Now this would seem to be an odd title for a blog by a psychologist and one might wonder, what on earth poker has to do with life lessons or wisdom of any kind. Let me begin by saying that one of my favourite authors in the field of psychology and self-help was M. Scott Peck who wrote the extraordinary book called “The Road Less Travelled”. If you haven’t yet read this classic, I highly recommend it.
Another book that M. Scott Peck wrote was a much lesser known book called “Golf and the Spirit”. It was a book that led the reader through a 9 hole golf course, with the actual layout of the courses created by M. Scott Peck and his son (who was a graphic designer). Each course provided a range of life lessons which M. Scott Peck described with his usual incredible wisdom. He obviously loved the game of golf and saw many parallels between his experiences playing the game and his work with people in his private practice as well as in his own life.
I have found very much the same thing happening to me when it comes to the game of Texas Hold’Em Poker (I will also refer to it as just Poker but I will always be referring to Texas Hold’Em as there are many other variations around today). This game has now become a major worldwide phenomenon. It is a game that finds young and old, male and female and every race, religion and nationality playing together and I would go so far as to say that it has become a worldwide sport. Some of this has been due to the incredible amounts of money people have won playing in events such as the World Series of Poker (WSOP) and some of it is due to the way it is now shown on television with viewers being able to see the cards that the players have while the game is happening which makes for a much more exciting experience of watching the game unfold.
Matt Damon, John Malkovich, and Edward Norton starred in a movie called Rounders in 1998 which popularised the then little known variation of poker (Texas Hold’Em) which was about to take the world by storm. I did watch the movie around the time it came out but it wasn’t until 2008 that a friend of mine introduced me to the game and gave me a book to read about Poker strategy by Dan Harrington that opened up this incredible game to me and I have never looked back. Since that time I have played in hundreds of games. Home games with friends, pub games, poker league games including the APL (Australian Poker League) State Championships where I have played against a field of over 500 people to come 16th. I have also honed my skills by playing hundreds of online games which recently saw me coming 4th in the 888 100K guaranteed weekly tournament out of a field of 650 players from all over the world. My fascination with Poker is as strong as my fascination about people and life and I guess you can see how these all come together and why I am writing a blog about it.
One of the first things I can imagine (or mind read) you are thinking right now is: Isn’t poker gambling? This is a question I have pondered very often and when I recently watched Rounders again I was amused to see that Matt Damon’s character tries to explain to his then fiancé the difference between the game of Texas Hold’Em Poker and gambling. I do not want to get into the whole debate as it is not of importance in this blog however I will just say one thing: If poker was truly gambling, how would it be possible for the same people to keep ending up towards the end of the major tournaments or for a range of them to consistently end up at the final table and winning money? There is only one reason and that is incredible amounts of skill. Some of the skills involved in this game are a combination of mathematical skill, emotional intelligence, perseverance, intellectual curiosity and the ability to take calculated risks. I personally have read over 15 books on Texas Hold’Em tournament strategy. What I didn’t see in these books however was the very obvious lessons that can and need to be learned in order to become a really good player in terms of psychology and indeed how these same lessons could then be applied to help you improve your life in general.
With that introduction, I would now like to take you on a short journey into some of the aspects of playing the game and see if we can find some insights or correlations between playing the game of poker and playing the game of life.
You are unlikely to succeed in the game of poker or life without taking some risks
As I mentioned earlier, many people (including my ex-wife) believe that playing poker is gambling. And I might agree with that but only from the point of view that you are putting down some money and playing a game with the possibility of either losing that money or winning more money. And I will also concede that you generally cannot win without some luck. That is where the comparison ends.
My philosophy and belief about poker (and life) is that you will never get anywhere without taking some calculated risks. You take calculated risks every single day of your life. You know that when you walk out your front door there is a risk that you will get knocked down by a car, hit by lightning, mugged or any other manner of wonderful things that could happen to you. But, do you let these “risks” stop you from leaving your home each morning? Admittedly, depending on where you live of course, these risks may be very low and negligible, however there is still a risk.
Some people are very focused on “risks” and in psychological terms this can become what we refer to as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and as well as a range of other phobias. People with OCD and other phobias really struggle with pushing past these perceived risks. They may fear things like germs, being in wide open spaces or enclosed spaces, spiders, flying in an aeroplane, driving a car, public speaking or any other range of perceived “at risk” situations. Most of us, whilst we are aware on some level that these risks exist, do not allow them to stop us from living our lives.
