If you find yourself asking “Why can’t I win at poker?”, you’ve come to the right place. We’re going to give you a quick list of the top reasons people lose when playing poker.
Any expert on winning is also an expert on losing, and we all must make mistakes to learn. But it’s also true that you don’t know what you don’t know. Simply educating yourself on the common reasons poker players lose will help you avoid them and win more.
Here are the top causes of chip loss in poker:
You’re a Victim of Variance
It’s not necessary to understand the mathematical definition of variance to know what it essentially is: bad luck. Variance is the source of all bad beats and suck-outs. It’s the reason you will still lose a good percentage of the time, even when you get your money in good.
The first thing you should do when you start losing is identify whether or not variance is the culprit. Every poker player will go on multiple-buy-in downswings where nothing goes their way. Poker is predominantly a skill game, but luck still determines a very large percentage of the outcomes. Remember that you are still gambling.
By definition, variance is out of your control. You can only prepare for it and cope with it. Bankroll management is the only way to truly prepare for variance — it ensures that when you inevitably get unlucky, the amount of money you lose does not threaten your ability to play poker in the first place.
It’s important to first identify the role of variance in your losses, because anything outside of bad luck is a leak and needs to be addressed.
You’re on Tilt
Tilt and other mental game leaks are responsible for many, many lost stacks. Put simply, tilt is the condition of making incorrect decisions due to a mental deficiency unrelated to strategy. In other words, it’s letting your emotions get the best of you at the poker table.
It’s human nature to be frustrated by losses, upset with bad plays and mistakes, angered when others hit their two-outer to suck out on us. Your mission is to subvert human nature by taking conscious control over your emotions. Learning emotional numbing (PRO) is probably the best defense against tilt. But there are a whole host of mental game considerations that go hand-in-hand with eliminating tilt, and you’d do well not to ignore them.
Every poker player experiences tilt, especially at the beginning of their careers. Tilt never entirely goes away — it’s never fun to lose a big pot to set-over-set — but with enough work on your mental game, it will recede far enough into the background where it won’t affect your decision-making.
You Don’t Study
Profit in poker comes from your edge over other opponents. Assuming your mental game is solid, if you’re losing at poker, the problem is likely strategic. If you don’t study, you cannot have a strategic edge.
In this day an age, there is so much poker strategy information out there in the form of articles, podcasts and videos that any player from $0.01/$0.02 on up must study the game to win long-term.
This starts with realizing that your opponents are often outplaying you because they’ve out-studied you. If this is happening, you need to spend less time playing and more time studying. How much time? We produced an entire podcast on the subject of optimal study-to-play ratio. But if you’re feeling outmaneuvered and lost, chances are you need to hit the books (or videos). There are too many free study resources not to dive in, and tons of quality study materials to invest in that will generate a great return on investment for your game.
You Don’t Plan or Think Ahead
To win in the long-term requires planning ahead. Studying strategy is a component of this — you will start to learn optimal plays in common spots versus typical players. But poker is full of weird spots versus atypical players. You can’t expect to win without a strategy to handle these common and challenging situations, where stacks are won and lost in a matter of minutes.
One of the best things you can do is to create a poker plan off the table so you can implement it without having to rack your brain (and lose your rack) at the table.
A plan is great, but you also need to think on your feet. We did a podcast on the 5 Questions You Should Ask Before Playing a Hand, which will point you in the right direction. Methodically going through the most important considerations of when and how to play a hand ensure you are thinking ahead. You need to develop your fundamental poker skills and strategies to the point where they are automatic, and your mental energy at the table is dedicated to information gathering and analysis in real-time.
Far too many players simply react to their hole cards, the board, and their opponents’ actions. Don’t react, be proactive.
You’re Limping too Much
We’ve all played in games where lots of players limp. This is especially common in online microstakes and $1/$2 live games, although it gets less common as the years go by and poker knowledge becomes more accessible. Depending on where you play poker, your play group may have already caught on to the dangers of limping.
But for those of you who are still tossing a big blind in the pot hoping for an unraised pot and a cheap flop, or with the intention of calling and fit-or-folding the flop, you need to stop.
It’s not that limping is never profitable, but you absolutely need to understand why you’re doing it, and have a clear plan. Are you limp-calling? Limp-raising? Limp-raise-calling a 4-bet? If these questions are daunting, take a step back and study some more.
The real reason limping costs you money is manifold, but there are two core factors: (1) You will leak money when you fold after missing the flop completely, which happens very often with the marginal hands you’re limping; (2) Limping exposes you to difficult spots where you have a good but not great hand and don’t know where you stand vs. another player who’s being aggressive.
Always limping is not a profitable strategy. Never limping isn’t advised either. But until you understand the strategic implications of limping with a plan, you’d be better off never limping. Always open with a raise (make sure it’s sized correctly) to ensure you get maximum value from the hands you play, and get the initiative of being the initial pre-flop raiser. Later in your poker career you can start to limp more and exploit other players who have learned not to limp.
You’re Paying People Off
This is a short and simple concept that can save you a ton of money: Don’t pay people off.
This concept comes from Ed Miller, who goes over it in detail in part 3 of his ‘The Course’ series (PRO). Put simply: Players in low stakes games who make continuous aggressive actions usually have the best hand, or at least think they do. They are rarely if ever bluffing when they make big and/or continuous bets.
If you peg a player as loose and/or aggressive, you can make an exception to this rule. But far too many beginner poker players make the repeated mistake of calling off stacks with second-best hands. If your opponent is repping a hand that’s better than yours, chances are it’s better than yours.
There is certainly more nuance to not paying people off, but if you understand the basic concept and err on the side of caution, you’ll likely lose far less money in these low-stakes games.
You’re Not Playing Aggressively Enough
“ABC poker” is a term used to describe a playing style in which one only raises and calls premium hands preflop, and generally avoids any spot where there’s a chance they don’t have the best hand. They don’t really bluff or loosen up, and try to avoid getting in stacks unless they’re a massive favorite to win.
Many poker players are enticed to play this style because they will generally not lose much money playing this way. Especially in weaker online microstakes and $1/$2 live games, this style can exploit unstudied players who lack awareness and strategic knowledge. They will pay you off with second-best hands time and time again.
The problem, however, is twofold: (1) These players are increasingly rare because, as we’ve said, there is way too much information out in the world today for most players to be making the mistakes you need them to make to win their money, and; (2) you will never be a big winner playing this style, you can only hope to break even or be a small winner.
The good news is that the fix is simple — ratchet up the aggression. The specifics as to how to do this area a little more complicated, but they’re not rocket science. And when you learn how to apply calculated aggression to ABC players, you will start to see where the real profit in poker comes from.
Lucky for you, we have a podcast all about how to become a more aggressive player, and a great article on tweaking your game to stop breaking even.
If you are applying all of these concepts and still losing, it’s time to put your game under a microscope and get help from other players. One of the best ways to do this is to post any confusing hands you’ve played in a friendly poker forum like ours. Other players will be quick to point out any mistakes in your decision-making so you can get specific tools and concepts to plug your leak and start winning.
The above is the framework that virtually every winning player starts with. As you move up in stakes, things will get considerably more complicated, with multiple levels of thinking battling for supremacy. But if you’re a losing or even break-even player, you could do worse than to focus exclusively on what you’ve read today. It may seem like a simple list, but it will take many hours of study and thousands of hands to truly start to grasp these concepts in a profitable way. Good luck!