We all make mistakes as teenagers. We all say things that don’t reflect our values, and make us cringe later in life.
For me, that mistake was making fun of people who watch televised poker tournaments.
My high school friends and I used to have a field day making fun of what seemed to be the most boring game on the planet. We never understood the purpose of watching expressionless people stare at each other for endless amounts of time, in a game that seemed to depend only on luck.
Oh, if my high school self could see me now.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I am a poker fanatic. The strategy of the game fascinates me more than any other sport, and I spend copious amounts of time practicing, watching, and reading theory about poker. I’ve become Matt Damon’s character in Rounders, who at will can jump into a lecture about the differences between Jonny Chan’s performances at the 1987 and 1988 World Series of Poker.
Poker (No Limit Texas Hold’em, if we’re being specific), is compelling for a multitude of reasons. For one, it’s the ultimate combination of science and the humanities. The calculations that great players perform in their heads (pot odds, implied odds, pot equity, fold equity, numbers of outs) during every hand never fails to amaze me. It’s virtually impossible to be a great player without understanding math. Yet at the same time, it requires a deep understanding of human nature. Hollywood movies often depict poker sharks as people who can determine your every thought based on body language. But that perception is largely false. I’ve never heard of a real pro who relies on physical tells when playing for real money. What matters is an understanding of people’s psyches and goals. Is your opponent playing to win, or are they simply playing not to lose? Are they desperate to make back chips they’ve lost, causing them to make bad bets? Or are they ridiculously conservative, only betting with absolutely premium cards? Everyone’s game has a weakness, and each weakness is exploitable. Combining this understanding of the human spirit, something I try to perfect in my writing, with mathematics makes for an endlessly fascinating game.
Now, the point of this blog is not to advocate gambling, but to talk about the life lessons I’ve learned from studying this game of skill. I’m well aware that everybody who loves a game can find a way to tell you that it is a metaphor for human existence. A simple google search would result in articles about why golf, tennis, chess, baseball, and any other sport can teach you everything you need to know about life. However, with poker, I actually believe it.
To me, poker is perfect not because it eliminates the variable of luck, but because it requires an understanding of luck. Everyone gets patches of good luck and patches of bad luck at one point or another. What matters is what you do with it. If I sat down with a world champion and played one hand, I’d have just as much of a chance at winning as they would. All that would matter is the cards. But if we played for three hours, I’d lose my shirt. Because their luck would cancel out mine, and only skill would remain.
I truly began to understand the game when I started framing it like this: poker is about maximizing how much money you make from your lucky breaks, and minimizing how much you lose from your unlucky ones. That’s all there is to it. When you view every hand through that lens, it all makes much more sense.
And I think that strategy can be applied to anything in life, not just poker. You can replace “money” with a more palatable word, if you like. Happiness, impact, fulfillment, etc. “Life is about maximizing how much happiness you can extract from your lucky breaks, and minimizing how much unhappiness you feel from your unlucky breaks.” That sounds like a pretty good philosophy to me.
While some people certainly find their luck skewing in one direction or the other, we all receive good and bad luck in our lives. Deluding one’s self into thinking that you live completely independent of luck is useless. If you’re always prepared to exploit your good luck and quickly recover from the bad, you should be successful in whatever you do.