What I learnt from two years of online poker
I wrote this a couple of years ago on a poker forum I used to visit. Since then I have probably played poker a max of five times – but throughout university I regularly played at least 3-4 hours a day, pretty much 7 days a week. While it did keep me from having to get a “real” job while I was a student, I finally decided that online poker would ruin my life if I didn’t stop. Having said that, I wouldn’t change it, because the decisions I made along the way helped shape the man I am today. Here’s what I learned on my two year journey through the world of online poker.
I got my feet wet in poker just like anyone else: around 2005-2006 a few friends and I would get together on a friday night, drink some beers, and play poker. We were all 16-17 at the time, so we didn’t go out on the town as much as we do now – we just got our parents to buy us beer and give us a ride round to whichever unfortunate friend had been designated to host our night of rowdiness. Cue much drinking, beer spilling, chip-splashing, and the occasional hand of poker.
We played £5 entry, winner takes all, usually 5-6 of us. I remember one week when so many people had got wind of our fun that about 15 people turned up. We all sat around the same table to start with, and each hand took about 20 minutes. Then someone had the bright idea of splitting it up into two tables, by which time I had already busted out through my arrogant, aggressive playing style, and had to sit and watch everyone else for about 4 hours. Hey ho.
Back in those days, we all thought we were pretty good, but the best player was undoubtedly Omar*. Omar used to push us around on the table, winding us up until our 16-year-old adolescent pride couldn’t take it any more, and then we’d shove our weak pair into his nut flush. He would always say things like “this is such a waste of time, I could make more playing online than I could playing here”. One time he actually brought his Mac to the table, wearing his cherished Pokerstars hoodie, and played 3 tables of 1/2 limit hold ’em while simultaneously taking our pocket money.
He bragged to us once at school how he had started with $50 on Pokerstars, and ran it up to $3,000, before his parents found out and made him withdraw everything except the initial $50. Then he did it again. And again.
I always wanted to be like Omar. It was my dream to be able to walk into bars and think nothing of buying drinks for all my friends, and then go out the next day and buy some sick new trainers, or a PS3, or a Mac.
But then we all turned 18 and drinking, not gambling, became the first concern for most of us on a friday and saturday night. Now that we could go out of the house and legally drink, we did. A lot. And life was good. I earned my money during the week and spent it on the weekend. I studied hard in school and got into a good uni, where I continued to drink and study hard and enjoy life and get good grades. And life was good.
Then, in the summer of 2009 after my 2nd year of uni, I was working some shitty temp job cold-calling people to do telephone surveys. It was soul-destroying, mindless, uncreative work, the kind of work that makes people strangle themselves with their own telephone cord, which I would have done, except for the fact that we had to wear wireless headsets.
I thought to myself, “There has to be a better way to make money than this.” And then I remembered Omar, and his Mac, and his trainers, and the rounds of drinks he would buy for everyone. So I posted on a forum that I used to frequent, saying “I want to be good at Texas Hold ‘Em poker. Where do I start?” And someone gave me a link to the TwoPlusTwo poker forums, and to a couple of strategy guides, and I was off down a path that would lead me on an emotional rollercoaster.
I devoured forum threads like they were crack. I read more poker theory than you can imagine. I heard about guys beating the $50 no-limit games and thought “woah, these ballers, how can you ever play for a $100 pot?” I deposited my obligatory $50 on Stars, and set to grinding the lowest possible stakes, 1c/2c blinds. I bought some software that tracks all your hands, and I was ready and raring to go. I started playing full-ring games (9 handed) until someone on TwoPlusTwo told me to play 6 handed tables instead because they were “more profitable”. Oh, how wrong he was.
But it started out well. I managed to turn my $50 into about $120, at which point I started playing the 2c/5c cash games. Then I went on a downswing, and it was boring. I had about $105 left in my account when I went out for my friend’s 21st birthday. We had a fantastic night in this great club, we got drunk, threw up – everything you’d expect from a 21st birthday party.
Then I got home at about 4am, and fired up some tables. In my drunked recklessness I decided to play what I thought were “high stakes” – the 5c/10c tables. I remember being really nervous that there was a 10c chip being used as a blind. Woah. Surely this wouldn’t end well.
