Raise or Fold:  Learning (From) Poker

Writing and playing poker as if they were activities worth doing well.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Do You Feel Lucky? Well, do you?

I ran across this article about people who describe themselves as "lucky" or "unlucky," and a researcher who says he's identified traits and behaviors that are consistently associated with each category.

To feel luckier, notice more opportunities, and be prepared to take advantage of them try:
  • Relaxing and being more open and flexible in your behaviors and habits
  • Widening your field of attention and observation
  • Listening to and honoring your intuition
  • Cultivating optimism and resilience.
Hmm. Sounds very much like most mindfulness practices.

I think the applicability to one's poker game is pretty clear.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Day 365: Not Finished Yet

Okay, so this is a little embarrassing.

You start a blog out with A Grand Plan. You state it in public. You do a pretty good job of keeping people informed on your progress.

And then, at the very end, you change the plan.

Boooooo. I call shenanigans! On myself.

Life, and the experience life brings (or leaves in its wake), has a way of interfering with the best laid plans. To wit:
  • My book is not done. Not even close. In fact, the extensive outline that I've been working from has come to seem less and less like the book I want to write. Accordingly, I'm having to reconsider it from the ground up. I fully intend to keep writing, and I definitely think I have a good book to bring forth, but it's not going to be the one I initially thought it would be.

  • I have distinctly NOT succeeded in leading as well-balanced life as I'd intended.

  • My poker results are inconclusive. While I have made a decent profit in the past year, I don't have enough information to make a decision about whether I can survive as a professional. I'm inclined to think I can, but I don't know for sure, and I've determined that I'm unlikely to know for sure in a reasonable timeframe.
So, what to do? what to do?

I'm flying to Las Vegas tonight. I'll be there for 3.5 weeks. I have arbitrarily decided that I will let this short period of time serve as the tie-breaker in my decision-making process. If I make a decent, livable income at the tables on this trip, I'll keep going. If I don't, I'll start looking for a job. You know, actual salaried, every-other-week-a-paycheck, health-benefit-conferring employment.

You say there's a recession on? No kidding. Thank god I live in Washington, DC, where employment opportunities are less awful than in most of the rest of the country. (And nothing stops me from continuing to play poker on the side while I diligently look for work.)

No matter what the outcome of this last lagniappe, this baker's dozenth month of poker, I will never EVER regret having given the past year to my experiment. It has been challenging, fun, heart-breaking, educational, rewarding, and deeply, deeply interesting. I have made wonderful new friends, achieved personal bests, and come to treasure my city and my friends all the more. It has been a spectacular adventure.

I was sitting at Starbucks the other day, having a coffee and catching up on my spreadsheet, as is my wont. The man at the table next to mine leaned over and made a comment about the svelteness of my MacBook Air. We had a brief conversation, during which he asked me: "Are you a lawyer?" I laughed. And then the following sentence emerged unprompted from my mouth for the first time: "Actually, I play poker for a living." And as I said it, it seemed true.

We shall see.

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

What A Good Day Looks Like

After Friday night's epic badness, I wasn't sure whether I was going to be able to scrape myself together and play poker today. But I woke up, had a nice breakfast on my balcony, made the drive-of-shame to an ATM, and betook myself to the Imperial Palace Hotel. Once more unto the breach, etc. etc.

Well, golly.

I played solid, unremarkable poker. I got a couple two-three decent hands and they mostly held up. Holy smokes, I RAN AVERAGE. I even caught a set and didn't get sucked out on.

You might as well have gift-wrapped the goose that laid the golden egg and put it in my lap. I made a tidy profit in the roughly four hours I played.

Months ago, I used to routinely have cash sessions that went that way. I vaguely remember what that was like. (As in a glass, darkly.) They've been so scarce since then, that I felt as if clouds had parted and God Himself had laid a finger upon me. Positively anointed, I tell you.

I came home and cooked dinner for a couple of guests, as if all of it were the most normal thing in the world. The evening featured good company and good conversation.

If most days were pretty much like this one, I'd be a very happy grrl.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Red Rock

Red Rock Canyon

No poker today. Instead I went to Red Rock Canyon with the Grump, and cooked a meal with food I purchased at an actual grocery store. (Just having a refrigerator and a cupboard full of food makes me happy.)

Red Rock Canyon

I will definitely want to visit again.

