The PGA Championship is this weekend, which means I’ll be spending four days (or, God forbid, two) cheering on Tiger Woods at Bethpage Black. The event used to be played in August, but has moved to May, placing it in the middle of the best sports stretch of the year. Starting with the NCAA basketball tournament in March, we get four major golf tournaments, two Grand Slam tennis tournaments, the NBA playoffs, and the start of baseball season. And it ends with a personal favorite of mine, the World Series of Poker. We’re a couple months away, but I’ve already started to prep for it, rereading some of my favorite poker theory books.
I’ve written here before about my love of poker, so I won’t bore you with details again. But the work of legendary poker guru David Sklansky has begun to have some interesting applications to other parts of my life.
In his classic book The Theory of Poker, Sklansky begins by redefining “winning” and “losing.” With so many uncontrollable aspects of the game, you can drive yourself crazy by only measuring the money you make or the hands you win. Instead, your goal should always be to a.) play as if you could see every card on the table, and b.) make your opponents play as if they can’t. This blew my mind when I first read it, and it still does now.
Nobody is going to win every poker hand, because sometimes you just get terrible cards. But if you could see that your opponent has better cards than you, you wouldn’t bet any money. So to Sklansky, if you’re dealt 100 terrible hands in a row, and you fold every time, you’re winning. You’re doing what you’d do if you could see every card.
This kind of thinking gets more useful as you delve into more complex poker strategy, but I love the way he completely separates process from results. It’s a useful way to think of just about anything. The easy example is fitness. No matter how much you work out or how well you eat, there’s no way of predicting the day you’ll wake up five pounds lighter. Everyone’s body works differently, and setting a goal that’s defined entirely by scale numbers is a recipe for misery. However, if you treat every day that you adhere to your diet and exercise schedule as a “win,” you’ll have a lot more success.
This also applies to my own quest to become a writer. In 2019, I’ve tried to shift myself away from the romantic “write whenever you have a burst of creativity” mindset, and be more disciplined. Writing two thousand words a day, good or bad, is a lot better than writing 4,000 words a few times a month. We often try to adapt our lifestyles to meet our goals, but sometimes, the lifestyle should be the goal.
I always knew that time spent reading poker books would pay off. Now I just need to find some self-help angle to justify spending 96 hours obsessing over a golf tournament. Stay tuned.