Sunday, 16 February 2014

What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made playing poker in the last month? asks Nick Wealthall.

I’ll give you a second to think about it. I know you know what it was. I know it’s sitting in the back of your mind, a memory you want to forget – like the Star Wars prequels, but dirtier.

Did it take you long to think of one? A call you shouldn’t have made; a bluff that went wrong, or maybe you want to get all classy and pick a missed value bet? Well, you’re not done because I also want you to think about why you made that mistake and what you have done to stop it happening again. (Sorry, more thinking – it’s excessive, I know.) Did you analyse the hand and your thinking at the time? Did you share it with better players or your peer group for their insights?

Good for you if you did, but if you didn’t then I understand. Really I do. If you put it to the back of your mind and left it alone or placed it in a mental folder called “denial”, it’s the most natural reaction possible.
“I played this hand so badly” is a phrase you very rarely hear from poker players. Blaming ourselves is painful – it’s admitting failure. That’s why you’ll hear players blame everything but their decision making, everything but themselves. They’ll blame the dealer, the online site, their luck, the cards and on and on down the list before admitting they just flat-out played badly.

So with that in mind… I made a mistake in a hand recently.

It was at the UKIPT Nottingham six-max, which, by the way, was a ridiculous amount of fun – more six-max live tourneys (and cash while we’re at it) in our lives please. It was a great event and that, plus the fact that I don’t get the time to play more than a few live tournaments a year, made the mistake all the worse.

Starting a hand with about 35 big blinds, I managed to flop a set, which is always a good idea. You can imagine my excitement! By the river there was a 4-straight on board and my opponent had set me all in. All of a sudden my big bold turgid set was a tiny, weak, flaccid excuse for a hand.
This isn’t a pleasant situation. My set is now all but a bluff-catcher and, having just been moved to the table, I had no reads of any kind on the villain. If I folded I would have had 14 big blinds left – not great at all, but a lot better than sitting on the rail.

There was also a tonne of money in the middle – it would only take a small chance for my opponent to be bluffing or over-valuing a weaker hand than mine and then folding would be a disaster.

The truth is, it was a fold. And I called… and that was the end of my adventure.

It was one of those decisions that just plain sucked. Getting coolered sucks, having a big hand cracked sucks, having to fold and having a short stack left in a tournament sucks. But none of that is an excuse for not thinking and making the wrong decision. I did think, I knew the possibilities, but I called anyway; mainly out of frustration and that’s not how you win at this fickle game.

After my elimination I discussed the hand with a few players I could wrestle away from the bar or their game, good players whose opinions I respect. They confirmed I’d played it well till the river (yay me!) then badly on the river (boo me!). A couple pointed out that having a 10 to 15 big blind stack in a live tournament has tremendous value and calling them off out of frustration is never acceptable. It’ll be the last time I do that. I made a mistake and a bad decision but I understand why it happened and I’ll be able to do it differently next time.

Here’s something you should know and tattoo on your DNA if that’s possible. It’s a secret of success in life really and it’s completely counter-intuitive. Successful people fail way more than unsuccessful people – in fact, they fail more than anyone else. Their failures are not only the path to success but also a necessary condition of their wins.
Every winning pro or famous player you have heard of has lost more than you. They’ve lost more hands, more flips, more money and endured more disappointment than you. They’ve bust more tournaments and stacked off badly in more cash games than you ever will. There are two things that set them apart; the first is that they’ve taken those beats and endured their failures and never given up the quest to play well. The second is they understand losing is part of the game and never hide from their mistakes, instead embracing them as opportunities to learn. You can tell a top player, or one in the making, because he’ll never approach you and tell you how unlucky he’s been but will often ask you your thoughts on a hand he played… and will admit when he misplayed.

So, one more question: what’s your plan next time you make a mistake? It’s up to you, of course, but I can promise you one is coming soon; no one plays perfect poker. And how you react to it and what you learn from it will define your success in the game.

Tags: Nick Wealthall, columnists