PokerStrategy.com Column - The Fear of Failure

First appeared on PokerStrategy.com

I read a really good book recently called Adapt by Tim Harford. He is an Economist discussing how failure is a necessary part of success. The book cites various instances where people have used previous failures to ultimately lead to success in their lives, and others where a zero tolerance approach to failure has led to the downfall of people and businesses.

This got me thinking about poker. There are very few games or careers out there where you have to deal with failure as much as you do with poker. You can do everything right and still lose consistently for thousands upon thousands of hands. In fact my mother could realistically beat Phil Ivey heads-up for a sustained period of time if the cards fell her way (Which is ultimately the greatest and most profitable part of poker).

Even the best players
lose on a regular basis
Despite how much failure we are exposed to, I am not sure that most of us learn from it as much as we should. You only need to see how badly a lot of us can deal with a bad beat or a downswing to demonstrate that. Sometimes it can really affect your mood away from the table, other times it can greatly affect the way we play at the table, in the form of tilt.

I am fortunate to have worked intensively on a book on this very topic with mental game expert and PokerStrategy coach {communitylink=JaredTendler+level}. What I learned from the experience is that players who deal with failure badly usually have an underlying flaw in their approach to the game that causes them to act that way. This is stuff like having overly high expectations and not understanding the nature of variance.

One of the key points in Adapt is that we do not build failure enough into our game plan from the start, that too often we start a plan of action with very little room for error. Harford suggests success is much more likely when you build an environment where it is safe to fail, where one mistake will not lead to complete annihilation.

The most obvious way in which this is evident in poker is when players ignore the rules of bankroll management. On paper, bankroll management is the easiest thing in the world, in practice even the best players routinely ignore it. It is almost certain that if you play long enough, at some point you will go on a 20, 50, or even 100 buy-in (Depending on what you play) downswings no matter how well you play.

This is no secret, the information is widely documented and most of us know first hand what its like, but playing without the bankroll to sustain these swings is still the downfall of many players.

Harford also suggests that the most successful businesses thrive because of a constant trial & error approach to their development. I am reminded of a fantastic quote by Thomas Edison which sums this up perfectly:

"If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward". Thomas Edison.

You would think that with such a prolific rate of failure in poker, that this is an ideology most of us would buy into. That if we do not win money after a session, we are at least provided with an opportunity to improve.

But many of us have a much more absolute view of wins and losses. The ironic thing about poker is that the very thing which creates such a high ratio of failure, is also the thing that prevents us from learning from it - variance. It is very hard to accurately assess how well you played in any single session because variance played a huge part, so most of us fill in the gaps however we choose to.

Usually that is this way: If we win, we played well, if we lost, we ran bad.

Thankfully if you are reading this, the chances are you are working hard on your own game and less likely to fall into this category, but it is still very important to be aware of it. The best players I have witnessed in my years as a poker journalist are the ones that, even to this day with all their success, still work on their game as enthusiastically as we all did from the start.

Conversely, there are those players who believed they had nothing left to learn when the online age came about, or when the games got tough after the 'glory days'. These are the players who have found themselves getting left behind and struggling to beat the modern game (I'd love to be writing this as someone who didn't make these mistakes, but I'm afraid I am one of the guys who stopped working on his game during the glory days and is playing now catchup).

Perhaps the most important lesson, and one which we are coming round to unfortunately now it may be too late, is having a plan B. Black Friday and the ensuing Full Tilt drama has exposed that many of us were completely unprepared for a major disaster. Players in America are currently in limbo with their main source of income unavailable to them, and players worldwide have their money stuck on Full Tilt in the same situation.

These are not the only instances of adversity for poker players of course, there have been superusers, bots, scams, collusion, cheating scandals, armed robberies, and much more.

If we have learned anything since Black Friday, then surely it is to no longer put your eggs in one basket. Do not put all your money in the same poker account, in fact do not keep all your poker money in just in poker accounts full stop.

The same goes with your time, it seems pretty ridiculous to devote your life to just playing poker when there is so much uncertainty in the industry the world over. Whether it's an education, another career, or just another hobby, it just makes sense to have a broader range of interests beyond poker.

It goes against just about every instinct you may have, but learning to expect failure and make the most of it is probably one of the most underestimated skills in the game. Not many of us plan for failure in poker, but all of us have to face it.

As this is a certainty, perhaps the only thing we can do is build ourselves an environment where failure is never final, and there is always something we can learn from it.

"If you want to succeed, double your failure rate." Thomas J. Watson

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