When Should I Stop Playing

So what is a good reason to stop playing?  If you think back to your last twenty or so sessions, you have probably quit for all kinds of reasons.  To go out with your friends, to get some sleep, to spend some time with your wife, you fancied watching a bit of TV.  In fact most of the time you will quit a session for reasons totally unrelated to poker.  I’m not saying if this is right or wrong, as that would be different for each player.  If you are playing professionally, you obviously need to be far more disciplined than if you are a 10-hours-a-week player who plays mainly for fun.  I’m certainly not getting into the argument of whether your girlfriend is more important than poker, which is entirely outside the scope of this article.

However, what about reasons that are related to the game?  Assuming you have no non-poker distractions to stop you playing, when should you choose to end your session, and when should you carry on?  In fact, there are only two circumstances that should cause you to quit.

* You are not playing your best

* You can’t beat the game

All valid poker-related reasons to quit a session fall into one of these two categories.  Let’s look at them individually to see what they encompass.

You are not playing your best

There are many reasons why your game may be off.  Maybe you have something else on your mind, maybe you are tilting, maybe you are tired or fatigued, maybe for no real reason you just can’t concentrate.  Whatever the reason, very few players have the ability to play their ‘A-game’ all the time.  If you identify that you are not playing as well as you can, then this is a good time to quit the session.  While players will often start off playing well and deteriorate as the session goes on, very few players will start off playing badly and then get better.  Therefore if you find yourself playing badly then your play is unlikely to improve and is very likely to get worse.  Stop playing now before your bad play loses you money.

An argument often cited by players to not quit at this point is:

‘Even playing slightly off, I can still beat this game’.

In some cases this is true, but you must be very careful for a number of reasons.  First, most players overestimate how much they are beating a game.  Even if you can beat a game for 2BB per hour, one or two pots can make all the difference between a good winning session and a losing one.  Taking the money of lesser players is not inevitable in the short term, and by playing less than your best your chances of having a losing session increase significantly.  You may even become a target for the other strong players at the table who are playing their A-game.  Remember, you don’t have to be the worst player at the table to have a –EV.  Because of the rake, average players will also lose.

Secondly if your play is off, it is likely to get worse, and you may just not see the point where you can no longer beat the game.  Unfortunately, many of the reasons your game can be off only get worse with time.  If you are tired, you will get more tired.  If you are tilting, your results will start to deteriorate which will make you tilt even more.  Unfortunately, a lot of the worst poker sessions you will have in your life are likely to be when you don’t realise quite how badly you are playing.  You can nip this problem in the bud by quitting as soon as you notice your game is slightly off.

You can’t beat the game

Actually, this should be expanded to ‘you can’t beat the game, or find another table within your bankroll which you can’.  Obviously if you are playing poker to make money, the most important thing to do is to find a table where you have a +EV.  If you are at a bad table, and you can’t find a table that you can beat, then there is no point playing as by doing so you can expect to lose money.  Fortunately for competent low to mid limit Internet players, this is rarely an issue.  Between all the sites there are bound to be a number of tables that you will be able to beat, and it’s just a case of finding the best one.  At higher limits it might be more of an issue, although if you are a winning player at that limit you are still more than likely to be able to find a good table.  Note the clause ‘within your bankroll’.  If you find a very juicy table, which is at limits that are too high for your bankroll to support, then ignore it.  You can do a lot of damage by playing over your head, even at a seemingly good table.

Knowing when you are unable to beat a table is an important skill in poker.  Ego often gets in the way and sometimes players are convinced they can beat a table, even when they are clearly outclassed.  This is a mistake even professionals make.  While I can’t tell you exactly how to spot if you are at a bad table (which is an article in itself), there is an old adage that ‘if you can’t spot the sucker within half an hour, then you are the sucker’.  There is a lot of truth in this.  If you don’t spot a number of mistakes from your opponents quite quickly, then you are probably at a bad table.  Something you do need to look out for in particular is when a good table goes bad.  At all except the very low limits, there are normally only a few real fish at each table.  You need to be observant, because it only takes a couple of bad players to leave and a couple of strong players to take their place for a very profitable table to suddenly turn very bad for you.  Fortunately, on the Internet this is only a minor setback.  If you find your table has gone bad, wait until the blinds get to you and then get up and sit down at a better table.

In fact, for all intents and purposes, most Internet players can largely ignore this reason to quit.  The only time it is likely to occur is if you are playing at very high limits or you are a losing player, and if the latter is the case the best move is obviously to not play in the first place.  This basically leaves ‘not playing you’re A-game’ as the only reason to quit a session most of the time.  There are however, two reasons that seem to make sense initially, but on closer inspection actually don’t.  They are both regularly cited by players as a reason for quitting a session, and both are related to how well the session has been going.

Quitting while you’re ahead

When I was young, my dad imparted on me what seemed like a great piece of gambling advice.  He said:

‘Always quit while you’re ahead’

Meaning that if you are gambling and find yourself up a significant amount, you should stop playing.  At first glance this seems like sensible advice, which many players follow at the poker table.  Once they have won a certain amount, they will quit to ensure they don’t lose it again.  Unfortunately doing this may cost you a lot of money in the long run.  If you are winning, it is probably because you are playing well at a table where you have a significant edge.  By walking away from this table, you are forfeiting the chance to exploit your edge even more.  There will be times where you will lose the money you’ve won (poker is gambling after all), but there should be more times where you go on to win even more.  Except in very specific circumstances, quitting when you’re ahead is a bad idea.

