Poker and diminishing returns

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while, but every time I start to write it I suddenly have an upswing and I chicken out. (Un)Fortunately, I’m on a post-downswing hiatus, so I have a few days to get this right. Here’s the basic idea:

The more poker I play, the more I need to take a break, regardless of how well I’m playing.

Every time I play poker, I make several investments–money, time, attention, etc. Each player only has so much of each commodity to give. I sort of envision a poker player as a combination of all these things (and others), much like racing games where the player can choose a car based on its aggregate of several different attributes–acceleration, top speed, handling, etc. I think everyone knows that if a player is in a cash game and is playing a long session, then the longer he plays past a certain point, the poorer his performance. For some players, their performance worsens after only a few hours, while other players can play their best game for many, many hours and sometimes days.

I saw a fantastic example of this on a recent episode of High Stakes Poker on GSN. Mike Matusow had been playing for several hours and was obviously becoming very fatigued. He told the table that he could feel his play slipping and he knew it was time to quit. What did the table do? They offered him $4000 to continue playing. Mike accepted the bribe (or investment, depending on one’s perspective) and proceeded to dump about $100K, most of it to Phil Laak. Mike is a very good poker player, but he ended up stuck because he continued to invest time and money when his attention had run out.

Each player has a limit to what he can invest before his results stop reflecting his actual poker ability. A good example of this would be multi-tabling cash games online. For a long time, I was 4-tabling low-limit hold ’em games. I was earning just shy of 3BB/100 hands with a sample size of something like 12,000 hands. This is considered pretty good and I figured if I could make 3BB/100 4-tabling, why not bump it to 5 tables and make more money in less time? As it turns out, I’m simply awful if I try to 5-table. I felt rushed, stressed and generally overwhelmed. My results were terrible and I quickly dropped back to 4-tabling where I went back to showing a nice profit. Some players play 8 to 12 tables simultaneously and they show a huge hourly profit. Even for those players, their BB/100 numbers take a hit as they play more tables.

I find that I typically lose the most after I’ve won a lot. A couple weeks ago, I went on a 10-day run where I cashed in 9 of 20 tournaments and made 6 final tables and had a 267% ROI (all of these tournaments had between 180 and 2,000 entrants and cost between $4 and $55). Since then, I’ve played 11 tournaments with 0 cashes and a -100% ROI. I’ve had two near cashes, but generally haven’t even been close. I was tempted to chalk this up to normal variance, but I know that’s not the problem. The problem is that I have gotten bored and I’m having trouble focusing. I’ve invested too much time and my attention span is slipping. I’ve been opening too many pots, playing marginal hands, discounting positional disadvantages and generally getting out of line. I’ve realized that I play very good tournament poker with a big stack and I’m starting to gamble too much as I try to acquire that stack early. Subsequently, my tournament results have suffered and I’ve donked off about 15% of my winnings from my 10-day streak.

So, what’s the point? The point is that, as with other forms of gambling and investing, poker is affected by the Law of Diminishing Returns. I have a very subtle leak in my game–I’m not taking time off when I start to get bored. As I look back over my records, I can see clumps of black where I had a series of nice wins; but after most of those black clumps, there is an extended red clump where I dump off my winnings through poor play. This leak has cost me several hundred dollars and will continue costing me money until I correct it. That’s why I haven’t played in a couple days and I don’t plan on playing again until a live tournament on Friday night. I need a break to allow myself to focus and play my best game.