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Self-Management as a Poker Player


In this article

  • Bad beats and downswings
  • Remaining focused in bad times
  • Patience is a virtue
In addition to possessing strategical and technical know-how, you must keep yourself under control when playing poker. Poker is a struggle against yourself as well! Dangers and temptations to stray from the right path lurk everywhere.

Here we will show you some typical traps and provide you with the tools to maintain your consistency. Many beginners don't appreciate the value of such articles, since you get few concrete tips on how to play your hand.

I want to make it clear that the psychological side of poker is one where most people fail. Even the old pros who have been at it for years make these financially costly mistakes, despite their great knowledge of poker. All examples below are related to Fixed Limit.

The Bad Beat Problem

Bad beat is an expression for the following phenomenon: you play a qualitatively high value hand, maybe hit the flop or already had a high pair when you got there, only to be overtaken by a low value hand. Your defeat on a bad beat occurs despite the poor play of your opponent.

Do not let painful experiences divert you from the right path!

You raise with AK, your opponent calls it cold (2 bets at once) with A6s. The flop is A62 rainbow (three suited).

You have every reason to assume that you are ahead but you are doomed to lose the hand against 2 pair. The pre-flop call from the opponent was catastrophically bad.

This kind of thing will make you want to tear your hair out. Losing is bad enough, but it's even worse against a lucky idiot. If several bad beats happen in a row it's a true test of grit.

This can lead you to be irrational: You no longer trust yourself to raise with good hands. "I'll be overtaken on the way to the river again, so I won't put as much money in."

This is a mistake. You miss making the most of your strong hands this way and allow weak hands to stay in and profit.

Rule: Don't lecture or harass your opponents (customers)!

Some try to point out an opponent's weak plays or even to insult them.

This is not unthinkable but it is absurd. You may call your opponent a beginner or a bad player but in doing so, you show that you, too, can make rookie mistakes.

Lecturing your opponent has several consequences:

1. Your opponent gets smarter, and more dangerous.
2. Your opponent, who only came to play a few casual hands, is provoked into putting more ambition or concentration into the game.

Insulting them is worse. First, it's not nice. Second, it's dumb. The bad players are the customers of the serious poker player. Insulting your own customers is not a sign of intelligence. The just-for-fun player will often leave the table if insults take the fun out of it for him.

Rule: Always focus on long term. Think of the big picture!

It is important to have the insight to see that the bad players will give you more money on their unjustified calls than they will take from you on bad beats.

You want these players at the table and you want them to play just as they do. So don't get bent out of shape if they hit something once in a while.


My sympathy goes out to all those who are in a cruel downswing right now. It's happened to me many times before. It's always frustrating, though.

The 50 BB rule for FL: If you lose more than 50 BB in a session, it's best to take a break until the next day.

The short term downswing

Short term downswings happen frequently. You play your normal solid style and at the end of the session you've lost money. What's the explanation for this? In principle is nothing more than a series of unfortunate events. It's all sorts of second best hands, bad beats, and all the costly high quality draws that never materialized.

Many players like to set a stop-loss mark. This could easily be around -50 BB.

When you lose it depresses you. You then run the risk of not putting forth your best effort.

On the other hand, when you do something gladly you typically do it well. If you tend to play worse when you lose, set a strict stop-loss mark for yourself.

Losing can also be due to outside circumstances. Perhaps your opponents are particularly strong.

In any case there are reasons to put some distance between yourself and misadventure. Tomorrow is a new day!

The long term downswing

The hardest thing for a poker player is the long term downswing. This can last for weeks and has ended plenty of red hot poker careers before they truly began. As improbable as it sounds, long strings of bad luck are well within the bounds of what is mathematically plausible. To defend your mind against the downswing, you should convince yourself of the mathematical nature of lucky and unlucky streaks.

Poker is a game of strategy, but it can be a long time until the right style of play bears fruit.

The variance, which is a mathematic measurement of the size of streaks, is unexpectedly high.

Under some circumstances you can lose money over the course of thousands of hands even if you played perfectly. On the other hand, you could make a profit on the same number of hands having played poorly.

