Couple of things before I get into this post… I’ve finally gotten my blog rehosted and up and running. There should be no problems from here on out. I should warn you, I’ve been sleeping very poorly, and I’m currently failing at trying to fall asleep. If this post is a bit rambly and weird… no complaining… you’ve been warned.
I wrote this without thinking or editing much. As I said when I started this new blog, I want to share a little more of the real me. So far the feedback I’ve gotten has been in tune with that… you guys said you liked seeing how I handle my downswings, how I think through things. I’ve been continuing to deal with the current downswing, and I wanted to share a bit more about it. I’ll continue to try my best to be open and honest. For anyone out there who still views me as invincible or a poker superhero, I hope I don’t completely shatter your image of me.
I feel like half of the advice I’ve ever given, regardless of the topic, could be summed up in one simple word:
“Advice” Just kidding… “Balance”
In high level poker, being well balanced is something I stress tremendously, and something I think about constantly while playing. Anyone who’s read any articles or watched any videos of mine probably gets annoyed by how much I stress it. Sometimes I even add it when it’s unnecessary: “I think the best play here is to check-raise… obviously I’ll have to balance with check-raising some of my weaker hands, and of course I won’t ALWAYS check-raise this hand… maybe 80% of the time.” PHIL, just say “I’d check-raise.”
I can’t help it. It’s kind of an OCD type thing in poker for me, where I feel if I don’t state the disclaimers that I’d be giving incorrect advice, or be advocating a flawed strategy. And if I were to ever employ a strategy that is drastically unbalanced, I don’t know what I fear would happen. My face would fall off or something. I just can’t bring myself to do it.
Anyways, what I was thinking about today was another kind of balance that I’ve always advocated to poker players: Balance in life.
Ever since I started playing poker, I’ve had plenty of poker playing friends. However, the friends that I spend most of my down time with were always non poker players. This was something that was extremely soothing (can’t find a better word to describe it) for me, especially during my early-ish years where I was grinding day in and day out. After I dropped out of college, I stayed in Madison, WI for a while. I loved it there, and I loved my friends there. I would go from a 60 hour week at my computer to hanging out at a bar with eight people who knew absolutely nothing about poker, and barely knew anything about the details of my career in poker. I’d play for 14 hours and then wind down by watching a couple hours of TV with my roommate, who, again, had a relationship with me built entirely on non-poker life.
Even though I’d stopped school (which had been helpful for balance), I had my friends, I was in an improv company that performed and practiced weekly… it was as if I was leading two lives, in a way: Phil-the-poker-player and Phil-the-regular-person. This was very very helpful for me. I needed an escape from poker. I truly believe it’s absolutely necessary in order to live a healthy and happy life.
From Madison, WI, I moved to New York, NY. I moved their with a friend of mine, and following a handful of our other friends who had moved there in the previous 1-2 years. I built (not literally) a home that I loved, I played some flag football, formed new relationships while maintaining my current ones, and achieved a balance similar to the one I had in Madison. I was happy again. Or happy still. Whatever.
Fast forward to 2011. Boo. 2011 sucked. I was already having a bad year, and then Black Friday turned my world upside down.
My life is not at all the same. I don’t feel as though I have a home anymore. I spend some time in Vegas, some time in Vancouver, a tiny bit in New York, and some more in Maryland. I sleep in four different beds. I don’t feel as though I can focus and build a life and routine anywhere. The only city of those that I have a solid core of non poker friends is New York, where I’ve spent the least amount of time.
So, I rarely hang out with friends anymore, other than a few poker friends. Don’t get me wrong, I have some poker friends who I absolutely love and love spending time with… It’s just not an escape from poker. I don’t have any regular activities going on, as I don’t know how worthwhile it is to start doing something ‘regularly’ when I’ll be in a different city soon.
My daily routine usually consists of waking up whenever I stop sleeping, playing poker, eating while playing poker, waiting for games to run, playing poker, and trying to fall asleep while I watch TV. I’ve lost my balance.
For the first few months, this was fine. I missed online poker badly, and I was so excited to be playing. I was crushing, studying my game, working hard and putting in a ton of hours. And I was having fun doing all of that. All seemed great.
