In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart tried to define what may or may not be considered obscene under US law. In the end, he determined that no definition existed, but that when it comes to obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”

The same holds true when you're talking about running badly at the US online poker table. You may not be able to identify what's going wrong, but you know its happening. As far as I'm concerned, there's no single definition or criteria for “running bad” because it means something different to everyone. For some players, it's posting 10 or 12 losing sessions in a row. For others, it's losing a dozen coin-flips during a single session. “Running badly” depends on the individual and on the metrics they're using to judge their performance.

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Whatever the definition is, the fact remains that everyone runs bad at poker  at one time or another. What separates successful poker players from those who go bust is how they handle themselves and their poker bankrolls when their cards go dead. For me, running bad doesn't mean having a few losing nights or taking a few bad beats over the course of a session. That's variance and it's an inevitable part of the game. In my mind, running bad in poker is something bigger that happens over the long term.

If you're not sure whether you're really running bad or not, start by stepping back and analyzing your results over a statistically significant time frame. If you see a consistent pattern of losing poker sessions over a matter of weeks or months, then it's likely that you're having some real problems with your poker game. The key to getting back on track is figure out what's actually going wrong.

For many poker players, running badly is a vicious circle; they suffer a few losing sessions and begin to tilt, which leads them to alter their playing styles in order to change things up. Soon, they do actually start playing poker badly, which leads to more losing sessions, and a continuation of their downward spiral. They lose because they're running badly and they're running badly because they're losing.

If you look at your game and believe that you're actually playing well but are just getting unlucky, then maybe you are. Aces get cracked by lower pairs. Sets get beaten by flushes, and hands get drowned on the river more often than you might think. My advice in these situations is to walk away from the poker game for a while. Take a break, regroup, and come back when you're mentally refreshed and are ready to start playing again. Don't, however, begin changing your game to compensate for bad luck. Focus on the fundamentals, look for good starting hands, and try to play the most solid poker you can. In time, your luck will change.

Whatever you do, however, don't try to step up in levels in order to try and recoup your losses. I've seen many players go bust at times like these because they're too focused on trying to rebuild their poker bankrolls by gambling rather than by playing smart poker and moving down to play at a lower level. Think about it; if you've been losing, chances are that you're playing on a smaller bankroll than normal, which means that you'll be risking a higher percentage of your remaining funds by playing at higher stakes. With a smaller cushion behind you and more of your bankroll at risk, it doesn't take long for things to go from bad to worse and for you to lose everything you had left.

On the other hand, by moving down a level or two, you'll be risking less in the short term while you try to rebuild your bankroll. Sure, the poker pots you win may not be as big as those you win at higher levels, but weighed against the odds of going broke, it's a trade-off I'm willing to make. What's more, by moving down, I may only have to play at a lower level for a month or two to recover my losses whereas if I go broke after moving up, it could take me a year or more until I've recovered. That's a pretty persuasive argument if you really value your time.

While I can't tell you whether you're really running badly or not, I can tell you that your mental state does impact your game. If you're feeling good, chances are you'll play well and, if you're not, chances are you won't. Rough patches are part of the game and learning how to handle short-term adversity without losing your confidence or your bankroll will make you a better player in the long run.

Obviously, I was on a very bad losing streak, but it wasn’t due to bad beats. I just kept getting my money in bad; every time I had Queens, my opponent would have Aces – every time I had AQ, they would have AK. That’s just how it goes sometimes, but getting your money in badly doesn’t always mean that you’ve done something wrong.

For example, if my opponent gets all his money in pre-flop when he’s got Kings and I’ve got Aces, does that mean he’s a bad player because he got his money in poorly?  Or that I’m a great poker player because I got my money in well?  Obviously the answer is no – if our roles were reversed I’d be the one going broke. We both played the hand correctly; the fact that he was behind doesn’t mean that he played it wrong. He was simply unlucky to get dealt Kings when I was dealt Aces.

Focusing too much on getting your money in good can actually be a part of playing badly overall. I hear a lot of people complain, “I always get my money in good, but I keep losing… I can’t believe it!” Most of these players just don’t remember the times they’ve gotten lucky with the worst hand. But some people actually do get their money in well a majority of the time. It may be hard to believe, but these people are experiencing the right percentage of hands they’re going to lose – it’s just that these losses result in the players getting knocked out of tournaments because they are playing too tight.

Suppose I’m playing heads up poker and I’m only going to go all-in with Aces, Kings or Queens. My opponent is pushing me around by raising every single hand and moving in on me with any two cards. Finally, I get a pair of Aces and he moves in again. Even if I win the hand, just think about all the chips he’s taken away from me while I was waiting for my high pocket pair.

If I’ve lost 1,000 chips to him before I put my last 1,000 in the pot – even though I have my money in good – I’m only going to win 1,000 chips back. So, I’m actually employing a poor strategy by waiting for hands that don’t come around often enough because even if I win this hand, I’m only going to break even – and there’s no guarantee that I’m going to win. Plus, the chips my opponent is putting into the pot have been accumulated from all the folding I’ve been doing, so he’s now free rolling even though he’s behind in the hand.

Great players are going to get their money in bad once in awhile, especially if they’re playing against someone who’s playing way too tight. However, they’re actually going to make money over the long run because of all the small pots they win when their opponents are unwilling to challenge their raises without a strong hand. What this means is that if you try too hard to get your money in good all of the time, you’re susceptible to being bluffed and are going to lose more often over a long period of time.

Losing stings, especially when it seems like you’re getting your chips in badly with every hand you play. Still, if you keep your calm and avoid going on tilt, it’s possible to weather a rough patch without making drastic changes to your game. Keep your focus on playing well. Even if you do find yourself “getting your money in bad” from time to time, you’ll end up a winner in the long run.

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