Why you are not Jason Mercier

Why you are not Jason Mercier

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

What is it that separates the best players in the world from the rest of us? You may be inclined to answer that it is their technical knowledge of the game and their fundamental skill sets that are practiced and honed over time to near perfection.

It might be their hand-reading abilities, their mathematical knowledge or their sense of table dynamics and ability to “level” their opponents. Of course, players like Jason Mercier, Patrik Antonius and Phil Ivey all possess these qualities, but there is something more important: They don’t break their mice and keyboards when they get two-outered on the river.

Poker is, naturally, a frustrating game. There is no other competitive game or sport where the best players can lose almost as often as they win. You can play to utter perfection for hours, days or even weeks and still show a depressingly negative graph at the end of thousands of hands. It’s somewhat natural that this will, as scientists say, get on your tits.

Accepting and understanding this is almost as key to your game and success as knowing which hands to fold in early position and when it is profitable to continuation bet. This is the difference between the best of the best and the rest (sorry for the excessive rhyming): emotional reactions to luck have no place in poker.

Watch Jason Mercier, a man who wins tournaments with the same frequency that I smoke cigarettes, next time he’s on a televised poker broadcast. When he is outdrawn in a pot, no matter how unlikely the loss of the hand when the money goes in, he never reacts badly. Conversely, when he himself spikes a king on the turn to crack aces for a big pot, you never see him jumping around and whooping like a madman. He is cool, calm and collected because he knows that he can’t control which hands he wins or loses with.

This is because he understands that sometimes you lose. In fact, more than that, sometimes you have to lose. Ever played against someone who is so unbelievably bad you want to point them in the direction of the roulette tables because you think they’ll have a better chance there? They’re only playing because they have won before, because it is possible for them to beat Phil Ivey heads-up. That’s the beauty of poker.

Of course, it’s difficult not to feel that an injustice has been done when your aces get cracked or when your opponent hits a miracle card. When you’re dealt a big pair or flop a monster, you are already mentally counting the chips. This can cost money when the worst turn card in the world comes and you can’t let go of a hand that, in your mind, has won the pot already. I’ll let a much wiser man than me, Phil Galfond, explain how to avoid this with this great piece of advice:

“Every action your opponent takes, every flop, turn and river card, is just another opportunity for you to make the best decision.”
Of course, losing can cost you more than just the chips in that pot when you go on tilt and begin to play badly. Keeping a clear head and being able to ride out your losses is crucial to long-term success at poker. Here are a few things that could send you over the edge:

Being outdrawn: You’re bet into and raise with your nut straight and can’t call quickly enough when your opponent 3-bet shoves. He turns over nothing but a flush draw but, just like that, a third spade on the turn ships the pot to him.

Top of the range: Your opponent moves all-in on the river and you have narrowed his range down to either a pure bluff or a backdoor straight. Given his aggression you call with a weak pair and his straight sends him the pot.

A mistake: You screw up. Whether it’s by misreading the situation or an error in your fundamentals, this shouldn’t tilt you but you should certainly be annoyed with yourself.

When these, or similar events, happen to you at the table, then you may find yourself on tilt and not playing your best. Why? This varies from person to person, but it boils down to a couple of things: we don’t like losing money and we’re bad with numbers.

The human brain is a remarkable thing, but it’s very bad at probability. This makes sense, since pot odds and ICM are new things to us and even the science of probability itself didn’t help our evolving brains escape sabre-toothed tigers. In studies, scientists found that people were willing to pay $20 to avoid a 99% chance of an electric shock, though they were also willing to pay $7 to avoid a 1% chance of that same shock. Likewise, the majority of people would not accept a 2:1 coin-flip for half their net worth.

How does this relate to poker and tilt? The convoluted point I’m trying to make is that people simply don’t get variance or the way poker works. I’ve seen and heard a lot of people complaining about their “bad beats” when they lose with A-K to 7-6 but guess what? The seven-high has 42% equity against A-K. That’s a significant number.

Similarly, picture four tennis balls. Great, easy. Now picture 18,497 tennis balls. You can’t. You can’t even begin to think what kind of space that would take up. Neither can I, nor can anyone, except Dustin Hoffman. Our brains can’t work with probability or large numbers, so when it comes to variance and reaching the long-term in poker, we’re lost.

We just know that we should be winning all the time. But we can’t. If we did, there would be no bad players competing at the felt. So, how can you be more like Jason Mercier? Like any form of training you have to repeat the process until you are good at it, playing as much as you can until you’ve seen it all. When you make a mistake or get your big pair cracked or get outdrawn, take a deep breath and count to ten and just remember that you are playing for the long term. Eventually, you’ll reach a point where it doesn’t faze you. Then you can be Jason.

Tags: Matt Perry, Jason Mercier, Patrik Antonius, Phil Ivey