Poker players forget most of the pots they’ve won, but the big hands they lose leave scars. I’ve won thousands of poker hands; probably tens of thousands. And yet most of those winning hands fade from memory, blurring together in one warm, happy glow of satisfaction. Meanwhile, a bunch of horrible, how-did-that-happen hands from the past still haunt me. Most players, I suspect, have the same selective memory.
Most poker players understand that, fundamentally, losing is part of the game, and you try to teach yourself to handle losses calmly. But some losses sting more than others. Some leave you numb. Some knock you back in your chair and make you want to cover your eyes. Some rip your spine out, tie it in knots, then cram it into the garbage disposal. Emerson wrote that we should “win as if you were used to it, lose as if you enjoyed it for a change.” Something tells me Emerson never had his aces cracked by a one-outer on the river.
ESPN’s Bill “The Sports Guy” Simmons has a classic list of the 16 Levels of Losing in sports, which describes 16 types of losses from disappointing to moderately traumatic to soul-crushing. Poker has the same multitude of ways to suffer. In that spirit, and with a tip of the hat to the Sports Guy, here’s my breakdown of the thirteen levels of losing at the poker table.
Level 13: The Ice Storm
You sit down at the poker table and don’t get dealt any playable cards for hours. The dealer and the Poker Gods seem to have a vendetta against you. Every once in a while you get decent cards, but the flop never helps and your draws never improve. The ice storm is most common at limit hold’em tables or in tournaments. You sit down with a stack of chips and wait and wait and wait… Hours later, without playing almost any memorable or interesting hands, your stack has dwindled away, and everyone thinks you’re the tightest, most gutless player at the table. Maybe, despite the bad cards, you try to mix it up and bluff a few times, but you get re-raised and have to fold your junk hands. You spend hours, losing, slowly, and you haven’t even been entertained for the effort.
It’s like Chinese water torture — no one thing hurts a lot, but the repetitive, drip-drip-drip of losing slowly pushes you over the edge. A lot of people start in Ice Storm, but slowly lose their minds, then do something reckless or stupid that sinks them deeper.
Level 12. The Head-Shaker (“I would have won?”)
You have a mediocre hand, say, middle-pair or top-pair with a terrible kicker. At some point you fold. After you’ve mucked your cards, there are bets and raises between remaining players, and when it all comes down to showdown, two junky hands are turned over. Someone wins the pot with third-pair or a high card. A few hands like this can unhinge a player and provoke them into getting impatient and reckless, which usually leads them to losing much bigger pots with hands like, say, middle-pair or top pair with a terrible kicker.
Level 11. The Head-Slapper (“I would have won BIG?”)
Similar to The Head Shaker, but worse. You’re involved in a big, multi-way hand. Lots of action. At some point, you consider making a tough call, often with a pocket pair or a draw to a straight or a flush. Finally, you reluctantly muck your cards. Of course, the next card dealt is the one you wanted, a card that would have given you a monster hand or the nuts. Worse than that, this card sparks enthusiastic betting and raising, and suddenly everyone is shoving in their stacks. You stare bitterly at the mountain of chips you would have won if only you’d felt lucky and gambled.
Painful personal example: A year or so ago, I was playing an all-night home game with friends. It was late, so with countless re-buys, there was a lot of money in play. I’d done well, building up a pretty big stack, maybe three or four buy-ins. I was on the button with two black 8’s. I raise to $3. Someone re-raises to $6, and another player makes it $12. I think for a bit — after all, all three of us have big stacks, and I might get paid off if I luck out and hit my set — but I finally decide to fold, figuring I’m up against two bigger hands. The flop comes Q-8–4 rainbow. The first player bets $20. The second player makes it $40. All of a sudden, they’re both all-in and there is close to $400 on the table. I sit stoically, but in my mind, I slap my head, repeatedly. When the dust settles, player one flips over aces; player two shows 44 for the bottom set. My set of eights would have taken it all. That extra nine dollars would have most likely won me about $400. As we often say at my home game: “Poker is a funny game, just not a ‘ha-ha’ funny game.”
Added-pain postscript: Naturally, the next dozen times you’re in the same situation and make the big call, the card you need never comes and you lose a lot of money. Eventually, you resolve to tighten up and stop ignoring pot odds, so you fold in a big, multi-way hand, and like clockwork, here comes your money card. You slap your head in disgust and the cycle repeats once more…
Level 10: The thing you thought you saw
In the movies, players have visible “tells” that reveal the strength of their hands. They sit one way when they have a big hand. Or maybe they lean back when they are bluffing. Or perhaps they eat their Oreos a certain way when they have a monster hand. Savvy poker players are supposed to be able to pick up on these subtle tells and use them to win bundles of cash. You can readCaro’s Books of Tells or Navarro’s Read ‘em and Reap and try to educate yourself on how to spot them.
