Overcoming Fear in Poker

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Member Since: Oct 11th 2010
Posted on Oct 15th 2010  -  Subject: Overcoming Fear in Poker
Author: Bill "Zimba" Seibert
Note: I am excited to start sharing a series of poker related articles I've written with PokerInside members

No one likes to lose.  It’s painful, frustrating and sometimes humiliating.  But it can be argued that the fear of losing is even more powerful.  The fear of losing incapacitates us. In the fear of potential loss, we refrain from taking any risks, no matter how prudent. This is the death knell for a poker player.  Loss is a part of the game.  There is no getting around it.  Even the best players in the world may not win more than 55-60% of the time in cash games and they finish out of the money in most tournaments they will ever play. Understanding the role losing plays is key if a poker player is ever to progress in their game.

Let’s examine several situations in poker where fear prevents us from advancing as players.

Freerolls and Play Chips

The regular freeroll or play chip player is a prime example of players limited by their fear.  There are hundreds of thousands of people who play freerolls and play chip poker at every possible opportunity.  They enjoy the game, its challenge and stimulation.  They seek to do the best they can.  They pride themselves when they accumulate tons of play chips or cash in a freeroll. Ask them if they want to consider taking their game to the real money games and they shrink in fear.  “What do you mean? Lose real money? I could go broke.”  Yes, you could, but you could also transition the foundation you’ve learned from playing so much play chip poker into becoming a micro stakes winner.  Imagine the sense of satisfaction when you invest money and beat your opponents for a monetary gain?

Freeroll and play chip players are seeking to avoid any sense of financial loss.  They want to remain in a comfort zone of having no financial ramifications for their decisions. Their fear of potential loss paralyzes them from building off their foundation and experience from so many hours invested in playing free poker to becoming real money players. Numerous players, if they let go of that fear of potential loss, could transition into solid long term winning players.

I was inspired by a recent interview with Poker prodigy Jonathan “xMONSTERxDONGx” Karamilikis who recently won the PocketFives triple crown award for three significant tournament victories in one week. The young Aussie pro has notched up $554,438 in live tournament wins and $2,310,904 in online cashes over his short but productive career, since 2007.  He stated “I grinded freerolls for a year until I won $3. It took me a few months to work that $3 up to $3,000 on low-stakes Sit & Gos. From there, I raised the stakes and built it up to about $30K.”

So many successful players honed their skill in freerolls before taking the plunge to play for real money. I personally played freerolls and play chips for 6 months before I built up a comfort level to transition to real money play.  I deposited $100 in 2006 and never looked back.  I was able to conquer my fear by always playing stakes that were comfortable to me.  Online poker allows play for as little as .01-.02, so you can always find a level at which it won’t hurt that bad when you do lose.  Another factor that helped me overcome that fear was realizing I had a skill edge over my opponents.  I studied probabilities and equity so that I understood that I could make long term winning decisions that may not pay off in the short term, but always should in the long term.


In tournaments, your chips are your life.  Once they are gone, so are you. There is tremendous fear that permeates players at certain stages of tournaments. For instance, when a player’s chip stacks start to dwindle relative to the increasing blinds, they fear to make a dramatic move that might jeopardize their tournament life.  They keep folding, hoping and waiting for Aces or Kings so they can more assuredly double up. As a result of their inaction and fear, other more aggressive players are stealing their chips.  By the time they finally get a hand or make their move, their chip stack is no longer imposing and some player who has been more aggressive and accumulated a good stack will call them down with a mediocre hand and possibly beat them.

Cash Games

The dynamics of fear play a prominent role in cash games.  On any hand of No Limit Hold’em, you can lose your entire stack.  You may have the best hand and lose to a bad beat, or have the worst hand, lose, and look foolish. You can lose another full stack as soon as you rebuy.  That fear paralyzes players from taking risks or making bold moves.  Some players won’t ever bluff.  Some players will play too tight to avoid ever being behind. Comfort comes from experience, so sometimes you have to simply play and see how you do.  Sometimes you will lose, deservedly.  Sometimes you will win, undeservedly.  It is all part of the game.  You want to have more wins than losses, but it is inevitable that you will have losses. The more familiar you get with the math, probabilities and equities involved in poker, the more comfortable you can become with making the necessary profitable long term plays.

Position and Bluffing

It is human nature to fear the unknown.  It is one of the reasons that position is so important in poker.  When the player with position bets, we fear what possible hand they might have. Bluffing is effective for a similar reason. We fear that they could have a better hand than we do so we fold. Sometimes the reverse scenario can also be true.  We refuse to fold a hand that is likely beat because we are scared to fold the best hand. You are scared of being shown a bluff.  Fear doesn’t prevent our thought process, but rather kills the execution.

Learning to overcome the fear of loss is one of the big obstacles all poker players face.  Poker can be a frustrating game to those who want to control all their circumstances. The reality is you can’t control everything in your life or in poker because it’s affected by the actions of others and the cards that may come. What you can do is develop self-control and insight into what you and your opponents might be doing.  Figure out the source of your fear.  Is it losing money? Looking foolish?  The next step is to take action, preventing the fear from immobilizing you.  Breathe, relax, be in the now and make a decision.  When the decision, in hindsight, was a poor one, look to adjust accordingly.  Gain from the experience of playing to develop confidence in your game and conquer your fear.  Poker is only a game and money won or lost is just that. Manage your game and your fear so that you can play fearless poker.

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