m11 - High Performers vs. Low Performers
Over a year ago, I wrote a post called “The Reason You’re Losing at Low Stakes,” which to this day is still the most popular post I have written. In that article, I argued that players who are losing at low stakes are breaking down at the logistical level.
As I mentioned in my most recent post, I’ve now had the opportunity to coach about one hundred students. I’ve had some students achieve incredible success, and many others achieve results that are more modest, but still respectable. At this point, I very rarely have students who completely fail, but I still see quite a few students hit a low ceiling. They usually stagnate at 100nl or 200nl. Sometimes they’ll get to the point where they can take a shot at 500nl, but they never seem to stick the landing. They always get eaten alive in the bigger games and have to drop back down to 200nl or lower for months to recover before they can take another shot.
I could say these players are failing logistically, and that would be true, but it wouldn’t be a complete explanation. The real question that has always bugged me is why. Why are some players able to keep improving, while other players stagnate?
I may never be able to fully answer this question, but over time I have gotten a lot better at recognizing the patterns of high performers and low performers. There are three major patterns I see in low performers in general. A low performer may not have all of these patterns, but they will usually have at least one that is holding them back severely.
#1 Low performers are unwilling or unable to focus on what matters. They are extremely focused on small, insignificant details and rarely interested in fundamentals or the big picture.
If you put a bunch of low performers into a study group together, usually what they will do is start randomly discussing hand histories, and it won’t be long before they get stuck debating something profoundly unimportant in the grand scheme of things.
For example, low performers might spend fifteen minutes talking about what the best value bet size on the river is in a certain hand, whereas a high performer will just say, “I don’t really care, as long as we’re betting, because the EV difference between different bet sizes will be very small--next hand.”
Low performers lack attention to detail for things that really matter: the fundamentals. They will talk for hours about obscure concepts that have no use to them, and then they'll make basic mistakes like overfolding from the blinds preflop.
It's not fun to work on the fundamentals, because the first thing a low performer has to accept is that he is not as good as he thought. Then he has to put in the boring, practical work to fix his leaks, and finally he has to hold himself accountable to making a lasting improvement. In my experience, low performers are, for whatever reason, not interested in this type of work.
#2 Low performers are uncomfortable with consistent, gradual improvement over the long term. They tend to flip flop between not changing anything at all, and changing too many things all at once.
Low performers simply cannot stick to a simple plan over the long term. There is always something that drags them off course.
It’s truly painful to watch what happens when you force a low performer to consistently show up and focus on the fundamentals for more than a month or two at a time. They will start off strong and make slow, but measurable progress. Then, suddenly, they fall apart. They might make up some excuse for why they need to take time off. Or they might convince themselves that they need to do more than what they are doing, and start changing a bunch of things. Either way, they stop doing what they’re supposed to do, and then they quickly ruin the progress they’ve worked so hard for.
High performers are more consistent. They rarely make big changes to their study routine, or take so much time off that they lose progress. They have big aspirations, but they know they can’t achieve them overnight, so they usually are focused on just getting a little bit better each week or each month.
High performers never get tired of the basics. They obsess over the fundamentals, even romanticize them at times, and tend to avoid focusing on minutiae. They understand intuitively that, as the saying goes, “once you get fancy, fancy gets broken.”
#3 Low performers don’t believe in themselves. They think that everyone else is better/smarter/luckier than they are.
This final point is a tough one to nail down. Some high performers, including myself, have a lot of confidence issues. But high performers truly want to win, and they believe that if they work hard and line up a lot of good decisions in a row, they will eventually figure out a way to win.
Low performers tend to think the opposite way. They think that no matter what they do, it’s not going to be enough. They give the players they are competing against too much respect. They always feel like they have to do more in order to win. This feeling of inadequacy causes them to do too much, which distracts them from focusing on what’s important.
A low performer who is beating 200nl thinks he has to change his whole approach in order to beat 500nl. A high performer understands that he’s probably already good enough to beat 500nl. And even if he’s not, he only needs to get a little bit better. And once he gets to 500nl, he’ll take the same approach to beating 1000nl, and so on.
Are you a high performer, or a low performer?
The point of this post is to help low performers identify the behaviors that are keeping them trapped in a low performance cycle. As you read through the examples, do you resonate more with the low performance behaviors, or the high performance behaviors?
If you identify yourself as a low performer, it might be enticing to think about why you gravitate towards these behaviors, but in the end I don’t think it really matters. All that matters is that you identify where you’re going off course. If you can do that, then you’ve already begun to break the cycle of low performance.
At that point, it’s simply a matter of asking yourself: do I really want this? Maybe the reason you’re struggling in poker is because you don’t really want to succeed. You might like the idea of being a successful poker player, but you’re not actually willing to do the work that it takes.
It’s worth mentioning that the very best poker players I know don’t really feel like they’re working when they’re improving their game. The work feels more like play to them, so they naturally work harder than everyone else. You don’t necessarily have to be this passionate about poker to make a decent living, but I think that some people who really struggle to put in the work are better off giving up poker and finding another job that is more interesting to them.
If you do decide that you really want to succeed in poker, then you have to focus on the fundamentals. You should have a very strong attention to detail, and even be obsessive at times, but don’t focus on minutiae. You should be focusing on the basics, and never lose sight of them, even when you add new things to your game.
Next, be sure to work consistently, and focus on gradual improvement. Some day, you’ll be playing games that are 10x or 100x bigger than the games you’re playing now. But the only way to get there is to get a little better each day.
Finally, you have to believe in yourself. You have to respect your opponents, but not too much, otherwise you won’t fight hard enough to win pots. You have to have faith that if you just improve a little bit each day, you will eventually become better than the regs at your current limit, and the next limit, and so on. Remember that there is no mystery to success, just consistent, gradual improvement, day in and day out.
You can’t go from being a low performer to a high performer overnight, but you may be surprised how quickly things can turn around when you stop shooting yourself in the foot. Success breeds confidence, which breeds ambition, and more success.
“In my case my appetite came with the meal. I don't think that's an expression in English but what I'm trying to say is as I got better, I got more ambitious as well.” –Magnus Carlsen
April 29, 2021 | 7:33 a.m.