In the game of poker, you may start out with a higher risk (luck) to skill ratio when you begin. I always say that when you first begin to play in order to win you would need 80% luck and 20% skill. However, as you learn more and more about the game, as you study the concepts involved and as your experience in playing the game against a range of different competitors increases, so does your skill to risk (luck) ratio. I believe that you can keep moving this ratio up and that you could possibly (if you were absolutely brilliant at the game) turn the ratio into 70% skill and 30% risk (luck).
Part of the reason I say this is different to gambling is that you are not playing against a casino or a machine, you are playing against other human beings. And other human beings can make mistakes! You may be dealt (in terms of luck) a really bad hand but your ability to read the situation around you and the people you are playing against allows you to force your competitor to “lay down” (meaning fold their cards) to a well-timed bluff by you. So here you have won the pot (the chips in the middle) without needing luck to help you do it. However, you have taken a calculated risk believing that if you bluff them in that moment they will fold their cards.
Cannot the same be said of life? If human beings never took any risks I believe the whole world as we know it would come to a grinding halt. No-one would every get married or have kids. No-one would ever start a business or invest in anything. No-one would ever try and create something. Thomas Edison took 10 000 risks before creating the light bulb. He “failed” 10 000 times but without his willingness to take risks and try we would all still be sitting in the dark – literally!
Sometimes you have to gamble and “bet” all you have on trying something new. For example, it could be leaving a job where you are being bullied or taken advantage of or it could be going to live in another country because the one you live in now is full of crime and corruption or it could be leaving your current partner because the relationship doesn’t serve you anymore.
What are the risks involved? In the first and third examples it’s that you won’t find another job or partner. In the second example the risk is that you will find it hard to assimilate and you will suffer setbacks due to having to start again from scratch in a new country.
So the question is: Do you take the risk or don’t you? “To be or not to be, that is the question” is the famous line that Hamlet asked. How do you make that decision? You certainly don’t know what the outcome will be…you don’t have a crystal ball do you? But what do you know right now for sure? Maybe it’s that you are unhappy. Maybe you are depressed. Maybe you don’t feel motivated in life or you just have this feeling that something isn’t right and something inside of you is urging you to take a risk and make a change but the only thing holding you back – the only thing holding any of us back is what?…. Fear of course. Fear that it won’t work out. Fear that you will lose everything you have. Maybe by that you mean your money, or your possessions, or your feeling of comfort and security. But as we continue to stay stuck where we are, we may start to investigate or at least contemplate our options. We would start to think about the pros and the cons, weighing up the risks versus the rewards of taking action. Very much similar to what happens in every poker hand that you play. You have to assess the situation, use all the available information that you have as well as your own intuitive wisdom from your past experiences and then make a decision to take the risk or not. Your decision is a calculated one yes, but will it ever be a fool proof one or provide you with absolute certainty in terms of the outcome? No. However, people who succeed at Poker and in life in general are willing to take that chance because they know that the reward has the potential to outweigh the risk many times over and they also know how they will feel if they back themselves and win.
It was apparently Albert Einstein who said that in the Universe nothing happens until something moves. So, are you going to just sit there or are you going to move?
A chip and a chair
In Poker, there is a saying that most people who play the game are aware of and it is that you only need a chip and chair to win the game. I have been in that situation myself in a poker tournament on many occasions when I have taken a heavy loss and ended up with a very small amount of chips which – by all accounts – should have led to me being knocked out of the tournament. However, through sheer determination and taking a risk at the right time, I have come back to win the tournament. This would be something that most seasoned poker players would have experienced and hence why there is actually a saying about it.
I have often thought about this and loved the very real and clear connection it has to us in real life. I can certainly attest to this from my own personal life experience.
When life knocks us down and we get “a bad beat” – another Poker saying meaning when you do all the right things and someone ends up getting ridiculously lucky against you – we have two choices. Give up and throw the towel in and moan about how unfair it is or how unlucky we are or realise that as long as you are still in the game (alive) and you have the ability to think and act, you also have the opportunity to turn things around.
This reminds me of a book I read many years ago which speaks to this topic which was called “Tough times don’t last but tough people do!” by Dr. Robert Schuller. I think one of the most powerful attitudes to have in life is the attitude of never giving up. In that spirit, I would like to share with you one of my absolute favourite poems on the subject which I first came across at the age of 10 or 11 years old. It was a page in my homework diary that all kids were given at my school and it had a daily calendar and quotes of inspiration dotted throughout its pages. However, the poem called Don’t Quit was right at the front and I loved it so much that I cut out and pasted it into the very front of what later became my personal quote scrapbook. The poem was not attributed to an author, it just said “unknown’ but I eventually found out that it was written by Edgar A. Guest. Here it is:
When Things go wrong, as they sometimes will,
When the road you’re trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and debts are high,
And you want to Smile but have to sigh.