But it did. I went on the biggest 4am drunken heater of all time, and won about $200 in less than 20 minutes, instantly tripling my bankroll. Boom. Now I was really playing with the big boys.
I continued to grind 5c/10c games for a month or so (joining DC during this time), until I spent all my money on booze and takeaways and needed to cash out my winnings. Being the genius that I am, I emailed one of my friend’s housemates, who I knew to be a good midstakes player, and asked him to stake me. He would provide the money for me to play with, and accept any losses. Any winnings we would split 50-50. I showed him how I had crushed the lower stakes games and wanted to move up. He agreed, and gave me $750 on Full Tilt to play with.
I then proceeded to lose $500 over about 2 months. And life was bad. I got stressed. I would stay up all night trying to grind back my losses. I remember getting into bed at 1am as I had lectures at 10am the next morning, and firing up a couple of tables. I lost some money, and for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to deposit $100 on Pokerstars to play tournaments. I played in a bunch of $1 tournaments all night until about 7am, when I fell asleep, still playing 3 tables. Total profit from 6 hours play: $0.30. I missed all my lectures.
My grades slipped. I was unhappy.
I so wanted to be like Omar. I wanted to have the money and all the stuff the money could buy. $500 was a lot of money to me back then. My constant losses were a blight on my soul, a constant reminder that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. It was hard to deal with. I spent hours and hours studying poker, reading books, reading strategy threads, and even got a coaching session or two.
But over time, I gradually turned into a breakeven player, and then a (very) marginal winner. I got a couple of nice “frequent player” bonuses from Full Tilt Poker. I won back all I had lost and more. I received my first paycheck from my backer, who I think was as relieved as me that I had stopped texting him at 2am saying “Still losing. Can’t figure out why. Sooo frustrating.”
I would still get stressed out by poker. The losses were still bad, but winning was a relief, a break from the constant emotional stress of being a breakeven player. It didn’t help that I was still spending all of my money on booze and takeaways, and not doing a lot besides playing poker and Call of Duty. My grades slipped a bit more.
There were some times when I would lose so much, and keep losing, to the point where I was literally in tears (times I’ve cried due to poker: 3). But I didn’t want to stop playing, so I fired up 12 tables of 9 handed games and played monotonically, soothed by the constant alert and chip sounds of the game. I had barely ever played 9 handed games before – I looked down on those who did. Everyone played so tightly. It was boring. There was no action. But I couldn’t bring myself to stop playing, so I played 12 tables, playing fairly tight preflop, and extremely tight postflop. And funnily enough, I would usually win back all my losses from the 6 handed games. Of course, I moved back to 6 handed straight away, because it was “more profitable”.
I talked with my backer, and he agreed to boost my roll up to $1500, so I could play in the 25c/50c games. Now I was ready for the big time. And then I promptly lost about $700. And I got stressed, and life was bad again. I would stay up all night trying to recoup my losses.
I remember the summer of 2010, when I was working night shifts at my local supermarket. I would finish at 7am, and then come back and play poker. I thought it would be a good idea to play some heads-up poker, one on one. The players were aggressive, the variance was ridiculous, but I didn’t care. I knew I could take them on.
I remember losing $250 in about 30 hands. I got stressed, and punched a lightswitch, then broke my desk chair. My parents weren’t happy, but they didn’t understand. I was tilted! I didn’t have an anger problem, it was this guy’s fault for sucking out on me with his combo draw.
One of my friends pointed out to me “Lynch mate, you’re an idiot. You lose money in one-on-one and 6 handed games, but make money in 9 handed games. Why aren’t you just playing 9 handed?”
I made some excuse about how those games were boring and how I was developing my game faster by playing in aggressive and getting in tough spots that made me think. He said, “No, that’s bullshit. You play poker to make money. You make money playing 9 handed and you don’t playing 6 handed. Simple as.”
I took his advice, and switched to 9 handed games. And something clicked. And I made a lot of money. I paid for a holiday to Greece in September 2010 purely with poker profits. I bought a computer, and some new trainers, and drinks for all my friends in a bar. I was Omar.
