Slow Enough to Finish

Fast Enough to Win

Poker Speed Pace"You've got to learn a pace that's fast enough to win, but slow enough to finish." -- Rick Mears

Poker is a game of ebbs and flows, back and forth, spurts and dives. At first glance it might appear to have similarities to soccer, a game where tremendous amounts of energy are consumed going up and down the field. But this is a bad comparison. Soccer games usually end up 1 to 0 or something close.

Poker is not like that. Despite what you sometimes see on TV, poker seldom has moments where it makes sense to jump around like a looney and tear your shirt off. Soccer has those because goals are so tremendously valuable. Except at the very end of tournaments, poker's "goals" are just individual battles in a much larger war. You pay too much attention to one battle, you are very likely to get your head handed to you in the war.

On the other hand, basketball is like poker. You similarly go up and down the court in a way that requires much stamina, but all along the way there are innumerable little victories and defeats. You win a battle every time you sink a three-pointer from the corner, or bluff a nice pot. You lose a battle when you clang a couple free throws off the rim, or make a poor fold when you have the best hand.

Poker pots are like basketball baskets. Bigger pots are akin to three point shots, smaller ones free throws or even like steals or fouls or blocked shots. There are a very large number of individual good and bad minor events in basketball or poker game, but all these together are what make a win or a loss.

Basketball has had players who could light up the scoreboard with points, but in the end the teams these guys were on usually lost. There are no "leader points" in basketball or poker. No style points and no ego points either. The battles don't really matter. The total result of the war does.

A single basketball game would be similar to a single poker tournament, and a basketball season is like a poker career. Even if you do well one day in one game, that still isn't the end of the story. The game isn't over. You still keep score of what happens next. Some basketball teams do well in the regular season, but collapse in the playoffs. Same thing in poker -- at crunch time, some players fold up like cheap lawn chairs.

The poker world is littered with players who had moments, either tournament win spurts or extended ring game success, but who collapsed completely when tougher challenges appeared. The measure of a poker player can only be truly taken over their entire career, but if you are looking for a shorter-term take on a player, look at them when things are going terrible for them. "Terrible" could be an extended negative rush, or even something as little as getting kings when an opponent has aces.

Bad poker players really show themselves at the worst of times. Whether they toss their cards, or snivel about the dealers (human or virtual), or blow off a year's worth of income in thirty-six hours, adversity marks bad poker players. And, despite what many people think, these guys are "bad". If you play fine, even great, for a year and win hundreds of thousands, but then dump it off when drunk or on the crap table even, you are a horrible poker player. It's like blowing a twenty-five point lead in basketball not because your opponents suddenly played inspired ball, but because you played rotten. What happened in the first three-quarters of the game matters not at all if you throw it all away in the final minutes.

The Rick Mears quote at the start of this article refers to auto racing, but it too can be applied to poker. In auto racing, you need to go fast, that's basically obvious, but you can't rev too high for too long and go beyond the technical capability of your equipment or your own stamina. You have to go quickly, but if you take too many turns too fast, you will wear your tires out too soon, and you will either not finish or you will have to waste time taking an extra pit stop. Flashy, pointless speed is not your friend. You have to go slow enough to finish the race.

Mastering the ebb and flow of poker is truly more important than isolated moments in the game. The "moments" do accumulate into a career, but they are just pieces (good and bad) that you have to manage. You have to go fast enough to win, but slow enough to ensure that you are there at the end of the race.

See also Aggressive Short-Stack Play, Tournament End Games and Risk Losing