EDITOR'S NOTE: Jay Lovinger is on a losing streak, and it isn't pretty. It's so ugly, in fact, it's going to take him three columns to work his way through it. Last week was Part II. Before that, Part I. Today is Part III of Jackpot Jay: Into the Abyss.
It seemed like it might be wise to tap some of my better poker-playing friends and acquaintances for advice, assuming they are still willing to be publicly associated with me after my long losing streak.
For the most part, they generously shared tales of their own epic streaks -- or, at least, some insight into how they finally got back into the good graces of the temperamental god Poker.
The best way ever discovered to end a losing streak
Greg Raymer's worst-ever losing streak ended when he won the 2004 World Series of Poker and $5 million. Hey, maybe that's what I have to look forward to!
"In February, I won about $40,000 in the Sunday tourney at PokerStars," Raymer says. "Then I went on vacation and a business trip to Florida. After that, I lost about $60,000 before winning the WSOP. It was essentially just a series of bad beats piling up on me. At the end of each night, I'd see I was down by somewhere between one and five pots, and had taken one- and two-outer beats on between three and eight pots. Invariably, if I had just broken even on those pots, I would've been ahead for the night instead of behind."
So how did The Fossilman cope?
"I just kept reminding myself that bad *&$% happens in poker, and that you've got to just make sure you keep making the best possible decision every time, no matter what," Raymer says. "In my case, intellectual belief in my decisions -- and that luck will even out going forward -- got me through it."
Well, that, and booking a nice $5 million win, which, you've got to admit, is a stylish way to break any losing streak.
From England, with love
When Joe Beevers, who is 25 percent of England's Hendon Mob, started playing poker for real money, he almost never lost. By his calculation, his success rate for winning sessions was about 90 percent, "though that figure may have been a little skewed because I massaged it a bit. For example, if I had been intending to play until 4 a.m., but had been losing, and it was now 3 a.m. and I'd just gotten out of it and gone 10 pounds in front, I would stop early and register the win," he says.
Basically, Beevers managed to float along for years without ever confronting a major losing streak ... until an ill-fated poker trip to a Paris festival, which featured some of the best action in the world.
"I had top set beat by second set, top full beat by quads, straight flush beat by straight flush," he says. "I would have thought it impossible to lose to so many one-outer and two-outer hands as this in a year, let alone a week. I started to play badly, and I lost more than I should have."
This taught Beevers an important lesson: "You can never be a great poker player unless you have gone broke at least once."
Beevers also cautions against denial -- specifically, the belief that a bad run is strictly a result of bad luck.
"I have seen many a losing player blame it on form, even ones who used to be winners but have now caught the losing habit," he says. "It's a lot to do with confidence. It takes a lot of self-belief and inner strength, as well as the strongest understanding of your own emotions, to make sure that you get off that losing streak as quick as you can. Most people go two or three stops further than they should before they get off.
"Don't miss your stop!"
Who said poker players are soulless?
Sometimes, when you are running bad, the hardest thing to find is an encouraging word. As Rich Corbin, a former high-stakes player and now a PokerStars executive, so succinctly puts it (see "Into the Abyss, Part I"), "When I tell 10 people how bad I'm running, nine don't care, and the 10th wishes I was losing more."
But then there's Ashley Adams, the author of "Winning 7-Card Stud." Adams has seen his share of losing streaks -- he once lost a third of his bankroll (about $5,000) during a vicious run of $20-40 stud sessions -- but he's never lost his ability to empathize (a quality which is vital to his "day job," union organizing). After he read "Into the Abyss, Part II" last week, he sent me the following e-mail, a touching, generous and wise display of support at a time when I really needed it:
Hi, Jay. Have you ever seen Niagara Falls? How come it never runs dry? All that water pouring down constantly. Amazing.
You've lived in the North. Ever been to Syracuse, New York, or nearby? It's amazing that anyone lives there -- 90 percent-plus of their days are overcast. It's cold and snowy in the winter. How the hell do people keep believing that spring will actually come (and often be magnificent)?
