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Tuesday, February 15, 2005
Updated: February 28, 11:55 AM ET
Into the Abyss, Part II

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. Last week was Part I. Today is Part II of Jackpot Jay: Into the Abyss.

"We all know people who fail to show a lifetime profit in this game, yet insist they are just unlucky. They refuse to acknowledge that maybe there are gaping holes in their games. That maybe it isn't just bad luck that keeps costing them their chips. That maybe, just maybe, the other players are simply better than they are. These people, the ones that won't put in the hard work needed to improve, are the real losers."
-- from "The Making of a Poker Player" by Matt Matros (to be published in April of this year by Kensington)

Well, yeah, Matros is right. But suppose you have put in the work ... you've analyzed your play for leaks ... you've made changes, tried to correct your misbegotten ways ... slowed down (or speeded up) ... moved down in class (or up) ... visited new venues (or returned home to prematurely forsaken ones) --  in other words, done everything in your power, however meager, to fix what is broken and discard what is insensible.

And you still keep losing and losing and losing.

Then what?

Well, then you have to deal with Jackpot Jay's 10 Levels of Emotional/Psychological Deterioration, which I can tell you from recent personal experience are not pretty.

Though the 10 Levels are somewhat messy -- several can happen simultaneously, and they appear in different sequences in different cases -- they almost always start the same way. In the beginning comes ...

1. Denial
For the first couple of months of my five-month losing streak, I told myself that I was just running bad.

And I was right about the "running bad" part. It was the "just" part where I was off-base.

Can we stipulate here -- among friends -- that no players can lose practically without interruption for five months straight, at everything from no-limit to limit ... from $20-$40 down to $3-$6 ... at 10-handed, six-handed, five-handed, head-to-head ... at turbo and "normal" speed ... in sit-n-go tournaments online and $230 one-table satellites at Foxwoods ... in tournaments with buy-ins ranging from $5 to $10,000 ... without some bad luck, no matter how lousy they are?

I thought so.

Can we also stipulate -- among friends -- that no players can lose practically without interruption for five months straight unless their game has a few holes in it?

But what are the holes? What the !@#$%&!@ are they?

This brings us to the second emotional/psychological phase of long losing streaks ...

 2. Frustration
The most obvious change I made in my poker game, which coincided with the beginning of my long losing streak, was to be more aggressive. As longtime readers of this column will recall, I had been eerily successful at cashing in Act III tournaments at Foxwoods (at $10,200 per cash), mostly because my survival-oriented game was perfectly suited for Act IIIs, in which all who cash -- whether with the most or the least chips -- win the same amount.

However, it seemed pretty clear that if I wanted to do well in tournaments, where finishing in the top three once is better than barely finishing in the money 10 to 15 times, I'd have to play more boldly than I had up until that point in my short pro career. I was further encouraged to be more aggressive by a talk given by Matros, Greg Raymer and Russell Rosenblum at last fall's FARGO convention, during which they discussed the importance of taking advantage of even relatively small edges, even if it means risking your tournament life in the process. This is especially true for players like me, less experienced and talented than the best players, who can afford to wait for bigger edges -- who, in other words, need not risk their tournament lives taking only a small edge from far lesser players.

So off I went -- the new Mr. Macho -- and proceeded to land, hard, on my face. (Those who know me personally will tell you that's like bringing coals to Newcastle.) Suddenly, I couldn't win -- or even place or show -- to save my life. During the two-week run-up to the $10,200 WPT tournament at Foxwoods in November, I played in 20 or 30 small-stakes one-table satellites ($125 and $230 buy-ins) and Act IIs ($150 buy-in), and only finished in the top three one time. (I was second, with about a third of the chips, in a $230 buy-in one-table satellite, and eagerly accepted a $700 chop from the chip leader.)

Obviously, something was wrong. But what? As far as I could tell, I was gambling only when the pot odds were in my favor. I wasn't making obvious mistakes -- at least, nothing that was obvious to me -- and people were not taking advantage of any betting patterns. (To be honest, I wasn't lasting long enough most times to exhibit any betting patterns at all.)

