“You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em
Know when to walk away, and know when to run
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done”
- Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler”
In the Old West, poker was a game played mostly by drunk gun-toting cowboys just itching to say their favorite stock phrase – “Them’s fightin’ words!” Its image improved only slightly over the next century, as it was still considered no better than the other vices so popular in the seedy underbellies of gambling towns.
Things changed with the use of hole cams in televised poker (which made it fun to watch), the invention of online poker (which made it fun to play), and the 2003 World Series of Poker win by amateur Chris Moneymaker (which gave hope to everyone that they too could beat the game).
Poker is now popular enough to be shown on ESPN, where online poker sites are advertised despite being illegal the U.S. (OK, technically they advertise their legal play money .net sister sites, but can’t we all see through that? BTW, consult an attorney regarding the legality of online poker in your country – this post is fictional and for entertainment purposes only.)
The number of World Series of Poker entrants has grown from dozens to thousands, millions of people play online, and James Bond is now playing poker instead of baccarat (the change was made in the film version of Casino Royale). And yet, I have to wonder if any of this would have happened, had five card draw and seven card stud not been supplanted by Texas hold’em.
What’s so great about hold’em? Mainly the use of community cards. Instead of everyone playing a separate game at the same table, they’re trying to outplay each other at the same game. It’s a totally different feel, and people seem to love it.
I’ve been playing less than two months, so I’m just scratching the surface. But it’s clear to me that poker is far from a game of pure luck. It’s about strategy, psychology, self-control, risk assessment, and making decisions under pressure with limited information.
Crandell Addington, founder of the World Series of Poker, says skills he learned through poker helped him succeed in the business world as CEO of Phoenix Biotechnology. He said, “I’ve been trying to get someone’s attention about this for years. Poker is a microcosm for life.”
So what life lessons does poker have for us?
1. Pick your best game.
There’s no one game called “poker.” Poker is a family of closely related games, but even slight variations can produce vast differences.
For example, limit and no-limit Texas hold’em differ only in the betting structure, yet they are completely different games. Limit is more analytical, no-limit is more psychological. It’s very unusual for someone to be world class at both of them because they require completely different skills. Likewise, tournaments are different from cash games, heads-up play is different from full or short-handed tables, etc.
One of the most important decisions you make in any game is whether to play. Be sure you make the right choice here. My no-limit friends make fun of me for playing eight limit tables simultaneously, but my response is always the same – I’ll switch games if and when I find one that works better for me.
Are you in a career that’s the right game for you?
2. Keep your bad beat stories to yourself.
They say that opinions are like bad beat stories. Everyone’s got one, and no one wants to hear it.
A bad beat is when you have a hand that is heavily favored to win, which ends up losing. Bad beats are inevitable, but they can be hard to deal with when you lose a lot of money, especially to someone who made a mistake and just got lucky.
Here’s an example from limit hold’em that happened to me. (Sorry if you’re not familiar with hold’em jargon, but it would take too long to explain.) With pocket aces, I re-raise the opener before the flop, and he calls. The flop is A-rag-rag rainbow, I bet my top set, and get called by the initial opener. The turn and river look good, so I keep betting, and keep getting called. I have the best possible hand…almost. There is technically a possible A-5 straight out there, but he’d have to have 4-2 to fill it.
So I’m thinking, “OK, the straight would have me beat, but there’s no way this guy raised before the flop with 4-2.” But sure enough, he raised before the flop with 4-2. The river fills his unlikely straight and beats my three aces. His bad move paid off only because of miracle cards.
Here’s another example, this time a bad beat reversal. I flopped an ace-high flush, a nearly unbeatable hand. Unfortunately for me, the turn gave someone a full house. Unfortunately for them, the river gave me a straight flush. Their chat comment said it all: “nooooooo!”
