Embrace losing

by ~ January 26th, 2010. Filed under: Philosophy and approach.

One of the keys of poker is losing.

It’s a fact that we all lose, and often. Even the best players lose hands, lose pots, lose sessions and lose tournaments because of the degree that chance plays in poker. But that losing keeps the bad players playing with us, so we have to lose, and we all have to lose pretty often or else the bad players won’t keep playing.

Over the long term the better players will win more than they lose, and win more than enough to cover the rake. That’s how they profit. But we all have to lose in all manner of ways, by outleveling ourselves, by gutshot draw chasers, by 2 outers on the river, by over aggression, by trapping and being trapped instead, and, a lot of just plain chance.

But it’s tough to embrace losing. Our objective when playing poker is to win. But it’s because the game has enough of an element of luck that the bad players keep coming back. And conversely that same element of luck guarantees that better players need to lose regularly in the short term. That’s what gives the bad players a chance and fuels their hope. Unlike games that depend more on skill and less on luck (say billiards as an example) better players don’t always have to tone down their game in order to not chase the sources of income away. A better player can play his best and let luck level the playing field slightly, just enough to give the bad player a chance, some hope, a reason to keep playing.

A winning player needs to come to grips with losing because it will happen often. To win in the long term you have to be able to give up on pots with marginal hands, give up when you suspect the loose player has filled his flush, suck it up when you get it in on the flop with a set and your fish hits a runner-runner straight. Did you define his range properly? Estimate your fold equity right? Bet the right size to deny pot odds and to minimize implied odds? That’s the kind of stuff that matters, the kind of stuff that will allow you to win more than you lose.

Losing is a big part of poker. Losing is crucial to keeping the long term losing players in the game. But try to minimize losing and to maximize your winnings.


But all this is not embracing losing.

Accepting losing, which is closer to embracing, is losing some battles in order to win the war. Each battle is fought as far as it is judicious to keep fighting, and then some battles need to be surrendered. Doyle Brunson referred to his chips as his soldiers being sent out to do battle. Sometimes some soldiers are sacrificed when the battle has to be aborted in order to protect the rest of the army.

Can we really embrace losing? not just accept it, but desire it’s existence, simply because it’s existence is necessary for us to win?

When we lose there’s a desire to blame someone or something for our loss, especially in situations where we feel that we played as “correctly” as possible. Blackjack players will blame “third base”, or the last player before the dealer, for misplaying their hand thereby causing the dealer to get a different card than they “should” have received. Poker players blame the donkey for chasing, for getting their money in bad and then sucking out. Unfortunately the gods of variance are so subtle and indirect with their twists and turns that you can’t directly expect your EV to run good immediately after every time you run bad.

If you play sports you don’t give up in certain situations in order to protect yourself, you play to win right up until the moment the ball or puck goes into your own net, the team crosses your goal line with the ball, or the runner crosses home plate. Perhaps in tennis you might not chase a ball that you can’t reach, or in golf you might choose to take a penalty stroke rather than search for your ball that sliced out of view, but that’s not a common occurrence. Otherwise you play to win, all the time. You don’t have to regularly give up the way that you have fold hands in poker.


Because we play to win, and winning in the long term means minimizing losses, we are always trying to avoid losing. It’s hard to embrace something that we are constantly trying to avoid.

In a more Zen mode, we live, and because we live, we die. Can we accept death? Can we embrace death, because it is also life? Even with all the effort that we put into avoiding death, can we accept it, embrace it?

I’ll let you know, if I ever get to that point, in either case.


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