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Exit Strategy

By Barbara Connors

Few things can match the anticipation of sitting down in a new poker game. Every game we enter offers the chance to challenge ourselves, to test out new strategies or fine-tune old ones, and most of all, the possibility of a big win. So much thought and care goes into the start of each new poker session—where to play, when to play, what stakes, how much to buy in for— and yet a decision that is at least as important, when to leave the game, often seems to get made on a whim. Choosing when to exit a cash game can be tricky. Everyone, it seems, has a different opinion, but conventional poker wisdom holds that you should keep on playing as long as the game is good and you’re able to keep playing well. The first criterion, good playing conditions, is easy enough to identify. It’s that second requirement, confidence that you are still playing well, that gets so many players into trouble.

The problem lies in the fact most of us find it difficult to admit when we’re no longer playing our best. Played correctly, poker is a mentally-intensive game that requires focus, a good memory, and keen observational skills. Not to mention intense discipline. The mind of a skilled poker player is a sophisticated, high-performance machine—engaged in a constant loop of making judgments, adjusting to changing conditions and then forming new judgments based on the new information. When everything is working right, it’s sublime. The only trouble with this sophisticated machine is that it cannot run on autopilot. Not if you want to win. So many things can interfere with a poker player’s ability to think clearly. At the top of the list is emotion. In a word, tilt. But tilt can take many different forms and is often quite subtle. The player who is starting to play a little too tight because he’s made a big profit and is afraid to lose it back, the player who bluffs at an opponent who obviously has a real hand because the bluffer has won several pots in a row and feels invincible, and the player who calls with suited trash from early position because he’s frustrated by a seemingly endless line of bad starting hands—all of them are on tilt. All of them should walk away from the table.

The beauty of poker is that it is both simple and complex. That’s why we can play on autopilot and still feel in control. We know the game, we know the rules, so what if we’re a little tired? This kind of self-deception can keep a poker player glued to the table long after his A-game is a distant memory. Aside from tilt, being too tired—or being simply burned out after several nonstop hours of mental gymnastics and on-the-fly calculations—is the number one culprit for poor play towards the end of a poker session. Usually, by the time a glassy-eyed poker player concedes that he is flagging, he has already made several mistakes. Maybe those mistakes weren’t too serious or too costly, this time, but they add up.

Since rat-holing is illegal, one school of thought says you should walk away from a cash game any time your chip stack gets to be too large. By staying, you put that stack— which on a good day can become a significant percentage of your entire poker bankroll—at risk. It’s a decision based on bankroll management and your own comfort level. The trick is to know yourself and make an honest self-assessment of how it would affect you to suffer that loss.

In a similar vein, if you’ve been the victim of a long, brutal losing streak, and booking a win would help your battered confidence recover, it may be worthwhile to go against the conventional wisdom and leave a good game just this once.

Barbara Connors is a sucker for classic old movies, science fiction, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Her life’s ambition is to figure out the unusual behavior patterns of that unique breed of humans who call themselves poker players. Contact her at

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