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Tuesday, February 8, 2005
Updated: February 28, 11:56 AM ET
Into the Abyss, Part I

By Jay Lovinger
Page 2

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. Today is Part I of Jackpot Jay: Into the Abyss.

Remember that commercial from a few years ago -- a big favorite with standup comics -- where the old lady is lying on her kitchen floor, helpless, and she moans, "I've fallen, and I can't get up"?

I know just how she felt.

Since August, I've been in a five-months-long poker freefall, by far the worst run of gambling luck I've experienced in a checkered lifetime of trying to get something for nothing. Believe me, it pains me to reveal this. This is the last kind of column I ever wanted to write, for many reasons, including:

1.) It's embarrassing. I never claimed to be a great player, or even a particularly good one. But I thought I would at least be able to hold my own with middle-level casino and online players. It's not so much the money (though I definitely would rather win cash than lose it) as it is that this losing streak supports what so many of my frequent critics (in e-mails, at the poker news groups, in blogs, in articles) have been saying all along: That I don't know what the (bleep) I'm doing -- or, for that matter, talking about. Right now, frankly, it's hard to argue that they're wrong.

2.) It's bad for my table image. If there's one thing all of us have learned from watching poker on TV (including "Tilt") and reading the how-to books, it's that you should never show weakness of any kind. It's like diving into a pool of hungry sharks, and then poking holes in your limbs until they bleed.

3.) It's bad for my image as an "expert" columnist. Somehow, no matter how honest I've been about my poker-playing deficiencies with my readers, most of them still act as if I am some kind of poker expert. That's partially because I've been on the plus side of the ledger, bankroll-wise, but mostly because people believe that anyone who is paid to write about anything by a huge institution like ESPN must be an expert. That's an illusion that is about to go by the boards for anyone who reads past this point.

4.) It will be bad for book sales (self-explanatory).

5.) On some level, no matter how soul-numbing, confidence-destroying and odds-defying a bad streak is, complaining about it just sounds like whining. Rich Corbin, who was a modestly successful high-stakes player before he became an executive with PokerStars, put it succinctly when I asked him about his experience with losing streaks: "What I do know for a fact in regards to running bad is, when I tell 10 people how bad I'm running, nine don't care and the 10th wishes I was losing more."

Why, then, am I writing this? First of all, I've got a job to do: I made a compact with you, the reader, when I started this column -- have fun, reveal the BS behind the great and glorious Oz, and, above all, always tell the truth, even when the truth hurts. Second, because serial losing -- especially online -- is about the loneliest thing going in poker, and I'm hoping for a little relief. Third, I've tried everything else I know to break this godforsaken streak, and I'm desperate.

So, here are the gory details (WARNING: DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME):

In mid-September, I finished on the bubble in an Act III at Foxwoods. The top 11 finishers won $10,200 seats in the upcoming WPT tournament (or $10,200 in cash, if, like me, they had already won their WPT seat).

I finished 12th, winning a "free" seat to an upcoming Act III -- a re-seat, if you will.

After that, my game fell off a cliff.

1.) I won only two of 20 Act II events I entered between mid-September and the WPT tournament. Before that, I won about a third of the Act II events I had entered, finishing in the top three half the time. (Winners got a seat in an upcoming Act III; second- and third-place finishers got an Act II replay.)

Result: minus $3,000.

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2.) I failed to cash in any of the four Act III events I entered, including two for which I paid the full entry fee of $1,050. (Before that, I had won four times and finished on the bubble once in 10 tries.)

Result: minus $2,100.

3.) I played three times in the Friday $20-40 limit hold 'em game at Foxwoods, winning $400 the first time -- an 18-hour session -- and losing $600 and $1,200 the next two sessions. (Admittedly, I got what I deserved here, since the Friday $20-40 game is perhaps the toughest regularly spread at Foxwoods; and, up until then, I had played less than 10 hours of limit hold 'em in my life.)

Result: minus $1,400.

4.) I also played in various smaller games -- $5-5 NLHE (with a minimum buy-in of $200), $1-2 NLHE (with a maximum buy-in of $100), a smattering of $5-10 Omaha/8 -- losing 10 of 12 sessions. (Up until then, I had won money in those games, on average, two out of every three sessions.)

Result: minus $700.

5.) I played four FARGO tournaments (plus the Fossilman Invitational Heads-Up Poker Tournament), without coming close to cashing.

Result: minus $400.

6.) Three times, I played at a quasi-legal (or is that quasi-illegal?) New York City club -- losing $350, $300 and $100 in small no-limit ring games, plus another $250 in tournaments. The latter included a "media" event (buy-in: $50) against a bunch of "journalists," at least half of whom weren't sure if a flush beats a straight.

Result: minus $1,000.

7.) On three other occasions, I played in "editors-only" freeroll tournaments, without once coming close to cashing.

Result: Severe ego damage.

8.) At the month-long poker festival that preceded the $10,200 WPT tournament, I played another 10 Act II events without winning once -- or even coming in second or third. I played in 20 one-table satellite events (buy-ins: $125 or $230), chopping one $230 event (I got $700 for having one-third of the chips when only two of us were left). I also futilely tried four times to qualify for the Shootout Tournament (at $240 a shot), and finished 86th in a $565 buy-in NLHE tournament (the top 80 finishers cashed). The one win I had was a 22nd place finish in another $565 buy-in NLHE tournament (for which I won a little over $2,200).