In real life, you occasionally can spot a tell on a player. But most of the time? Not so much. You stare at an opponent who goes all in and try go decide if you have him beat. Finally, you think you see some tell that reveals the truth. He rubs his forehead, or scratches his neck, or wiggles his leg and you try to decipher it. “Aha!” you decide, remembering something you read or heard about what that gesture means. “That’s it! He’s bluffing!” So you call his bet and he turns over quads. You watch a massive pile of your chips go to the other guy and want to throw up. You lost it all because of a twitchy eyebrow or squinty eyes and feel like the dumbest person who has ever sat down at a poker table.
Level 9. A knife to a gunfight
You’ve been patient. You’ve waited to pick your spot with a strong hand. And here you are! You flop two pair or three-of-a-kind and pretty much think you’ve got the hand won. But then you bet, get raised, or re-raised, by more than one player. And you can’t be happier! Everyone is practically handing money over to you. Ultimately, everyone is all-in, and at showdown, you realize you were never in good shape. You were behind all along. Someone else had flopped a straight, and the turn gave someone else a full house. You had a good hand and went crashing headlong into one or two great hands. You brought a knife to a gunfight, with predictable results.
One thing I’ve learned over the years, painfully, is that if you find yourself battling over a big pot with more than two players, and you’re holding just a big pair or two pair, all you’ve got is a knife.
Level 8. The Leon Lett
Remember Leon Lett? During Superbowl XXVII, the Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman recovered a Buffalo Bills fumble and was running free for a touchdown. As he got close to the end zone, he slowed down to showboat, stretching out his arm with the football. Inches before he would have scored, the Bills’ Don Beebe caught up to him and stripped the ball away, knocking it into the end zone. Instead of a touchdown, it was a turnover, and the Bills got the ball back. Fifteen years later, most people don’t remember much about Lett, other than that play, and how getting cute and slowing down allowed an opponent to take the ball away.
Sometimes you’re holding a monster hand and just know you’re way ahead of anyone. Instead of raising preflop with Aces or Kings, you get tricky and check. Or maybe you flop a set, but check it to try and tempt someone to bluff with a weaker hand. You’re so excited about your big hand that you ignore the threat of a flush or a straight on the board. From time-to-time, a tricky, deceptive play pays off well, especially against loose, aggressive opponents. But often, slowing down and trying to trick opponents backfires. You check, they check, and the free card you give them kills you. You still love your big hand so much, you refuse to believe the possibility that your opponent hit a big draw, so you bet big or go all-in. The next thing you know, you’re Leon Lett, stunned and befuddled, wondering how someone snuck up behind you and stripped away your chance to win.
Level 7: The one-sided coin
Inevitably in poker, especially in tournaments, you get into “race” situations: you and your opponent get all the money in the middle, usually before the flop, and when the cards are revealed, it’s roughly 50/50 who will win — a mathematical coin flip. Good players try to avoid these situations, but sooner or later, everyone faces their share of coin-flips. Most times you win a tournament or a have a big night at a cash game, you need to win a couple coin-flips. Skill and experience matter, but luck helps. Sometimes, however, despite the 50/50 odds, luck seems stacked against you. It’s as if you keep calling heads and someone is flipping a coin with tails on both sides. You have JJ and lose to AK. An hour later, you have AK and lose to JJ. An hour after that, your AQ loses to a pair of tens. Not long after that, you shove with a pair of tens, and it loses a race against AQ.
This is a maddening way to lose: you finish down big, when you could have easily been up big, or at least even. After a while, a sick, numb feeling takes over and you resign yourself to the fact that you will lose every race; you expect the doom card; and then your defeatism is validated when, yet again, the guy across the table spikes an ace against your queens and giggles as he rakes in a huge pot. People who run into the one-sided coin online often become convinced that Internet poker is rigged and wind up writing long rants about their conspiracy theories, or just type ANGRY COMMENTS ALL CAPS in the chat box, neither of which helps.
Level 6. Drowned in the kiddie pool
As you get more experienced and skilled at poker, you start to have an edge on beginners and newcomers to the game. At least that’s the theory. You can sit down at a poker table in a Las Vegas or Atlantic City casino and realize you’re up against people who barely understand the game. These players often need instruction on how and when they can bet. Some are too drunk to handle their chips or pick up their cards without falling halfway out of their chair. Others, sober but clueless, get to showdown and say “Uh, I just have a pair,” and then the dealer corrects them that, in fact, they have the nut flush. Usually, at this kind of table, you’re in heaven. You can bluff people off hands, or bet big hands and get paid off. But every once in a while, you get crushed by a table of clueless drunks, newbies, and idiots. You’re playing thoughtful, sound poker, and they’re gambling, raising with nothing, calling with junk, and yet somehow, they keep hitting perfect cards on the turn and the river to beat you. They make horrible, low-percentage decisions and keep being rewarded. Nothing seems to make sense. Your chips are vanishing, but the mopes to your left and right are winning hand after hand by playing the worst poker possible. You start to wonder if you’re being filmed for some reality show or being “punked.” There’s almost nothing more frustrating and demoralizing than getting beaten, repeatedly, by confused, semi-conscious, lucky players.