I knew it couldn't just be bad luck (could it?), so I guessed that, at this stage of my development, I was not suited to carry off an aggressive style of play. (Not the right temperament? An inability to follow through properly?) So I decided to back off. First, I avoided the bigger buy-in satellites ($500 and $1,000), even though I had done well in those in Vegas back in May when I was just starting out. I also resisted the urge to buy in to some of the $1,000 and $2,000 preliminary tournaments. Then I cut back on the small-stakes one-table tournaments.

Then I started playing in very small stakes tournaments ($60) at a quasi-illegal New York City club.

Nothing worked. I kept losing -- three small stakes tournaments in a row without making it to the back half of the field. At which point, frustration turned into ...

3. Anger
Some would claim, of course, that anger is just another form of denial -- or some kind of emotional cover-up. One does not wish to accept responsibility for one's own failures, so one gets angry at the perceived (really, misperceived) cause.

I can dig it. But actually, I was angry at myself. To break my streak, I tried a few "editors-only" free-roll tournaments. Nothing, nothing and nothing, even though most of the other players in these tournaments barely knew which hands beat which ... and, in point of fact, didn't even care.  I was beginning to feel ...

4. Impotent
... a eunuchlike state of being that no red-blooded can-do American male can tolerate for long (unless there's money in it). At which point, helplessness is replaced by ...

5. Defiance
"Goldarnit," I said to myself. (Actually, what I said was "!@#$%&!@ it!") Then I said, "I am not going to let this happen to me."

And then I uttered these fateful words: "I'm going to the one place I know I can't lose -- online poker. Those people haven't the vaguest idea what they are doing -- especially the drunk and stoned ones who come out at night and think they are playing a video game."

Ask Jackpot Jay!
Got a poker problem or want more details about Jay's poker adventure? Send in your questions and comments.
Well, as has been all-too-well documented in this space (see the last two months' worth of columns), my results at online poker ... well, they suck. Despite reducing my exposure steadily -- dropping from $20-$40 to $10-$20 to $5-$10 to $3-$6 in limit hold 'em; from $5-$10 to $4-$8 to $3-$6 to $2-$4 to $1-$2 to 50 cents-$1 to 25 cents-50 cents in no-limit; cutting out turbo games, six-handed, five-handed, head-to-head; playing less frequently for shorter intervals; and finally eliminating everything but low-stakes one-table sit-n-gos -- I've lost and lost and lost and lost for two straight months, with only an occasional winning session.

And -- stop me if you've heard this one before -- I can't really figure out why.

  • I'm pretty conservative about starting hands. For a while, I was more aggressive, raising -- if I was the first bettor in a pot -- with modest opening hands, like middle-suited connectors and even an occasional A-x suited. But I soon realized I hadn't developed good enough judgment about when to get off a hand, at which point I went back to a more conservative approach.

  • Under the careful tutelage of my mentor, Matt Matros, I've learned to value-bet more or less appropriately.

  • I don't try to bluff too much.

  • I don't mule-headedly decide post-flop that I'm going to call down aggressive bettors no matter what happens -- like me winding up with only a middle pair.

    I can understand why an unimaginative game like that would preclude me from winning at medium stakes (not to mention high ones), but why I have been unable to hold my own -- or, at least, win once in a while -- at, say, $3-$6, is beyond me. Whatever. One thing I can't deny is: It wasn't working. Which is why I kept cutting back and cutting back.

    But still, I continued to lose. Under those conditions, defiance, no matter how well-intended, begins to lose its momentum, to be replaced, naturally enough, by ...

    6. Depression
    To me, depression is a crucial demarcation point, pokerwise. Once you get to that state, it becomes almost impossible to win, a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

    When things got really bad, when I found myself losing the 30 big bets I had allotted myself for a particular session of $3-$6 in an hour or, at most, two, I began to look for bad things to happen. Even when I lost at $20-$40 or $10-$20, against, presumably, better players back in ancient times before this losing streak began, it would take at least a day or two for me to lose my 30-big-bet stake.

    Do you know what I mean?

    I'd keep track of my percentage of winning hands in a session and, as almost inevitably seemed to happen, when that percentage would drop below half of what it should have been -- say, less than 7 percent in a six-handed game -- I'd begin to feel like a martyr, as if there was something noble about my being able to tolerate that kind of "unfair" treatment at the hands of fate. God hated me, and that made me special in some distorted way.

