Poker is a game of runs, and nobody, not even a top pro, stays on top forever. Everybody goes through a bad patch, a losing streak. The thing is, for the big money players, guys like Phil Laak, Gus Hansen, and Daniel Negreanu, the losses, when they come, can be nightmarishly huge. So how do the game's best players endure single-pot defeats that would wipe out the bank accounts of mere mortals? Here are the stories of three gut-checking losses, and what they can teach all of us about losing big—and coming back to play another day.
Nicknamed "The Unabomber" for his ubiquitous hoodie and shades, Phil Laak has won nearly $3 million at events like the World Poker Tour and the World Series of Poker. Over the years, he's beaten all manner of opponents, from European champions and Hollywood celebs to a poker-playing computer created at the University of Alberta.
The loss: In 2012, at an international tournament in Austria, Laak accidentally folded a winning hand, losing an $80,000-plus pot. The epic muck, caught on camera, went down as the biggest televised poker mistake in history. To his credit, Laak came roaring back, leaving the two-day event as the game's biggest winner.
What happened: "It's so sick," Laak said, after learning of the mistake. "Without the camera catching all that, we wouldn't have known that I'd mucked the winner. The last time I knew I mucked a winner and then caught it afterwards was nine years earlier, and for the last nine years, even when I lose a pot, I doublecheck. I just happened to not doublecheck this time."
Lesson learned: Always doublecheck your hand, obviously. But the bigger lesson: don't let one minor lapse affect the rest of your night, or your poker career. Laak copped to the mistake right after learning about it, and dealt with the whole thing with an almost saintlike sense of humor.
Gus Hansen has won three World Poker Tour titles and over $11 million in tournament prizes since launching his pro career in 1997. That's not a bad little nest egg—until you start tallying up the Dane's recent losing streak.
The losses: Over the past seven years, Hansen has dropped nearly $14 million on Full Tilt Poker, a big chunk of that within the last year.
What happened: Hansen, for his part, always goes after the toughest opponents, a habit he picked up early in his career. Back then, he went after the best players so that he could learn from the best. "It's always easier to learn when you play better opponents, tough players," he said recently. "So it's something I've always done. I think I should be a little more careful, because obviously it's also harder to win when you're picking the toughest opponents."
Lesson learned: when you're in a slump, go for a few easy wins till you get back in the groove.
Daniel Negreanu won his first World Series of Poker bracelet in in 1998 at the age of 24, making him the then-youngest WSOP bracelet winner in history. Five more bracelets followed in the intervening years, earning the Toronto native two WSOP Player of the Year honors.
The loss: Over the years, Negreanu has lost pots in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, so it's hard to pick just one. But we will. On one particularly bad night at the Bellagio, Negreanu lost a sweet $156,000 pot, then wrote about the entire affair in a funny, self-deprecating article.
What happened: Bad cards and bad luck, pure and simple. For his part, Negreanu felt mildly ill after the loss (who wouldn't?), but now he can laugh about it. He eventually made the money back and then some; to date, he's earned more than $12 million at the poker tables.
Lesson learned: If you're playing high stakes poker, you can't think about the amounts. "You must be willing to go broke," Negreanu once said. "Many poker players are big spenders. When I go into a store, I sometimes just point at things and buy them without asking for the price. How much are the things I'm buying? Sometimes I don't really know. At the poker table, you can't be thinking about the money.