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You Should Feel Pain While Playing Poker — Here’s Why

If you’re like most poker players, you’ve felt legitimate pain while playing the game.

Such pain is usually caused by bad luck, which can come in many forms:

  • Getting the money in as a favorite and losing;
  • Having a long streak of unfavorable results to no fault of our own; or (even more subtly)
  • Running into the top of our opponent’s range.

Poker is full of instances which are painful but also completely out of our control.

Properly identifying them may be a bit tricky sometimes — especially for thinking players who hate to use luck as an excuse for their mistakes — but we all know they’re there.

One lesson we can learn from this is that: The sooner we identify the instances which are beyond our control, the quicker we can start working towards accepting them.

A stoic mom

Speaking of stone walls, when I was kid, my mom used to tell me that there are two types of problems/challenges: those we can fix and those we cannot fix. That sounds very stoic and all, but how does one decide which is which?

  • Should I put more time in my failing business?
  • Does my flawed partnership still makes sense?
  • Should I keep fixing my old car or give up on it? And the list goes on.

These are of course rhetoric questions, the answers to which are different for each individual and irrelevant to our discussion. The point is, however, that even though our world is clearly imperfect, it is still unclear whether certain aspects of it are improvable or not.

Nevertheless, once we answer that question, mom’s wisdom becomes relevant again as it sets us into a clear path. We should work on those aspects that can be improved and ignore the rest. It is often the debate on which category they belong to that’s eating us alive.

The Pain Principle

Poker is no different. No matter what the situation is, the number one question thinking players are asking themselves is: Could I have done this differently?

To which the answer typically and frustratingly is: It depends!

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that although I do not pretend to arrogantly have some one-size-fit all answer to how one can distinguish the roads from the dead-ends, there is a very useful heuristic, courtesy of our community’s collective wisdom of painstakingly analyzing the game for decades. It could be artistically paraphrased as follows:

If you don’t feel pain frequently enough, you are probably not doing it right. (Either that or you have a spectacular mental game.)

This is what I would call the “Pain Principle.

Perhaps the two most classic examples of this are the following:

The idea of these two examples is that the inherent inaccessible information of the game, makes occasional losses inevitable and necessary if we hope to book a net win over the long haul. If we can make, say, 2X with our successful bluffs while losing only X by our unsuccessful ones, it pays to bluff even though we know we are bound to lose sometimes. The crucial word here is necessary.

Monetary “pain” is essential for our net success. We cannot make this extra profit without bluffing and we cannot bluff without occasionally losing. There is absolutely nothing we can do about that last part! Similarly, with value-bets.

A high level violation of the “Pain Principle”

doug polk vs daniel negreanu

Many of you already know that. Some may even argue that this idea of “necessary pain” is a bit out there and it does not have any practical applications. This is a very fair point. I would, however, invite you to take a closer look by exploring a non-standard example from high-level poker.

In his recent post-mortem analysis of his match with Daniel Negreanu, Doug Polk gave a pretty in-depth review of Daniel’s play.

Note: Doug also recorded a free video going over insights from the grudge match. Sign up for that exclusive $200/$400 review here.

The entire video is worth watching but there was a striking point which is very relevant to our discussion here.

One of Doug’s biggest constructive criticisms of Daniel’s play was that, during one stretch of the match, Daniel did not get stacked for something like 2,000 hands in a row. This indicates a serious lack of aggression that certainly impacts his bottom line.

Does that sound familiar? It looks like even a world-class player like Negreanu could not avoid the temptation to mitigate the proverbial “pain” from above. Whether consciously or not, Daniel may have been trying to “do something” about variance!

Unfortunately for him, unless one is facing a weaker opponent, HUNL is not the type of format that one can play “small ball poker” and control the action or the size of the stacks. Especially when facing a world-class heads-up specialist like Polk.

The only way one can have a chance is by being as balanced as possible across the board. This not only implies taking various lines in various spots but also implementing bets with all sorts of sizes and with relatively high frequencies. This includes overbets and of course shoves either as bluffs, value and some hands in between! Fall short of that and one is now exposing themselves to a whole new level of hurt.

Moral of the story

Although arguably some of the details have been simplified to make the point concise, the key idea remains: There is an unavoidable amount of “pain” (both in life and in poker) and there is absolutely nothing we can do to circumvent it.

We can either accept this relatively small discomfort or risk inflicting ourselves an even larger amount of it by trying to avoid it. Of course, this is easier said than done. Regardless, there is still value in articulating something before we start implementing it so we can at least have a clear vision to guide us.

Thanks for reading.

What to read next: When Should You Slow-Play A Flopped Flush?

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About the Author
Konstantinos "Duncan" Palamourdas

Konstantinos "Duncan" Palamourdas

Duncan is a math professor from UCLA who specializes in the mathematics of poker, as well as in poker education. He currently teaches poker classes at UCLA extension that always fill up early and have long waitlists. In his book Why Alex Beats Bobbie At Poker, he uses simple language to scientifically explain how and why money flows from poker amateurs to professionals. Preorder the book here!

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