In the long term, though, your actual winnings will approach their mathematically expected value (with respect to your own gaming strength).


  • Check whether the downswing has its roots in your game!

The possibility that your downswing is game-theoretical in nature cannot be ruled out. You should ask yourself whether your current limit is too much for you. If you follow the guidelines for proper bankroll management you will automatically end up in a lower limit if it goes poorly for you over a long period of time.

  • Use the downswing to study the theoretical side of poker!

A downswing is always a good opportunity to test your own ability. Where are your weaknesses, the leaks from which you're constantly losing money?

During a streak of bad luck you should intensify the work on your game and on the literature.

Since playing is not so much fun during these phases anyway, it shouldn't be so hard to hit the books.

  • Convince yourself of the mathematical nature of chance!

It helps to deal with a problem if you put it into context.

If you understand the unchangeable whims of fortune, you can go with her rather than be influenced by good or bad luck. Play like a machine!

The learning curve

Many players get stuck on a certain level where their typical learning mechanisms fail. They fall into the trap of result oriented thinking.

Do not be irritated by individual outcomes. Draw conclusions only when you have enough data!

As we have shown, the correct method of playing is not dependent on the outcome. There are hands where you play all wrong and win and those that you play perfectly and lose.

Learn poker in an abstract, theoretical way!

This will be an extreme test of your instinctive human learning mechanisms.

The brain is accustomed to associating behaviour with short term success and failures; it uses the 'trial and error' method. But poker is a long term game.

Success is delayed in time. Learning here means first acquiring the theoretical foundations and principles through study and then solidifying them by application.

Reading the tea leaves

The tea leaves problem is related to the problem of learning and is based on one of the greatest capabilities of the human brain, the recognition of patterns. Man learns to find analogies and repeating structures and sensory contexts amidst the violent and chaotic storm of sensory information.

This unstoppable cerebral drive is incredibly productive, but often leads to the identification of patterns that don't exist.

A few imaginative poker players always try to make predictions based on past events, even though they have no bearing on the future whatever.

Streaks of good or bad luck are words that describe the past very well, but no more. They are only images from the past.

Always be rational! Do not make associations between independent events!

If I've missed my flush draws five times in a row, it has no effect on my next flush draw. It does not mean that I should stop taking my flush draws to the river 'because it won't work.'

Even if I've just lost a lot of money, it was without a doubt a streak of bad luck. This has no effect on the future.


If you're following our pre-flop chart, you'll be playing 20% of your starting hands on average. In four out of 5 cases you'll simply throw your cards away.

The mega-rule of poker: winning by folding!

Some players get bored if they aren't getting any action. They think of the heroic cowboy who bluffs his way through the movies. But that is Hollywood.

The harsh reality is that you will have success only if you stick to playing quality hands.

The same principle is valid on the flop. If you didn't hit, fold. Folding is the strongest weapon in poker.

In any case there is no reason to be bored. Even when you're not in a hand there is a lot to do.

To be successful at poker you must watch your opponents and classify them.

You can view their hand histories on PartyPoker by clicking on the links in the upper right. From there, you can deduce their playing style.

Once you advance from absolute beginner to an advanced player, you should be able to play 2 tables at once. Boredom will then disappear.

Or you might get so far up in the limits that the money riding on the game is enough to get your adrenaline pumping. Even then you must go about your game with respect and concern.

Watch your opponent and practice reading hands!

Another tool against boredom is to practice your hand reading.

Handreading is one of the most useful and important abilities for playing poker. You should always practice it to keep your skills sharp. Use your folded hands to consider which cards the remaining players might have.

The break even problem.

Many players have difficulty leaving a session with a loss. This leads to playing longer than you are able to concentrate.

Do not play more aggressively when you are behind!

This phenomenon is particularly dangerous just before bedtime, since fatigue leads to a clear drop in game strength. You should not try to bend and break your way back from losses. An overaggressive game usually just leads to more losses.

Adhere to a regular playing schedule!

By planning your playing you can protect yourself from break-even madness and make the game easier for yourself.

It's one big session!

Think of the quote by David Sklansky, "It's one big session."