When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest, if you must, but don’t you quit.
Life is queer with its twists and turns,
As everyone of us sometimes learns,
And many a failure turns about,
When he might have won had he stuck it out,
Don’t give up though the pace seems slow,
You might succeed with another blow.
Often the struggler has given up,
When he might captured the victor’s cup.
And he learned too late, when the night slipped down,
How close he was to the golden crown,
Success is failure turned inside out,
The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell how close you are,
It may be near when it seems afar,
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit,
It’s when things seem worst that you mustn’t quit.
I still have that scrapbook of quotes today and at various times in my life when things have been particularly tough I would print out a copy of Don’t Quit and place it on my refrigerator or next to my mirror in the bathroom. I have never read this poem and not felt some relief, some peace of mind and also the resulting increase in motivation to take a breath and keep going.
Let me provide another example from my own life in terms of this attitude of not quitting. I practiced Tae Kwon Do for 7 years in South Africa from the age of 19. I had a coach who was like Mr. Miyagi from the movie Karate Kid but about ten times tougher on us. His name was Master Fabio Ghobadi and he was, at the age of 30 at that time, already a 5th Dan Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. He had also been the trainer of the French National Team. He had come from France to South Africa through a range of difficult and interesting life experiences and started a Tae Kwon Do school. He was very unorthodox and whilst he was a very caring and empathic human being, he was also a very hard task master and sometimes played favourites. There were many times that I thought of quitting Tae Kwon Do. Right at the beginning it was more from the tortuous physical training regimens we had to undertake. I’ll never forget my first lesson in the dojo where we had to run up and down, do push ups and sit ups as well as so many frog marches that I left the class, went outside into the parking lot, and threw up. My friend who had introduced me to the class came out and asked me if I was okay and I said “If I wanted to join the army I would have joined the army!” I wasn’t going to return but something inside me told me not to quit and so I did return for the next lesson and for the next 7 years. There were many times I wanted to quit throughout those years. Sometimes it was due to what I felt was the mistreatment and unfairness I received from Master Fabio but I knew that even though he always seemed to be delaying the achievement of my black belt, there was probably a method in his madness and I was continuing to improve anyway.
After 6 years, I did my black belt grading. It was a very proud moment however, very soon after that Master Fabio left the country and never sent my grading off to South Korea so that I could be officially listed as a Black Belt in Tae Kwon Do. After 6 years with him – and then carrying on teaching classes with another black belt for another year after that – I never received my official black belt or certificate. In 2004, I was told by one of the other black belts that Master Fabio had suddenly passed away from stomach cancer. I was deeply shocked to hear this and very saddened by his passing because even though I had struggled with some of his ways, he had been like a father figure to me for 6 years of my life and I had learned so much from him not only in terms of Tae Kwon Do but of his philosophy of life. What this meant was that I would not be able to get my official black belt. However, I continued to practice my Tae Kwon Do on my own when I emigrated to Australia and eventually, in 2008, I joined a Tae Kwon Do school near my work and had to regrade through each of the belts in order to prove I could do it and eventually after a year the Master of that school graded me to black and I finally received my official black belt certificate and designation from Korea. This was a very proud moment for me and as I think back to it now I can see that it indicated to me that not only was I was capable of achieving my goals but more importantly it showed me how very important it is to live by the philosophy of not quitting.
As I said, life can sometimes really throw you a curve ball and knock you off your feet. But, as Sylvester Stallone says to his son in Rocky Balbo – the final Rocky movie – “you, me or no one is going to hit harder than life, but it’s not how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward…that’s how winning is done!”
And so, when you get knocked down by life or suffer a setback always remember: All you need is a chip and a chair and the determination to keep moving forward and you can make it back, you can change your life around and get back into the game and succeed.
In the next part I will talk about something called Going on Tilt or how detrimental it can be to allow emotion to control our thoughts and behaviours.
David Fox is a psychologist and author of the book Change your Life! Hope and Healing for Anxiety and Depression. He is currently working on his second book called The Top 10 Sayings that can Change your Life!
Get his first book by clicking on any of the links below.