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The Final Hour

OK, so the title sounds somewhat apocalyptic. That’s okay; I thought it might help get your attention. Of course, the final hour of a poker session is less cosmic and certainly less dramatic than it would be in a sci-fi novel or an end-of-the-world movie. But most players have no idea how dangerous that final hour can be. Over the years I have watched more players make more mistakes, cost themselves more money, and self-inflict more grief during these final 60 or so minutes than you can imagine. There are psychological reasons for this and if we understand them perhaps we can prevent future occurrences. I hope you noticed that “we” in the preceding —- that’s because I include myself in that category of those who’ve screwed up during the last couple of orbits before cashing out.

This isn’t a traditional strategy column, but the issue is deeply strategic. If you follow my advice it will serve you well in the future, as well as someone whispering in your ear, “dump those wired J’s after you got raised and the big blind came over the top.”

The final hour in a poker session is different from all others simply because we begin to contemplate, with special poignancy, the state of our bankrolls. We become acutely aware of just how far behind or ahead we are. Of course, we pay attention to stack sizes constantly, but as the sands run down we add a mental footnote: “Hmmm, I’m down/up X coconuts (or whatever you play for) and only another hour or so to do something about it.” The something has a lot of variations. If we’re losing we think about how to get out on the night. If we’re winning, about how to either hold on and book a “W” or take down a monster and make it a “session to remember.” There are other, specialized variations, of course, like the guy who sees that he needs 18 more chips to fill a rack; or the one who has 17 greenies and really, really wants to fill that slot.

All are trouble; all invite you to make stupid decisions. See if these scenarios don’t feel just a tad familiar: a. You’re in the SB, stuck two buy-ins and seething. You’ve got to meet your bud in a half hour. You’re in middle position, a tight-aggressive player open raises four BB’s. It’s folded to you. You think, “hmm, 6,7 off is a hand just made for felting this clown…..” b. You’re stuck three buy-ins. The plane is revving up on the runway. You’re UTG with J,J. You raise, tight mid-position player re-raises; button goes over the top all in and you … hmmm., didn’t we cover this one already? c. You’re up 20 BB’s on the night. You’ve got the button; a maniacal type raises 3 x BB. The next six players call, you dump your 8,9s ‘cause you really don’t want to get caught up in a hand that could make you a loser on the evening. d. You’re just about even. You’ve got 5,5 in mid position. It’s folded to you and you fold even though you can see the next two players on your right getting ready to limp.

In these, and a dozen other plot lines you can imagine or extract from your long-term memory, you have made an awful decision. And, in each case, you almost certainly would not have played the hand this way if it were not The Final Hour. In the first two you’re unrealistically forcing a hand in the hope that you can “get out” on the day; in the latter two you’re playing like a wuss ‘cause you are afraid to end up having to go home a loser.

So how to you stay out of these traps? There are a bunch of ways, but here’s the key. Keep long-term, cumulative records. If you only log wins and losses in individual sessions, it makes you focus on the bottom line for that session only. But this is silly. This isn’t how you keep track of your personal finances. If you’re in business, you couldn’t survive this way. There will always be good days and bad ones too. The stock market jumps 200 points one day and slips 150 the next. Orders are up on Monday and down on Tuesday. Business booms in the summer but slows down in the winter. But you don’t run about like some kind of nut trying to make a profit every day. You take a long view. Is the market up over a month period? Did I turn a profit in the last quarter, or the fiscal year?

This is how you should approach poker. You want to know if you’re up or down, not today, not this week, but over the course of at least several months and, ideally, your life! If you’ve been playing $1-$2 NL game for nine hours and are $400 in the hole, don’t even think about “getting even” for that session. View it in the larger context. Are you ahead or behind that game for the month, the past three months, the year? If you keep on-going records you may discover that you are ahead a couple of bucks on the year, even with the $400 hit. So there is no reason to start steaming in order to get even. You already are!

Same logic applies when you’re ahead. If you’re up $470, you do not need to do something intensely stupid to try to pick up a $30 pot to fill the rack. In fact, forget the 20-chips per stack gimmick. Stick you chips in the rack in uneven stacks and let the cashier count it out. If you’ve got $2,425 in green chips and absofreakin’lutely have to have a full rack, buy three more from the dealer, take those J’s, dig a hole and toss ‘em in.

Okay, this makes sense and it’s simple. Right? Well, yes and no. It turns out we also need to look more closely at those words “win” and “lose”. In a later column I’m going to argue that they often involve more than just money; there’s a psychological coin to be factored in. Join me then.

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