Why Do So Many Poker Pros Die Broke? Part Two

By Alan N. Schoonmaker, Ph.D

Part One said that arrogance was the primary cause, and it discussed six serious mistakes that were partly caused by arrogance:

  1. They don’t save money.
  2. They invest poorly.
  3. They play other games.
  4. They cheat on their taxes.
  5. They don’t buy health insurance.
  6. They don’t protect their health.

This article will discuss three more mistakes and recommend the first step toward correcting all nine.

They Deny Reality About Aging

Every sensible person knows that mental abilities decline with age. Sadly, some older pros ignore that painful fact. I’d like to ignore it, but it’s too obvious.

Two abilities that severely deteriorate are critically important in poker:

  • Short-term memory
  • Thinking speed.

Poker is a very “now” game. When the action is to you, you have only a few seconds to make a decision. If you can’t quickly remember what the other players have done, read their cards, predict how they will react to your decisions, and adjust your play, you can’t beat anybody except extremely weak players. Unfortunately, only tiny games have many extremely weak players, and you can’t make a living in those games.

Even if an older pro’s play hasn’t deteriorated, his edge has decreased because the games have gotten much tougher. Because of books, websites, computer simulations, and other training tools, many players are better, and the best young players are better than the Hall of Famers.

We can’t objectively compare poker immortals to today’s players, but we can compare athletes. Modern athletes have shattered virtually every record. They run and swim faster, jump higher and longer, and lift heavier weights. Similar progress has been made in poker and other games.

Dan Harrington is an excellent example. He was once a world-class backgammon player. After not playing for several years, he used the new computer tools. He told me, “I was unquestionably a much better player than I had been before, but I was no longer world class. The game had advanced more than I had.”

Poker is advancing just as rapidly. To stay competitive, you must improve even though your mental abilities are declining. But you won’t work hard on your game unless you accept that fact.

They Don’t Adapt Well to Changes

The good players’ mantra is, “It depends on the situation.” Our situation changes constantly. When an older pro’s career began, draw and low ball were popular games. Now they are now rarely spread. Seven card stud and limit hold’em replaced them, and they have nearly disappeared. Today’s favorite game is no-limit hold’em (NLH).

Changing games is difficult, and switching from limit to no-limit requires huge mental and emotional adjustments. Roy Cooke, Card Player’s senior columnist, told me that he switched easily from limit stud to limit hold’em, but had a tough time switching to NLH. Less talented pros or ones who aren’t as hard-working and self-critical would have tougher times, and many couldn’t make that switch.

Many games have become much more aggressive. Until recently a four-bet almost always meant that a player had aces or kings. Today some players – especially “young guns” – will four-bet and five-bet with much weaker hands. Adjusting to these games can be extremely difficult.

Adjusting to changes is particularly hard for older people. They become less flexible and don’t learn as quickly. A folk saying summarizes their inability to learn: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

Adjusting to aggressive NLH games is particularly hard for older people. They are generally more risk-averse than younger ones. Today’s games create bigger swings and risks, and require a much more aggressive strategy. Many older pros can’t make that switch.

They Play Above Their Bankrolls

Many authorities have recommended playing within conservative bankroll limits, and arrogance makes some pros ignore those limits. They think, “Perhaps other pros should accept those recommendations, but I am so talented that they don’t apply to me.”

This arrogance is particularly destructive for older pros. The minimum bankroll required is determined by the stakes, their edge, and other factors. As their skill deteriorates, their edge gets smaller, creating a need for a larger bankroll. Too many pros absolutely refuse to accept that obvious fact. They play in games that are much too big for their bankrolls.

My friend, Robyn Salisbury, emailed me that the old bankroll limits don’t fit today’s more aggressive games. Because the swings are so much larger, you need a much larger bankroll than you did just a few years ago.

Jan Siroky, a respected tournament coach, said this principle applies even more to tournaments than to cash games. If a player gets lucky, he can win a huge prize. Some players don’t realize that one big win doesn’t mean they have the bankroll or skills to play much larger tournaments. They may quickly lose that large prize by playing in tournaments that are too big and too tough for them. They may not learn from that loss, keep playing in the wrong tournaments, and lose their entire bankroll.

What  Should You Do?

My next blog will contain specific recommendations, including obvious ones such as save money and play within your bankroll. But the mere fact that they are obvious doesn’t mean you’ll take those steps. You’re unlikely to protect your future unless you take the essential first step: Critically analyze yourself.

Although I’ve repeatedly referred to older pros, most of my points apply to all pros, including very young ones. For example, the time to start saving money for your retirement is now. If you save money every month, you’ll have the funds you need to live comfortably when you can’t play as well as you do now.

The time to improve your skills is also now. If you don’t use the new training tools, your edge and bankroll will slowly disappear.

Arrogance is everywhere. You have it. So do I. And we can’t afford it. If we aren’t honest about our limitations, we will greatly increase the danger of dying broke.

These two blogs discussed nine reasons that so many pros die broke. Read and think about all nine and ask yourself, “Do I make that mistake?”

Almost everyone, including you and me, make them too often. It’s more fun to spend money than to save it, to play poker than to work on our skills.

Answer these questions honestly. Think carefully about your future. You certainly don’t want to end up broke, and you should recognize that it can happen to you. What should you do now to ensure that you can always live comfortably?

Ask someone you trust to comment on your answers. Tell them, “Please don’t worry about hurting my feelings. I need honest feedback. Tell me what you really think.”

Listen carefully to their comments. You may be very surprised. The more surprised you are, the more you needed that feedback. It may offend you, but – if you accept it and react intelligently – it can make the difference between dying broke and living comfortably.

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