Result: minus $3,800.

9.) On Day 1, thanks in part to a hand I played incredibly poorly against Tony Ma, I got knocked out of the $10,200 WPT tournament.

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Result: minus $10,200.

As if all of the above aren't bad enough, I discovered ...

... 10.) online poker, where I lost $2,500 playing $10-20 and $20-40 in a couple of weeks of 12-hour-per-day sessions. Only twice did I win money -- and both times, I lost it all back ... and then some ... over a day or two. Following the advice of many -- including some readers -- I dropped back to $5-10.

This is how bad things got: One Sunday morning, I sat down in a six-handed $5-10 limit game where hardly anybody ever raised, but two or three of the players were total "calling stations" (they'd call raises in the big and even little blinds with hands as bad as 9-4 offsuit and 5-2 offsuit). One guy twice failed to cap the raises after the river with the absolute unbeatable nuts. Once, in fact, I bet $10 with a set of 10s into a board of Q-10-x-x-K, after raising before the flop and betting into every round, and he did not raise with A-J even though there was no flush possible. In other words, it was the perfect setup -- players who did not raise with their good hands, who constantly limped with good hands and bad, and who called you with nothing more than bottom pair when you raised or bet with your good hands. Short of people deliberately trying to lose, it doesn't get any better than that -- and I still couldn't win. (I didn't lose much -- maybe $100 when the game broke up after about an hour or so -- but I didn't win.)

Eventually, as the losses continued to pile up, I stepped back another level (to $3-6), stopped playing turbo (high-speed) games, stopped playing in six-handed games, stopped playing more than a few hours at a time.

Nothing worked.

In fact, I started to do even worse. On the advice of Howard Lederer (passed on to me by a reader), I limited myself to the loss of 30 big bets per session. When I first started to play online, the 30 big bets would last as long as three days. By the time I got down to $3-6, I was regularly losing the 30 big bets in an hour or two -- despite the fact that I am a fairly conservative player who almost always plays solid starting hands, draws only when the pot odds are right, and does not blindly call down opponents with mediocre hands (like a middle pair).

Now down about $5,000 for my online career -- with only two winning days in nearly two months of play -- and no bottom in sight, I decided to further limit myself, this time to small-stakes, sit-n-go tournaments.

The site I play on -- Captain Cooks Poker -- offers a progressive sit-n-go structure. Round 2 events cost $27.50 to enter. If you finish in the top two (out of 10), you move on to Round 3. If you finish in the top four (out of 10), you move on to Round 4. If you finish in the top five in Round 4, you move on to Round 5, which offers a first-place prize of $3,000, down to $500 for fourth place. (If you finish on the bubble -- third in Round 2, fifth in Round 3 -- you get a free replay for Round 2).

Over the next three weeks, I played a Round 2 tournament 20 times, never once finishing in the top two. (My best finish -- four times -- was third). Once, I had two-thirds of the chips at the table -- more than $9,000 of the $15,000 total -- with seven players left. Later in that Round 2, with only three players left, I had someone all-in on three occasions, only to be outdrawn on the river all three times -- by a six-outer, a three-outer and a two-outer. Eventually, with much pain, I finished third.

However, I did find my winning level. One night, down to my last $5, I joined a 25-50-cent NLHE game, where I managed to run my $5 into $29, enough to make my 15th attempt at moving from Round 2 to Round 3. (I finished fifth.)

Result: minus $5,400.

Bottom line: I lost about $28,000 in five months in every possible venue -- live NLHE ring games, online NLHE ring games, live limit games ($20-40), online limit games (from $20-40 down to $3-6, turbo, short-handed, what-have-you), live one-table tournaments, online one-table tournaments, live super-satellite tournaments, a $10,000 buy-in tournament, a tournament against the best pros in the world, tournaments against "editors" who barely knew the rules -- with literally only a handful of winning sessions.

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Needless to say, this had a negative effect on my confidence, not to mention my self-image. By the time I lost my 20th straight Round 2 sit-n-go, I was convinced that everybody was a better player, even that guy who called a pre-flop all-in bet on the first hand of a Round 2 with K-3 unsuited. (The guy who went all-in -- with A-A -- for $1,500 when there was $30 in blinds in the pot -- lost to the guy with K-3 when a K and a 3 came on the flop. Maybe I'm a better player than he is, but at least he figured out a way to keep his suffering to a minimum.)

I found myself thinking about a scene from "The Professional," one of the all-time great bad movies. Gary Oldman, in a classic over-the-top Gary Oldman performance as a crooked cop, has Jean Reno, the dangerous professional hitman of the title, trapped in an apartment building. However, Reno has killed about 10 of Oldman's best men, and Oldman doesn't want to take any more chances. Turning to his deputy, he growls, "Get me everybody."

"Everybody?" his deputy says. "What does that mean?"

"EV-REE-BUD-DEE!!" Oldman screams.

I know just how he felt.

Next week's column: Part II -- The exquisitely torturous psychological and emotional effects of a long losing streak. Plus, what I learned about my game from the ordeal.

Last week: lost $500 playing online poker.

Online total: minus $5,650.

Career-to-date: plus $13,339.

Jay Lovinger, a former managing editor of Life and a founding editor of Page 2, is writing on his poker adventures for and also writing a book for HarperCollins.