Your poker career is just one big sitting and the next hour is the next hour, regardless of whether it's right now or tomorrow morning.

The isolated session is just an artificial construction, erected for convenience.

Even if you've just gambled away a big bankroll, you'll still be in the plus after a losing session. You were a winner before and you're a winner now.

There is no need for distress.

Leave the table when conditions turn bad, whether you're winning or losing!

A special type of break-even problem arises in the context of table selection.

All too often you'll search for a table with weak players but by the time you get there, most of your objectives have disappeared. The table has gotten too tight. Many players stay in this situation since they don't want to leave as the loser. This is wrong. Poker is about expected value and the EV is higher at tables with weak players.


Some people have a bigger ego than others. This can have several consequences in poker:

It's about money, not pots.

The hyper-aggressive players known as maniacs are driven to be the center of attention and try to bluff excessively.

They want to win as many pots as possible to validate themselves personally. And they do win a lot of pots, but in the long term they lose all their money too.

The successful poker player plays for payoff in cash, not pots.

Only play limits where you can win!

Some players look for a challenge. They want to test themselves against strong opponents on the high limits. The low limits are beneath them.

If you have the financial resources for it, go ahead and do it as a private distraction.

Only play when you have the advantage!

For the profit oriented poker player this is a necessary measure. Successful poker pros have one thing in common. They only play when they see an advantage for themselves. If they hit strong resistance, they duck out. Poker is not place for any kind of false chivalry.

There is only your edge and profit.

The mistrust problem

Let everybody else play table sheriff!

Those with mistrustful natures call too often because they cannot stand the thought of being bluffed. Maybe they were hurt or betrayed at some point in their lives.

They regard being bluffed out of a hand as an indignity, and bet it all on stopping this trauma.

If you've never folded a winner you're playing far too loose!

We all know that too much calling is a losing play. My advice: don't take anything personally at the poker table. It is not shameful to fold to a bluff.

The pessimist

The boogey-man is not hiding behind every tree!

The pessimist always sees the world as being against him. He plays too timidly and doesn't get enough value from his strong hands. He also lets himself be bluffed too much (see point 7).

Seeking revenge

Thoughts of revenge cloud your mind and weaken your judgement!

It's common to lose a lot of money to a single opponent, possibly in connection with some bad beats. This can arouse ill will toward the offending player. Despite this, you should not take it personally. Just keep playing your objective and scientifically correct A-game.


Take care to ensure good gaming conditions!

There are a lot of potential concentration killers in poker: fatigue, drunkenness, distractions like TV, answering email, etc.

The comfort zone problem

When your game is strong enough, pick the limit in the middle of your financial comfort zone.

Picking the right limit has a lot to do with your own comfort zone.

Money has an individual worth to everybody. If you are playing too low a limit, you might not pay enough attention to your bets and play too casually.

If you are playing above yourself, you might freeze up and be more passive than is strategically wise.

The virtues of a poker player

Here we will summarize the virtues of a poker player:

1. Patience
2. Discipline
3. Composure
4. Diligence
5. Objectivity (self-critical)
6. Healthy optimism, courage
7. Sportsmanship
8. Economic sense
9. Concentration
10. Nerves
11. Modesty


In addition to the technical gaming demands, poker also requires a certain disposition of character. If you are missing most of the above virtues, I would recommend that you seriously consider whether poker is the thing for you at all.

On the upside, you now have a chance to catch these psychological traps. Thus, you'll be prepared for this psychological aspect of the game by our team. The same cannot be said for your opponents; some of them are just out there on their own with no plan.

Every problem listed here is a trap for them and an advantage for you.

Poker is sometimes described as wicked, sinful, and a waste of money. But only one who upholds the poker virtues will be successful at it. Every session is a test of your character. Every session is a schooling in patience, discipline, and composure.

Every downswing is humbling. In this way, poker has a meditative air about it.


Psychological aspects are discussed in many poker books. The special nature of the theme is beyond the scope of the beginner's material. But since advanced players will read this article too, here are a few book recommendations.

