Successful poker professionals handle themselves differently than the average player. You’ll notice they might seem more calm than most and don’t seem to get too excited when winning a large pot, and consequently don’t get too frustrated when losing a lot of money. They simply have more experience playing, and therefore they’ve already lost and a won a ton of big pots already in their poker careers. If someone only plays 1/2 once or twice a month for a few, they might only be involved a $500 pot a few times a year. So understandably, they might have a big emotional reaction to the outcome of a pot like that. But to a pro, or even to a semi-pro or serious recreational player that plays 10+ hours consistently every week, they’re involved in a 200+ big blind pot at least once every other session (professionals often play much longer sessions than recreational players in my experience).
Good professionals are also better at divorcing the quality of their decisions from the results. If they were to lose a large pot but it was a fairly straightforward hand that in retrospect they wouldn’t have played any differently, there is a little reason to be angry over the hand. Also, while many live pros’ bankrolls are often too small for the stake they’re playing, they still often have their poker money separated on some level from their living expenses. Most recreational players do not have true poker bankrolls. Maybe if they took out a few hundred dollars out of an ATM and ran that up in a good session or two, they have a wad of cash that will likely stay ‘poker money’, but rarely is it more than five buy-ins worth. As a result, losing even just a buy-in can seem like a really terrible thing. With a large bankroll of 50 buy-ins, even for a losing player, the roll will fluctuate up and down for a while before it’s all lost. Then losing one buy-in will feel more like an unpleasant but unavoidable reality of playing poker as opposed to feeling the loss every time in real dollar amount terms, which psychologically makes good play in big pots near-impossible. That shift in mindset could help contribute to making a losing a player become a break-even or perhaps winning player.
I’ve had many nights where I’ve lost thousands of dollars playing poker and can leave the session feeling great about my game and not too upset over the financial results. On the other hand, last week I lost a $20 bill while walking around and was pretty mad at myself for doing so. To many non-poker players, this might feel like cognitive dissonance, but it’s really important when playing poker to be able to separate the real monetary from the chips that you’re playing with. Without a proper bankroll, it can be very difficult to do so. With a proper roll and the (big!) assumption that you’re at least a slightly winning player, you can be confident that your risk of ruin, the chance of losing your entire bankroll or money allocated to poker, is small. If you don’t have a proper bankroll, even if you are a winning player, your risk of ruin is likely quite high. So naturally, of course you’re going to be fairly stressed out when playing poker. Because if you lose a buy-in or a big pot that amount of money represents a large fraction of the money you have to play poker.
While some recreational players can afford to lose thousands of dollars every year playing poker and not having it negatively affect other aspects of their lives, for most people this is not the case. Unless you have thousands of dollars of disposable income, and unless you’re highly confident you are a winning player, it’s probably not the best decision to play live poker on a regular basis. But let’s say you don’t have enough experience to really know how skilled you are or what your win rate might look like. You might be somewhere on the spectrum from a slightly-losing player to a moderate winner in the game. Most importantly, for many in this situation it’s unlikely to have a proper poker bankroll and the disposable income to allocate at least $5000 for playing 1/2 or 1/3. If you’re not able to find a stake and still just really want to play live poker, you should just really make sure you’re in a place where you’re comfortable losing all the money in your limited roll.
Losing your entire poker bankroll doesn’t sound like an attractive proposition. But even if you’re a winning player to the tune of 40 big blinds per one hundred hands (10 BB per hour) check out this poker variance calculator (http://pokerdope.com/poker-variance-calculator/). Look at the chances you have of losing money in the short term. Let’s say you play every day for a week and each session is around 4 hours and you see about 25 hands an hour, so you see 700 hands by the end of the week. As a massive winner in the game 40% of the time you’re likely to lose money! And most importantly, even as this high of a winner, you would need a bankroll of about $3000 to have a risk of ruin less than 5%. And to be honest, most people reading this will likely not be winning to the tune of 10 BB per hour. I highly recommend playing around with the variance calculator (link again) so you have a good sense of the natural swings when playing poker.
Always being comfortable with losing the money you have dedicated to poker is essential not just for playing your best game, but also for poker not to negatively affect your other finances and well-being. If you can really only afford to lose $400 playing on a given night, even if there is a huge fish at the table, you shouldn’t withdraw that extra $200 from the ATM after you’ve lost your first two buy-ins. A great idea for those in a position like this first starting off playing live poker might be to just bring the cash that you can afford to lose and leave any bank or debit cards at home. Even if you’re generally a person that has a lot of willpower, it can be very tempting in the moment to withdraw more money that you truly afford to lose. Trust me. I consider myself a highly disciplined person and while I don’t have this problem anymore, when I first started playing poker, especially if I thought I had a huge skill edge at the time, I would withdraw more money than what I told myself I can lose during that session. If I lost that money, I then suffered the consequences not just to my limited poker bankroll, but also to my psychological well-being.
Now, even though I can still play my A game after losing a few buy-ins at $2/5, I still generally only bring 4 or 5 buy-ins to a session. I know that I could still likely play decently after losing 4-5 buy-ins in a session, but I don’t yet feel comfortable enough to really play my A game when losing such a large amount in such a short period of time as evidenced by the couple of times a downswing like that has happened to me before in a single session. It’s essential to think about how much you can afford to lose, psychologically as well as financially. Whatever plan you make before walking into the casino for how much you can lose, stick to that plan no matter what! There’s no one plan that works for everyone. You need to think about your values, your general financial situation outside of poker, and the sheer dollar amount that would feel ok to lose in a single night. These factors will constantly change and it’s important to regularly evaluate and update your plan accordingly. When in doubt, it’s best to air on the side of conservative bankroll management. Not just for the sake of your poker finances, but for the sake of your quality of life away from the felt.