This all seems quite logical when you think about it, so why do so many people, some of them otherwise good players, follow this ‘quit while you’re ahead’ mantra?  Well, normally it comes down to two main reasons.

·         They like to record winning sessions.

·         They know luck evens out in the long run.  They have had good luck or a good run of cards so far, and so they figure now they are due for bad luck or a bad run of cards.

The problem is that both of these reasons are severely flawed in their logic.  Recording a winning session does feel good, but how important is any individual session exactly?  Let’s say you begin a session with $100 and by the end have $150; you are happy at having won $50 and so you quit.  For how long though?  Are you never going to play poker again?  If you come back tomorrow night and play again, you still risk losing the $50 just the same as if you carried on playing tonight.  In effect your whole poker career is just one long session, you just ‘take breaks’ at various points.  The point at which you take the break is arbitrary in the long run.  You are no more likely to lose the money now than if you start fresh tomorrow, in fact it is less likely if the reason you are winning is that you are at an especially good table.

The second reason makes even less sense.  Not only do you have the ‘one long session’ problem above, but it is also a fundamental misunderstanding of probability.  Cards do not have a memory and they have no sense of justice.  The chance of getting good cards or bad cards is exactly the same regardless of what cards you have had in the past.  For example, the odds of getting dealt a pair of Aces are 1 in 221.  If you get two pairs of aces on the trot (a rare treat indeed), the odds of getting another one the following hand is still 1 in 221.  On the flip side, if you don’t get dealt any pairs of Aces in your first 200 hands, that doesn’t mean you will definitely get one in the next 21 hands, or even that you are more likely to.  While cards and luck do ‘even themselves out in the long run’ this is due to the fact that, as the sample size gets bigger, individual runs of good and bad luck tend to cancel each other out.  There is nothing guaranteed though.  In your next 10,000 hands you will, on average, be dealt around 45 pairs of Aces.  However, you might get 100, or 10 or even none at all (although it is unlikely).  You certainly shouldn’t use good luck in the past as evidence you will get bad luck in the future or vice-versa, and the fact you have been lucky up until now is not a good reason to quit a session.

I did mention specific circumstances where you should quit when you’re ahead and they do exist.  The main one is that some players actually play worse when they’re winning.  This is a form of tilt, and usually occurs when players are running well and start to think they are invincible.  This leads to them playing questionable hands and chasing without correct pot-odds.  If you suffer from this kind of tilt then quitting while you are ahead is not a bad idea, although far better would be learning to control the problem.  Note though, that this comes under the ‘not playing your best’ reason to quit above, and has nothing to do with how much you have won, even though this may be the cause.

Quitting while you are behind

This is an interesting one, because many good players, even professionals advocate doing it.  It can be difficult to understand why because, on the face of it, quitting solely because you are behind makes no more sense than quitting while you are ahead.  If you are at a good table, that in the long term you can expect to beat, you certainly want to stay at that table.  In fact, it could be argued that it is more important to stay at the table if you are losing.  In many games, the poor recreational players sit down with short stacks, and often quit when that money has run out.  If you are losing due to taking a lot of bad beats from these players, then it is likely that there is more money at the table in the hands of bad players.  This makes the table even more desirable from a good players point of view.  Also unless you are quitting poker for good, there is no reason not to carry on playing now rather than tomorrow.  The ‘one long session’ principle applies here, just as much as when you are winning.

If this is the case then why do so many great players (Howard Lederer is an example) advocate quitting after losing a certain number of big bets?  Are these players just wrong?  Well not exactly, let’s look back to our two good reasons for quitting.

·         You are not playing your best

·         You can’t beat the game

While the fact that you are losing is not a good reason to quit in itself, it can be a good reason to assess if the above factors are an issue or may become an issue.

·         Losing can cause you to tilt.  Once you are tilting, you are not playing your best game and you should quit.

·         You may get obsessed with ‘trying to get even’.  This can cause you to start playing marginal hands to achieve that goal (a form of tilt), and also may cause you to keep playing while you are tired or fatigued.  In both of these cases you won’t be playing your best game, hence you should quit.

·         It may be that the reason you are losing is because you are at a bad table and just don’t realise it. You can’t actually beat the game, hence you should find another table, or quit if none are available.

·         Because of the losses you have sustained, you may now be playing above your bankroll. You should leave the table and find one at a lower limit, or quit if there are none available.

The advice to set a stop loss limit is not bad advice; it is just an application of the two reasons I have already given.  In fact, it is good advice for a lot of players, especially relative beginners who do not have full reign on their emotions or the experience to objectively decide when they are out of their depth.  However, if you are losing but still playing within your bankroll, and you know you can beat the game, then should you quit?  No way!  Keep playing and exploit your edge.  A disciplined, winning player should know when the game is good and their own game is good and be able to keep playing.

In summary, most sessions you will end for reasons completely outside the realm of the game.  However, if you are in a good game and are playing well, then don’t quit for the wrong reasons.  The only valid poker-related reasons for quitting a session is you are off your game or are in a bad game with no others available.  Don’t let insignificant details like how much you have won or lost affect your decision.

Ian Taylor, aka Piemaster

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