The following deal exclusively with psychology, though the Zen book is somewhat esoteric:

The Psychology of Poker, Dr. Alan Schoonmaker, Twoplustwo

Zen and the Art of Poker, Larry W. Phillips, A Plume Book

These are also good:

Inside the Pokermind, John Feneey, Twoplustwo

Ace on the River, Barry Greenstein, Last Knight Publishing

Further contributions on the theme of self-management can be found in the advanced section (see the table of contents there) and in the psychology forum. The article about the downswing is particularly current.



Comments (48)

#1 Joshpoker, 09 Mar 08 09:50

great document

#2 dallievas, 11 Apr 08 10:42

Ten Ten Commandments of poker player

#3 chilitiger, 05 Aug 08 12:19

This is the best article for a poker player who wants to be a real
pro :-) !

#4 gizziade, 18 Sep 08 17:50

very informative, clear to understand.

#5 flamedragontim, 22 Sep 08 22:46

These 'tilt series' are really helping my game. Thanks a lot

#6 flamedragontim, 22 Sep 08 22:47

I meant the tilt articles ; )

#7 mouse89, 06 Oct 08 14:27


#8 the182guy, 04 Jan 09 19:56

Very good article, everyone should read this, even intermediate players. I have been playing for about 2 years on and off and I find this article very interesting.

Two points which are very good:

1. It's one big session!
This is a problem I have... if I finish a session losing then I feel a bit depressed about it, it stays with me all day. Even though I am in profit overall. So I will consider this more!

2. If you've never folded a winner you're playing far too loose!
Another good point, you will end up folding winners, and if the player shows you his inferior hand it hurts a lot, next time this happens I will consider this statement!


#9 STR82ACE, 28 Feb 09 15:17

This article is too hidden. For the content it teaches, it should be on the home page. Its an excellent article and should be the driving focus of all players, new and experienced. Well done!!

#10 monkey0nfire, 10 May 09 11:19

this article definetly sheds light on a far better way to appproach poker psychologically, props to the writer!

#11 Skeldon87, 28 May 09 12:29

strong article may help me a little.

#12 theboydave, 22 Jul 09 17:45

nice article the ten virtues in particular.

#13 pootsman, 20 Oct 09 13:51

i'll print it out and put it on a wall, just in case.:p

#14 Hahaownedlolz, 30 Nov 09 08:07

love the psychology articles.. best articles on pokerstrategy :D

#15 kcoverz, 27 Dec 09 18:05

Great work! Thanks for the article.

#16 1z2x3y, 05 Feb 10 13:54

I adore the brilliant insight on practicing reading your opponents hands by looking at what you had held or do hold.
Never thought about this before
I.E. by considering what you had or have,you can count that out :-)
Thumbs up

#17 Trbst, 21 Feb 10 19:09


I have a question about the short (and even long-) term downswings, and was hoping the author can help me out.

You say we should determine a stop-loss limit (-50 BB per se) to limit losses and generally cut down while on downswing.

Well, I consider myself to be pretty balanced when it comes to that. I've been involved in lots of discussions about cards and bad beats and I always tell people one and the same thing - it happens so deal with it :)

So, for the sake of this argument lets assume downswing doesn't affect my play or state of mind. If that is the case, should I just go ahead following my SSS when in downswing, or should I stop playing just so that "my luck refreshes" or whatever ?

Thanks in Advance,

#18 mancamanca, 26 Apr 10 17:52


#19 Alficor1, 25 Jun 10 12:17

Actually i think that it's good to bluff a lot. Because when you have a monster, people ussually will not give you a credit for a big hand and pay you off. Today i had quad treys and got two players all in, just because i was bluffing the table a lot.
Nevertheless, a great article.

#20 VBZg, 16 Jul 10 06:11

Articles, like this, put me back on track when i'm losing my head, and give me coolness of mind. Very very nice article, should be ABC for every new and old one player. Its easy to lose track in this "one big sesion". GREAT STUFF

#21 pogodon, 08 Aug 10 20:13

poker poker poker i need more and moreof these kinda articles great articles if i lear one thing even i got to learn that if im losing some night i dont got to try win it back that nigyt i can wait for tomoro :)

#22 dblenik, 11 Aug 10 11:36

Very good article. Great insights.