    I remember one time when I won a single hand out of more than 100 hands while playing six-handed. It got to the point that I really didn't want to win, that I'd rather be a spectacular loser on an almost unimaginable scale than just your ordinary run-of-the-mill modest loser. I wanted to be the Joan of Arc of losers, not just another Martha Stewart.

    Poker Central
    Have you become obsessed with poker, too? Well, no worries -- Page 2 has launched its very own poker section. Check it out.
    Needless to say, that kind of attitude doesn't lead to winning poker. Soon enough, I was not raising unless I had the absolute nuts (and then only after the river), not drawing unless I was drawing to the absolute nuts (and then feeling oddly holier-than-thou when I failed to make my draw, as inevitably seemed to happen), not value-betting nearly enough (I just assumed that if there was a card out there that would beat me, my opponent was holding it), etc., etc., etc.

    When I finally realized what was going on -- depression is not an easy thing to see when you are in the middle of it -- I descended yet another couple of steps into darkness ...

    7. Self-pity
    Having a column like this is a double-edged sword. On the positive side, I get to complain as much as I like. I don't have to suffer in the cold, hard silence that tortures most online losers, sitting there alone in their early-morning loneliness (and their underwear).

    In other words, I whine, therefore I exist. (As Descartes might have put it: Whineto ergo sum.)

    On the negative side, because of our unwritten compact -- that I will try to tell you the truth, no matter how painful -- my humiliation will be there for all to see and read about and cluck over, until the Jackpot Jay archives shall perish from this earth.

    Which brings us to ...

    8. Self-loathing
    ... a wretched state of existence that comes when you know you've failed in a very public, irrevocable way ... failed, in other words, to such an extent that all those who spoke and thought ill of you -- all the jealous and dismissive bloggers, the nasty RGPers, the "Jay, you suck" readers, all the people who are furious that I get to write this column and follow my dream -- are proved right, and must be agreed with.

    I haven't got the slightest idea what I am doing, and don't -- and never did -- deserve the chance.

    That hurts, of course. Hurts bad. But not as bad as Level 9 ...

    9. Resignation
    ... wherein you've given up, totally. Can't even imagine ever winning again. Don't even want to try.

    When I reached Level 9 last week, I was considering giving up the game for good. Of course, since I have this column to write (and a book), since I have a job to do, I still had to do something, because nothing is hard to describe in 2,000 words, no matter how well-chosen those words are (unless, of course, you are Samuel Beckett).

    So I decided to go down to a place I thought I'd never have to visit -- the $5.50 buy-in Round 1 of the progressive one-table satellite tournament on Captain Cooks, which, if I finished first or second, would reward me with an entry into the $27.50 Round 2 (yes, the self-same Round 2 I had played 20 straight times without once finishing first or second and thereby advancing to Round 3, a place I am obviously destined never to visit).

    On the third hand, in late position, I looked down and saw ...

    9-9.

    Jackpot Jay's Poker Glossary
    Confused by some of the terms Jay uses in his poker columns? Get their definitions right here.
    I raised the blinds (which were $10-$20) and a caller or two to $80. Got three callers.

    The flop came ...

    10-9-4, rainbow.

    Somebody bet $50, and I raised to $200. (In an earlier life, back on Level 3, for example, I might have considered slow-playing this hand, despite the straight draws that might be out there -- perhaps a good example of why I've been on such a bad streak.)

    Everybody folded to the original bettor, who made it $400. I went all-in for my last $1,280 and he called and turned over (or, to be more precise, the computer turned over for him) ...

    What else?

    10-10.

    Well, hey, sometimes you've just got to laugh. Which takes us to ...

    10. Ironic detachment
    ... a schizoid place which has, to recommend it, one very fine quality: the possibility of leaving your old self behind and finding a new beginning.

    Stay tuned.

    COMING ATTRACTIONS
    Next week's column: Part III -- Expert players and faithful readers alike offer Jackpot Jay advice ... and maybe even a bit of hope ... as he tries to answer the existential question, "What next?"

    HEY, IRS: HOW JAY IS DOING IN HIS NEW CAREER
    Last week: lost $5.50 playing online

    Online total: minus $5,655.50

    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.