How To Get Over Massive Losses

How To Get Over Massive Losses

A Two Part series on recovering from downswings, shifting perspective, maintaining a positive outlook and general happiness, in response to “Saxophone,” on 2p2, who is struggling to recover from losing a $500,000 bankroll.

Preface: A PERSONAL STORY

Walking through the Bellagio, I see a large crowd gathering around a bunch of screaming people. I stop to see the cause of the commotion. “What’s going on?” I ask a man huddled at the back.

Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are playing blackjack.” I nudge my way to the front. The group erupts, hands flailing into the air. In the process, a drunk man nearly spills his beer on my head. They must have won a fortune.

When their hands came into view the first thing I noticed wasn’t their bets, but Kevin’s watch. Massive, embedded with diamonds, it shined even on the dimly lit casino floor. My eyes followed his wrist down his hand and then his fingers. It can’t be. I squinted to make sure, but the two neatly staked red chips were unmistakable. They were betting $10 per hand.

The Reason: STIMULATION

Even though they were barely playing, the excitement created a lot of fuss. On the other hand, a high stakes poker player with a fraction of the net worth can win three zeros more then them without flinching. How is this possible? When we gamble our minds develop a tolerance to the stimulation, no different than the alcoholic who can put back 10 shots. Excessive becomes normal.

There’s only so much fluctuation we can handle before the money becomes real. Once we pass this threshold, emotions return.

When we win, joy and euphoria. When we lose, pain and panic. The losses are always worse than the wins. They are so detrimental to our state of being that I refer to the tipping point for pain as the “PT,” pain threshold. PT’s vary depending on frequency of play. For two athletes who rarely risk money, the least amount of volatility is exciting.

The Problem: COMPULSION

If one chooses to gamble, crossing the PT is unavoidable. It can be avoided by implementing stop losses before they are reached or taking breaks after significant losing streaks. Nevertheless, while these tips are good in practice, they don’t always work.

First we have to cross them to know where they are. And also a big game with a lucrative spot is often too irresistible for even the most conservative poker player to turn down. Let’s face it, we like to gamble. The real problem, then, is how do we recover when the inevitable happens?

The Physical Solution: TAKING ACTION

The life of a poker player desensitizes one to money. Personally, this is a constant battle because I’m nowhere near rich enough to justify such an indifferent mindset. The biggest hand I’ve lost is $475,000. The biggest downswing I’ve had is $1,000,000. Following both, I experienced a sense of loss, despair and a void, similar to the pain of a bitter sweet breakup. In my experience the best way to recover from such a traumatic experience is to compartmentalize the two distant realities: poker and life.

I know that my PT is the most I can lose without losing perspective. Win cap, “WC” is the opposite. When either of these lines are crossed, I take a day off to do something explorative, creative and new. Something as simple as trying a different restaurant, walking through a unseen part of town, or exercising can make the difference between a successful reset or a stressful morning. For further therapy, I make a small reward or recovery purchase. This reinforces the truth that the money I make in the poker world has value in the real world and motivates me to play better.

Sometimes I don’t have the liberty of a day off. A lucrative cash game compels me to grind or even more imminent, I cross my PT during a session and want to continue playing. The quickest way to refocus is a bit disturbing, even blasphemous, but it works. I rip up money.

That’s right. I walk away from the table, take out a $1 bill, tear it to pieces and throw it away. If you just cringed, that’s good. It’s intended to be painful and remind us that our distress is not because of the money, but that the brain is addicted to the stimulation.

In order to recreate this spark, we need more fuel and higher levels of fluctuation. This petty $1 sacrifice save thousands at the table.

Lastly, we must remember the thing that trumps all: Happiness. When debating whether or not to play poker, we shouldn’t make our decisions based on EV (expected value) in dollars, but on how it will affect us mentally, hEV (happiness expected value).

Physical recovery is important in the short term: losing sessions and bad days. But in the long term, for losing months and busted bankrolls, a mental shift is required.

Check back Monday, March 18th for Part Two where I’ll cover mental state, balance and happiness.

Join the Discussion, Send Over Your Thoughts!

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  • Paul Gibbons

    I was so taken by your blog – I look up the saxophone post. Here is what I wrote that 'syncs' nicely I think with what you wrote.

    Dear Sax
    Was drawn here by Alex Torelli's fine blog. This was a long time ago – I wonder what has become of you?

    I can say as a professional psychologist and philosopher – and a poker player – and once a Wall Street trader…

    Self-forgiveness is the hardest thing to come by. Self destructive impulses (see if you can guess) cost me a career where $1m per year was easy to come by (Wall Street). This was in the 80s. Few Poker players come close to this sort of income on a regular basis. By 23, I had 'made it', by 27 I was washed up. Depression set in. It took years to recover.

