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21 Gambling Lessons from 20+ Years of Losing at Texas Hold ’em

| July 31, 2015 12:00 am PDT
Gambling Sites Poker Tips

Winning poker players aren’t the only people who can offer useful Texas hold ‘em advice. Losers have something to offer, too, especially if they’re thoughtful losers.

And I consider myself to be a thoughtful loser.

In fact, you can learn a lot about gambling in general from losing at Texas hold ‘em for 20 years.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned over the last two decades:

1. Being a Loser Who Knows Why He’s Losing Is Way Better than Being Clueless

I recently discovered that I had $13 left in my Bovada account. I used to enjoy playing hold ‘em online, but I got out of the hobby a few years ago to focus more on my business. I’ve started playing again.

Since I have such a small bankroll, I’m playing in the micro stakes games: $0.02/$0.05 no limit hold ‘em.

I’ve noticed something about my playing tendencies, too:

I’m not aggressive enough.

If you’ve been playing for any length of time, you probably know that players can be categorized according to how many hands they play AND by how aggressively they play them.

Players who play a lot of hands are loose. Players who don’t are tight.

Players who bet and raise a lot are aggressive. Players who check and call a lot are passive.

Combining these tendencies puts players into four categories:

  1. Tight and aggressive
  2. Tight and passive
  3. Loose and aggressive
  4. Loose and passive

Some people like to organize this information into a table, and it makes it easier to understand:

Aggressive Passive
Tight Tight – Aggressive (TAG) Tight – Passive (Rock)
Loose Loose – Aggressive (Maniac) Loose – Passive (Calling station.)

Every beginning poker book I’ve ever read suggested that tight aggressive is the style to aim for. You should only play good hands, and when you do play them, you should be betting and raising with them.

I’ve also seen poker advice that suggested loose aggressive play, at least in some situations. It’s easy to see how that approach might make you a lot of money at a table full of tight players. Loose aggressive players are called maniacs.

I’ve never seen anyone suggest that a tight passive or a loose passive approach wins in the long run.

Players who are tight and passive are called rocks. They eventually lose a lot of money in blinds.

Loose passive players are called calling stations. They let too many players draw to too many hands, effectively eliminating any advantage they might occasionally have.

Which style of Texas hold ‘em do you play?

I’ve noticed that I’m losing lately, and it’s not because I’m playing too many hands. It’s because I’m not betting and raising enough with the hands I do play. I’m too scared that I’ll lose my bankroll and have to quit. I’m not sure how easy or hard it will be to deposit more money into my Bovada account.

So I’m a rock, and I’m losing.

Lesson: Realizing why you’re losing is a step in the right direction.

2. Not All Losing Texas Hold ‘em Players Are Stupid

Notice how I analyzed my own play and figured out why I’m losing?

That doesn’t sound like the work of an imbecile, does it?

At the same time, I’m no Einstein.

But I know the reasons for my losing tendencies now, too. I’m under-bankrolled. I might start winning if I went to the trouble of actually making a deposit and staying at my current betting level.

But I’ve been a losing player for years. In fact, I’m one of those players who claims that he’s a break-even player.  Everyone knows better, but still…

I have more reasons for losing than just playing too passively.

I also lack self-discipline and focus. Heck, I’ve got a game going on while I’m writing this post.

How much attention do you think I’m paying to the other players’ tendencies at the tables?

Lesson: Winning at gambling takes more than intelligence.

3. Bankroll Management Isn’t Just for Professionals

One of the most common pieces of advice you’ll read in any gambling article is to keep your bankroll separate from your living expenses. Often this advice is aimed at the professional player. After all, if you go broke, you can’t earn a living any more—so managing your bankroll is a skill that professional gamblers must master.

But losers need to manage their bankrolls, too. After all, if you’re not playing to win, you must be playing for fun. It’s only good sense to get the most fun for your money.

If you only have $13 in your bankroll, and you buy into a big multiplayer tournament for $11, you’ve put almost all your gambling money on the line in a tournament where you might bust out in the first hour.

