Want to be a winner? Control your fear of losing

Fear of loss is completely natural but, if you’re not careful, it can end up costing you dearly in life and at the poker table, says Dan ‘danshreddies’ O’Callaghan

When I was at nursery, everyone wanted to play in the clay pit. It was our Narnia, our Pangea, our promised land, and my God did we fight for it. Space-hoppers became Bludgers, baggy shirts vantage handles, Swingball doubled as tripwire, and Stickle Bricks were strewn like caltrops to incapacitate the inattentive shoeless.

The clay pit was where the ‘hard’ kids hung out and if you weren’t there, you were a nobody. Simple. Once you’ve stopped sniggering at how overexcited I used to get about what was pretty much just playing in the dirt, consider why we did it. It wasn’t anything to do with the clay pit – we could make mud worms anywhere – we were just so obsessed with winning it clouded our sense of perspective.

Delving into my childhood infatuations probably seems a like a bizarre way to start an article, so if you’re sitting there wondering whether or not you’ve stumbled into some overpriced therapy session, don’t worry, this isn’t a desperate cry for help! Instead, draw your attention to the motivation behind the clay pit chaos: fear of loss.

Fear of loss (FOL) is a recognised element of psychology that’s regularly exploited in sales. You’ve seen it every time you’ve heard a salesman say something along the line of, ‘This is a one time offer!’ or ‘I’ve got two other people coming to look at the car this afternoon.’ It’s a technique designed to manipulate your fear of missing out with the intention of clouding your judgement. You have to be careful because FOL can make you impulsive and if you let it, can pollute your poker game.

Tournament troubles

How this fear materialises at the tables is slightly different to the sales examples above, since it normally centres around you losing rather than someone else gaining. Additionally, and even though getting stacked in a cash game is pretty tilting, I think the effects of this FOL are far more apparent in MTTs because the severity of losing your tournament life is proportionate to the scale of the event and the time you’ve invested in it. Just like an antique watch, the bigger and older it is, the more it hurts when you lose.

One of the most obvious mistakes FOL causes involves protection bet sizing. Now don’t get me wrong, protecting your hand is often as important as protecting your chin in a boxing match, but your sizing has to be practical. Just as there can be value in protection, there can be a loss of value in overprotection and I’ve seen countless hand histories where FOL has caused a player to risk so much under the guise of protection, that they accidentally wind up in some kind of protection-bluff purgatory. Which is never pretty.

It’s like using a Terminator to guard a $100 bill: when you do happen to run into something powerful enough to ‘hasta la vista’ your defence (I had to right?!), you’ll not only lose the $100 you were trying to protect, you’ll also be down a Terminator, and that’s a shame because those things seem pretty damn cool. All of this might not seem intuitive, so here’s a hand I saw last night to show you what I mean.

Live 200NL Cash Game

It was straddled to £4 and everyone at the table (yes everyone!), came along for the ride. I checked my option with J♣-5♣ from the big blind and, with the straddle checking too, we saw a K-2-7 flop.

With £36 in the pot, the small blind (a solid reg) led for £21 of his £400 stack, and it was quickly folded to the button who moved all in for £300 and change. After a minute of mumbling, the SB folded A-7 before tapping the table with a grin as the button flaunted his pocket Twos. ‘I really didn’t want to see another diamond,’ he confessed.

At a glance, the button’s shove might seem perfectly reasonable since his flopped set is both vulnerable to any hand containing a diamond, and likely to be ahead the vast majority of the time. I disagree however. I’d argue the button’s shove is an obvious defensive reaction caused by his fear of losing the pot and, as a consequence, he is inadvertently turning his hand into a bluff. If that seems ludicrous, let me explain why.

Our opponent

The SB is a pretty good, solid player. He will have a decent understanding of both his pot odds and relative hand strength. He will remember that the pot was both limped and multi-way and understand that this should strengthen the button’s shoving range.

Range changes

If we consider that the SB will be aware that he will need around 45% equity to be able to make a profitable call here, we can assume he will only stack-off with sets and decent flushes (let’s say Ten-high or better). Since it’s unlikely he has K-K in an unraised pot, the SB will have only three combinations of sets and about 30 combinations of flushes.

This means that when the button’s shove is called, his set will only have around 31% equity. Compare this to the 71% that he has against hands such as the A-7 that the SB folded and you should see that either calling or making a smaller raise would be far more profitable in the long term because it keeps your opponent’s range as wide as possible.

Yes he risks being outdrawn, and yes he’ll have to endure a few extra minutes of squeaky bum time, but this is fine because he is not only in fantastic shape to extract solid value from the weaker parts of his opponent’s range, he also stands a good chance of capitalising on his opponent’s reverse implied odds if he fills up as the SB makes a flush. Remember, the weaker your opponent’s range is, the stronger ‘strong’ becomes.

Mirroring a clay-obsessed danshreddies, the button’s sense of perspective was clouded by FOL. In this case it materialised as an aversion to risk, which caused him to not only miss value, but also to make the possibly fatal mistake of accidentally turning the top end of his range into a bluff. Don’t let this happen to you!

Embrace failure

Remember, even the best players in the world will spend a lot of their time at the table losing – it’s simply part and parcel of the game. Once you accept this, the agony of losing becomes dwarfed by the satisfaction of making the right decision.

Realise that this fearlessness is not a skill, it’s a frame of mind and it empowers you with the ability to be objective rather than reactive. Desensitise yourself to FOL and you’ll not only be able to think more clearly, you will be less stressed out, less tilted, and more successful too. And isn’t that what everyone wants?

Dan ‘danshreddies’ O’Callaghan is a big fan of the clay pit and Twitch – catch his stream at www.twitch.tv/danshreddies

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