That's a great question. I'm not sure if I have a "life vision" yet!
My goal in poker is to develop the best strategies for NLHE cash games in the world. I intend to do that mainly by using more advanced technology than the rest of the industry, but also just by using the software that already exists in more efficient ways.
I enjoyed my short full-time career as a poker player and had good results, but for me playing poker has never been that fulfilling. I love building stuff, and I love data science. That's why I choose to spend most of my time on strategy development these days. I just get more enjoyment out of it.
April 12, 2021 | 2:31 p.m.
m10 - Social Skills & Communication in Poker
So far in this blog I have written mostly about the logistical side of poker and improving poker players’ understanding of variance. I haven’t written yet about social skills and communication, mostly because I did not realize how important they were for poker players until this year.
As some of you may know, Poker Detox has grown dramatically since I started this blog about a year and a half ago. I have now coached 100+ players, hired coaches and research assistants to work under my supervision, and collaborated with other poker coaching companies. This means I get a lot of practice when it comes to interacting with people in the poker industry.
I really enjoy working with our players and coaches, as well as others outside of our company, and most of my interactions are positive, but I’ve also had my fair share of difficult and negative interactions. Additionally, I have had a few jobs in the real world before getting into poker, so I can compare my interpersonal experiences across industries.
Overall I have felt it is harder to communicate with people in the poker industry than any other industry I have worked in. (STEM is close, but still not as bad as poker, in my opinion.) This might sound like I’m placing the blame entirely on other people, but I’m not. My own social skills atrophied severely during the period where I was playing poker full time.
I think the reason for this is obvious: Most poker players are nerds. There is no shame in it! I am a nerd and I’m proud of it. Being a nerd only becomes a problem when you are an extremely unbalanced nerd who never talks to other people in the real world.
Look, poker is a really weird job. If you’re an online pro, you essentially never have to leave your bedroom--and a lot of poker players don’t. They go out to get groceries, and maybe to go to the gym and... that’s it. Their idea of socializing is playing video games and talking on Skype with their poker friends. That’s fine, but it’s not really socializing.
Many poker players also view themselves as outcasts who can’t function in the real world. I’ve worked with quite a few poker players who have never had a real job outside of poker. As a result, some of these players never learned how to behave in a professional environment. When they are put in a situation that demands professionalism, they tend to display immaturity and offend others without even realizing it.
It seems like most poker players want to do something after poker, whether it’s starting a business or something else entirely. And pretty much everyone wants to have a healthy social/personal life. It’s one thing to want these things. It’s another thing to actually do something about it. I think a lot of poker players know the isolation of online poker is holding them back, but at the same time they’re not doing much to solve the problem.
How Did You Get Here?
If you’re reading this as a poker player who currently feels isolated, it’s worthwhile to think about how you got into this profession in the first place. What a lonely job poker is! What other profession has no boss, no employees, no coworkers, and no customers? Do you think it’s a complete accident that you wound up here? Or is it possible that you chose this profession, at least in part because you are inherently uncomfortable with socializing, and prefer not to interact with other people if you don’t have to?
If that resonates with you, I would suggest getting a real job somewhere, even if it is a basic part-time job at a restaurant or something. Not for the money, but for the social exposure and life skills. Show up for work when you are supposed to, do what your boss tells you to do, and try to get along with the other people you work with. Do that for a year. If you can go a year without getting fired (and your boss doesn’t heave a huge sigh of relief when you tell them you are quitting), you can consider the experiment a success and move on from it. I know it probably sounds ridiculous, but I think you will find the experience provides you with extremely valuable life skills you can’t get from playing poker.
Personally, I love poker, but this career has also been a convenient way for me to avoid socializing, an activity which I find inherently uncomfortable. It’s worth noting here that some people, myself included, have severe enough anxiety/depression that the best option is to seek out professional help in the form of talk therapy, and potentially medication.
My Struggles with Mental Health
My mental health was a mess after two years of playing poker, studying obsessively, and building our company. By some standards I was doing well: I was more financially successful than I had ever been. But I was essentially a recluse, and an insomniac to boot. At the end of last year I realized I couldn’t manage it on my own anymore, and I got professional help. I invested in talk therapy and I found a medication that worked well for me. So far the results have been life-changing and I am in a much better place now. I have less anxiety, I’m more productive, I’m a lot more interested in socializing, I feel like my social/communication skills are improving, and I don’t have depressive mood crashes like I used to. Best of all, I’m sleeping well and I’m no longer completely exhausted on a daily basis.
I share this even though it is uncomfortable, because in the past I bought into the mental health stigma, and I felt like it was a sign of weakness to seek help from others. Now that I have done it successfully, I realize that this idea couldn’t be further from the truth.
Whether your social skills are just a little out of practice or severely atrophied, neglecting these weaknesses will hold you back in life. It will hurt your social life, and it will make it very hard to develop professional relationships outside of poker. I’ve even seen it squander business opportunities for some poker players within the poker industry.
Unfortunately, no one is going to tell you when you burn bridges. Instead, people will simply make a mental note that they don’t want to work with you in the future. They will not consider you for participation in study groups, or hire you for coaching positions, or invite you to come on podcasts, or let you know about a juicy private game, etc. In short, if you don’t start working on this stuff now, it will come back to haunt you, probably sooner as opposed to later.
I genuinely don't believe most poker players want to have such a solitary lifestyle. Being a poker player starts out as a convenience for anti-social types. We think, “Hey, I can get up whenever I want! And I can hang out in my underwear all day--sweet!” Then, after years of being in this career, we become so isolated that socializing goes from mildly uncomfortable to downright terrifying. This causes us to isolate ourselves even more, and it’s a vicious cycle that’s difficult to break.
Breaking the Cycle
If this resonates with you, starting thinking about how you can break out of the cycle of isolation. Forget about studying poker for a few days. Consider getting a part-time job, taking classes at a university, or, in extreme situations, seeking help from a mental health professional.
I would not recommend things like joining clubs or volunteering as a start. These are great activities if you can stick to them, but unfortunately there is rarely any real consequence for not showing up. That means you’ll probably quit as soon as you don’t feel like it. It’s better to do something where you are held accountable by others for your attendance. You will have to show up even if you don't want to, and that's the point!