That’s not an effective use of your bankroll.

Here’s another bankroll management tip for losers:

Keep the money separate from what you need to pay your bills. If you’re playing Texas hold ‘em with your car payment or your rent, you’re making a big mistake.

Lesson: Don’t play with money you can’t afford to lose. Ever.

4. You Don’t Have to Be Ashamed of Being a Fish

Plenty of people have hobbies, and poker is as noble a hobby as any. Not every player can be a professional. In fact, if they could, the profession wouldn’t exist. Someone has to lose in order for pros to make a living.

That doesn’t mean you have to donk off your chips on lousy hands repeatedly. It just means that you don’t have to beat yourself up if you’re not a professional. Being average is okay.

Not everyone can be elite at everything they try.

You wouldn’t feel bad if you took a swing at a 96mph fastball and struck out, would you?

Not everyone is cut out to be a professional baseball player, but most people don’t feel ashamed if they’re not.

Lesson: Accept your limitations.

5. Losers Can Still Win – Some of the Time

This might be the best news in this post. Even if you’re not a winner in the long run, the magical brothers of variance and short term deviation enable you to win at least some of the time.

Being a losing poker player isn’t much different from being a craps player or a slots player. You’re going to win some, and you’re going to lose some.

If you play long enough, your negative expectation will catch up with you.

So what?

As long as you’re having fun, you’re getting your money’s worth, right? I played with a guy last night who cracked my aces with his pocket jacks—he got a jack on the river.

You can’t tell me he wasn’t having fun. I bet he’s not a winning player in the long run, though.

Lesson: Losers should make friends with variance and deviation.

6. Keep Records

Not every book about poker is filled with nuggets of wisdom, but even bad books often have something to offer. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got from a book about poker was this:

Serious players keep records.

So if you want to be a serious player, start keeping records. How you do this is up to you. Some people get by with a spiral bound notebook. One of the best players I’ve ever met used one for his record keeping.

I like to use Microsoft Excel to keep up with my sessions. I’ve tried PokerTracker in the past, too. It works great, but it was more powerful than I needed.

Lesson: Keeping records can help you improve.

7. Own It

Okay, so you’re not a winning poker player. What’s the big deal? You’re not Tiger Woods, either, but you still play golf, right?

Here’s why you want to own it:

If you stay in denial about your level of play, you’ll never improve. In fact, it’s easier to lie to yourself than it is to lie to other people.

If you’re one of those players who goes around claiming that he “breaks even”, you’re probably lying to other people. It won’t take long before you start believing your own press.

I’ve been losing at poker for years, but I AM improving. I know I’m improving because I keep records.

I’d suggest owning all your character flaws. You are who you are. Don’t try to keep your faults a secret. Chances are you’re not fooling half the people you think you are anyway.

Lesson: Acceptance is a crucial step in your personal development.

8. When You Stop Having Fun, Stop Playing

There’s a name for people who keep gambling after they’re no longer having fun.

It’s “gambling addict”.

Some professionals just play for the money and don’t enjoy the game. I don’t think most of them play for long. I knew a poker blogger who played professionally. He won $10,000+ per month five months out of six, but once every six months, he’d have a losing month. Still, he was making a good living.

But after a while, he wasn’t enjoying it much anymore. He quit and went back to work in marketing. He was making slightly less money, but he enjoyed his work more.

Life’s too short to waste countless hours on a game you don’t enjoy—especially if the only reason you’re playing is a compulsion to gamble.

Compulsive gambling, like any addiction, can ruin your life. If you think you have a problem, get help.

Lesson: Don’t gamble if you’re addicted to gambling.

9. The Trash Talkers at the Table Are Often the Worst Players

The best players tend to be pleasant. After all, why would they want to scare off the fish?

The players who mock the way you play tend to be most vocal online. In real life, people are more polite. The anonymity of playing on the Internet makes people more courageous than they’d ever be in real life.

One of my friends (a lot better than I) turns the chat off when he plays poker online. Except when he plays with me, anyway—he thinks I’m funny.