Things have changed since then. First of all, it’s been a while, and the reality is setting in that this is not a business trip… it’s my new life. I don’t know if and when I’ll move back full time to one city, or what city that would even be. I have left behind many of my best friends in the world, who mean much more to me than anything poker can give me, for who knows how long. I no longer miss online poker, as I’ve now played more hands in six months than in any of the last five years.
And now, what’s worse is: I’m losing.
See, normally, I have a lot of things going on in my life… a lot of things that make me happy. If poker was going badly, I had my friends, my activities. I truly was leading two lives. Phil-the-poker-player was losing and stressed, but Phil-the-regular-person had a full life outside of poker that even a $1.5m downswing couldn’t put a scratch on.
So now, I’m in Vancouver on a downswing. A somewhat rough one, though no worse than I’ve experienced many times before. But this time, it’s different. I step away from my computer and what do I have?
I can go out with my poker friends. It will be fun, but I won’t stop thinking about poker. We’ll definitely talk about poker. I won’t forget about how much money I just lost, or how much EV I’ll miss out on if I don’t have enough online $ to play in some good bigger games if they run.
I can go for a walk. That helps me sometimes. It’s a nice escape, for maybe an hour. Now I’m back home. I can go watch TV? I can take a nap? I can look at the Pokerstars lobby and watch other people play poker. I can talk to friends on AIM (mostly poker friends) while watching other people play poker. I can write a blog post for other poker players to read.
I think that just about does it for my options. Sound depressing? It feels depressing, but like… I know I’m not supposed to be depressed.
The reality is, my life is great. I would be an idiot to think anything different. If the above sounds like complaining, well, it kind of is, but I know that I have it good. Better than good. I think I chose to write about this now because I know it will help me. I know that when talking to you guys, I have to admit to myself that I have a very good life. I’m forced to accept that fact. I’m forced to stop feeling sorry for myself because I know how many poker players would love to be in my shoes. I have had every advantage in life, and if I am unhappy and remain unhappy, I have no one to blame but myself.
Look, downswings hurt. They’ll always hurt. Losing is painful, and losing money is stressful.
But the truth is, as long as I keep my level of play up, put in some reasonable hours, and stay responsible, I should never be under any “real world” financial stress. I really should treat poker like a video game. The money shouldn’t matter outside of the game. Sure, I’m competitive and passionate about this game, and I want to win badly. I will of course feel bad when I lose. But once I shut down the game, turn off my computer, and leave my office, I’m back to my regular life. The game is left behind until I play it tomorrow, or whenever it is that I start again.
My regular life should be awesome. I have the freedom to work when I want, and my job is playing a game that I love. I have great friends, my health, an amazing family. So why doesn’t it feel that way now?
Obviously it’s my lack of balance. I need my friends and my real life to remind myself that there is a Phil-the-regular-person. I need to be reminded that there is more to life than how much money I won or lost today, or how much confidence I have in my game, or how much EV I’m missing out on by not playing tonight. I need to remember that it’s just a game.
When Waluigi wins a race in Mario Kart, he feels amazing. When he loses, he’s miserable. That’s all he has. When you turn off your Wii and to out to dinner, he’s still in there racing.
For the last eight months, I’ve been living my life stuck inside a game. When I lose, it hurts badly, because it’s all I have now. Some days I win, some days I lose, but it has to be either one or the other. There are no alternate outcomes for me each day. I am either playing poker, or doing other things in order to play poker… I need to grab something for lunch and dinner so I can play all day. I need to fall asleep soon so I can wake up for games tomorrow. I need to go for a walk to clear my head so I’ll play well.
What I really need to do is leave the game and walk away into my real life, but I don’t have a real life to walk away into anymore.
Over the last few months, I’ve actually tilted to the point of clearly playing worse on more than a couple of occasions. That’s something that never has happened to me in my first full seven years as a poker player. That should have been my first clear warning sign that something was very wrong.
At least now I know what the problem is. That’s the first step, right? Next, I’ll have to figure out what I’m going to do about it. Easier said than done.
My current plan: Post this blog. Sleep. Figure it out later.
Thanks for listening, guys. Sorry if this was ridiculous. At the very least, hopefully you can take this as a warning to not fall into the trap that I managed to avoid for seven years before falling into now. Balance is important, and I believe that nothing is more important in your life than your relationships with other people, and your day to day happiness. I’d even go so far as to say that those are very important parts of your poker game as well.
Take care and good luck.