“Being a professional means doing your job on the days you don’t feel like doing it.” – David Halberstam
When I was re-starting my bankroll earlier this year I happened to stumble upon a friend I hadn’t talked to for a while at the tables. We caught back up and have been trading support and advice over the last six months or so. Anyway, one piece of advice he gave me that’s stuck with me is “Play when you feel like it,” which is both contrary to the above quote and to generally accepted wisdom about work ethic.
But it’s true. Poker requires constant mental engagement and interest. If you don’t feel like being there, you’re not going to play well. Poker isn’t like an office job, where your skills may be underused for significant periods of time, and merely showing up is a large part of the battle. You can’t play it with 50% of your brainpower. And it isn’t a creative medium like standup comedy or being a musician or writing fiction, where as the adage goes you have to write ten really terrible novels before you can write a good one, or something like that. (I don’t think that’s even close to the original adage, but it gets my point across.) Where you can afford to put out a bunch of crappy output in the quest of getting at your best material, because that crappy output will never see the light of day. Where constantly working to produce material, whenever you can, is often good, because a session spent working on your craft is never wasted as long as you produce anything of use and you get better. (Leave your workings a mystery. Just show people the results.)
Poker doesn’t work that way. If you play a thousand hands and play five of them really well, it doesn’t make up for the money you lost misplaying the other 995. You have to play every hand the best you can, and even the best among us just hope we make the right decisions more often than not and enough to win consistently.
Now, it is true that part of being a professional poker player isn’t just playing hands, but reviewing them and discussing strategy. Even on the days you don’t feel like playing, you can do something to work on your game. Review your hands to see if you like your play. Talk strategy with people or ask questions of them. Hell, even follow along some other games that are going on and try to figure out what people are doing and why. The important thing is to stay mentally engaged, to be thinking about the game critically, to be honestly evaluating your play.
I write all this because I don’t feel like playing and I wish I did. I guess I’m not at 100% full health yet, because I don’t feel confident I could come out and play winning poker right away. When I play more often, I gain my confidence back, but it’s hard to talk myself into it when I’ve hit a losing streak. (My confidence can be rattled pretty easily, especially the further and further I get from the days when five-figure months were common.) When I am healthy, it’s no problem– I don’t feel like playing every day, and I certainly don’t come close to forty hours a week at the table or anything like that– but I usually feel positive, optimistic, and confident in my play, and poker is a game where those psychological factors do matter– even with the role luck plays in the game, your mental attitude is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If I write about this topic a lot, it’s because it’s on my mind a lot: My two biggest leaks as a poker player are lack of volume and a mental/emotional state that is far too easily rattled by chance. I think just being well and healthy again will go a long way to getting me back on the horse, and at least some of the way to having a healthier mental outlook. The rest remains to be seen.