Does a poker player need to go broke once in their career?

I was watching our good friends from The Chip Race this week discuss an idea I had not heard in a long time but was commonplace when I first got into poker. That was the suggestion that in order to do well in poker, you have to go broke a few times along the way.

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This was very much an ‘Old School’ mentality but there is a sort of twisted logic to it. Perhaps, for example, the suggestion is that in order to climb the ranks in the game you have to test yourself in bigger games, outside of your comfort zone. Over the years I have heard plenty of big names like Daniel Negreanu and Phil Hellmuth say they would play with their entire roll on the table in the early days.

There is no doubt that many of the big names today who shot to fame during the poker boom were in the right place, right time, after taking a shot at a bigger game. Just look at the WSOP Main Event, where the amount of people who can play that event while observing correct bankroll management rules you could barely fit into a SUV.

While it may be true that some people got where they are with calculated (or not so calculated) shots at bigger games, the reality is that it has been the downfall of so many more. The game is littered with talented players who could have made a good living if they were just able to drop down in stakes when the circumstances deemed it necessary. Celebrating the players who survived shot taking in reality is the exception that proves the rule of bankroll management.

Learning to respect money?

Thinking going broke is inevitable is an old school mentality

There is another plausible argument that it is necessary to go broke a couple of times so you respect money. Or indeed it gives you the resilience you need to overcome future adversity. Basically going broke is a learning experience a player needs to avoid it happening again in the future.

I think the flaw in this argument is the suggestion that poker players do not respect money. It is true that being good at the game requires a certain detachment from money if we are to make good bluffs and long term winning plays, but most sensible people still fear going broke. Even if we are detached from the money itself, most people do not like losing in and of itself. Poker is a game where the best players still lose more often than most, they don’t need to create a major losing event to know they don’t like it.

My good friend and mental game coach Jared Tendler calls this fallacy ‘waiting for a crisis’ and has worked with a lot of players who need a big loss to motivate them to work harder. While it is true some players need the stick, not the carrot, they also come to Jared because they realise this is not a healthy way to motivate themselves.

Are you able to drop down and rebuild?

It is possible to take shots without risk of ruin

The idea that a good player needs to go broke a few times to earn their stripes is exclusively the domain of old school players perhaps from the live arena. Old school live players did not have the luxury of dropping down in stakes often because, unlike online, the lowest they could go was the smallest game a casino would spread. It created an inevitability most people would play outside of bankroll management rules.

All of this doesn’t mean poker players should never take calculated shots outside of their bankroll. You can still do such a thing without risk of ruin. If you make $2,000 a month playing poker and take one shot a month at a $215 Sunday Million level event, you can never go broke even though it is outside of your bankroll. If you can easily get staked that also means you can be a little more ‘old school’ with your bankroll.

But going completely broke in poker, if you are a serious player, means you were ignoring bankroll management rules. It is not something to aspire to, losing your entire bankroll is a sign of a flawed poker player and something you should work very hard to fix.

Does a poker player have to know what it’s like to go broke to be a better player? Let us know in the comments:

Barry Carter

Barry Carter

Barry Carter is the editor of and the co-author of The Mental Game of Poker 1 & 2, Poker Satellite Strategy and PKO Poker Strategy

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