The Only Way to Win: How to Manage False Poker Expectations

I am in the Rio in Las Vegas playing and working at the World Series of Poker (WSOP).

I have just been eliminated from a $1,500 buy-in event and have decided to sit down in a $1/$3 Pot-Limit Omaha cash game because the list is too long for the No-Limit Hold’em tables.

I sit down with $300. Once I lose the $300 I will go home; a promise I made to my wife, pasarpoker ,who worries when I play cash games because I have a propensity to turn into the Hulk when I lose.

I build my stack up to $1,200 and I am feeling good. Then I lose a hand when I am way ahead. It happens again, and again, and I am broke. I pull a dollar bill out of my pocket and put it on the table.

“I’ll be right back,” I smile. I am not smiling on the inside. The Beast has a hold of my brain and is shaking it, screaming throughout the halls of my limbic system.

leedavyunibet Why can't I win? “Why don’t you ever win!”

“Why can’t you be the lucky one who wins a million!”

“Why don’t you ever get a good start when you come to the WSOP? If you had a good start you could weather the later losses and have a great season!”

“Why does this always happen to me!”

Nine Vultures Squawking I'm back in my seat. I don’t remember the trip to the ATM and back. I sit down with another $600 and I get it in, chasing, in the very first hand.

We run it twice. I lose both. I get up and leave with the vision of nine vultures all squawking streams of laughter behind my back.

I feel shame, remorse and guilt. I have lost money that I cannot afford to lose. I broke a promise to my wife. I am an idiot - again.

Stephen Pfleiderer is a certified interventionist, addiction specialist and recovery coach. Stephen studied Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) under the wing of David D. Burns, the author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy.

It's a book that has sold in excess of 5 million copies worldwide. Both Stephen and David have been guests on my Alcohol & Addiction Podcast.

I told Stephen the same tale that I narrated to you. I also told him that for as long as I can remember, when I lose a bet, cash game or poker tournament, I feel a compulsion to find a way to win that money back in the fastest possible time.

It’s not good enough for me to wait for tomorrow’s sure thing. I need instant gratification.

I wanted Stephen’s view on what I see to be a common problem amongst the recreational poker players I have played with over the years.

stephen Stephen Pfleiderer The 10 Cognitive Distortions “There is a lot going on under the radar here,” says Pfleiderer. “What is going on happens very quickly and it’s a spiral where you go from 0-100 and think, 'how the hell did I get here?'”

It does happen very quickly. It’s as if I don’t have time to assess the long-term effects of the decisions I am making in the moment.

I feel like someone has hijacked my motor functions and is steering me to the ATM and the All-In button.

“You are playing a game and something doesn’t go your way,” says Pfleiderer. “You go into the game excited to go and armed with the fantasy of 'this time I might win the big one and my problems will be solved.'

"Your thought process is similar to, ‘I can’t wait to get drunk tonight because it feels so good.' It’s that anticipatory delight. You have set up an expectation to win and, when you don’t, you are naturally very angry, frustrated and disappointed.

"People play casino games and poker because they are excited about the potential to win. Suddenly, something happens and the game doesn’t go their way. The thoughts begin: ‘Why does this always happen to me? Why don’t I have a good start?’”

Rast Cannuli Notes Write it down. Write It Down I have interviewed enough of poker’s elite to know that to become a professional poker player you have to learn to balance expectation.

On one hand, you need to be confident in your ability. On the other hand, you need to enter every situation with the understanding that you are more likely to lose.

What can I do to turn this knowledge into action?

“Your negative thoughts are merely cognitive distortions,” says Pfleiderer. “We need to identify these distortions, and to do that we need to turn these damaging and limiting rhetorical statements into statements.

"The best way to do this is to write them down so we can begin to see if there is any truth to them in reality.”

NUGGET #1 - In your post-game review (and you should have a post-game review procedure if you are serious about the game) write down all of the negative thoughts you had during the game and turn them into statements. Next, identify the cognitive distortions and then create more positive thought statements.


I never get off to a good start I never win I never get any luck in this game Next you can use David D. Burns' checklist of cognitive distortions and identify which ones align with your thought statements. It’s a powerful lesson. Then change your negative statement into a more accurate and positive thought statement.


I never get off to a good start (Negative Statement) Mike Matusow Turn negative into positive. Cognitive Distortions: All or Nothing Thinking, Over Generalization, Discounting the Positives, Fortune Telling, Magnification and Personalization; Blame.

Positive Statement

Sometimes I get off to a good start and sometimes I get off to a bad start. But I am more likely to get off to a good start if I work harder on my game, particularly my mental game, and do the necessary work to eliminate negative thought statements that are nothing but cognitive distortions

NUGGET #2 - Don’t wait for your post-match review to do this work. As soon as you notice a trigger that you are about to lose control, take a break from the game, find a calm spot, and do the work. You can use your Notes function on your mobile phone or take a pen and notepad with you.

“If you are in the midst of the maelstrom, and you don’t push the pause button, you are likely to end up in a spiral of descent and chaos,” says Pfleiderer. “'I won’t be OK until I have that money' is a powerful force. To interrupt the sequence we are writing down the thoughts we have in our mind.”


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