Red Rock Canyon

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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Doyle Should Know

What people don’t seem to understand is that there is much more than talent and knowledge that is required to be a great poker player. You have to be able to handle adversity without going off the deep end. You have to have the character to handle the pitfalls of life. Also there is the ability to implement the things you do know. That is probably the biggest difference between good poker players and great poker players. ~ Doyle Brunson, on his blog.

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Rubberneck or Avert Your Eyes

There are two common and very human responses to witnessing something bad happening in other people's lives. The first is a kind of involuntary voyeuristic fascination; this universally causes traffic jams everywhere there is vehicular transportation. The second is an instinctive turning away, or distancing; we don't want to catch the contagious disease, or associate with the weak member of the herd lest the predator focus on us as well.

I have witnessed both reactions in response to my recent lack of success. Some people just can't get enough of it: the thrill of schadenfreude is just too, too delicious. Others' immediate response is to point out all the ways in which I am doing something wrong and, by implication, how I am NOT LIKE THEM, NOT ONE BIT. In both cases, I think there's actually an underlying similarity.
"I'm struggling too. It's not my fault either. See, other players have the same difficulties, or worse, as me! No one ever really succeeds at this game anyway, unless they're really, really lucky. Her bad results just go to show that I'm not that bad myself."

"I'm doing fine. If someone else is having a hard time, it's because she isn't as good as I am, or because her attitude is all wrong, or because she isn't working at it enough."
I suspect that an individual's attitude toward others' success or failure in poker (or indeed any competitive undertaking) is primarily reflective of his own approach to the game and his own current state of success or failure. I'm not proud of it, but I know that mine often is, if I am not sufficiently introspective about it—which apparently is more often the case than I'd prefer.

There is, to be fair, a third response that can be just as reflexive for some: the urge to offer substantive help, support, or even just sympathy and companionship through the difficulty. Some people are genuinely able to offer useful guidance or comfort uncolored by either overt or unconscious feelings of superiority or just simple delight at not being in the other's predicament. Having been the lucky recipient of this sort of attention as well as the others, I can tell you that it is a relatively rare and lovely gift. Often the giver of that gift is someone who has survived the same challenge, and is thereby endowed with the direct experience of how it can best and most gracefully be overcome, as well as what kind of aid is actually useful and meaningful.

I think running bad is a little like getting lung cancer when you're a non-smoker. It happens; you didn't do anything specific to bring it on, but people keep asking you if you did. Everyone has advice on how to get better, but few of them will hold your hand (or your forehead) while you go through chemo. A lot of people will just disappear from your life, or avoid talking about "it" altogether, as if your daily routine were continuing as normal otherwise and you ought to be able to compartmentalize, for everyone else's sake as much as your own. But some of them, often cancer survivors themselves, will offer sound, practical advice on diet and exercise, recommend good physicians, listen to you vent without judgment (as, if they were lucky, others did for them), and offer strategies for coping with the rest of your life while you're ill. When you are in remission, they will celebrate with you and also help you find equanimity in the face of the possibility of recurrence.

If you are fortunate, you will actually emerge from the illness stronger, more self-aware, with better habits for maintaining your well-being and a keener understanding of what is and isn't within your control. And if you are truly blessed, you will have learned how to live well even under the most adverse circumstances.

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Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Pause in the Program

I was touched this morning by Doyle Brunson's comments after attending the funeral of Casey Reese, son of the late great Chip Reese:
Everybody should have the privilege of growing old. I feel really lucky to have my hair start to turn gray and to have life experiences forever etched in deep wrinkles and grooves in my face. My heart has been broken but that is what gives us strength, understanding and compassion. So, as I get older, I care less what people think because if I’m wrong, I’ve earned the right to be wrong. And believe me, I’ve earned every gray hair and every wrinkle I’ve got.... I intend to spend my remaining time doing what I want and I intend to tell my family how much I love them every day.
I'm not as big a fan of wrinkles and grooves as Doyle (although I think Wrinkle & Groove would make an awesome band name), but do find that as I get older I am less and less worried about the unsolicited opinions of others and more and more interested in the lines of love that connect me to the people in my life.

Heartbreak is the price of love, and it is a price worth paying.


Monday, April 6, 2009


Recently, I had been running bad.

(Say it in a chorus with me, people: “Boo-hoo, you poor grrl, life sucks and then you die, go tell it to your mama.” I am well aware that no one really wants to hear it. Hell, even I don’t want to hear it.)

The most frustrating component of it had been getting crushed in games where I legitimately believe I have an edge, where in fact my past record shows that I have an edge, and where I don’t believe I’ve done anything meaningfully worse to produce such disproportionately bad results. In fact, the only thing that had really declined over the last month was my attitude.