Poker players are obsessed with the concept of expected value. From my own experience, social skills are one of the most +EV areas a poker player can focus on, both in poker and in life. It may not be obvious from your current perspective, but you are going to have to deal with this at some point, so the best time to start is now.
If this article inspired you to change up your lifestyle, even a little bit, I’d love to hear about it. Please leave a comment below!
April 12, 2021 | 2:37 a.m.
Thoughts on the Landon Tice vs. Bill Perkins Challenge
This challenge has generated a lot of buzz in the community as of late. Given the unique nature of the challenge (Landon is spotting Bill 9 bb/100 at 200/400 over 20,000 hands of NLHE), I thought it would be worthwhile to share my thoughts on the betting line and the variance calculations involved.
These are the odds that Pokershares is currently offering:
Pokershares betting line as of February 18th, 2021.
When I first looked at the betting line, I realized I didn’t actually understand what it meant, and it took me a little while to figure it out. I think I know more than the average poker player/enthusiast about poker variance, so if I am confused, it’s probably safe to assume some other people are confused too (including some people who have already placed their bets).
Let's assume you want to bet on Landon, which means he must win more than $720k over 20,000 hands. The key question you must answer is this: Given the odds I am getting, what does Landon's true win rate need to be in order to make my bet profitable?
Landon’s odds to win are 1.61, which means he must win more than $720k at least 62% of the time to make betting on him profitable.
In order to determine what Landon's win rate needs to be to achieve this, we need to estimate the standard deviation of his win rate. It's impossible to know what the exact value will be, because it depends on the players' play styles, so we'll have to make an estimate.
I am not a heads up player and I actually don’t know what a typical standard deviation is in no limit heads up games. (If someone knows, please leave a comment below.) Let’s assume for the sake of this article that the standard deviation is ~160 bb/100. It turns out that even if this number is slightly off, it won’t affect the calculations very much.
The Primedope variance calculator allows you to input both an observed win rate and a true win rate in your calculations. So all we have to do is set Landon's observed win rate to 9 bb/100, and then increase his true win rate until his probability of running at or above the observed win rate is greater than 62%.
Let's start with a true win rate of 11 bb/100. How often will Landon win the challenge in this case?
Click here to view the full sized image.
If Landon's true win rate is 11 bb/100, he will win the challenge only 57% of the time, which means the bet would be -EV.
Here is a table of Landon’s probability to win the challenge as a function of his true win rate:
The table shows that Landon’s probability to win the challenge exceeds 62% when his win rate is 13 bb/100 or higher. Therefore, if you bet on Landon at 1.61, you are saying that you think Landon has at least a 13 bb/100 edge on Bill.
Is it realistic to think Landon’s edge is this large? I can’t give a clear answer on that, but I will say that in my database, recreational players tend to lose in heads up games at an average rate of -23 bb/100. This includes situations where the recreational was playing against another recreational, so the true win rate vs. a regular will be lower than this. However, the average stake in this database was 200nl, so rake was a significant factor (not all the losses went to the regular, some went to the site).
The big question is this: How much is Bill actually going to prepare for the challenge? If the match was going to be played tomorrow, I’d say betting on Landon is a slam dunk, unless you think Bill is much better than the average online recreational. But Bill has three months to prepare for the match. In that sense, Landon’s fate is mostly in Bill’s hands. Landon can spend a ton of time in the lab, but if Bill just comes away from his preparation with just a reasonably solid strategy, it’s going to be very difficult for Landon to have a double digit win rate against him.
It’s quite a gamble for Landon, but I think he’s smart to take on the challenge provided he sells a ton of his action. I think the challenge is likely to be +EV for him, and even if he loses, he gets a lot of publicity out of it. It might not be the kind of publicity he wants if he ends up losing a lot of money, but as the saying goes, “All press is good press.”
I’ll wrap up with one last thought: In general, the poker community tends to be wayyy too results oriented about these heads up challenges. Even if Landon’s true win rate is 13 bb/100, he still loses to Bill over 20,000 hands 13% of the time. That means that one in every eight times, Landon will lose the full $720k he is spotting Bill and then some, simply as a result of bad luck, even if he has a huge edge.
So if Landon wins a ton of money, it doesn’t necessarily mean he crushed Bill. If Landon loses a ton of money, it doesn’t mean he got crushed. In the end, a lot of it just comes down to luck. Whatever happens, it’s going to be really entertaining. Best of luck to both players!
Feb. 18, 2021 | 7:52 p.m.
Maybe that why I don’t feel as proud for my results that I probably should. It feels more like I just got lucky rather than hard work pays off kind of way. Sure I did ok amount of regular studying. And ive been fortunate enough to work with extremely good players, so I don’t have to grind countless hours on pio just to figure out how some spot should work. But still I didn’t put nowhere near as much study hours than most guys I know do.
FWIW I have often felt this way. I think it's half talent or whatever you want to call it and half being exposed to the right information and having the right people around.
People always say poker is this hyper-competitive market that's insanely hard to have an edge in. I'm just like... what?
For me the hardest thing is just not shooting myself in the foot, like getting depressed about my mistakes and then losing motivation to play because I can't play perfectly. It's more like I am competing against myself than the other players.
Dec. 24, 2020 | 4:51 a.m.
Update - Coaching Success Story
Hey guys, been a while.
I don't normally do 1-on-1 coaching, but at the beginning of this year I made an exception for an aspiring poker player and friend who has been trying to succeed for many years, but has never been able to pull it all together. You may have seen him around these forums under the name Sigmund-Freud (I will refer to him from here on as SF).
SF was a Poker Detox CFP player who we unfortunately had to part ways with back in 2018. Because of our history, we made the split as amicable as possible and gave him free access to future Poker Detox CFP content. We encouraged him to keep studying and playing on his own bankroll, and to keep us updated about his results.
Fast forward to the end of 2019, SF was still breaking even, but highly motivated to become a winner. I decided to take him on as a student mainly because I wanted to see him succeed, but also as a challenge for myself as a coach.
To be perfectly frank, SF had a lot of problems with his game, including bankroll management issues, tilt, and technical leaks. To make things more complicated, he has a full-time job and a family. So there were logistical issues regarding how much energy he could invest in poker. There were a few times where I thought he wasn't going to make it, although I obviously never told him this.
