker netherlands, it’s doubtful. Your poker mechanics are probably better than mine. You’re probably on a first name basis with Mr. Flopzilla. (Is it Chet? I can’t remember.)

Yet you can’t shake the bottom stakes. You’re even beginning to fear you never will. Your confidence is shot.

What’s going on? What exactly is your problem? Why does there seem to be no real help?

I have a few ideas. Now, I haven’t decided on the relative importance of the items in my list, but I might by the time I am done, or add on later. Some of them, in fact, will overlap. I do, however have something of a fun premise:

The Struggling Player Manages to be Wrong About Strategy in a Game Without a Right Strategy.

Let me explain. Poker is 99% unsolved. There are situations which can be demonstrated to have answers, and they are suggestive about how we should best play almost every other situation. That is basically it and the foundation of a great deal of very interesting, very complex thinking being done throughout the poker world.

However, the Struggling (or even Failing) Player is stuck in his own ideas. He is in a hall of mirrors he has been building his whole life and now continues to do so in poker. He is a tail chaser and biter at heart. His strategy is stuck on itself. They say, wisely, that every man thinks he’s great at poker and sex. The cure is now to consider the likelihood of this, admit the truth, and then see the following items for which camp of misthinkers you may belong to. Here’s one:

You Think, Deep Down, Poker is Group Solitaire

There are many, many very frustrated players who have put a lot of time into the game. They may have even given a fair percentage of their life to it. These guys and gals know a lot of poker math, read a lot of poker books (Look at the wall of paperbacks! Mason should buy some better shirts.), watch a lot of poker programming, and even dream about cards.

However, until Poker Armageddon comes, when the other 99% of poker is solved, and likely, few can execute a perfect equilibrium strategy, these players will never stand a chance because they are never really playing their opponents. Poker does not have a set of principles that if you skip you will always lose and if you follow you will sometimes win; it’s not a puzzle. At least these guys will always have a consolation: the thoughtful oasis of NVG. Here are some signs you, perhaps unknowingly, treat poker like Solitaire:

  1. You are constantly flabbergasted by what other players do.
  2. You think certain hands “deserve” to win.
  3. You think everyone is a fish.
  4. You feel the need to explain to people that you know what you are doing.
  5. You are careful to let us know that people “respect” your game. (In fact, you use the word “respect” quite a bit.)

You Never Got Over Playing Your Own Cards

column disapSeems so obvious, doesn’t it? That can’t be me! Nevertheless, this is a basic problem for just about every break-even player I know- up to 5/10, so don’t feel ashamed. The underlying issue is that these guys don’t know it or have deliberately forgotten it out of bitterness or laziness or fear. They think because they’ve heard some folk advice or know the word “range” or bluffed out their brother-in-law at the family’s 1989 reunion, that they are dangerous and unpredictable. Here’s some clues that you are stuck on your own holdings, even if you can’t admit it; these are individually problems on their own, mind, but their root cause is a strategic misunderstanding and level one thinking:

  1. You worry a lot about action games, not getting action, or finding action.
  2. You worry a lot about getting big hands cracked.
  3. You wonder quite a bit about how to play certain repeated spots.
  4. You talk about “trouble hands.”
  5. You regularly feel lost by the turn and secretly wish everyone would fold to you- even with your best holdings.
  6. You talk about open shoving the flop, inexplicably and repeatedly.

You Aren’t Growing as a Player

There is an adage that if you are not improving, you are getting worse. It’s true, but how do you necessarily know if you are improving or not? There are no grades in poker, no USTA rating, compliments at the table mean nothing, and the flow of money is not always correlative to excellence. After all, there was probably a time where you were killing it, and now you can’t figure out why history isn’t repeating itself. I can help you there, because those who study and participate and play but aren’t evolving often have, and are suffering from, Settled Ideas. This is a red flag for being stuck. Unless you are an established End Boss, in which case you can get away with the argument from authority, bad grammar, bad politics, bad facial hair, lame Tweets, and God knows what else, your side in poker conversations and in forums is marked by the following telltales of Settled Ideas:

  1. Your preferred lead in a comment is “I don’t mind…” No one cares what you find tolerable, pruneshoe. I can usually stop reading right there. (“I like” is another flag.) We care about reasoning or in a pinch, direct advice to a direct question.
  2. You use words like always and never. In a relational game, this can never be true. (Ha.)
  3. You tell people what to do, even nicely, as in “Please don’t…” When you have settled ideas, you want to affirm them by passing them on. You are a Poker Proselytizer, not a Poker Thinker.
  4. You always have an excuse for what you did.
  5. You ask for advice, take up everyone’s time, get some feedback… then you fight it.
  6. You post switcheroo hand histories to show commenters up and confirm your opinion.
  7. You post anything resembling a bad beat.
  8. You constantly write up anecdotal hands as part of arguments that prove nothing.
  9. You look desperately for help with your three buy-in swing.

You Let Others Do the Thinking for You

There is always a bit of a push and pull regarding poker books over in the forums. However, it’s quite the tempest in a teapot. Whether he read books, went to special poker summer camps, trolled the forums, or tried to buy his way through poker by seeing a coach, aka, poker therapist, the mark of the breakeven player is that when push really came to shove, there was some bit of advice, some formula, or some graph somewhere that told him what to do. Again, poker is not solved, it’s not solitaire, and you are a performer on the brightly lit stage. Know your lines – study and knowledge are important, naturally- but remember that the director doesn’t show up for opening night. Here are some signs this is a weakness for you:

  1. You have an adversarial yet obsessive relationship with poker writers and thinkers.
  2. You are very concerned that someone show you a winning graph before taking their advice or reading their book.
  3. You are a fanboy or fangirl of some poker dude or dudette but can’t really explain why.
  4. You find yourself jumping to conclusions extremely quickly and even completely changing your mind just as quickly.

The Mystery of Variance Befuddles You

I’ll end on a slightly more sober note. It is very difficult to quantify the potential swings of poker. Far better mathematical minds than mine exist, and even so, all that can be offered by them is models. What you don’t understand, and must, is that this is a good thing and necessary to the game.

Moreover, here’s what we do know about people: the swings, or as we poker players have adopted incorrectly, albeit beautifully, the variance, of poker can be far more daunting than the brain is ready to handle. Poker is an immense challenge, and the gambling aspect of it may be just as difficult for you to wrestle with as the X’s and O’s. The break even player, in other words, may have a poor relationship with the Goddess. Here are some signs you are in this camp:

  1. You are very concerned with win rates and less with edge. One is the past, the other, the future.
  2. You think about Bankroll but not Cash Flow. You have expectation problems.
  3. You’re obsessed with the “A” game, while blaming your problems on your “C” game, and so on, not seeing yourself as an organic poker playing whole, one with strengths and flaws that will tend to reveal themselves over and over again- until, perhaps, the day you embrace or confront them.

Best wishes to those who struggle.


6 thoughts on “Why You Struggle at Low Stakes Poker

  1. I am guilty of some of these, yet not as much anymore for some as well. So I guess that’s a sign of growth???

    At any rate, glad you’re back to writing.

    1. Cheers. And I have your next possible interview: JCW. True grinder, humble expert, “The Poker Eeyore,” and pound for pound forum posting champ. He will likely be in LV and then may be in LA when you are there again for LATB commentary, so you can make it happen.

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