    Poker or no Poker this matters for the rest of your life. Until you are 'complete' with this – and by that I mean the Buddhist 'so it is' (without emotion, regret, remorse, self-pity)…. it just is…

    You don't want to go through life thinking 'i could been a contender' – the fact is this outcome was inevitable – it was just a question of when…

    As i say to people 'there may be a 'you' in a parallel Universe with your talents AND sound bankroll management – but it isn't you – and you did the best you could with what you know'… To think 'i knew better' is BS – you did the best the real you (not a fantasy you) could do.

    And, without self-forgiveness, if you start down the road again, you may well end up here again.

    There is a mindset I think I've learned, and that I try to inculcate in my young son. People **** up. You will **** up – fail, let people down, miss opportunities, **** up the ones you get. In relationships, in career, in hobbies, in finance – you WILL spew.

    Failure is inevitable. Suffering is inevitable. Given those facts of life, now what do we do?
    (that is straight Buddhism – read 'when things fall apart by Pema Chodron')
    great book – many answers in there…

    Paul

    • Alec Torelli

      Thanks for sharing, I really enjoyed it. Good stuff Paul

  • Paul

    Hi Alec,

    Great blogs – loved the stuff you've been doing recently (started reading your blog after seeing it on PokerNews).

    I know this is a 2 part post but can I put in a request for a post after this is done? I read "Peak Performance Poker" and saw a few quotes from you on how important physical wellbeing/fitness is but there wasn't enough to satisfy me. Is there any chance you could do a post on this going deeper into this and how much of a role it has on playing your A-Game?

    Anything such as describing how you feel playing when you've just woken up to when you have a set schedule and consistently working out before sessions. How much does physical stamina help with your mental stamina during long hours at the poker table?

    Just things like this would be really interesting to hear from your point of view as this is something that players are starting to become more aware of. I read "Mental Game of Poker" and it was a huge letdown. I think your physical shape has a much bigger impact on your tilt/playing abilities than simply writing on a piece of paper when you "notice" you're tilting.

    Thanks 🙂

    • Alec Torelli

      Hey Paul,

      Appreciate you reaching out. I'd be happy to cover something like this in more detail. You hit it on the head; it's a huge and often overlooked aspect of the game and I think it's important.

      I haven't read "Mental Game of Poker" but I'll remember not to. Writing on a piece of paper seems like a stretch… someone needed to fill a page or two 🙂

      Also, I wrote this article called "The Mental Game" a while ago for Bluff Magazine. You might find it enjoyable. Either way, I'll address the topic more specifically and in more detail soon!

    • Alec

      Also, meant to add that I wrote a post called a year ago. I hope you enjoy it.

      I'll address the issue more specifically in the next one!

  • Owais Ahmed

    Alex,

    Great blog as usual. You discuss +hEV decisions, and thats a problem I cope with. Would I rather go to the beach or be at the Commerce? Thats the sort of daily battle I have. Lately, sitting home and watching sports or going to the beach wins over grinding live.

    Essentially, its suffering from too much money syndrome. I haven't reached the cash limits of poker that you have, but I've played in large mixed games and done well for myself in cash and tournaments over the past year.

    How do you fight with this struggle? I seem to have lost my drive to grind daily, although my drive to study and think about the game still remains. It was as if when I was a nobody, I wanted to show I could be the best and would work hard daily. Playing 15 hour sessions was a passion. Now that I've won a bracelet, I've become lazy and asked myself what more is there to accomplish. Now playing 15 hour sessions is a prison sentence.

    Its like I've hit the ceiling – all I can accomplish at a poker table is doing more of what I've already done. Win money? CHECK. Win a bracelet? CHECK. Play on TV? CHECK. Those are the goals of every poker player and having done it all, I'm looking to find new challenges. One drive thats alive is winning a WPT and more bracelets. I think that will never die, but big tournaments don't come around that often.

    The only challenge I can find is to make myself better than I am. I try to play a different style at the table, try out new tactics, experiment with my play – all of these makes playing poker fun. However, in the end, looking forward to a future where I should grind cash daily or a few nights a week doesn't seem that fun.

    Have you gone through a similar journey? When is enough enough? Sometimes during a long session while being stuck, do you ask yourself why you're even there? After all, you don't NEED the money and you can probably retire off your bankroll. Do you really need to scout live ones, wait around for two hours to get a seat, then proceed to playing 8+ hours?

    I would love to hear your thoughts.