That's why I'm happy to show off his graph for 2020. After starting with a modest bankroll at 25nl, he has just cleared over $10k in profits. All of these hands were played on PokerStars.
Click here to view the full size image.
SF has proven he can make a nice side income playing poker. If he continues to improve as he has been, I think he can definitely make a living playing poker full time, assuming that's what he really wants to do. I hope his results inspire someone to keep their poker dream alive.
I still get coaching inquiries in my DMs from time to time. I wish I could help everyone, but I don't have the time or energy to do 1-on-1 coaching these days. The only way you can access my training content by going through Poker Detox. We have a cash game CFP stable and some coaching options for a small number of independent high stakes players.
Happy holidays and GL in 2021 everyone!
Dec. 14, 2020 | 5:37 a.m.
m9 - The Art of Preventing a Monster Downswing
I want to share an important lesson that I learned the hard way while moving up to high stakes last year. So far on this blog I have only written about moving up in stakes. This article is going to be about the opposite. I want to talk about when it actually makes sense to move down.
In order to illustrate the point, I’ll share my full graph to date below. To quickly recap my journey, I started playing full time at 200nl in 2019. Within about 6 months I made it to 2000nl and took a fairly epic shot that looked like this:
I won about 34 buy ins in my first 12k hands, and then lost about 23 buy ins in my next 8k hands. The result was I won at about 7 evbb/100 over my first 20k hands at 10/20. Pretty good, right? But it didn’t feel that way. It was actually fucking awful, because I simply wasn’t ready to go on a $45k downswing at that point in my career. (Remember, just a handful of months before this I was a 200nl player with a relatively small bankroll). This was the start of a rather dark period in my poker career that lasted half of a year or so, and I’m happy to have moved past it.
It wasn’t the downswing itself that was so bad, although that did hurt. In the end, I think it was the amount of time it took to rebuild at lower stakes that really messed with my head. Even after I moved down in stakes, I continued to run bad and run below EV. I probably wasn’t playing my best poker either, to be honest. I was in a big hole, and it felt like it took forever to recover.
To put this in perspective, here is my full graph since 2019 with the y axis in big blinds:
And here is that same graph with the y axis in USD:
Looks pretty different, right? That giant breakeven stretch between the two red arrows in the USD graph lasted about 7-8 months. I wasn’t playing this entire time; I took a three month break during this period dedicated solely to studying and making a new course for the Poker Detox cash game stable. But still, that’s a long time for a pro poker player to not make any money playing poker.
Nothing about my life really changed during this period. I had enough money. The lights were on, there was food in the refrigerator, and my car had a full tank of gas. I was still comfortably rolled to play 1000nl. But it didn’t feel that way--I felt completely burnt out. Losing even a few thousand dollars in a day was now enough to make me quit my session early. I used to not even flinch when that happened. Some days I would just play 500nl, or even 200nl, because I couldn’t stomach the thought of putting in a session at 1k and getting crushed.
It took a lot of time, but I eventually recovered. I’m back to crushing my 1k games and thinking about moving back up to 2k soon. But I learned a valuable lesson from this period. When I take my next shot at 2k, I won’t go on another soul-crushing downswing like this. I’ll simply take a break and move down to 1k before that happens.
The pros and cons of moving down in stakes
I think most people look at the decision to move down during a downswing like this:
- The upside of moving down is it’s safe. It’s a lot less scary to play lower stakes, and it allows you to rebuild your bankroll with confidence.
- The downside of moving down is you make less money for a little while, and it takes more time to recover your losses on average.
- The upside of continuing to play at your current stake is it’s usually the highest EV option (assuming you’re still capable of playing your A game). On average, it’s the quickest way to make the money back.
- The downside of continuing to play at your current stake is you could continue to lose a lot more money, especially if you’re now playing badly because the money you’ve already lost has gone to your head.
That’s probably how most people look at it. But actually, I don’t think number four, i.e. the financial risk argument, is the real downside of continuing to play at your current stake. The real downside is the long-term damage to your mental game that is the result of going on a downswing 50-100% larger than you’re comfortable with, and taking many months to recover from it. For me, this led to playing significantly less volume and playing a weaker, more risk-averse version of my normal game. It also hurt my confidence in real life and made me a generally more anxious/depressed person for a while.
Small jabs vs. the hail mary
When I take my next 10/20 shot, I plan to take more frequent breaks at 5/10 when I encounter a downswing. My consecutive stop loss will probably be around $30k, or 15 buy ins, even if I’m up more than that at the stake overall. If I hit that threshold, I’ll move down to 5/10 to recover, and come back to 10/20 in a month or two to resume my shot with confidence.
This is what I would call the “small jabs” approach to shot taking, as opposed to the “hail mary” approach. Both strategies start out the same way: you start out with a certain bankroll for your shot, say 5 buy ins, and move back down if you bust that. The difference is, in the small jabs strategy, you also have a consecutive downswing stop loss based on whatever your personal “pain threshold” is. That is, whatever amount you’re capable of losing without having major negative impacts on your mindset. For most people, a good stop loss at a new stake is probably around 15 buy ins. So even if you make 30 buy-ins and then lose 15, you preemptively move down and recover some or all of your losses at your previous stake before resuming your shot. This ensures that you never go on a downswing so huge that it takes many months to recover.
On the other hand, the hail mary approach simply pushes the variance to the limit. You stay at the stake until you either bust your shot or you’re too shell shocked to keep playing. Again, the upside of the hail mary is it is the highest EV approach in theory. If it works, it’s amazing. But if it doesn’t work, it really sucks.
The small jabs approach is safer, but more consistently annoying. There is a lot of extra time spent moving down preemptively to recover losses. On the other hand, the hail mary approach is riskier and can lead to either a euphoric victory or a devastating loss.
In practice, I think the small jabs approach is higher EV, even though it should be lower EV in theory. That’s because when a player exceeds his pain threshold on a downswing, it usually results in him playing less volume and playing worse poker. In extreme cases, it can result in him quitting poker. These outcomes are obviously far more -EV than playing lower stakes and reducing your hourly rate for a little while.