Moses and our ancestors at the Red Sea. Mountains on one side, ocean on another, and Pharoah's army roaring up behind them. Some guy hears a voice that says, "Fear not -- walk into the sea." And they DID!?!? Unbelievable. What a lesson.
I had a friend who was convinced that there were little people who would actually steal things and then put them back in the places they stole them from. That was her only explanation for how she could leave her hairbrush in the bathroom, but then, 10 minutes later, go back to the bathroom, not find it -- then search the entire house, not find it, only to return to the bathroom and find it back where she thought it was in the first place. You don't believe in little people, do you?
If there's a hole in your game, you'll find it. Have a friend look at your play, or hire someone. Note close decisions. Bad streaks happen. If you play well, you'll win again.
All that water. And it NEVER runs dry. Amazing.
Taking the long view
Here's a calming and preternaturally rosy view of losing streaks from Russell Rosenblum, who finished fifth in the 2004 WPT Championship. In Rosenblum's view, losing streaks are not only natural (of course, so is cyanide), but a sign of growth.
"I have a theory, kind of hard to explain," Rosenblum says. "People's games go in bell curves. You start at the bottom and head towards the top, and once you reach a kind of peak, you decline again towards a valley. Not as deep a valley as when you started, but a decline from the most recent peak. Then you improve to a new and higher peak, then a new but not-as-low low.
"Think about it. You start off playing way too loose. Then, you get tighter and start to do better. Wow, great. Then tighter still, and suddenly you are not as good a player -- down the curve you go -- and then you loosen up and improve.
"Anyway, I believe even the Howard Lederers of the world have a similar curve, but a smaller distance between peaks and valleys -- and, of course, their valleys are likely higher than my peaks. The question is: Is my peak today as good as Howard's valley of five years ago?"
Player, heal thyself: A case history
Every expert and top-level player will tell you the same thing about breaking out of a serious losing streak: You have to evaluate your game coolly, and be honest about the holes you find in it.
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In his soon-to-be-published book, "The Making of a Poker Player" (Citadel, April 2005), Matt Matros, who finished third in the 2004 WPT Championship and won $700,000 in the process, writes about the worst streak of his career and how he managed to extricate himself:
When I booked nine winning sessions in my first nine tries online in 2002, I thought I had guaranteed another winning year. I was up $1,228 -- no way would I give that much back, right? I gave it all back and then some by the end of January. By the end of February, I was stuck more than $3,000.
At that point, I still wasn't worried. I'd lost $1,800 in 10 tournaments, a totally insignificant sample size, and $1,200 in 115 hours of ring games, an amount easily attributable to short-term luck in shorthanded $10-$20 and $5-$10.
By March, I was worried. I was stuck more than $5,600 for the year by month's end. I had never experienced more than a bad weekend or two of results before. Now, suddenly, I was digging deeper and deeper into the red, and I had become convinced it would be impossible for me to post a winning year. I was losing. But more than that, I was a loser. There was no way to argue the point. I was losing in the same D.C. game I'd spent the better part of two years crushing. I was losing in the online games that had looked so promising as the year started. I was losing during my Atlantic City trips. And I sure wasn't cashing in any tournaments.
I had told myself for a long time that such an extended bad run was possible. Other good players had warned me it would happen, and on a purely intellectual level I believed it would happen. It's simple statistics. A person who wins one big bet an hour with a standard deviation of 10 (a normal figure) has about a 5 percent chance of getting stuck 150 big bets after any given point in time. Throw in a few tournaments, where the best players in the world are underdogs to cash, and you've got a vicious losing streak. If you play long enough, it is inevitable.
I knew all this, but just as I hadn't been truly prepared to dump $2,365 in one weekend at BARGE, I hadn't been truly prepared to lose this much money and continue playing. I didn't know how to react. I started e-mailing Russell [Rosenblum] dozens of hand histories, trying to figure out what was wrong. I kept telling myself I didn't need the money, which I didn't, but that failed to make me feel a whole lot better.