Now, there is apparently an unwritten rule in poker that says when you suffer a bad beat, you should carry it around with you for the rest of your life and talk about it to everyone within earshot. Or you can choose to explode right then, a la Phil Hellmuth, “the poker brat.” In a typical game, he’ll say something like this more than once:
“You’re an idiot. What kind of idiot calls a $20,000 bet with queen-ten? I would never do something that stupid, that’s why I have eleven bracelets. But you internet kids, my advanced strategies don’t work on you because you’re too dumb to know any better. Maybe for you this is just poker, but for me it’s my whole life.”
Yeah, no one likes taking a bad beat (getting fired, divorced, etc.), but how is going on tilt going to help you? And especially if a bad beat comes from a lucky mistake someone made, their bad play helps you in the long run. Vent respectably if you must, but then let it go and get your game back on.
3. We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.
This Randy Pausch quote from “The Last Lecture” is as true in life as it is in poker.
Do you spend too much time wishing you could change your cards?
4. Nothing is certain. Play anyway.
The best possible starting hand is A-A. It has about an 85% chance of beating a random hand. A clear favorite, yes, but far from a guaranteed win, and that’s against just one opponent. The vast majority of the time, you’ll have less than A-A, and more than one opponent. But you can’t be overly intimidated by anything that could possibly beat you. You can’t win if you don’t play.
Are you missing out on anything because you’re afraid to take a chance?
5. Play your best bets.
The worst possible starting hand is 7-2 offsuit – the two lowest unpaired cards that can’t form a straight or a flush. Even if you’re lucky enough to flop two pair with 7-2, it might not be enough. You could possibly flop a monster hand, but it’s not worth paying for that shot in the dark. Dump it, and a better opportunity is just around the corner.
Are you investing too much in a 7-2 offsuit job or relationship?
6. Your biggest losses come when you have the second best hand.
It’s easy to fold when you have nothing. But the hands that you just can’t get away from, the ones that make you keep throwing in chips while drawing dead, are the ones that are almost good enough. The king-high flush. The ace with a weak kicker. The low end of the straight. These are the hands that cost you big time.
It’s like with a job that’s almost secure enough, an insurance policy that offers almost enough coverage, or a crippling balloon payment that will almost certainly never come due. Know where you’re weak, and tread carefully.
7. The best hand is not necessarily the most profitable.
Flopping quads to your pocket aces may give you a nice feeling, but it does you no good if everyone instafolds. Only once have I been able to get good money into the pot after flopping quads. I had pocket 4s in the small blind, and the flop was A-4-4. I slow played it, and fortunately someone liked the ace enough to bet. The ace was important to them, and therefore it was important to me.
People don’t care how much you want them to stick around; they only care about their own motivations. Because everyone is listening to the same radio station: WII-FM (what’s in it for me?). The biggest mistake people make when trying to do any kind of persuading is not understanding the difference between features and benefits.
8. It’s hard to be your own coach.
You could be making lots of mistakes without knowing it, and you won’t necessarily get better through practice alone.
I’ve found that playing limit 5 card draw has improved my limit hold’em game because it let me observe myself better. The simpler and faster paced 5 card draw let me see more clearly the consequences of position, aggression, bluffing, etc., most of which transfers to hold’em. And watching no-limit hold’em on TV has obviously helped me in that game.
Are you blind to certain problems that may be obvious to an outsider? Can a life coach help you see yourself in a new way?
9. All you need is a chip and a chair.
This poker aphorism reminds us that a miracle comeback can always happen. Anyone, anyplace, anytime.
It may have originated at the 1982 World Series of Poker main event. Jack Strauss pushed in all his chips on a bluff, got called, and lost everything. As he got up to leave, he discovered a $500 chip under his cocktail napkin. Had he actually said the words “all-in” on his last bet, he would have had to surrender this chip. But because he didn’t, he was allowed to continue playing. Two days later, he went home with a bracelet and $520,000.
Luck comes and goes, but good players win in the long run. If you’re down but not out, there’s always another chip somewhere.
Photo by Ross Elliott