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The Only Real Mistake Is The One From Which We Don’t Learn
Turning a bad-play loss into an improvement
“Why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” —Thomas Wayne, Batman Begins
In the last two posts (HERE and HERE) we talked about losing via bad beats and coolers, respectively. In this post today, we’re going to look at the third, final, and potentially the worst way to lose a poker hand: Bad Play. Everyone makes mistakes during play. Misreads, errors doing the math, making a bad decision, failing to follow through… there are a myriad of ways to screw up a poker hand. Amateurs and losing players tend to beat themselves up for mistakes. Professionals, on the other hand, understand that losing due to bad play, while painful in the short-run, can lead to improvements. But this requires a specific winner’s mindset.
Losing due to bad play happens to us all, even expert players. A lot. Poker is a game of incomplete information and deliberate deception. Making mistakes during play is common. Leaks and errors and -EV decisions happen to even the best of poker players regularly. But what separates the pros from the mere mortals of the game is that they strive to learn from their mistakes.
The better players take time after every session to review their hands. The goal of these session “postmortems” is to understand both what they did right (so they can reinforce that behavior in future sessions) and figure out what they did wrong (so they can correct their mistakes). Of the two, the latter is by far the most important.
During these reviews, winners strive to understand where they misread their opponents. They recalculate and re-run the math. They review their decisions. They reevaluate their bet sizing. They check how deceptive they were. They ask themselves whether they were tilting or not. They don’t walk away from the tables angry at their mistakes, they look forward to reviewing and learning from them. Winners endeavor to get even better. They improve. And this strengthens them in the long run.
Poker commentator Jamie Kerstetter once remarked, “The fact that our planet will one day be consumed by a giant black hole helps take the pressure off of tough turn decisions.” This is an over-the-top-but-still-profound statement. The game of poker is, well, just a game. It’s not life or death. Nor are you risking financial ruin by playing poker (at least not if you’re exercising good bankroll management and playing within the limits of your ‘roll). If you make a mistake, the Earth will keep spinning and the Sun will still rise tomorrow. You will live through it.
It’s not only silly to beat yourself up over mistakes, it’s actually harmful in the long run. Instead, put that energy into learning from your errors. Poker is challenging, and you’re going to make mistakes. Lots of them. So turn those lemons into lemonade. So, how do we do this?
First, recognize that Everyone Screws Up. Mistakes are plentiful in poker. Even the best players in the world make dozens of errors in a single session. Nobody is perfect, including you and me. We’re going to bluff shove the river when, in hindsight, it was obviously a big mistake to do so. We’re going to call down with the losing hand. We’re going to completely misread a villain’s hand range and stack off all our chips. We’re going to mis-click and bet way-too-much/way-too-little when we should have bet far-less/far-more. We’re going to miss out on value by not raising hands in which we were clearly ahead but didn’t realize it. We’re going to be too afraid to bet-fold the river. We’re going to screw up the math, tilt, lose heart, not be prepared, play distracted…and so on…
The trick after any mistake in poker (heck, in life, too) is to ask yourself what are you going to do knowing that you screwed up? You only have two choices:
Feel Bad. Option one is, we can get angry at ourselves for the mistake. Moan, cry, or shout. We can beat ourselves up. Kick the dog. Sulk around the house. Whine, whimper, and complain like a snowflake baby.
Learn. Option two is we can learn from the mistake. We can take a breath and reflect, asking ourselves why we bluffed-shove on the river? Did we not take the time to read the villain’s range and line correctly first? Why did we think he was going to fold a better hand? How did we get fooled? What can we take away from this (expensive) lesson? We can do the opposite of whine, whimper, and complain: we can learn.
The Bottom Line:
Poker is a game that takes minutes to learn, but a lifetime to master. And to master it, you have to work at it, which means identifying and reviewing the things you do wrong—and working to ensure they don’t happen again. And remember, the Sun will always come up tomorrow… well, at least until some giant black hole lurking out there consumes the Earth… 😉