His approach isn’t bad, but it’s flawed. I want every bit of information about my opponents I can get. If one of them is trash talking, I want to know. It’s a clue to that person’s playing tendencies.

Usually it’s a clue that he doesn’t play well.

Often these players are too loose and too aggressive. The best approach with such players is simple ABC poker.

Get the hand. Then bet the hand.

As often as not, you’ll get some of the loudmouth’s money. It’s no big deal if you don’t get his money, either. Don’t make his sociopathic problems you’re psychological issues.

Lesson: Being a jerk is worse than being a loser, but most jerks aren’t winners, anyway.

10. Don’t Believe Everything You Read in Every Poker Book

One of the poker books I read early in my development as a poker player suggested that you raise like a madman on every hand for five hands in a row when you first sit down. That advice will get you broke faster than you can imagine at a low stakes table. In fact, it’s not going to do you much good at a higher stakes table, either—eventually someone’s going to have a hand and call you down with it.

When I started playing poker online, I played seven card stud. I wasn’t good at it, but I knew how to play. I did NOT know how to play Texas hold ‘em and I was in no hurry to learn.

But then some of my online buddies decided we were going to have a weekly game at Party Poker. They wanted to play Texas hold ‘em, so I had to learn to play.

The basics were easy enough. I learned those on the Internet.

But when it came time for strategy advice, I went to a book by Mason Malmuth and David Sklansky: How to Make $100,000 a Year Gambling for a Living. The abbreviated description of proper Texas hold ‘em strategy in that book only takes up a couple of pages, but it’s as solid an introduction to winning at this game as I’ve read.

I made some notes from it and placed 5th in my first big multi-table tournament—using nothing more than those notes. I won over $6000. I’d been playing Texas hold ‘em for only two weeks at the time.

Luck had a lot to do with it, especially in the later rounds of the tournament.

Hold ‘em Poker for Advanced Players, also by Malmuth and Sklansky, is also excellent reading. For extreme novices, Phil Hellmuth’s Play Poker like the Pros is also surprisingly good. I liked Kill Phil, too, and Harrington on Hold ‘em (all three volumes) is indispensable.

The real value in reading books about poker, though, is that it forces you to think about the game. Spend some time on Steve Badger’s site about poker. You’ll find one theme running throughout the entire website: don’t play by rote. Don’t use a system. Learn how to think and play situations.

Lesson: Just because it’s printed in a book doesn’t make it good advice. But you should read poker books anyways.

11. Don’t Kid Yourself

Don’t pretend you’re a winning or break-even player if you’re not. That kind of self-deception will keep you in the loser camp more surely than almost anything else. I already suggested keeping records.

You should also set goals for each session, each day, each week, each month, and so forth. I don’t think goals have some magical power, but they do provide you with a target to shoot at.

But you can’t get from here to there if you’re lying about where here is.

Lesson: Setting goals can make a difference in how much or how little you lose. It can even help turn you into a winner—eventually.

12. Stay Sober

I played in a shuffleboard tournament in Dallas every Thursday night for ten years. It was a $10 entry fee, but if you won 2nd place, you got in free the next week. I was lousy at shuffleboard. But since you drew your partner at random, I had as good a chance of winning as anyone. Eventually I did win a couple of times.

But that was always the prelude to the poker game up the street. I drank a lot of Jack Daniels at the shuffleboard bar, and I claimed it was so that the other players would under-estimate me and think I was drunk. It was supposed to be part of my table image.

Do you want to know what the problem was?

I’m an alcoholic.

My table image was a whole lot more than an act—it was a lifestyle.

Even if you’re not an alcoholic, no one’s decision-making skills improve when they’re drinking. In this respect, Texas hold ‘em is like driving. You might enjoy having a couple of drinks before hitting the road or hitting the card table, but it’s certainly a terrible idea.

Lesson: Don’t drink and gamble.

