Wide Eyes – Lessons from Busting

The flop just came out, without looking at it I’m watching the small blind put out a bet that is roughly 1/2 of the pot. I now will say various things to myself like, “…of course he has to continuation bet the flop after 3 betting me pre-flop; he knows I’m stealing and so he has to represent.” I, of course, just made bottom pair, with a live over, and he is never going to see this coming. I cannot wait to get money in middle…

But wait…aren’t there other factors to consider? Yes, a lot of them. To be fair it is valid to question our very existence each time a new card comes off the deck in terms of changing timelines and alternate realities, but let’s keep this simple: Playing out of position, playing from behind, and calling 3-bets light are a part of many of our playbooks.

I also think that it is fair to say that when any of us, who attempt to play this game on a higher level, are actually on our game – we can be tough to beat. The piece of advice that I hear the most from my greatest poker influence and mentor is, “Be yourself,” or “just be you.” His confidence in me is derived from seeing me play where I am completely in tune with my surroundings and in those moments I am trying to win every hand regardless of whether or not I drag the pot. However, I know from experience that all too often I can also be my own worst enemy.

The opening hand example should have been a prelude to me ruining another competitor with bottom pair, tilting them, and getting the rest of the table excited to play against me and my “poor pre-flop decisions.” What happened was that I got it in really bad against top and second set, and I was so disconnected that I actually was surprised to see their holdings. On the way home (<-drive of shame) I kept asking myself how I could have possibly made such a bad read – still oblivious to the fact that in that moment I had much bigger problems than my reading skills.

Poker is not something that one can necessarily warm up for. The moment one sits down, tournament or cash, it begins. It would make sense then that one has to already be prepared, in tune, and ready before the first hand comes. As I painfully replayed the hand in my head and recounted it for friends (much to their amusement), a truth slowly emerged: I was never mentally ready to play on that day, let alone think that I was coherent enough to get “creative.” I was distracted before I got there, I was having a hard time focusing, and I was having confidence problems related to a couple of strong players at my table. Instead of recognizing my weaknesses in the moment, I moved forward with a scenario that I am familiar with.

Let’s take a closer look:

(Tournament – Blinds 150/300 with antes at 50) Action folds to me in the cutoff, I’m probably raising so I look down to see what I will be raising with and see Q2 spades. Wow, better than I thought. I put in a standard 2 ½-ish X to $725, the Button insta-calls (no surprise), the Small Blind pauses and makes it 2,150-ish. I know the button is going to call and I insta-call. I’m dreaming of a low flop and it comes 9h 10h 2d. I haven’t looked yet and the Small Blind leads out for just over 3K. I look at the flop seeing that I made bottom pair and ship knowing that I am a huge favorite over AQ and I am beating AK. Button insta-ships (I start getting queasy) Small blind insta-calls (I can feel my food coming up) and the button snaps a tendon attempting to turn his hand over faster than his body will allow. The button shows 9 9 and the small blind shows 10 10. For the first time in a long time, I am embarrassed to show my hand.

For many years I rode BMX at a high level, I ski jumped competitively, and I rode moto-cross. Something that I learned from those sports was a technique that I referred to as “wide eyes.” It really just means looking at everything, even if focused on one thing. In regards to those sports, focusing too narrowly can actually lead to problems like disorientation. Not a great situation when flying through the air.

It is actually a concept that I had attempted to apply to my poker game years ago. It doesn’t just help me in the moment, it helps me prepare. I used to wait for my turn at the top of ski jumps and continue to open my eyes as wide as I could until I felt that I had a full perspective on what I was about to do. In a way, it helps me find that special place where I am in the moment, aware of my timeline, focused, but also looking ahead to where I am going.

None of this was present at the onset of this hand. To be honest, none of this was present before I started playing. I had not taken any time prior to the start of the tournament to honestly assess how I was feeling or thinking. I was there, but essentially I was trying to imitate another version of myself.

It’s easy to point out my mistakes in this hand. Even so I could have won the hand by folding pre-flop to the 3-bet. Instead, I used all of the familiar markings of the hand to sell myself the dream of dragging a massive pot while exploding brains around me. I had lied to myself and then while still believing the lie; I became surprised at how far off I really was.

My point is this: Poker is hard. (<-Obvious) I recently watched a guy on America’s Got Talent ride a unicycle on a tightrope, covered in gasoline, while juggling flaming bowling pins. What a great metaphor for poker. How many times do you suppose he fell down just learning to ride a unicycle? How many times do you suppose he dropped bowling pins just learning to juggle? How much pain did this man endure until he could ride a unicycle on a tightrope while juggling flaming bowling pins? Did he ever set himself on fire?

I think better questions are: Did he ever take a day off when he knew that he was not mentally ready? Was he still a productive part of the circus while preserving his body or even his life? Did he have a process before attempting hazardous stunts that allowed him to be in a better state of mind? Was he honest about his self-assessment? Did he have a pregame ritual?

I am going to have to make honest evaluations about myself before sitting down to play, and continue to do so while I play. I also know that if I cannot find my “wide eyes” I will have to make adjustments and act accordingly. I fully accept the carnival side of my poker game, but in moving forward, I must learn to keep the unicycle on the tightrope.