Donkin's Blog

Online Poker: When the winning stops

Closing my Zoom NL50 tables after a 30-minute session, I checked my balance in the Poker Stars Lobby to see it to have barely moved off the $1,000 I deposited 3 months previously. That capped off 8 months of a flat win rate in online poker, something that had not happened to me in almost 2 decades of playing.

donkinurmum graph
If the winrate doesn’t increase after 100,000 hands, don’t delude yourself that you’re still playing profitably

Lack of a winning streak?

All of my good streaks and all of my bad streaks of every length and depth have had one thing in common. They did not exist in your mind. They only existed in my mind.  And this is true for everyone’s winning and losing streaks.  None of them actually exist.  They are all mental fabrication, …  It blossoms and withers, all in your mind.  And when your mind invents a streak, you believe it exists, because you believe what your mind tells you.  But the truth is there is only the hand you are playing.Tommy Angelo

I’m not so arrogant as to claim that breaking even over 8 months and maybe a half-million hands of online poker could be the result of a bad run. An old forum post from my early days said that anyone could run bad over 10,000 hands. Over 100,000 hands, most winning players would experience a bad run about 1 in 10 times. But is a quarter million hands a bad run? Sure, mathematically it’s possible, call it 1 in a 100, but you’d have to be blind to your own ability to believe it. If you don’t win in that many hands, it’s more likely you are simply not playing with a positive expectation.

I might claim, however, that these 8 months have lacked a real winning streak. One of those two-week periods where nothing goes wrong, and you are left feeling confident and patient and well-prepared mentally for the next month of flat. That never happened in these 8 months and I sure could have used one. They seemed quite common before, occurring at least once in every 3 months. Instead, poker seemed like a struggle on a weekly basis these whole 8 months.

Miniscule difference in EV

I’ve always known I wasn’t a great player. “Nit” is a perfect term for me. I play tight, I play strategies that I learn from others… basically I do what a large majority of winning players do, and many losing players.

Getting to that 0 expected value is easy, I believe. Read some books, read some forums, learn about odds, implied odds, initiative, iso-raises, and squeezes, and you’ll leap frog 90% of the players. Good enough? Not quite, since the rake siphons most of your newfound winnings away.

Getting above that level is difficult and for most of us humans, requires raw experience, but even as you advance your win rate above that 0 line, it’s only miniscule. Getting yourself to 1 EV is a real accomplishment.

Adding to my winnings was the size of the abyss of players below the 0 EV line. “Table Selection” and “Player pool.” This is the real factor that determines the heights above 0 that can be achieved. It’s likely some sort of curve, with the good players on one end and the bad players on the other. Where that curve shifts depends on the poker site and indeed, the state of poker as a whole. That and the rake, of course, the silent best-player at the table, that constantly improves as sites increase their take and lower their promos.

Playing Poker Stars on a hotspot in the Philippines to debug my game.

Win rate slips

Unfortunately, with a small margin between profitable and flat, it takes time to realize when the win rate has dipped. When it happens, it’ll feel like a bad run. Maybe a good run will come along and further blind you to the reduction in EV. But after some time, if you are playing at a flat win rate, your balance will reflect it.

And because it takes so long to realize, unnoticeable changes to the game can cause it. Your ability hasn’t changed, it’s the aggregate ability of all your opponents that has changed.

I’ve been hearing of this phenomenon for years. “It was easier in 2006, just cbet 100%.” “Back in 2010, 3betting printed money.” “In 2012, it was easy to flat the button and destroy nits.” I’ve noticed my EV decreasing ever since Party Poker was tossed from the USA in 2006, but my earnings were enough for me, until 8 months ago.

The winning stopped suddenly

Going from +EV to 0 EV happened suddenly. There’s no other way it could happen. One day, I’m winning, the next I’m not. Of course, it takes time to realize the actual time period it happened, but now, 8 months later, I can say that June 2018 was the first month I was no longer a profitable player.

I’ve always known it was likely to happen someday, though I’ve resisted accepting it. For years, I responded to a bad run with various techniques such as playing less, playing fewer games, studying new material, and getting coaching. I’ve done all that this time and have failed to move the bar back into positive territory. I’m giving up, for now. Poker will become a hobby for me, no longer a guaranteed source of income, because unlike many players, I refuse to go broke and that step from 0 EV to negative EV is likely to happen just as suddenly.

My game plan for my poker career

These 8 months were stressful, and I have no intention to watch my retirement account bleed to zero. It’s time to get a job. My next hand of poker will be when I have guaranteed income again. Some of the most successful and stress-free poker I played was when I was part-time employed at the Mirage casino. Hopefully, you can come by and visit me again there soon.

I may write more on this in the following weeks. There is certainly a lot to this story, of how I battled to win, battled my emotions and fears, and why I believe it happened in the first place.

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