Sunday, February 1, 2009
Poker...the Game of Life
A few people lately have been asking about how my "Poker career" is going and others have probably been QUIETLY wondering. For those of you who may not know, I have been playing semi-professional poker part time for over 20 years now. Yes, in today's market that makes me one of the "old guys" in the game of Poker. It seems like most of what you see on the TV poker shows are young 20-somethings sitting around the table chattering in their reverse baseball caps and indoor sunglasses. From my old school, we don't do any of that.
I have been quiet about this over the years not necessarily because of any "shame" about the activity but more because of the public perceptions about "gambling" and spending a lot of time in casinos. A while back I sent a fairly long missive to my closest family and friends on this subject because there had been a lot of "whispering" about my Poker playing; if I was some sort of gambling addict. I hope that set the record straight at least from my end on the positive benefit poker has been in my life. I continue to believe that while I understand Poker being tied to gambling and casinos in public perception, to those who make a living off of Poker it is a game/sport of skill just like many others such as golf, tennis, baseball etc. When some guys consistently win big bucks in large major tournaments, you have to realize that maybe it ISN'T just about luck. Nobody can be THAT lucky all the time...
First, a little background on Poker… Poker traces its roots back to German and French parlor games of the 15th century. The English then adopted a form of it which along with the French version was introduced to the "New America" in the late 1700s. In America its popularity began, probably induced by the French, in the Mississippi Delta region, spreading north along the Mississippi River and then west during the "Gold Rush" of the late 1800s. Basically, it went from being a game of Kings to being a game of the poor early settlers in the western frontier. Of course, colorful historical characters like "Doc Holiday" and "Wyatt Earp" were fervent money players in those days. Since then we have seen somewhat of a return of the game to one for the "powerful and prestigious". President Obama is reported to enjoy the game on a regular basis as well as many former Presidents who held regular games for sport and pleasure. Most young men in America were exposed to Poker at young ages in neighborhood games, fishing/hunting camps, in the military or at the country club. It became a "gentlemen's" tradition with the "weekly poker game"...along with "bridge", chess, etc. The reality is that poker attracts educated and smart people because when you learn it you realize it pits your ability to evaluate and invest on each hand you encounter and also incorporates reading the other players. He who does all the above the best usually wins most consistently. It is not a game against a casino at stacked odds...but played against as many as 9 other players at the table…or in the case of tournaments against as many as 8000-10,000 other players online or at the world’s biggest events.
Sure, there is a "luck" factor as in any game of life. Luck or bad luck is with us always throughout every aspect of our life. Most successful people I have known from whatever discipline have alluded to a "lucky break" or perfect timing in an investment that made them successful or wealthy. The closest I ever came to a "hole in one" in golf was one of my worst shots of that round...slicing my drive into some trees which then bounced out to the green and stopped a foot from the hole. I could have sat there all day hitting at that flag and not come any closer. Luck...is part of the game of life. Some days the cards just don't "fall right", but mathematically over time the laws of probability will fall the same for each player, and the only deviance is what each player decides with every combination of cards that is thrown at him in the game.
I learned to play back in the late 1980’s. I had played “penny ante” poker throughout my younger years with family and friends here and there, along with many other card games. It was in Southern California when I lived there that I first encountered a “card room”. Poker had been legalized and licensed in California for decades…and was a much better known sport to the descendants of the gold rush and “Mississippi Delta” folks than in the mid-west where I grew up. Through a business deal I was introduced to a large poker room filled with competitive players from all over the west. Some wore cowboy boots and hats; others were “City slickers” showing up in their suits and ties after a long day at the office to “play” their favorite sport. I soon found myself spending a lot of time in that place playing and learning the ropes. I call those my “poker university” days…and the tuition was steep that first year. I didn’t know it, but while I thought I was surrounded by “friends”, these smiling people were taking my money little by little. Yea…some nights I won. I had lucky streaks in small games like $3-6 limit where I would come away with $500+ dollars on a given night. Those nights I was convinced I had finally learned the game and on my way to huge success…only to have 3-4 losing sessions in a row that ate up that $500 and THEN some. Finally a couple older, experienced guys I had met there started to pull me aside and give me some basic instruction and counsel. I also discovered some of the first books that were published in those years about this new poker game everyone was playing called “Holdem”. After reading my first two books, I realized how TERRIBLE I had been playing and that it had nothing to do with luck…good or bad. It was about knowledge. The second year is when I started tracking all my play day after day…how much I won or lost per hour at the level I was playing. This is when I finally understood how poker was so much about “cause and affect”…the difference of making good or bad decisions…not about luck. My second year was up and down but I ended up with about $3500 income for my second serious year of play at low stakes games. From that time on, even though I have gone through long periods/years of not playing, I have not had a losing year since and have for short periods of my life actually lived off part time poker playing. I also have many good memories of various games or tournaments where I have played with many of the guys who now show up quite frequently on TV in poker ads and tournaments on ESPN. I have never aspired to be a full time professional because there are so many other things in my life I would have to give up. But, it is truly one of my favorite “activities” in life when I need some stimuli and challenge.
I call Poker "the game of life" for many reasons...and most pro or semipro players look at it as one "life-long" game. Over one’s lifetime, good and bad things happen. Sometimes you are lucky and sometimes UNlucky. The key to succeeding in life is maximizing when the good things happen and you are running good, and minimizing the damage and not letting it destroy you when things are going wrong. If we are able to do this, life will overall be successful for us and that which doesn't kill us will make us stronger. The harder the struggle, the more success means and the sweeter it tastes. There are times in poker when no matter what you do, who you play, or where you are, nothing goes right for days...sometimes weeks...at a time. The key to success during the bad luck streaks is not letting it affect the level at which you play or overcome your psyche with negative, fatalistic thinking. I have gone through enough bad times by now, in poker and in life, to realize that nothing lasts forever. Even success. You are only as good as your last win or success...and tomorrow you have to get up and push even higher and harder to become all you can be. The key to poker...like life...is making a majority of GOOD decisions and then letting fate take its course. When things go bad, sometimes you just have to take a time out, think about and evaluate if you are doing everything possible to overcome the obstacles, and just keep trying to improve your game. If you are able to do this, you will be successful in time...in poker as in life.
