Take that risk

Like stock markets, poker is about making investments based on your assessment of the market

If you play poker and don’t consider yourself a gambler then I’m afraid it may be time to reassess. I should know – I long convinced myself that poker wasn’t gambling and clung firmly to this belief like a sailor ensconced in the crow’s nest desperately trying to ignore that the ship below is being dashed upon the rocks. This should not be read as a grand admission that poker is actually just a game of luck.

I stand by the fact that skilful players will win over time, but if you don’t appreciate and embrace the gambling nature of the game then you’ll find yourself being shipwrecked time and time again.

In stock market trading you make investments based on your assessment of the market. Other investors will have more or less information and/or capital than you, but you can only make decisions from your viewpoint. No matter how solid an investment you think you may have made don’t ever forget that your wager is purely speculation.

In other words, every share or bet that you buy or make has the chance to make gains and suffer losses. Poker may well be a more contained environment than the world of stocks and shares but, ultimately, you’re putting yourself in a similar situation.

You can all too easily get your stack shredded by bad decisions or risky gambles from players with depleted stocks or by floundering in a bullish (aggressive) market. Fail to consider this at your own peril.

Each hand that you get involved in sees you gambling on a number of factors, such as your cards being better than someone else’s, the flop helping you more than your opponents or possibly that your flush draw will hit. But as a gambler you’re wagering more than just capital. Every time you sit down with cards and chips you’re not simply offering up cash, something that many new players to the game fail to realise.

Depending how seriously you take the game you’re also wagering your reputation, time and temperament to the poker gods – and there’s no greater risk than that.

Feel the fear and do it anyway

But without exposing yourself to risk there’s no way you’ll be able to win big either, whether that’s on a single hand or overall in your poker career. I grew up in a family of non-gamblers, where betting on the Grand National was a once-a-year exception. Despite being fiercely competitive it took me some time to get past the fear of wagering my own hard-earned cash on a game of cards. If you can’t get past the thought that your chips are – or rather were – money, then you’ll stall. And more experienced players will take advantage.

If this problem resonates with you – that you’re having trouble backing up your decisions, particularly in cash games – there is a way to break the cycle. Try dropping down a level or two where you can be fearless with your bets and it won’t cause major concern if you lost a couple of buy-ins. Sit down with the minimum table amount and jam the pot when you think you’re ahead or you’re convinced you can make limpers lay down.

Don’t push in at random just because the pot is unopened but do so every time you think you’re ahead. Once you’ve run your stack up to the minimum buy-in for the next limit, cash out and buy-in at one of those tables. If all goes well you’ll get up to your usual limit, or possibly even higher, within no time.

Is this optimum cash game play? No, but that’s not the aim. You need to break the mental shackles that are preventing you from playing well, whether it’s because of big money being at risk or a fear of failure. The process may be irritating by losing the odd 50/50 here or there or getting caught in a well-sprung trap but you’ll lose the fear of taking that gamble when your heart says yes and your head says no.

Rather than ducking your head and ignoring the gambling nature of poker, stand tall in your crow’s nest. Acknowledge the rough gambling seas of the poker world for what they are and, by keeping your eyes open, you’ll be able to guide your bankroll through the turbulent times to the promised land of higher limits.

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