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Don’t quit just because you’re ahead

By Kenny Smith

Have you ever had a huge winning session only to lose it all later that day in the same game? Maybe you bought in for $500 in a $2/5 no-limit game, you found yourself in that zone where nothing can go wrong, and you ran it up to $2,000 in just under three hours.

Then, a few hours later, you find yourself involved in “that” hand. Another player has a stack equal to you or maybe even has you covered. You think you have the best hand when you both get it all-in, but it turns out your opponent has you crushed.

Your hand doesn’t improve and all of that hard work (or luck) and profitability gets flushed down the drain. You may start thinking to yourself, “I was crushing the game. Why didn’t I just get up when I was ahead?”

It’s understandable for a person to think this way after they have taken a huge loss, but this is not the way that you should be thinking if you want to be a winning poker player.

Poker is a game that should be thought of as one long, continuous session, not individual sittings separated by how much you won or lost. You should be more concerned about making the right decision each time it is your turn to act more than how much you are ahead or stuck in the game.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t track how much you’ve won or lost with each session. It can be important to track your win rate per session, especially if you are playing for some source of income. However, the fact that you are ahead or stuck in a game (and by how much) should not be the primary factor determining whether you stay in a game or leave.

There are three primary reasons why it makes sense to get up from a game (other than you’ve run out of money):

  • The game has no action. If you’re in a limit game and the pots are worth less than five big bets or a no-limit game has less than 10 big blinds at showdown, you should probably wait for a better game. Money is made in games that have action. If there’s no money in the pot, there’s none to be made.
  • You’re tired. You always want to be as fresh and alert as you possibly can when playing poker. When you start feeling fatigued you become vulnerable to making mistakes. Mistakes in poker can be costly. If you make one that turns out to be really big, it can be a devastating blow to your stack and you may not be able to recover from it.
  • You’re playing badly. This takes an honest, hard look in the mirror. I’ve written on the subject of tilt before. You have to be honest with yourself and assess if you are making decisions that you know don’t have a positive expected value. If you know that you are putting chips in the pot in bad shape, you need to get up and come back another day. Remember, a majority of casinos are open 24 hours. You will always have your opportunities to win money. Don’t feel that you need to stay and press the issue right then and there. Pack it up and come back on another day.

Too often I’ve had discussions with people who have raced to a huge lead at the beginning of a session and then through a variety of situations ended up giving it all back. Sometimes it’s because of a bad beat, but more often it’s because of bad play. Getting up solely for the purpose of protecting what a person has won will not protect them from either of these things happening to them.

Whatever it is that you win today, those winnings will be at risk the next time that you sit down. The only way a player can truly protect a win is to rack up and quit playing poker forever.

Let me reiterate—tracking your winning sessions is good so that you can evaluate how you are doing from session to session. The most important thing is to make sure that you are thinking about playing for the long haul, with the goal of having an overall positive win rate for the future.

The poker strategies that I typically discuss, unless otherwise noted, are in reference to cash games. Cash games are more of my element than tournament poker and I do not believe that the strategies discussed here can be used at all times in both types of games.

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