Of course there is a third option, which is to take a shot by mixing some higher stakes with your current stake. You could, for example, play 10/20 on the two softest days of the week, and then play 5/10 the other days. But still, there is always going to be a time when you have to decide to make 10/20 your main game, and I think it’s important to set some boundaries when you are making this transition.
I don’t want to say I regret the way I took my 10/20 shot, because I don’t necessarily regret it. The hail mary approach worked for me at 2/5, and it worked at 5/10. Of course, if I had gone on a $40k upswing instead of dropping another $20k, I would have felt great about my decision to stay at 10/20. Also, this downswing is what inspired me to do about 3 months of research which I may not have done otherwise. This made me a much, much better poker player than I was before, and resulted in a new Poker Detox course that I have used to create a second stream of income. But I do think I could have achieved the same result in a much smarter way. Yes. everything worked out in the end, but if I’m being honest, I would have rather just saved myself from going on a monster downswing that was, in retrospect, easily preventable.
No gamble, no future?
There are some people in the poker community who preach a “no gamble no future” philosophy that goes against what I’m saying here. This approach has never really worked for me. It might work for some people with an abnormal level of risk tolerance, but for the average person I think it just makes life harder than it has to be. In my opinion, there’s no glory in going on a giant downswing. At a certain point, you don’t come out stronger. It actually just sucks. Sometimes it really is better to take a more conservative approach, rather than setting yourself up for either a huge win or a devastating loss.
If this resonates with you, my advice is to simply think about how much money you’re comfortable losing in one stretch. Write the number down. Maybe it’s $5k. Maybe it’s $25k. Whatever it is, when you hit that point, move down, even if you don’t really have to from a purely financial standpoint. Take some time to rebuild, and then come back with confidence. You can’t ever truly avoid a bad run, but you can strategically move down in stakes to break up your downswings so that you ever don’t lose way more money than you’re comfortable with.
April 20, 2020 | 7:19 p.m.
Update - 100k Hands of 1000nl
I played my 100,000th hand of 5/10 a couple nights ago.
My redline seems to be falling off slightly. I'm worried I might be turning into a bit of a nit. It hasn't seemed to hurt the results too much though.
April 15, 2020 | 5:50 p.m.
When you have 30 BIs for the next limit, move up at take a 5BI shot. Always move down when you get under 25 BIs at a limit.
If you don't need the money, you can definitely adjust the thresholds to be a little more aggressive than this, but who cares?
April 7, 2020 | 5:16 p.m.
pip = Pio right?
I've made it a goal to use Pio a lot more this year. It's probably important to mention I have been able to get away with flop/turn strategies that are stupidly simple because I only play in anonymous/semi-anonymous games. Thus my opponents only have 50-100 hands at most to figure out which nodes I am Xing range or c-betting range in. In known pools, I might get exploited more, but I doubt it would really be that much of a give up at low-mid stakes because a lot of people don't know how to properly counter simplified strategies anyway.
I guess I'd just say keep it as simple as possible with Pio. From what I have looked at so far, players/coaches who are not playing at the highest levels seem to be massively overvaluing the EV gain of multiple sizes and mixed strategies in a lot of common situations.
Jan. 12, 2020 | 4:27 p.m.
I know this was months ago but this interaction still bothers me. I just wanted to quickly apologize to this commenter for accusing him of stealing my course [facepalm]. gambler91 I honestly did not know that information was out there for free and was unable to come to any other conclusion as to how you got it. (Piracy has been a big issue for us in the past.) Regardless, I'm not sure where my head was at on that particular day. Sorry.
I really appreciate all the comments people post on here. I still can't tell you why your winrate isn't higher though :D
Jan. 9, 2020 | 8 p.m.
Every Pio sim is obviously a huge simplification relative to the full game tree. Ideally we want to find a balance between how accurately our sim fits reality, and how complex our sim is.
My question is, how do you go about setting up your trees when you run Pio sims? Specifically, how do you choose how many bet/raise sizes you input, and how do you choose what values you want to use for each sizing?
Jan. 6, 2020 | 3:57 a.m.
I agree with your points. Random checking is obviously a bad habit and should be kept to a minimum. But people are always going to check randomly, no matter how hard you try to persuade them against it. The article was intended to address the root of the problem, which is when people worry excessively about results over an irrelevant sample size because they actually don't understand the data they are looking at is almost pure noise.
Note: I am also not saying people shouldn't enjoy winning and dislike losing. That's just human nature. It's just when people totally freak out about standard downswings and feel shitty about life (which I am probably as guilty of as anyone), that's when it becomes a problem.
I think the idea of not even glancing at cashier for weeks at a time is unrealistic for most people which is why I didn't suggest it. I try not to post advice here that I know I won't be able to follow myself. I don't want to be one of those guys :D
Props to those who are truly able to almost never randomly check results. Obviously that takes discipline. That said, I think if you never have to check, it's a sign that you might be over-rolled for your games and could be shot taking at higher limits. To each his own though.
Dec. 22, 2019 | 6:54 p.m.
Eh, I would argue that each additional bb you add to your win rate is exponentially harder to attain. So you are actually a lot better if you go from 5 bb/100 to 7.5 bb/100. It's an interesting point though. I didn't think of it like that.
Dec. 21, 2019 | 1:21 a.m.
m8 - When and How To Check Results
Prerequisite reading: m7 - Selection Bias in Variance Calculations
In Phil Galfond's excellent article, Poker and Your Life, he writes about the skills that he thinks make a great poker player. I think most good poker blogs try to tackle this question at one point or another. Phil starts with a few hard skills: deductive logic, psychology, and math/statistics. I tend to agree with him on all these points. But then he goes on to list three additional soft skills:
There are also three minor categories, which are less about predicting poker aptitude and potential, and more about predicting how likely you are to reach and use that potential:
Competitive Drive (especially with oneself)
Humility and Self-Awareness
Again, I agree that all of these qualities are very important, but I think he left the number one soft skill off the list. Maybe it just slipped his mind, or maybe it didn't occur to him because he's naturally such a beast at it. Whatever the case, here's my vote for the most important soft skill in poker: risk tolerance.