I liked being Omar. It felt good to have money for once. I started to play more and more poker – it’s not a gambling problem if you’re winning, right? I played 16 tables for 5-6 hours at a time. Why bother going to lectures when my hourly rate was so good? My backer was pleased, and moved me up to the 50c/$1 stakes. So I started playing that, and broke even for a bit, then moved back down to 25c/50c because it was easy money, and I like easy money.
I played 120k hands of poker in October. I won some good money. But I didn’t do much else other than play poker. My girlfriend got annoyed. But she didn’t understand – this was my job! I didn’t have a gambling problem. She just worried too much.
I played 90k hands in November. I made some decent money. My girlfriend cried because I played so much poker and never talked to her. So I promised to cut down the amount of time I played. Then she went to work, and I played 16 tables all night while she was out. She came back, and I told her I had been doing some reading for uni.
December was going OK. I had broken even for most of the month, and tried to play some higher stakes, but always got knocked back. Then one day I sat down at some 50c/$1 6 handed tables, and lost a hundred bucks. Never mind. Then I lost another hundred. Then I won three hundred.. Then I lost a grand. I moved back down to lower stakes to try and grind it back again, and lost another two hundred. In total that day I lost over $1100. And I cried, and I shouted at my parents, and I punched the wall, and I broke some CD cases.
I didn’t play again for a few weeks. I tried meditating, and practicing Buddhist things like mindfulness. I became happier. I did some serious introspection and self-analysis. I came to a couple conclusions:
- I definitely had some emotional problems
- I might have a gambling problem
Why did I force myself to go through all of this? It all comes back to Omar, and how much I wanted to be like him. I was so desperate to have the money, and the Mac, and the trainers, and the drinks for all my friends. I thought that would make me happy. And I thought that poker was the way to achieve that. I wanted so much to be able to fly to Vegas (which Omar did one summer, and came back $50k richer). I wanted the lifestyle. I dreamed of being a baller, with stacks of bills, and a limo, and a concierge. I thought that would make me happy.
And in pursuit of that, I made myself so unhappy that often I didn’t even want to get out of bed in the morning. I literally sat in bed all day playing micro-stakes, thinking that if I could just get a good run of cards, I would be on the path to happiness. I could quantify exactly how I felt about myself – all I needed to do was look at my results.
Poker was good to me in some respects – after everything I’ve been through, I’m still a winner lifetime – but in other ways it has been the worst thing that ever happened to me. I love the game, and the online community, and the rush you get from winning a big pot or making a sick bluff. But none of that is worth the 18 months that I sunk into poker almost full-time to the exclusion of everything else. As in poker and life, balance is critical. Doing one thing to the exclusion of everything else will seriously fuck you up, and it’s just not worth it.
And then my backer said he needed his money back, so now I couldn’t afford to play stakes that would be meaningful to me, so I stopped playing altogether. I became much happier, more productive, and more optimistic about life almost overnight.
So what did I learn?
- A lot of poker coaches stress the importance of emotional control. They’re not being paternalistic, or trying to make the world a better place. They’re doing it because it makes money. If you’re not evaluating your own emotions and mindset, you will make bad decisions and lose money.
- Never do what other people are doing just because you think it’s more glamorous, or will make people think more highly of you. Stick to your circle of competence.
- Losses always felt worse when I desperately needed the money. Having plenty of cash in the bank felt brilliant because I knew even if I lost one day, I wouldn’t go hungry the next. James Altucher talks about this a lot.
- Poker can be great fun, but it can be a cruel bitch. A common poker saying is “one day you will run worse than you ever thought possible.” I would add to this that poker led me to feel worse than I ever had before. When your self-worth is so wrapped up in your results as mine was, a big downswing can destroy you mentally.
- Never measure yourself against anyone else, only against yourself. One problem for me was that whenever I improved my game and moved up a level, Omar did the same. I bought myself some trainers with poker money, he’d buy a car. I bought a holiday to Greece, he went to Vegas for 3 months. I was constantly comparing myself to his success, and coming up short.
- Poker was a fun hobby, but should have stayed exactly that: a hobby. Once I was relying on it for income, it became my life and I played, studied and talked poker to the exclusion of almost everything else. But poker will be around tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. Enjoy it, but don’t ever let it become your everything.
Poker gave me some great highs, and some horrible lows. But that’s all in the game, yo.
* name changed for subtle reference to The Wire