The curse of the bubble

In every poker player's career, there comes that inevitable moment when they bubble. On the final table of any tournament, the fear of bubbling haunts players with all the venom of a gypsy curse. It literally separates the winners from the losers and can be career-changing. Recently, I fell victim to the curse of the bubble and the steep learning curve that comes with it.

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As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I re-entered the poker tournament that originally got me hooked on poker. While I managed to make the final table I struggled to maintain my success. As I have limited poker playing experience, my aim was mostly to avoid going out first and embarrass myself as little as possible. Until now, these were my biggest fears, and, to be honest, I had little more to compare them to. But I found out bubbling is a much more unnerving experience. To be so close to winning money, yet to be so far, is frustrating, to say the least.

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I found the playing style at the final table different to the style of play experienced earlier in the tournament. To be blunt, it was cut-throat. Players seemed to oscillate between slowing right down and buying the blinds. The tight players were desperate to hold on to their chips, regularly folding even the best of hands, anything to protect their position. The final table is what they came for - the glory and the money. The more aggressive players look at this period as a chance to build up their stacks. Players are afraid to call, so if you have the guts to take advantage of this fear, you can get a lot of chips by aggressively raising and stealing blinds.

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, and I have since realised that being prepared to change your style of play on the final table is the difference between bubbling and going home with the cold hard cash. I started off playing fairly strongly but quickly began to flounder. With all the naivety of a kitten that had stumbled into a lion's den, I made the mistake of going against the chip leader and lost. It's a lesson I learned the hard way, and when I realised that my winnings would have easily paid for my holiday to Morocco, I wanted to kick myself.

For professional poker players participating in EPTs, placing can be the difference between playing poker as a hobby or for a living. The payoff can make many days of grueling effort worthwhile, and conversely, to bubble can make you want to throw in the towel all together. I had this realisation when talking to an ex-professional player; she told me that she used to make a living from playing poker as a prop at a casino. She was good enough to win entry into an EPT. Unfortunately, she spent four days inside a stuffy casino while it was beautiful weather outside only to bubble. She felt, understandably, disappointed. I got the impression that this was where she became an ex-professional player. I couldn't help but wonder how different her life would have been if that final hand had played out differently. It could have propelled her poker-playing career further. But it was not to be. The curse of the bubble had changed her life.

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Making it to the final table was an unexpected surprise for me, and I have admitted that I felt overwhelmed and incredibly out of my depth. The hand that I went out on, I knew, was a losing one. I had A-K, and the flop revealed a pair of tens. Deep down, I knew my opponent had a third ten, but I had knocked other, more experienced players out of the tournament. It left me feeling inadequate and undeserving. Then the demons started to emerge. I was also exhausted. I became self-destructive and kept paying money into a pot I knew wasn't going to pay me off. I felt that, if I placed, I would have been taking someone else's place, that of a more deserving player.

By initially making strong calls at the final table, I managed, in some instances, to present a veneer of professionalism, but underneath it, I was falling apart at the seams. It wasn't long until this started to show. I began playing poker with the intention of making the game more assessable to women and to show women are every bit as capable of playing poker as the manliest of men. But feeling out of place at that table and throwing away my chips, I was guilty of buying into the fallacy that they aren't.

I watch PokerStars Women Team Pros with awe; they seem so composed and their biographies read like a tick list of success. But I can't help but wonder how they deal with the curse of the bubble and the demons that come with it.

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I definitely learned something from this tournament. As much as we are playing against other players and the cards, we are also playing against ourselves. When we are locked in a battle of wills against our opponents, it is really a test of our own psychology. Is our hand that good? Do we have the self-belief to make that call? Are we the better player? These questions circle around our brain, but ultimately, our own self-confidence, justified or not, is what motivates us to push our chips into the pot.

This experience made me realise defects in my own character in a way I would never have done before. I went home empty handed, but the lesson I learned about my own capacity for self-sabotage is invaluable. We watch poker players compete against each other, and hand after hand, we see the trepidation of it. There is no doubt it is an intense game, and I always thought it was because the stakes are high, and the pressure to win money immense. But I have realised that if it is our own self we are playing against, we are not always going to like what we see, and the looming possibility of bubbling intensifies this. In much the same way as being faced with a mirror, poker is the surest way to find out what we are made of, how far we can push, and where our true weakness lies.

Ann-Marie McCarthy
@PokerStars in PS Women