At some point in March, after a truly disastrous (minus $1,250) $10-$20 session in D.C., I decided I'd had enough. I wasn't going to quit poker (God forbid). And I wasn't going to whine that I kept getting unlucky. Instead, I decided to completely reconstruct my game from the bottom up. I would question every aspect of my strategy -- what hands to play, when to open-raise, how aggressive to be after the flop, how often to pay off on the end -- everything. I was losing too much money to not ask these questions and still live with myself. If I was going down, I was going confident I was playing a solid strategy and following that strategy at the table. I didn't want to be a loser. No one wants to be a loser, even if he understands it's sometimes unavoidable.
Readers weigh in
I got more mail on my losing-streak columns (Parts I and II) than on anything else I've ever written about. There were the usual "you suck" and "drop dead, you loser" e-mails, of course. But let's be honest: Poker is a zero sum game in which anything good that happens to someone else is bad for you. So, bad news for the other guy is often a cause for grabbing the opportunity of making yourself feel less insecure at the other guy's expense. But, for the most part, the mail was extremely gratifying -- thoughtful, helpful, sympathetic, encouraging. It's obvious that many readers have been there from the beginning, paying attention, even remembering things. For example, at least 25 readers pointed out that my losing streak coincided with when I decided to reinvent myself as Mr. Aggressive.
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1) Stop playing online and go back to playing in casinos and clubs, where I have had some success (unlike online, which has been an uninterrupted disaster). "Jay, it doesn't take a genius to look at your totals (up $18,000 at the casino, down $5,000 playing online) to determine that you should STOP PLAYING ONLINE!" writes Mike Cammarata from Pennsylvania.
Hard to argue with that logic.
2) Take a vacation ... "until you feel in the groove again," writes James of Richmond, Va. "Not from poker entirely, just from money games. If you play online, play at one of the many free sites. Play mini tournaments with your kids. Use Skittles or M&Ms instead of chips. You're more than welcome to come down here and play in some games with me and my brother. Heck, you can even crash at my place, so the only money you'd lose is for gas, food and drink."
3) Don't give in to self-doubt. This, too, shall pass, even if nobody knows when. It's important to remain optimistic, because when you are feeling down, you cannot play your best. "A wise man once said that no one can expect to chase their dream and catch it without many sleepless nights between here and there," writes Jon of New York City. "Keep plugging, re-read some texts, practice your Zen and feel free to e-mail me to bitch and moan along the way. I'm with you. We'll get there."
4) Stop playing limit poker and go back to NL.
5) Dump the Mr. Aggressive persona, and go back to being the solid, consistent and winning player you once seemed to be.
6) Better stakes, game and table selection, please. "I have a theory that people lose money when they 'dabble' in things," writes Matthew Harris of Ann Arbor, Mich. "You need to pick a game, make it your specialty and quit dabbling. You are the CEO of your bankroll, and good CEOs don't make bad investments, such as a $20-40 game with known pros."
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8) Find a new -- and presumably easier -- online site on which to play. (Several readers mentioned Party Poker as the online equivalent of an "aquarium.")
9) Write more. As Edward from San Francisco puts it: "The one thing you haven't tried is to write more often. I enjoy your stories, don't mind your mailbags, but hate waiting so long between articles. If you want to break the streak, write. Remember, a writer writes."
10) Bad table image. "I suspect that you're getting creamed at the level of table image," writes Stephen Jacobs of Elberon, N.J. "Yours is stupid-aggressive. People don't respect your aggression and expect to be able to trap you. Try some super-tight play, and, on the river, assume that you are being trapped."
The last word (or two) on a bad streak -- I hope
Ray Kitchener of Ontario writes: "You know what? I'm glad your experience as a poker pro hasn't been a fantasy camp of good cards and tournament wins. A lot of your readers fantasize about what it might be like to go pro. Your losing streak, however painful, is an important bucket of cold water to all the poker fans who see nothing but Chris-Moneymaker-underdog-against-all-odds success stories. Good stuff. Thanks for swallowing your pride in front of your critics. The rest of us are learning from your mistakes."
Thanks, Ray. It's a pleasure and an honor to have you along on the journey.
HEY, IRS: HOW JAY IS DOING IN HIS NEW CAREER
Last week: DNP (coach's decision -- see suggestion No. 2, above, from readers).
Career-to-date: plus $13,333.50.
Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for ESPN.com and also writing a book for HarperCollins.