Updated on 09/18/2011 12:25AM

Quitting while you're ahead can be wrong way to play

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So far, I've been very proud of ignoring the temptation to reference Kenny Rogers's "The Gambler." But that all goes out the window today. The first two topics Mr. Rogers introduces in that song (knowing when to hold 'em/fold 'em) are certainly important, but the third topic - knowing when to walk away - might be the key to overall success.

In all seriousness, this is an issue that many good players don't give enough weight, and most bad players don't even consider at all. It can be examined at both the friendly home-game level and for more serious players as well.

First we'll look at home games. I'm a believer that for any home game you care about continuing, it's important to have a policy about how long the game is expected to last. Space in home games is often at a premium, and you don't want to have one of the participants leaving after a mere couple of hours because he or she has a bad run of cards or, worse yet, another plan for the later that evening. I would recommend letting players know that they're expected to play from 8 to 1 (or whatever) and anyone who can't comply just has to let everyone know in advance. That should keep players from leaving too early.

As the host, you also need to make sure they don't stick around too long - one step is simply to say at some stage of the evening, "Okay, we're going to go one more hour and then do a round and that's it." The extra round at the end is a fun way to add some closure and sometimes put an exclamation point on the evening. The danger if you don't take these measures is that you end up at the night's end with a couple of stuck players looking to continue on and a couple looking to get out with a profit. This creates an awkward dynamic and a flow of play that you're not looking for in a friendly game.

The essential point about when to quit in a more serious game is that the decision should have nothing to do with whether you're up or down. Daniel Negreanu says that's the biggest mistake that players make, period.

"Too often, that decision revolves around how they're doing in the game," Negreanu said. "I would say that 90 percent of the poker players in the world, their biggest problem is that they quit when they take a little win and might play for three days when they're losing trying to get even. That's so wrong, it's so backwards from how you should approach it. Because if you are winning and in control of the table, your confidence is high. People are afraid of you, and that's the time when you should probably play an extended session. When you're losing and everything's going bad, chances are it's had an effect on your game whether you like it or not. That would be a good time to quit."

And don't get me wrong - I've seen many a sunrise while playing poker with friends and in card rooms - but you really want to choose your spots of when to do an all-nighter. Ted Forrest - granted, a major contrarian - told me he once played in a game for 105 hours straight because "it became clear that if played long enough that I was going to get even and win, and I didn't want to leave that situation a loser."

Those new to the game might be surprised how often the possibility of playing all night - or longer - is available to them. I advise caution, though; it's easy when you're tired and having fun to delude yourself into thinking you're in a better situation than you really are. In a recent interview, when asked about the dark side of poker, Jennifer Harman talks about these marathon sessions.

"People start playing for 35 hours and they don't eat, or they eat very little, and they smoke three packs of cigarettes," Harman said. "They don't drink any water. It's not good for you! I think it's better to treat it as a business that you can leave a loser. There's always a game. It's a lifelong game."

Forget "knowing when to hold 'em and fold 'em" - Harman's conclusion is the most important point of all for poker success. And if you can really understand what it means that poker is really all one long game, you'll make a lot more money. You'll always know when to quit. You'll save yourself a lot of money in the long run when you're behind because you won't throw bets away chasing. And you won't cost yourself any money when you're winning because you'll continue to play aggressively and won't leave money on the table by nursing a small profit.

Peter Thomas Fornatale is co-author of "Six Secrets of Successful Bettors" (DRF Press). His new DRF Press book "Winning Secrets of Poker: Interviews with the Game's Best Players," is scheduled for a August 2006 release.