If you're going to play poker for a living, then you're going to swing like crazy--it's inevitable. If you want to become great at poker and sustain your level of skill, you have to have the stomach to deal with those swings without letting them drastically affect the quality of your play or your mental health. You have to be able to show up every day and play well, even when the shit hits the fan and you know that things can always get worse before they get better.
I believe risk tolerance is more or less an innate quality. It is probably genetic for the most part, but it also could be impacted by events in your childhood. I would rate myself pretty low on the risk-tolerance scale, which is actually the main reason why I write these articles. The only way I have been able to manage this weakness is by developing a better mathematical understanding of variance.
Variance is a gift and a curse. On one hand, if there was no variance in poker, then nobody would play it for fun and almost none of us would be able to make any money doing it¹. On the other hand, variance makes it so that you have basically zero control over whats going to happen at the tables on any given day.
For example, even a player with a respectable win rate of 5 bb/100 still has a 44% chance of losing over a sample of 1,000 hands (at a standard deviation of 115 bb/100). And the probability of a loss goes down at a stubbornly slow rate even over much larger samples. Below, I've plotted the normal distribution (also known as a bell curve) of this variance calculation:
The y axis is the probability density. The x axis is the winnings in buy ins (100 bb). Without getting too technical, we can say that the higher up on the bell curve you are, the more likely it is that the result of the 1,000 hand sample will equal the value in buy ins at that point on the X axis.
The mean of the distribution (the highest point on the curve which is marked with the green line) is 0.5 buy ins. This is the expected value of the sample, which is just the product of the volume and the win rate. (5 bb/100 * 1,000 hands = 50 bb, or 0.5 buy ins). The red shaded area is the area under the curve to the left of zero on the x axis. This accounts for about 44% of the total area under the curve and represents the probability of a loss over the sample.
As you can see, the expected value of 0.5 buy ins is hardly noticeable in the context of the range of possible outcomes. In fact, you can actually expect a result of at least ±4 buy ins approximately 20% of the time. And yet, despite the obvious contradictions, many players, including myself, are terribly results oriented. A winning day is a good day; a losing day is a bad day. On a big winning day, we congratulate ourselves for making the right decisions; on a big losing day, we blame ourselves for making mistakes. We're only human, and unfortunately this is how our monkey brains work.
I've been a full-time poker player for about a year now. Initially I thought that as I played more hands and gained experience, I would get better at managing my results orientation. Actually, I don't think I have gotten any better at all. In fact, I may have actually gotten worse. To be completely honest, although thought I would have less fucks to give with a quarter million hands and a year of winning under my belt, sometimes it feels like I have a shorter fuse than when I started. It's not so much the higher stakes the has made coping with downswings more challenging, but that my identity has gotten wrapped up in being a winning poker player. Of course losing money still bothers me, but at this point it's more of a hit to my ego than to my bank account².
A quarter million hands is barely anything in the grand scheme of things, but it's the trajectory that bothers me. I should be getting better at handling the swings, not worse, right? For that reason, I'm making an effort to change the way I look at my results. Rather than check results haphazardly whenever I feel like it, I want to take a smarter, more disciplined approach. So I've made it my goal for 2020 to follow the guidelines below.
Guide For Checking Results
To manage results orientation, it's extremely important to check your results after a predetermined number of hands. This is crucial to avoid selection bias in your interpretation of the results. The number of hands you choose is totally up to you, but it shouldn't be lower than 10k hands for an online player. I think most online players would probably agree it should be somewhere in the range of 10-50k hands.
Now, I'm not saying you absolutely cannot check your results before that time comes. You and I both know we're going to do it, no matter what I say in this blog post. (In fact, it's actually essential to closely keep track of your losses if you're taking shots at higher stakes.) What I am saying is that if you check your results prematurely, you should do so with an understanding that you are merely indulging your curiosity. There's a big difference between glancing at your results at the end of the day, and seriously evaluating those results, giving them a kind of legitimacy and causing yourself to worry about them. When you check your results after a few thousand hands, the data you are looking at is meaningless, and you should make an effort not to draw conclusions from it or let it influence your strategy or sense of self worth³.
For example, let's say you choose to check your results every 30,000 hands. Your current volume goal is to play 7,500 hands per week, so you'll check results every four weeks. You can mark it on your calendar, "Results Day." When Results Day comes, you'll be able to put your results into perspective with variance calculations. The variance calculations give you an estimate for your probability of a loss. They will also give you confidence intervals to establish some upper and lower thresholds for how large of a range of outcomes you can realistically expect to see over the sample.
Essentially, all you want to do is compare your results to the variance calculations and see if the outcome lies within a couple standard deviations of your expected value (that would be a 95% confidence interval). If it is--and it will be the vast majority of the time--that's great. Keep playing, keep working hard on your game, and come back to check again in another 30,000 hands. If you actually are experiencing a two-standard deviation downswing or worse, then go ahead, freak out. Take some time off, talk to someone, go to therapy, maybe drink heavily. Whatever it takes to say, "Well, that was fucked up, but I'm ready to get back to playing."
Whatever you do, it's essential at the end of the review to reset the part of your brain that subjectively interprets the results and attempts to create a narrative about how you've been running. You have to let go, because the next 30,000 hand sample has nothing to do with the previous one, or the one before that. Things can always get worse, no matter how bad they have gone; and things can always get better no matter how well they have gone. You're not due for anything in particular to happen. Your expected value is the mostly likely outcome, but nothing is deserved.
The key point I am trying to get across is this: whether your results are positive, break even, or negative, they probably mean much less than you think they do, even over relatively large samples. Almost always, the correct course of action is simply to keep doing what you have been doing and play more hands. But an obvious follow up question that I need to address is, "How long do I have to lose or break even before I actually decide to change my game plan in some way?"
Unfortunately, I can't give you an answer to this question. It can always "just be variance," no matter how bad your results are. All you can say is, the more money you lose, or the longer you break even, the smaller the odds become that it's just variance relative to the odds that you have overestimated your win rate in the variance calculations. In the end, it doesn't really matter, because as soon as you start to doubt whether you are truly a winner in your games, you're already dead in the water. Once you start to expect to lose, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because you will actually play worse. Dropping down in stakes or moving to a different site temporarily can help you refresh your mindset and rebuild confidence, and it also diversifies your game selection to protect your bankroll from ruin in the case that you are actually -EV in your games.
