Losing Poker

Y.A. Tittle and Losing Without Being a Loser

Y.A. Tittle"Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all the time thing. You don't win once in a while; you don't do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing."
-- Vince Lombardi

In another article I address how in order to win you must learn lose well, because in order to win you must sometimes lose. The door to poker success swings both ways, you have to be able to take the good with the bad.

Unlike sports though, in ring game poker, every hand is it's own universe. You, or opponents, can quit after any hand, possibly never to be seen again. The advice from Vince Lombardi at the top of this article doesn't completely literally apply to poker. Only an idiot thinks he should win every hand he plays. But his advice does apply to poker in the long run. The key thing is that doing things right is not a "once in awhile" thing. If you want to be a winning poker player, you should be doing things right all the time -- and right does not mean getting lucky or doing things that work out profitably even though you thought about them wrong. Right means acting in the most sensible, logical, mathematically favorable way possible based on the information you have available.

What really distinguishes poker from other games is how sometimes you can lose even when you do everything possible correctly to a very extreme degree. If on a A77 flop, a player goes all-in with AA against another player who has 22, and the turn card comes a deuce, and the river card comes deuce so the final board is A7722... the player with the AA will be the "loser" in the hand, and may even be eliminated from a tournament, but that player did not play losing poker. He may have lost the hand or the tournament, but he played winning poker.

The AA versus 22 example makes the point rather obviously, but this phenomenon occurs to a smaller, even microscopic, degree in hands, sessions and tournaments around the world every day. Losing doesn't mean you played losing poker. It doesn't mean you didn't do things right. It doesn't mean a player isn't playing with the habit of winning. And, just because some lousy player gets lucky and has a winning session or takes down a tournament doesn't make him a winner.

Losing PokerIn fact, many apparently successful ring game and tournament poker players are busted losers who are in action because someone is staking them in hopes of getting a debt back or because they know the busted person occasionally plays exceptionally well, even though he is a loser in the long run.

Spectacular flukes don't make someone a winning player, except in a past tense way. It is possible for an extremely poor player to be literally the luckiest person on Earth for a few days and take down millions in a poker tournament. This would make that person literally a winning player on an accounting sheet, or in the eyes of the IRS. But one second after that player sucks out for the last time to win that tournament, he reverts back to being a losing poker player.

This article is illustrated with two famous sports "loser" photos. They are shots of pro football player Y.A. Tittle in his final season, when his New York Giants were a woeful 2-10-2. The top photo shows Tittle bloodied, his helmet torn off, kneeling in the end zone after being tackled for a safety -- in front of a sparse stadium crowd no less. But Tittle is no loser. He played 17 years, set records, was twice the Most Valuable Player of the league, and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Not winning a hand doesn't make you a losing player. Not winning a tournament doesn't make you a losing player. What makes you a poker loser is the habit of playing like a loser. Don't do that. Play like a winner, even when you don't win. Act like a winner, even when you walk away from a tournament table when you have been eliminated. And when you do, let your mind think about Y.A. Tittle at the end of his career, bleeding and battered on his knees in the wrong end zone, and remember that the Hall of Fame is filled with people who played as winners their entire careers... even when they did not.

See also Risk Losing and Playing to Win