I once watched a drunk, half-asleep 20-something Reese Witherspoon look-alike sit down at a $3/$6 limit table at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City with $100 in chips. She never folded a hand. She just sat there, sipping a pina colada and mumbling to herself, winning pot after pot. If she needed a six to catch a gut-shot draw on the river, she got it. If she had a weak ace against players with KK or QQ, she hit her ace on the river. One time she had 4–6 offsuit in a big pot with three other players, including me, with my aces. On the flop, she had nothing, but still called four bets. On the turn, she got a six, and on the river, another six. Within an hour and a half, she cashed out for more than $600. I looked down at the $23 in white chips left in my $100 rack, and wondered whether golf might be a better hobby.
Level 5. The horror movie
I love horror movies, especially zombie films. What’s scary about a good zombie movie is that the monsters are relentless. Just when the heroes run into some horrible group of flesh-eating undead, and manage to escape — just barely — then another bunch of zombies come out of nowhere and attack. At the poker table, I don’t find this quite as entertaining. The “horror movie” is when you lose with a good hand that runs into something better, again and again. Unlike the “ice storm,” you’re actually getting good cards; just not good enough. And unlike the “one-sided coin,” you’re never 50/50. The one thing that you’re scared of is always what your opponent is holding. You have kings, but your opponent has aces. You have aces, but your opponent flops two pair. You flop two pair, but your opponent flops a set. You flop a set, but run into a flopped straight. You river a full house; the bad guy has quads.
And here’s the clincher: horror movies usually don’t have happy endings. By the end, the hero is outnumbered, exhausted, and running out of options. Despite everything, the hero winds up yanked into the darkness, dragged screaming into the ground, or chomped into pieces by a pack of shrieking, crazed zombies. Then everything goes black.
Yeah, some nights, poker is pretty much like that.
Level 4. The One-Second Miracle
Poker can be a cruel tease. You can get into a huge hand with a big draw; maybe its an all-in situation with big stacks of chips piled up in in the middle of the table. On the turn, you hit your draw and become the favorite in the hand. Right as you lean forward to rake in all the chips, the next card comes: a lucky card that gives your opponent something even stronger. For about one second, you had won a huge pot, and then you blinked and it was gone.
A great example of this was at a tournament I played years ago. Down to two tables, two deep-stacked players got it all-in after the flop. The first guy had JJ. The second had AQ. The flop was AQJ. The turn brought a third ace, giving player two aces full of jacks. He howled and yelled “ship it!” The guy with the set of jacks slumped and shook his head in disgust. But then the dealer burned and put out the river card: the case jack. Suddenly, the guy with jacks throws his arms in the air and the aces-full guy curses and storms away from the table. He would have been the chip leader and a commanding favorite to win the tournament; instead, a one in 44 long-shot gave his opponent a winner. Meanwhile, he returned to the table and squandered his remaining chips within five minutes.
Level 3. The Nightmare Suck Out
The nightmare suck out is similar to the “one-second miracle,” but worse. First, you were ahead the whole way and didn’t need to hit any draw. From the start of the hand, you were crushing your opponent, and after the flop, you had an almost unbeatable hand. You did everything right: built a pot, manipulated your opponent, and got him or her to commit their entire stack as a huge underdog. Only one or two of those cards can beat you. You’re an overwhelming favorite to win the hand… and then the nightmare card lands on the table. If you don’t like the player who sucks out on you, it’s ten times as bad. You feel robbed. It’s like losing a football game on a 80-yard Hail Mary or a basketball game on a 75-foot desperation heave. These are the hands that you carry around bitterly for years and save as your “bad beat story.”
Speaking of, here’s my nightmare suck out bad beat story: I’m playing low-stakes cash game on Party Poker, doing well, and have about two or three buy-ins in front of me. I get dealt aces. I raise to 4 big blinds. A loose player in the big blind with the biggest stack at the table raises me back. I re-raise him, and he instantly goes all in. I call, of course. He turns over a pair of sixes. I smile at the bold bluff attempt. The flop makes me smile even more. A-K-9 rainbow. I lean back in my chair, excited about doubling up and having my best night online in months. A six comes on the turn, which doesn’t really bother me. He only wins if the last six of the appears on my screen for the river, and there is only a 2% chance of that. And then I see it: the six of spades. I watch in horror as the screen animates a big pile of virtual chips sliding over to Mr. “Let’s-Go-All-In-With-a-Pair-of-Sixes”… I don’t remember what happened next, other than the fact that I bounced my mouse against the wall and it never worked again.