If you like this strategy and want to use it to check your results, I've included a summary of variance calculations over a variety of sample sizes below to help you visualize variance in the short and medium term. I used a win rate of 7.5 bb/100 and a standard deviation of 115 bb/100 for these calculations. If your win rate and/or standard deviation is significantly different from the ones I have used, feel free to make your own versions.
Variance Calculation Inputs
Variance Calculation Results (Table)
Variance Calculation Results (Graphs)
By the way, if you think you're super sick poker player and you don't need fish at your table to make money, read this article. If fish didn't exist, there would probably be less than 100 people making any real money playing poker.
Jungleman discusses ego and tilt in poker in his interview with Elliot Roe on the Mindset Advantage Podcast.
If you have a problem with checking your results way too much, as in multiple times per day, then you can make it more difficult to check results by hiding stats in your tracking software. I've even heard of some players using custom scripts to hide the cashier in the poker client. But unless you're really hardcore, you're probably going to take a peek from time to time. And that's not really a bad thing as long as you are able to manage your expectations.
An interesting side note: a win rate increase from 5 bb/100 to 7.5 bb/100 is a 50% increase in expected value. However, over a sample of 1,000 hands, the probability of booking a win for a 5 bb/100 winner is 56%, and for a 7.5 bb/100 winner it is just 58%. That's only a 4% relative increase in the probability of winning. This is why you can work very hard and get a lot better at poker, but it's extremely difficult to actually see the edge that you have gained from a day-to-day perspective.
Dec. 20, 2019 | 10:42 p.m.
Phil Galfond I wouldn't want to see you get crushed :), but it would be really cool to hear you elaborate more specifically on how you think these guys would outplay you. Most people can't tell the difference between, say, the top 10 players in the world and the top 50 at a given game unless we actually see two players battle it out and see the results. Even then, we probably wouldn't understand how/when the better player edged out.
Dec. 20, 2019 | 4:08 p.m.
Looking back, if you could change one logistical factor to how you approached your career to improve your results, what would it be? By "logistical" I mean things like the games or formats you played, or your general approach toward things like networking, study, volume, stakes, etc.
Dec. 16, 2019 | 5:24 p.m.
I've yet to experience a downswing where I didn't spew at least 5-10BIs. ethanrox
Hmmm, are you sure about this? I would question what methods you use to quantify the EV of your mistakes. I touched on this briefly in an old post:
A lot of players don't realize how hard it is to punt even 10 big blinds in a single hand. If you're on a 20 buy-in downswing, that means you would have needed to make 200 of those mistakes if there was no variance in the sample. Spoiler alert: you didn't play that badly, you just got unlucky.
I only mention this because a lot of players, myself included, make this mistake. We make a bad play and get stacked, and we feel like we punted our entire stack. But usually even an egregious error only loses a small fraction of the total chips invested in EV.
Dec. 6, 2019 | 10:30 p.m.
m7 - Selection Bias in Variance Calculations
I am a huge fan of the PrimeDope variance calculator. In fact, one of my favorite pastimes is to go on a huge downswing, plug the downswing into the calculator, and then figure out exactly how unlucky I am.
For a while, this was a very educational hobby (and also an expensive one). But eventually, I got the genius idea that something may be wrong with the way I was doing these calculations.
The main reason I became suspicious was some of the answers I got just seemed ridiculous. Extremely improbable events, according to the calculator, were happening way too often in my experience, and in the experience of other players in my network.
For example, I have seen multiple players go on downswings of 50-60 buy ins (with graphs to prove it). These were very good players with high win rates. According to the calculator, here is the probability of a 7 bb/100 winner going on a 50 buy in downswing in 50,000 hands...
Win rate: 7 bb/100
Standard deviation: 100 bb/100
Observed win rate: -10 bb/100
Number of hands to simulate: 50,000
According to the calculator, the probability of running at or above the observed win rate (-10.00 bb/100) over 50000 hands with a true win rate of 7.00 bb/100 is 99.9928%.
100% - 99.9928% = 0.0072% or roughly 1 in 14,000
In other words, there is only a 1 in 14,000 chance of going on a downswing worse than this over 50,000 hands if your true win rate is 7 bb/100. I personally have never gone on a downswing nearly this big (I also haven't played very much), but like I said, I have seen it happen to multiple players.
Now, of course the variance calculation isn't a perfect model. One of the key assumptions you make when you do a calculation like this is that a player's win rate is constant. We know that can't be true, because the player's opponents change all the time. Also, in the real world, people tilt. People play worse when they are down tons of money, which makes extreme downswings more likely to occur.
But even if these calculations are in only in the ballpark... 1 in 14,000? Come on. That can't be right—can it?
As it turns out, the calculations are correct. The problem is the way I that I was looking at them.
The odds of this particular downswing really are 1 in 14,000, but only if you play exactly one 50,000 hand sample. Obviously the players I talked to have played way more than 50,000 hands in their lifetimes. Therefore, they are much more likely to go on a huge downswing like this one simply because they have had so many more opportunities to do so.
Introducing Selection Bias
Imagine I told you that I was flipping a coin the other day, and I flipped tails ten times in a row.
"Wow, ten times?" you ask. "The probability of that is about 1 in 1,000."
"I know!" I respond, "It was so crazy."
The next question you should ask me is, "How many times did you flip the coin that day?"
"Oh... about four or five hundred," I respond.
Well, that makes it a little less spectacular doesn't it? The odds of seeing ten tails in a row are much higher than 1 in 1,000 if you flip the coin five hundred times. It's interesting, sure, but it's not 1-in-1,000 interesting.
The way I initially presented the coin flip story is an example of a selection bias. This is a mistake that poker players (including me) make all the time when they do variance calculations.
The point is that extremely improbable events are much more likely to occur when you give them many chances to happen. Poker players play hundreds of thousands of hands per year. Each hand can, more or less, be looked at as the start of a new sample. So instead of asking, "What are the odds of going on a downswing of x buy ins over y hands?" a better question to ask is, "What are the odds of going on a downswing of x buy ins at any period over all of the hands I have played in my career?"