13. Accept that Other People Find Your Hobby Dull

My ex-wife had no interest in poker at all. No matter how I tried, she never came around. She didn’t like horror movies, either, but that’s another story. We were married for 12 years. She had plenty of time to come around on both issues.

It just wasn’t going to happen.

That’s not why we split up, but it’s a good example of how some people aren’t going to share your love of the game no matter what.

You have two options:

  1. Acceptance
  2. Frustration

#1 is the better option.

This applies to everyone, not just your spouse. No one likes a bore.

Lesson: Don’t bore people who don’t gamble with your gambling stories.

14. You Can Have Just as Much Fun Playing for Really Low Stakes

I’ve had as much as $6000 in my Party Poker account at one time. I had less fun playing at the really high stakes than I did at the lower stakes.

I just started playing again for the first time in two years, and I’m having a blast at the micro-stakes games. Right now I’m down about a dollar, and I’ve put in probably 20 hours at the table. That means I’m losing an average of a nickel per hour.

That’s a small data set—too small to provide a reliable indication of whether or not I’m a winning player at this level.

I’ve discussed it with at least one of my poker buddies, and he and I agree that at this level, ABC poker is the way to win. No one respects your tricky plays or bluffs at this level.

Lesson: You don’t have to lose a lot of money to have fun gambling.

15. Don’t Bluff

Most players, myself included—especially myself, in fact—bluff too often.

Before you bluff, you need to take some stuff into consideration:

  1. What are the playing tendencies of your opponents?
  2. How many opponents do you have?

If your opponents are the type who never fold—bluffing is a waste of money. Someone who never folds doesn’t care how many times you’ve folded in a row before the flop. If you’re not paying close attention to your opponents’ tendencies, you shouldn’t bluff.

The more people you’re trying to bluff, the less likely you are to succeed. Remember, the goal is to get everyone else to fold so that you can take the pot without a showdown.

Suppose everyone is equally likely to fold in the face of a raise. If you’re bluffing into four opponents, your chances of succeeding are half what they’d be if you’re bluffing into two opponents.

Winning a pot by bluffing one opponent is twice as likely as bluffing two opponents.

The semi-bluff is a much stronger play, anyway. That’s when you bet like you’ve got a monster, but you also have a lot of ways for your hand to improve. Betting strong when you have four to a flush or four to an outside straight leaves you with two ways to win:

  1. Everyone folds.
  2. You draw into a better hand.

You shouldn’t semi-bluff every time you can, because being predictable is bad. But you should semi-bluff a lot more often than you bluff.

In fact, for most average players, bluffing is almost always a negative expectation play.

Lesson: Don’t bluff – semi-bluff instead.

16. Tournaments Are Great, Especially Online

You have to be willing to play tight in the early levels, though. Otherwise you won’t last long enough to get your money’s worth. In fact, tournament play and ring game play are almost entirely different animals, because the value of the chips keeps changing.

As you get into the later levels of the tournaments, the blinds start to go up, and you’re forced to loosen up and play some hands aggressively just to avoid getting blinded out.

For more on this subject, I recommend Tournament Poker for Advanced Players by David Sklansky. Pay particular attention to what he writes about the “Gap Concept” there.

Lesson: Tournaments are a great way to have a lot of fun without losing a lot of money.

17. You Can Improve and Still Be a Net Loser

Just because you’re improving doesn’t mean you’re winning. Don’t get discouraged. Improving from a player who loses an average of two big blinds per hour to one who only loses one big blind per hour is a huge step forward in skill. You’ve cut your average loss per hour in half.

If you’re not keeping track of your results, you won’t know whether or not you’re improving.

If you play as a losing player long enough, you might never win enough money to become an overall winner for your lifetime. But you could eventually become a professional. It just depends on how old you are when you start taking the game seriously enough to do the work necessary to win consistently.

Lesson: Losing isn’t your destiny. It’s never too late to start doing things right.

18. Some People Can’t Avoid Tilt No Matter How Hard They Try

If you’re one of those people, walk away from the table when you’re on tilt. It doesn’t matter if you’re on tilt if you’re not playing. You can’t lose any money if you’re not sitting at the table.