#23 27twoseven, 22 Nov 10 21:42

nice article - I know the pessimist problem!

#24 foolboydesire, 05 Dec 10 12:59

Great article, many thanks to the author.

I'm interested in those books, anybody here read them? comments appreciated :)

#25 Salivanth, 02 Jan 11 13:40

Trbst, if you really do play the same when you're losing, it might be a good idea to set your stop-loss limit higher, but not remove it. After all, you might just be up against really strong opponents, and should leave the table, and luck has nothing to do with it.

#26 johnylasvegas1, 01 Mar 11 23:22

does anyone know where i can watch the episodes tilt?

#27 naujokaz, 25 Mar 11 17:39

Very grateful for these articles!

#28 belayd, 28 Mar 11 19:13

Good article, although it's oddly structured, with only one subheading to nearly every heading.

I am missing 7 of the 10 poker virtues but am in the process of acquiring all seven. Hopefully, over time, poker will improve my life by teaching me things I need to put into practice in all areas.

#29 svendeucer, 06 Apr 11 20:42

thanks for this article , i'm reverberating with the bits on managing downswings (since i'm in one) so decided to bone up on some more philosophy type articles and lo and behold this being exactly what you reccomend.

#30 svendeucer, 06 Apr 11 20:50

bummer i was going to call my new blog zen and the art of poker but it has been taken (shoulda known), so i might use the humble monks guide to better living through poker

#31 svendeucer, 06 Apr 11 20:52

oh and just to add the sklansky quote of "one big session" reminds me of the dali quote of "working on the same painting all my life":) cheers kids

#32 Demetrijus, 08 Apr 11 18:08

Very good article , worth the read!

#33 FatSunny, 24 May 11 11:33

Well done very informative keep seeing Slansky being quoted gonna have to look into him seems clever man!!

#34 ExpertsLV, 07 Jun 11 11:23

One of the best psychology articles, i have read so far.Very informative, thanks!

#35 GambleTM, 13 Jun 11 20:38

very good article! :)

#36 Pouserly2, 12 Aug 11 09:05

Very good article , worth the read!

#37 Gunn56, 16 Aug 11 11:44

great quote for sure gonna check into those poker books down the road in my career

#38 Huckebein, 17 Aug 11 14:22

Thanks for your feedback! Waiting for more :)

#39 almighty19, 02 Oct 11 08:45

This article really helped me to find my emotional leaks and to solve them ...
I can really say that this is one of the best articles i've read in here . THANKS :}

#40 sharpred, 02 Oct 11 14:19

Wtf lucky idiot?

#41 churchilland, 04 Nov 11 16:16

Fantastic article helped me to spot my weak points again, thank you !

#42 UTGDog, 21 Nov 11 20:08

FatSunny...might I recommend you pick up some of David Sklansky's books. I recently finished his updated poker strategy book "Tournament Poker for Advanced players : Expanded Edition" which has some newer and updated emphasis on Texas Hold'em. Really a great book which I find a lot of material you will read online comes from this book. Just about every strategy book out there touches on the importance of LONG TERM SUCCESS. To put it simply, always trust your instincts, couple it with your knowledge, and always choose the decision which is most profitable 'over a lifetime of playing poker'.

#43 Apelsiins09, 02 Jan 12 23:31


#44 Resilence, 19 Jul 12 13:12

So far this is the best article I've read, don't knoe exactly why, but maybe I just needed exactly this... Thx PS <3

Now to live by it ;)

#45 arcnagett, 20 Mar 13 23:04

This was another of the very helpful articles i've read here, gratz to the author once again!

#46 ferrari1f, 23 Dec 13 09:46


#47 JoMidas, 21 Jul 14 17:44

I agree with STR82ACE. This article is way too important to see only at bronze. I consider this and most of these psychology articles very basic concepts that must be fully analyzed and internalized before even sitting at a table. Excellent article!

#48 mirth, 10 Apr 15 14:20

this is a great article. already wrote down some important points to keep in mind.