Primedope gives some additional statistics on downswing variance, but unfortunately they can't be used to answer this question. So I asked a friend who is a lot more capable than I am to run some simulations. All credit for the variance calculations below goes to Holonomy. (Thanks for your help!)
Here's how the simulations worked: 10,000 theoretical poker players were simulated, each with the same win rate and standard deviation. Each played the same number of hands. The largest downswing each player endured over his entire sample was recorded. The simulation was repeated with four different win rates. Here are the results for a 3 million hand sample size, i.e. 10,000 players playing 3 million hands each. (We chose 3 million hands because we thought it was a reasonable estimate for how many hands a professional poker player might play in a career.)
Average Maximum Downswing. On average, this is the worst downswing you should expect to see in a sample of this size.
90% Confidence Interval. You can be 90% confident that the maximum downswing will not exceed this value.
95% Confidence Interval. You can be 95% confident that the maximum downswing will not exceed this value.
For example, the average maximum downswing for the 5 bb/100 players was 7,000 bb, or 70 buy ins. This means that some of the players experienced a larger downswing than this, and some of the players experienced a smaller downswing, but the worst downswing they experienced on average was 70 buy ins.
The average maximum downswing for the 10 bb/100 players was only 4,300 bb, or 43 buy ins. That makes sense, because a player with a higher win rate should experience less severe downswings on average.
But again, remember that these are just the average results. The 90% and 95% confidence intervals show that the less probable downswings can be a lot worse. For example, at a 95% confidence interval (i.e. two standard deviations from the mean), a 10 bb/100 winner can be expected to go on a maximum downswing of up to 66 buy ins.
Here are the results of the simulations for three other sample sizes: 1 million, 250k, and 50k hands, respectively:
I think it's useful to present the simulations with several different sample sizes because it makes it easier to intuitively understand how frequently these downswings should occur.
For example, let's say you are a 7.5 bb/100 winner over your entire career, and you go on a 30 buy in downswing. If you look at the results for the 250k hand sample size, you can see that the average maximum downswing for a 7.5 bb/100 winner is 31 buy ins. That means your downswing is the worst you would expect on average over a period of 250k hands. So if you play about 20k hands per month, then you should expect a downswing this big to occur about once per year on average.
Of course, you might not experience a downswing that's this bad, but you also could have a downswing that's much worse. At a 95% confidence interval, the maximum downswing for this sample size is 59 buy ins. A downswing this large is unlikely, but certainly not impossible.
In general, poker players massively underestimate variance. Most of the 5 bb/100 winners I talk to don't "expect" to go on a 40 buy in downswing, but they actually will experience a downswing about this large on average every 250k hands they play. For high volume players, that could mean they have to go through something like this once every four months, more or less. If this terrifies you, then you're probably not properly rolled for the games you play.
That being said, I'm not going to end this article with some arbitrary bankroll management guidelines. You have to decide for yourself how much risk you're willing to take on. My goal is just to give you a better understanding of not just what is possible, but what should actually be expected. If you're going to make poker into your career, then get ready for a bumpy ride.
For those interested in exactly what was done For each simulation the player's 100 hand returns were modelled as N iid normally distributed variables with a mean of X and a stdev of 115, where N = total_hands / 100. The returns were then summed and then for each value at time t, the difference between the value at time t and the minimum value of all values after time t was computed. We then take the maximum of this. The simulation was run 10000 times and the statistical properties described were computed. This does have the assumption that you are only looking at your results every 100 hands as there is a discretisation effect here.
Dec. 4, 2019 | 3:53 p.m.
Thanks for your videos. The ATo hand was the most interesting hand to me. Given that the hand is a pretty clear call in theory, I thought it would have been a little more useful to try to nodelock IP's river strategy a bit and see if there are some bluffs in the range that we don't think he would be always be finding (missed offsuit gutters with a heart, for example), and see what it takes for ATo to become a punt in practice.
Based on my database research I do not think the pool is bluffing enough in this spot. Wide 3bet range in BB vs SB definitely helps, as well as our removal, but SPR hurts a lot. I would be kinda shocked if we had more than 33% equity to call here, even vs. a strong reg like karl.
Seems to me like a good spot to make an exploitative fold, especially since it would be basically impossible for our opponent to counter exploit us. But then you would probably get trolled by commenters, so IDK :D
Oct. 18, 2019 | 7:44 p.m.
Random Poker Thought
Some musings about the Mike Postle case...
The poker world is obsessed with this story because it gives us something to rally around. Sure, it's interesting that he cheated, but I think the bigger draw is the sense of community that has been created around the investigation.
My biggest confusion point about the case is if someone is godmoding at a table, it is literally impossible for anyone else at that table to win. That means every regular on that stream had to be not just losing, but losing badly. How did they not communicate? I'm assuming it was harder to detect than I would expect for a few reasons:
-Live poker players don't have tracking software to easily spot patterns in their losing sessions. They might also not be as diligent about tracking their results as more serious online pros, though I am sure at least some of these players take the game very seriously.
-The turnover rate among pros was too high for anyone to stick around long enough to catch on. I haven't watched the stream so I have no idea how many long-time regs were in the game.
-They probably only played like 10% of their hands on stream, meaning they could still make the money back off stream. Still, it would be really hard to recover those losses.
-You just don't expect something like this is going to happen to you.
I can get on board with all that, but still. A year and a half? You would think someone would be like, "Hey, I can't ever win here." And someone else would be like, "You know, now that you mention it, I never win here either." And if you asked around a little more, you would find that actually no one was winning--except Mike Postle.
Maybe I'm just more paranoid than the average person, especially after seeing some of my friends get cheated on the Chinese poker apps. Over the last couple months when I was breaking even on Bovada, I was asking everyone I knew how their results were on the site. If even one other person is winning, the probability of a security breach basically vanishes. But if everyone is losing, you should be suspicious that you are in a fraudulent system.
It's a good thing that, presumably, most people who are shady enough to cheat are also greedy/stupid enough to cheat blatantly. But I do wonder how many guys have had access to an unfair advantage like this and been able to keep it under the radar, occasionally dumping some money back and winning at a more "human" rate of 10-30 bb/100. This, to me, is the scariest thing to imagine.