When to Stay and When to Leave
I clearly remember the first time I played poker in a casino. I was 20 years old and I was heading to an Indian casino to play $3/$6 limit hold ‘em when my regular game was a 20 cent/ 40 cent game with my buddies. I made the trip with my first poker mentor who was my friend’s boss. His normal game was $15/$30 or $30/$60 and as we walked in the door he asked me, “Are you going to play until you win or lose a certain amount or are you going to play for a given amount of time?” I was so terrified and excited by the anticipation of playing in such a “big game” that I really didn’t have any clue what to say. But after a minute I replied, “If I get to the point where I’m ahead $100 I think I’ll get up.” To my credit $100 would have increased my bankroll by 50%, but I was still making a mistake that many players make. You want to play hours, not results.
We’ve all been guilty of using the “hit and run” or “stop win” strategy. After jumping into a game and picking up a few quick pots it can be tempting to lock up that profit and go do something else, but there are a few reasons why you should keep playing. The first and most important reason is that it’s much easier to play your best when you’re winning. Generally you’ll be more patient, more confident, and probably be having more fun. No one is 100% tilt proof and most of us have some significant trouble keeping our emotions in check. It’s much, much easier to stay on track when you’re ahead as opposed to behind.
Furthermore, winning is a sign that you’re in a game you can beat. Of course if you’ve just sat down and made two full houses and a flush in the first five hands then who knows. But if you’ve been playing for two or three hours and have significantly more than you started with then it’s more likely that you’re in a good game than a tough game.
On the other hand, if you’re losing, it’s easy to convince yourself that it’s okay to make plays that you know deep down are losing plays. When you’re losing it’s harder to stay patient, losing is never fun, and you might be in a game that you have little chance of beating.
The same players who tend to hit and run don’t like to call it quits when they’re losing. We’ve all thought to ourselves, “If I could just get even I’d leave this game in a second,” but you don’t want to play for hours and hours longer than you’d planned in a quest to get even for that one session.
The best thing to do is decide about how long you want to play and play for about that long. You don’t need to say “I’m going to play for exactly 8 hours today” and quit the second those 8 hours are up. But if that’s your plan you shouldn’t leave after 4 hours or shouldn’t stay for 12.
Of course, there are a few exceptions. The first one is while you don’t want to set a limit on your wins, setting a limit on your losses can be a good idea. My personal threshold when I’m playing limit hold’em is 50 big bets. While it’s very rare that I find myself down that much, when it happens I know that I won’t be in a state of mind to play my best and I’m better off calling it a day. If you’re more tilt prone, 35 big bets might be a better guideline. The key is that you don’t want to bury yourself so much in one session that it takes you several great winning sessions to dig yourself out.
Another exception is when you’ve been on an extended losing streak. No matter how skilled, every player runs into some significant losing streaks and sometimes it feels like you can’t win no matter what you do. If you’ve been getting killed for a string of sessions in a row, sometimes it can help your state of mind to book a win.
You might also push the limits of how long you’re willing to stay if you are in a fantastic game. If you’re just about to leave and all of a sudden one of the worst players in town sits down with two of his equally skilled friends, they all order a shot of tequila and tell you about how they just hit it big betting on a horse race then it’s time to call home and say you won’t be back for a while. On the other hand if you feel irritable, you have something on your mind, or you just can’t play your best for whatever reason, then leaving early should be something to consider.
While there are a few exceptions, your best bet is playing hours not results. It would be great if we could only play when we’re ahead, but playing while you’re behind is part of the game. Don’t sell yourself short and leave a good situation too early and don’t bury yourself with such a big loss that it takes you weeks to recover.
What happened to me in my first trip to play $3/$6? It turned out the decision on when to leave was easy. When I ran out of chips and opened my wallet only to discover there wasn’t any money left, they wouldn’t let me play anymore. :)