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Problems Handling Winning

Photo Credit: Jarrod TrainqueI love titles that look like silly statements. Problems handling winning? How can this be? Isn’t like wondering whether one could deal with falling in love, hitting the lottery, finding a diamond under a bush on the lawn? How can there be problems here?

I got to thinking about this when a reader (“Andrew1”) commented on my earlier column “Monsters Under the Bed.” He wondered why no one seemed to worry about what they’re doing when they’re “running good.”

Andrew1’s point is well taken and it shows that that first article was incomplete. I said that winning wasn’t as interesting as losing because there was less variability among winners, that most of us act pretty much the same way when things are going good.

I was wrong. I am beginning to sense that there actually is a good deal of variability in how poker players react when they are winning. And, as is so often the case, a topic that seemed so simple isn’t. In fact, the following discussion is still an oversimplification. A thorough analysis will need to separate “short-range” winning, which covers essentially everything from a single session to a couple of weeks running good, from “long-range” winning which covers longer time frames. I’m focusing only on the former here.

Any good psychologist can tell you that there are problems with winning, with success, in fact with virtually all the good things that happen to people in life. You don’t even need a psychologist, just a writer of children’s tales. All those wonderful stories about geniis or mystical frogs who grant you three wishes and then cut your heart out while bestowing them were composed just because there is deep truth here.

Success isn’t always the joyous event it looks like it ought to be. There’s a phenomenon called miswanting. It’s an odd term coined by Dan Gilbert at Harvard. It means pretty much what it says, people turn out not to like what it is they think they wanted nearly as much as they thought they would. At a poker table the “want” is money, winning it and all the things that accompany it.

There are three key points here.

  1. Winning won’t make you as happy as you think it will. One reason is a topic we discussed in two earlier columns on the value of money (insert urls). Money won isn’t as satisfying as a loss of an equivalent amount is unsatisfying. Most people don’t know this, which is one reason why Gilbert’s “miswanting” effect is so strong.

  2. A lot of players don’t know how to handle winning. You see this all the time. Guy goes on a rush, stacks chips like a new graduate from an architecture program, thinks he’s invulnerable, a champ, a nascent professional ready for the circuit. Come back a couple of hours later and he’s picking felt out from between his front teeth.

  3. A lot of players don’t know how to maximize the gains that accompany a rush of cards or the generosity of the resident fish. When the gods of the game smile upon you, you better be ready. You better know how to deal with winning and you need to maximize your gains or you won’t be able to cover your losses.

Now we can’t do much to change the first of these. It’s pretty much a given. The best advice is understand the principle and live with it. Be as happy when winning as you can but don’t expect it to be quite the wonderful thing you think it will be when you first sit down. But we can deal with the other two. Here are some ways. If you think of others, let me know. The better we understand this issue the better off we’ll be (even if not as happy as we think).

  1. Tighten up so as not to give back chips. There are a host of factors that contribute to a rush and one of them is that you hit hands that are mathematically unlikely. You get in for free from the BB with T,8 off and flop the nuts. You limp with 7,7 and flop set over set. These magical hands are seductive; they make you think they’re worth playing for a full bet or out of position. They’re not. If you’ve stacked a guy when you limped from the button with A,6 and hit two pair don’t for a second think you should play this hand UTG.

  2. Loosen up to turn a pretty good day into a really good one. Yeah, I know, this looks like it contradicts the above. It doesn’t really. I’m not telling you to call an early raiser with T,8, just suggesting that with a big stack you can loosen up a little. You can use your chips to intimidate others. You can afford to tip-toe into some pots looking to felt someone. Big stacks project power and skill. Use the image —- no matter how far from reality it is.

  3. Leave if you’ve lost the urge to continue to play. The “post-rush let down is real. You feel oddly drained, tired, happy and would like to just go sit in a comfy chair and relax. You don’t have to of course but if this feeling does sneak up on you, pay attention because continuing to play under these conditions is almost always a bad idea.

  4. Never forget: the game will return to “normal.” One of the difficulties of dealing with a winning streak is that you lose perspective. You start to feel as though you can play “any two,” that you’re invulnerable (insert url for “I’m playing my rush”). You convince yourself that K,J is either: (a) a great hand to call a raise with ‘cause of all that paint or (worse), (b) that you’re so good that you can outplay your opponents with it. The first is certainly an illusion, the second likely. Don’t overplay your hands just because you’ve got some chips to burn.

Hope this helps you handle winning … try to enjoy it.

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