Also, you’ll run into other players who go on tilt all the time. It’s less obvious when you’re playing on the Internet, but if you can spot it, you have a profitable opportunity. You just have to be patient and wait to catch the right cards.

Don’t start calling someone’s bets with inferior hands just because they’re on tilt. Just start playing regular ABC poker.

Get the hand, and then bet the hand. When Mr. Tilt raises you, smile as you re-raise all in.

I used to play in a live game with a chiropractor who always wore his scrubs to the game. One of my buddies nicknamed him “Dr. Tilt”. That guy was always mad about something. We loved playing with him.

Players on tilt aren’t always funny, though. I played with an older guy who resembled David Sklansky at the Choctaw Casino in Oklahoma once. He was wearing a Frito Lay jacket. I drew out on him, and he got so mad that I thought he was going to attack me. I’m a big guy, too, but it scared me.

I don’t trash talk in live games. Had I said the wrong thing, it might have gotten even uglier than it got.

Lesson: Emotions are powerful. Don’t gamble when you’re on tilt.

19. My Worst Day at the Texas Hold ‘em Table Was Better than My Best Day at the Office

If you love poker, then enjoy it as often as you can afford to. It’s a great game, and you have no reason to be ashamed of your hobby. Heck, nowadays it’s more likely you’ll earn respect when you tell someone you like to play cards.

It wasn’t always like that. I can remember a time when gambling of any kind, poker included, was looked down on.

Lesson: Enjoy yourself.

20. Writing about the Game Forces You to Think about the Game

Just because you’re a net loser at poker doesn’t mean that you don’t want to improve. After all, you might never play golf as well as Tiger Woods, but it doesn’t mean you’re not going to practice.

But poker is a mental game. It’s impossible to practice for a mental game without thinking about it.

And the best way I’ve found to clarify my thoughts on any subject is to write about it.

You can do this via an anonymous blog on WordPress or Blogspot if you like. Or you can just keep a journal in a spiral bound notebook. You can participate in online message boards and/or discussion groups. It doesn’t matter where you write about it.

Clear writing leads to clear thinking, and vice versa. Keep this in mind next time you’re reading a strategy article on the Internet. If it’s hard to understand what the writer is getting at, you’re probably safe ignoring his/her advice.

On the other hand, if a poker article on the Web is well-written, interesting, concise, and clear, pay attention. Chances are he/she’s put as much time into thinking about the game as well as writing about the game.

Lesson: Gamblers who write improve.

21. You Don’t Have to Accept Being a Losing Player

Anyone can improve at anything. But if you want to start winning at poker instead of losing, you have to take some action. For one thing, you have to start tracking your results.

Performance measured is performance improved. You can’t manage what you don’t measure. These truisms apply to poker just as much as they do to business.

Ten days ago I started trying to improve my typing skills. I was typing at 72 words per minute with an accuracy of 95%. I set a target of 80 words per minute with an accuracy of 97%. I’ve practiced for 25 minutes a day–I use a stopwatch.

As of yesterday, I’d improved to 78 words per minute with an accuracy of 96%.

And I’ve never taken a single typing class.

Poker is a game of skill. All skills can be learned. You CAN become a winning poker player, if you’re willing to put in the work.

Too many people get discouraged and assume that it’s somehow their destiny to lose at poker. They’ll say things like:

“I’m just not good at math.”

“I don’t have any self-control”

“I go on tilt too easily.”

That’s all nonsense. Those are all skills you can learn—if you’re willing to put in the work.

Are you willing?

Lesson: You don’t have to be a loser, but winning takes work.

Conclusion

I’ve lost money at poker for over 20 years, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s one big game that lasts your entire lifetime. I’m only 45 years old, so I still have enough time to improve to the point where I’m a net winner before I die.

Even if I don’t, I’m not embarrassed or ashamed. I never claimed to be a professional gambler. Most gamblers aren’t pros.

There’s nothing wrong with that.

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