We poker players are a smart bunch. Sometimes too smart.
The problem is that our egos don't like to admit it when we're not playing our best. So when we lose, whether in a tournament or a cash game, we like to blame the circumstances surrounding our defeat rather than our play itself.
In other words, rather than consider what we might have done we differently, we busy ourselves with finding excuses for losing. These excuses help us save face, but hurt us in the long run.
I'd like to walk you through some of those excuses so you'll recognize them and then discard them from your own poker game.
"I was way down"
This is a frequent tournament excuse for playing poorly, but it is flexible enough to apply to a cash game as well. It implies that you might as well have given up because your defeat was inevitable given how badly you had done up until that point.
Such an excuse provides the loser with some credit for being astute enough to recognize his terminal situation, much like a top-level chess player who resigns rather than waste time finishing a game that he is surely going to lose.
But in poker, there is no such thing as an inevitable loss. And while tournament strategy must be different with a short stack than with a large stack, there are many examples of someone coming back to win after being close to the felt. The expression "a chip and a chair" embraces just that possibility.
"I was way up"
More a cash game excuse than a tournament one, this one gets you off the hook for inattention when you've won a lot. It has the added benefit of highlighting the fact that you were good enough to have been significantly ahead of the game — at least for a while — while also offering you an excuse for playing less than your "A-game" thereafter.
Those who make this excuse for poor play fail to recognize the fact that long term poker results — whether you're up, down or even at any given moment — are determined by the quality of your overall play. Being up shouldn't be used as a reason to let the level of your game go down.
"It was late (and I was tired)"
Ah, the difficult lifestyle of the serious poker player. Ironic isn't it? You can't always play your best because you have no choice but to play into the wee hours in order to take advantage of those pathetic gamblers who chase their losses and don't have the discipline to leave the table when they are too weary to play their best game.
Of course, you could have walked away before the session got too long for you to think straight. But you didn't because... well... maybe because you were afflicted with the very problem you thought you'd exploit in others!
"It was an awful game"
That's the problem — it was them, not you! The game was full of a bunch of rocks, or grinders, or wildly aggressive online wizards who couldn't be figured out. How could you or anyone else be expected to win money in that game?
This excuse has the advantage of patting yourself on the back for your ability to size up your opponents, including in some cases recognizing their truly inferior quality. But it also raises two questions.
How come a great player like you didn't use your superior skills to exploit the weaknesses of these bad players, no matter how tight or wild they might have been? Also, if you were playing cash, why didn't you use your superior game selection skills to move to a more profitable game?
"It was a great game"
You're familiar with this one aren't you? This may be the grinder's preferred excuse for staying too long and losing big. The game itself was great, you just hadn't been doing well in it, and your results were bound to turn around as soon as you caught some cards. How could you leave?
What you failed to realize was that one of the reasons it was such a great game could have been that you were in it, and you were playing badly. The truth is that while in theory it may make sense to stay in a game where you've been losing big for a long time, in practice it's often hard to maintain your ability to size up a game accurately when you're getting your brains beaten in.
"I was bored"
The game was too easy, full of too many bad players, to keep you focused. Or the stakes were too low for you to pay attention properly and play your best.
This excuse again has the added value of praising yourself for being so much better than your opponents. That said, it begs the question of why a superior player like you couldn't stay locked in enough to at least pull out a win — but being a great player, you already knew that, didn't you?
"I was drinking"
This is always a good all-around excuse that applies equally well to a cash game as a tournament. It wasn't you, possessor of many poker skills — it was that demon rum that ruined your game!
One of those poker-related skills of yours that would have been useful would have been the discipline and self-control to diminish your skill-wrecking drinking — to decline the drink much as you toss away a bad starting hand. But since you were drinking, well, you couldn't access that skill... and so it goes.
"There's a more profitable game I wanted to play"
This is usually reserved for tournaments, when you explain your elimination not as the product of subpar play but as the intentional result of seeking a more profitable poker game elsewhere.
It is one of the best excuses because even as it provides a good cover story for losing the tournament it gives you credit for recognizing a good situation when you see it. It further offers the prospect of winning elsewhere, though in a way that conveniently can't be verified (see below).
"I was actually winning"
When all else fails some who are losing find it helpful to be able to resort to pure denial. Just lie about your results to others (and perhaps yourself) and all will be well.
I hear this from tournament losers all the time. They can't lie about their tournament results, since the results are often publicized. But they can hide behind misrepresentations of their cash game results that no one can track. An oft-heard refrain around big tournaments is "Well, I didn't cash in the tournaments I entered, but I came out ahead thanks to the juicy cash games."
There are plenty of excuses for losing. They work well to give players a way to feel good about themselves while not dealing with deficiencies in their game. But they are ultimately self-defeating, preventing you from honest self-assessment and from making the improvements to your game you'll need to win.
So lose the excuses, and instead start focusing on fixing the holes in your game.
Ashley Adams has been playing poker for 50 years and writing about it since 2000. He is the author of hundreds of articles and two books, Winning 7-Card Stud (Kensington 2003) and Winning No-Limit Hold'em (Lighthouse 2012). He is also the host of poker radio show House of Cards. See www.houseofcardsradio.com for broadcast times, stations, and podcasts.