Level 2. Voluntary Grave Digging
Suck outs sting. It hurts to be way ahead and lose to a crazy, mathematically unlikely final card. But at least you can take solace in knowing you got your money in with the best hand. You played well, but got unlucky. That’s poker. It’s one thing when chance deals you a bad beat; but it’s another when you create your own disaster. When you dig your own ditch and lie down in it, you have no one to blame for yourself.
Here’s a fine example of digging your own grave: One time at my weekly home game, I was having a good night, having built up a decent stack of chips. I decided to raise on the button with 3–4 offsuit. As I recall, because I had 34, Walter Payton’s jersey number, I felt lucky and courageous. A pretty good player to my right re-raised me to $8, and called, figuring I couldn’t back down now. Second mistake. So now the flop comes, and I’m already ankle-deep in the ground. It misses me completely: A-K-10 rainbow. My opponent checks, so I figure I should bluff again, since I had acted like I had a big hand preflop. I bet $12. He calls. That was the third mistake. Now I’m waist-deep. The turn, a 6, looks like a blank. Again, the guy to my right checks. The pot is pretty big now, and I figure one more big bet ought to scare him away. He must be chasing a straight, I tell myself. The turn missed him. I ask him how many chips he has left, then bet about three-quarters of the pot. Fourth mistake. Dirt is starting to spill onto my shoulders. My opponent thinks for a bit, then calls. The river is a 2. Suddenly, I notice that I’ve only got about $20 left in my stack, maybe enough for a cab ride home. The pot is huge, and I’ve already dumped most off my stack into the middle of the table with four-high. Again, the guy to my right checks. Maybe he missed his draw, I think. Maybe my last $20 will be enough to convince him, finally, that he’s beat. So I go all-in. He calls right away and turns over AK. It’s not bad luck or a bad beat, it’s just me giving away chips for no reason with one of the worst hands in poker. Everything I did was wrong; everything he did was right. As I lie down in my grave, I try to decide when, exactly, I became the worst poker player in the world.
Level 1. The Ron Burgundy
In climactic scene of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the title character jumps into a grizzly bear habitat at the zoo to try and rescue his girlfriend, Veronica Corningstone. When Ron suddenly realizes he’s stuck in a pit with several angry, violent bears, he shouts, “I immediately regret this decision!”
Sooner or later, most poker players leap into the bear pit themselves with a similar instant sense of regret. Instead of taking your time and thinking through a decision, weighing odds and considering what your opponents may have, you act on impulse. You go all-in or make a loose call for all your chips before slowing down and considering how likely you are to win. Bad players who watch too much poker on television pull Ron Burgundy moves all the time, going all-in with a bluff, hoping that naked aggression alone will win a hand. Sometimes, it just takes one too many drinks to lead to an otherwise sensible player pulling a Ron Burgundy.
And the scary thing about no-limit poker is that you can play a night of nearly perfect poker, then one rash, reckless decision can erase everything you’ve won during that time. Eight seconds of bad thinking can erase eight hours of strong play.
One of the most memorable Ron Burgundy plays I’ve witnessed was at a late-night, weekend home game a few years ago. One guy — let’s call him “Moe” — normally, a sound, tight-aggressive player, was having a legendary evening. He had a mountain of chips in front of him and had been playing great, smart poker all night long. He was up so big, he was promising to buy everyone drinks later on if we all went out to a bar. But a few hours and shots of bourbon later, he got into a classic Ron Burgundy hand. Moe bets preflop. The guy on the other side of the table, a strong, shrewd player with the second-largest stack at the table, raises. Moe calls. The flop came down 10–4–2. Moe bets about half the pot. His opponent raises. Moe thinks for about two seconds, then declares “I’m all in!” This wild over-bet is more than five times the size of the pot. His opponent calls right away and flips over 4–4 to show three-of-a-kind.
Moe turns pale, as it it never occurred to him that that the other player might call. He turns over his cards and shows a pair of eights. The turn and the river doesn’t bring help, and two-thirds of his monstrous fortune of chips slide across the table. He reaches out and shakes his opponents hand — a sad, and rather gentlemanly gesture — then staggers away from the table, unable to speak to anyone for about ten minutes. Maybe it was the alcohol, maybe it was fatigue, but for whatever reason, he made a bizarre, costly, and inexplicable decision that he immediately regretted… and still does today.
When a poker hand like this leaves you dazed, wobbly, and speechless, you’ve hit the lowest level of losing at the poker table. Eventually, the pain will pass. Besides, there’s always next time, right?
What could go wrong?
Digital strategist and designer at Flying Dog Creative. Freelance nonfiction writer. Overmatched father of two girls.