Ellie Biessek: Tournament tactics #4: Breaking bad

Running badly affects every poker player. Grosvenor Poker pro Ellie Biessek explains why it’s crucial to keep calm and carry on making the right decisions

This month, rather than talk about situations in poker, I thought I’d choose a different subject that will affect everyone from time to time – running badly.

If any poker player who has played for any length of time suggests that they’ve never run bad, then I would suggest that they are not telling the whole story! Running badly can have a number of impacts including:

  • Damaging your bankroll
  • Clouding your judgement, leading to being results-orientated
  • Tilting
  • Losing confidence
  • Potentially giving up poker entirely

Poker is a complex game involving maths, psychology, skill and luck, and it is this last element that makes the outcome of the game uncontrollable. What is controllable, however, is your decision-making process. Let me give you an example of the same hand that could be played two different ways.

Scenario 1

Player A opens in early position with 9-9 and is called in two spots – late position (LP) and the button (BTN). The flop comes K-9-3 rainbow. Player A checks hoping that LP or BTN will bet allowing him to reraise. LP and BTN also check. On the Ace turn, which brings the fourth suit, Player A checks again, thinking it likely that one of his opponents will have an Ace and bet. Again, both LP and BTN check behind. The river brings a second Three filling Player A up and he now bets. LP raises and BTN folds. Player A reraises and LP makes a four-bet. After so much action, Player A is worried he may be facing K-K or 3-3 and just calls rather than risking his whole stack. LP turns over 3-3 and wins the pot.

Player A may have lost the hand, but he did not lose his entire stack in the process. Do you think Player A played the hand well?

Scenario 2

The same hand plays out exactly the same until we get to the flop where Player A bets and LP raises. BTN folds. Player A reraises and a raising war breaks out resulting in Player A going all in on the flop and being called. Player A loses the hand and his entire stack.

Do you think Player A played the hand better in Scenario A or B?

The Long run

It could be argued that this is an example of set over set on the flop and neither player was ever getting away from the hand. There is a major difference, however. In scenario 2, Player A put all his chips in when he was a massive favourite to win the hand. He played the hand perfectly and simply got unlucky. In scenario 1, Player A failed to get full value from LP when he was ahead. Instead he lost a lot of chips once he had been outdrawn.

Of course, in both scenarios, Player A got unlucky, but only in scenario 2 did he play the hand optimally.

A player slowplaying a big hand on the flop only to get outdrawn by the river and then bemoaning their bad luck is something I see regularly in tournament poker. In many situations, it is incorrect to slowplay a big hand because your are missing out on value when you are ahead and often feel compelled to call when you subsequently go behind – in some cases partly because you feel that you have under-represented the strength of your hand. This is often the case with hands such as flopped sets which get beaten by runner-runner straights or flushes.

Whether you’re running well or running badly, it is important to try and maintain your focus on making the right decisions rather than the outcome. If you continue to make the right decisions, you will be rewarded in the long run and this is the only way to become a winning poker player.

When you suffer a long period of running bad, it can be very difficult to maintain that correct judgement and a positive state of mind. Poker can make you feel great but when you’re running badly, it can also make you feel very negative. This can affect the way you play in the future – whether this is too aggressively or too cautiously.

Personally, at times like this, I try to remember the following quote from Michael Jordan: ‘I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’

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