It is also the "game of life" because the same talents you develop in being a good poker player will serve you well in business, relationships and your overall mental capacity. To be good in poker you have to have discipline and self control. Don’t run on your emotions. Throw away the hands that are bad. If you know you are beat, throw them away and move on to the next hand. Don't throw good money after bad. Don't take things personal if someone at the table lucks out on you and seems to be the luckiest, worst player in the world. The odds eventually come back around and you just have to stay focused and ready to win back what you have lost. Just having the discipline, patience and knowledge to only play good hands that give YOU the winning odds is the first most basic lesson to learn in poker.
After learning the odds of hands and the power of position at a poker table, the next most important talent to develop is reading the other players. There's an old adage in poker that if you sit down at a table of players and in 15-20 minutes you don’t know who the "fish" are versus the "fishermen"...then...YOU'RE IT. Just like in life, you have to be realistic about your competition. You have to look for the right games and groups of people you can beat. It would be silly for me to walk up to Tiger Woods with $500 and say "let’s go play a round…no handicaps". Yet, in Poker I see moneyed players who don't really know the game walk up with THOUSANDS in their pockets wanting to test their "luck" against a table full of shark players. It is only a matter of time and those sharks will have all their money. So, the key of knowing and reading your competition is of vital importance...just like in any other business or sport.
The other most interesting factor for me in the game of Poker is the variety of interesting people you will meet. I used to say that the fastest way to know and observe a person's character is to play a round of golf with them. One's temperament and discipline is sorely tried in the game of golf. I have found it the same with Poker. Poker brings out the best and the worst in people, and being a pop psychologist at heart causes me intrigue and challenge in observing and knowing the other players in the game. I have met super rich and super poor people at the poker table. I have played with all nationalities and races I can think of. Young / old, male/ female, aggressive / passive, happy / sad...you meet them all at the poker table over time. So it could be said that the game of Poker allows you the best opportunity to know and even understand "others" better than any other game.
In Panama you will often see at the same table Jews, Arabs, Chinese, Korean, Greeks, Colombians, Panamanians and North Americans all playing each other at the same time in 4-5 different languages. The poker table here can definitely give you a quick education on the various cultures and tendencies in a hurry. It is interesting to sometimes see the rivalries and differences being sorted out at a Poker game. I would suggest that the game is often times a replacement for the street or a battlefield to take out aggressions and deal with repressed conflict. There are a lot of racism and status levels in Latin America...and the poker table is one place where everyone's money is equal and the rules "usually" are enforced equally on everyone. While sometimes the attitudes can be ugly and aggressive, to me it is all part of life's reality...and I would rather see it come out in a "poker battle" than on the streets with guns. Yes...you will see some ugly behavior in poker games the world over. But again...that is the reality of "the game of life". It is VERY human.
Poker is a game that has taught me more about myself and others than any other activity or hobby I have pursued. I suppose "reading" may be more informative intellectually, but I would argue that poker exposes you to more real life information and interpersonal understandings than any book can teach you. Even books on poker cannot make someone a great poker player just by reading. It is the challenge of "doing", concentrating, reading the other players, reading your own emotions and reactions that combine to make one a great player.
And finally, to be a competitive poker player is no "light" goal to pursue. Like golf and other great sports, it takes LOTS of time, effort and energy to learn and play the game. While some people look from the outside in at today's poker pros on TV...sometimes making MILLIONS in a few day long tournament...and think how easy or "crazy" or "fun" it must be to just play poker for a living...think again. Better yet, try and sit at a poker table for 3-4 days in a row, 9-14 hours each day, concentrating, focusing, sitting, thinking, watching, with all the high and low emotions the game will bring you in a day...and tell me how much "fun" it is. You have to LOVE the game to want to make it a major hobby or a living. Just like the other pro sports...90% of the players who try and turn pro and live off poker will go broke and move on to another profession. With the huge explosion of competitive poker throughout the globe, it is no longer just a "gentlemen's" sport or the "game of Kings". It is a highly competitive game that has a whole new generation of MILLIONS of young players who are very smart, very dedicated, lots of money, and are very aggressive players. Believe me; you need to have mental AND physical endurance to play well over the long haul. And most of all, you have to have the right “bankroll” for the level or game you are playing at. There’s no sadder sight than a “busted” poker player…and there are a lot of them.
I am grateful to poker for teaching me discipline, patience, longsuffering, interpersonal skills, and negotiating skills...a whole list of virtues that are not always my strong suit. I have been beaten by bad luck, but most of the time I just beat myself because of bad decisions, bad judgment, or playing "over my head". I am proud of the fact that through many rough times and losing periods, I kept at the game and made back my lost money. I am proud that I can now sit down at a table and read the people in about 7 1/2 minutes...and know whether I should get up and leave...or not. I have become a better businessman because of skills developed in the game of poker. And, I think it has helped me understand myself and humanity at a much greater depth than about anything else I have pursued in life.
So...I leave it there for now. I actually have not had time or energy to play much so far in 2009. It’s partly because of my other priorities and relationships, partly because some of the games are in limbo here and not the best use of my time. But believe me, my goal is still to win a gold bracelet in the annual World Series some year. And yes, you might see me on TV if that happens...but when I get there it will be all about reading my competition and taking all their chips if I can. It's capitalism at its finest.