One of the hardest decisions you’ll make in any given session of cash-game poker isn’t just related to calling a big all-in or how much to bet with the nuts. No, I think perhaps the hardest decision is often when to leave the table. Over the years, I have shown the unfortunate knack of sitting too long at a table trying to get even while having a losing session. Sometimes I also like to leave too early when running well to book a nice profit when I should probably stay and play with the weak players.
There are a couple of mental devices I have begun to use to decide exactly when to quit when I’ve reached the point in a session where I’m considering leaving. You may want to give these a shot yourself.
The Last Profitable Round – The goal here is simple. At the point you are thinking of leaving a table count your stack. If after one more round of hands you are a net winner you stay, if you are down from that original count you leave. For example, if I am sitting on a stack of $256 while under the gun and then post the big blind with the same-sized stack, I will continue to play until it is my blind again. If the next time I am under the gun (meaning I’d post the big blind the next hand) and my stack is $256 or greater I will play at least one more round. If my stack is now less than $256 — even one dollar less — I will stick to my plan and leave the game.
Half the Profits – There are few feelings worse in a poker game than to build up a big win and then lose it all back, sometimes even losing your initial buy-in back or worse. I’ve seen players with monster stacks in front of them not only lost that entire stack, but eventually lose every dollar out of their wallet after they keep buying in to chase after that evaporated win.
When I race out to a big stack I sometimes use this device to ensure I retain some of my profits. If I am playing $1-$2 No-Limit Hold’em and climb to a $400 profit during the session I will sometimes make a mental note to leave if at any time my profit is reduced to $200 for the night. As long as I keep winning I will continue to play until I get tired and decide my mental acuity has dropped to the point I should go. As my profits go up so does the amount I am willing to lose back. If that $400 profit goes up to $900 then I would leave if my profit were reduced on the session to $450. This device prevents me from leaving when the game is good. Instead I will leave after I have suffered some losses and have the potential to go on tilt.
I would caution, though, not to make this a hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes the game is so good you’ve got to go for it. I was playing in a local Pot-Limit Omaha game recently with some of the worst of our regular assortment of players sitting in it. I caught a few big hands and, before I knew it, had a four-figure profit. Instead of walking out the door with that ~$1,200 win I decided the game was too good and it was worth the gamble even though I could lose my entire stack at any time due to the high stakes. I eventually profited nearly $3,000, my all-time largest cash game win.
Set Loss Limits – I am not a fan of win goals, but I do adhere to loss limits. Usually, I will stick to a loss of only two buy-ins because I feel my level of play diminishes after taking those lumps. I feel I’m going to play undisciplined trying to chase my losses, and I think this affliction affects many of us at the poker table. Otherwise, I use one of the two devices listed here the majority of the time to determine when to stay or go.