    -Owais

    • Alec Torelli

      Owasis. Thanks for writing and great thoughts. Give me some time to iron out my thoughts on this. Blog post coming…

  • Arpeggien

    Hey Alec. I am a nephew of Alan Cook and I think we have met once a long time ago. I am a full time stock index and crude oil futures trader. I have a great system where I win about 70% of my positions with a 1-1 R/R. My issue seems to be fear. Even though I have a great system, the results are only as good as the execution. When I execute as I should, I always end the session profitable; When I do not execute ( or go " off book") I can lose. What tips would you give to just execute without fear and hesitation? I play a little poker as well and there are some similarities in required mindset for success.

    • Alec Torelli

      Hi,

      Sounds like we face some similar issues. My advice is this:
      Allocate an amount of money you're comfortable with solely for stock trading. In poker terms this is your "bankroll." Then, figure out to the best of your knowledge the amount of variance you expect to incur before you're 95% sure you will show a profit. If I can afford to risk $100,000, I know that I'm extremely likely to show a profit (assuming I'm in fact a winner) if I a game where the buy in is $1,000. Nearly no amount of variance can cause me to go broke because I have enough money to outlast the luck. In your spot I would be conservative so you are comfortable with the risk. Start small, write out a plan and stick to it. If your plan was smart to begin with, don't change it when your start to win or lose. Just ride it out, make good choices and let the money come.
      Appreciate having you as a reader.

      Alec

      • Arpeggien

        Thanks for your reply. Glad to see that you are safe from that hurricane that was heading towards china. Have you ever had a coach before? I don't know how that would work at the tables. I was thinking of employing someone to just stay with me to ensure that I was acting according to my specified trading plan and not veering off track. When I trade according to my rules, I have never had a losing session, ever. Not many can actually say that. I have audited my results for the last year and I only lose money when I do not follow my system. Having someone to trade with me would keep me honest so to speak. Have you ever done anything like that or had a coach or anything to that effect? Or do you just not suffer from these weaknesses?

        • Alec Torelli

          Hi,

          Good questions. In fact, I've never had a coach, although I do consult peers who compete at my level and whose opinion I trust. In this way there is accountability amongst each other, which could serve the purpose you touched upon.
          When I started playing, poker wasn't as popular… in fact I'm not sure there was many whom I could even seek coaching from. My generation sort of had to figure out the game. Now it's much different. I do quite a bit of coaching – something I love as much as playing – and think it helps tremendously. I would definitely recommend it if you seek to become serious. Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Roger Federer have coaches. If it's good enough for them, it should be for us.

  • Arpeggien

    Excellent post Alec. I plan on reading it several times per week. Good points. I have read a neurological study on " resetting " the brain that may be of use to you and your readers. I have used this technique when I feel that I have to " reset" my brain for whatever reason ( string of losses or just a stressful incident) and it seems to work pretty well. While sitting, standing or lying down, look directly upwards towards the sky or ceiling. Try to relax all your muscles as much as possible ( this is difficult at first but gets easier). Next close your eyes and focus on seeing nothing, just a clear black void of nothing. Stay in this state for 60 to 90 seconds ( longer if you can) and slowly come back. This can even be done at the tables or anywhere really. It works really well. A reset is something that professionals in all fields practice and suggest and this reset works for me when I am trading and stumbled upon a three or four trade losing streak. I'd love to hear feedback on how it works for you and if you try it in any specific situation.

    • Alec Torelli

      Hey,
      I hope you don't read it because you're losing, but I'm glad you found it useful!

      Great recommendation. I really appreciate the advice and I know the readers will to! I'll definitely give it a try during my next session and see how it goes.

  • Ameer Andrew Padilla

    Worst feeling is when you get good cards and lose and fold bad cards and flop the nuts. It happened to me in a very bad long poker day. I just feel so unlucky that day and lose a lot. This blog now will help me if same thing happen next time. Thank you very much.

    • Alec

      That’s brutal man, but I’m glad this helps. Personally I think the worst feeling is knowing that you didn’t perform your best. I can handle the bad luck, but under performing makes me lose sleep at night.

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  • bruce

    You know, sometimes people lose because they are simply bad players…my advice would be more along the lines of play lower stakes for a while as well as take some time to read books, watch some High Stake Poker and shows like that, and just learn to play better. I lost about $30,000 over a couple of years (playing 1/2 and 1/3 only) trying to get my bearings in no-limit before I read a single page or watched a single video….no-limit has a steep learning curve and if you think you can “figure it out” on your own, be ready to dump 5-figures at least….really, you gotta approach it like learning a foreign language or getting an associate’s degree or something.

    • Alec

      Thanks for sharing Bruce.