I experienced frustration, resentment, a foiled sense of entitlement, aggravation, irritation, impatience, and a stubborn unwillingness to revisit my own behavior in the light of current conditions. This is hardly the posture of serene equanimity that I aspire to. Just look at that list; that list is a summary description of someone on LIFE TILT.

Now let’s consider that previous observation again: the only thing that had really declined over the last month was my attitude.

“The only thing???“

Once the basics are covered (fundamentals of strategy, people reading, mechanics, math), attitude is not the only thing, it’s everything.

I was faced with the prospect of two tournaments, one right after another on sequential evenings, that I really wanted to win. On some level, I also felt that I needed to win them. For better or worse (mostly ‘worse,’ obviously), I was pinning some of my self-esteem to the outcome of these two games. This is not a healthy attitude in general, and it’s especially stupid for a poker player, since—realistically speaking—so much of the outcome of any two games is contingent upon chance.

In preparing for the first of the two games, I identified (in addition to the emotional errors listed above) another factor that I felt was missing in my approach to poker lately. I lacked commitment. I was blaming my failures on everything and anything under the sun; I felt cursed, snakebit, gunshy, doomed. On some level I had already given up on bringing my A game, since it hadn’t done me a bit of good for the last six weeks or so. I had all the safety-net excuses in place for my forthcoming failure.

You know how you can tell that someone’s diet isn’t going to work?
They say, “I’m trying to lose weight.”

You know how you can tell that someone isn’t going to manage to give up cigarettes?
They say, “I’m trying to quit smoking.”

You know how you can tell when someone is just one cocktail away from returning to alcoholic behavior?
They say, “I’m trying to stop drinking.”

The people who succeed at their goals say things like:
“I want to be slimmer. I choose to follow this regimen of diet and exercise today.”

“I want to be a non-smoker. I choose to not light up a cigarette today.”

“I want to live a life free of alcohol. I choose to not take a drink today.”
The equivalent for me:
“I want to be a winning poker-player. I choose to make the best possible decisions I know how at the table today.”
These are statements of commitment, and the actions they predicate are not something subject to material failure (e.g., attempting 13 reps in weightlifting and only being able to do 12). These are behavioral decisions that are totally under the control of sane sentient agents. To quote a famous pop-culture sage: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

I brought that frame of mind to the first tournament and won it. I brought that frame of mind to the second tournament and won it. And the following night, I brought that frame of mind to the cash game I’d been losing at for weeks and walked away with a profit.

Coincidence? On some level: of course. I could just have easily lost in all three locations, attitude and all. But in another sense: no. When I make the best decisions I know how, I put myself in the best possible position to win; in fact, because I actually know how to make good decisions, I will win more often. I become the kind of person I have declared I want to be by behaving the way such a person behaves. It is not some supernatural woo-woo Law of Attraction new age bullshit. It is the way human reality functions.

Okay, let’s take this notion of the importance of commitment and widen the perspective a little bit.

When I started my year-long experiment exploring my potential as a poker-player and a writer, I put some safety nets in place: budgetary restrictions and a specific timeframe were the most significant of these. In effect, I was saying to myself: “I’m going to try out this business of being a professional poker player and see how it goes.”

Can you see the problem with this, the weasel-words embedded in the concept from the get-go?

Three-quarters of the way through this undertaking, I find myself looking ahead to a decision point in August. In August I will have to determine what to do, based on my experience. But I will have to make a decision based not only on incomplete information (as with many important life-decisions), but also on information which has probably been distorted by an underlying flaw in the premises upon which the experiment has been conducted.

I have not, in fact, been acting as if my livelihood and well-being truly depended on my poker decisions. I have been “playing at” being a poker player. I have been operating under the assumption that there is a Plan B, that somehow it doesn’t really matter whether I succeed or not. I have not been making the best possible decisions in my life circumstances, generally; I have not been consistently bringing my A game to this project. This renders my results to-date (already a statistically dubious sample) even more highly suspect. The whole thing reeks of lack of commitment.

Here’s the irony, however: there is no Plan B.

I can no longer imagine happily returning to a more conventional way of earning a living. Of course if getting a regular job were to become a pure financial necessity, I would do it and I would make whatever accommodation was required. But I would experience it as a failure.

The fact of the matter is that I had simply never truly considered what the consequences of committing to this life would actually mean for me. It never occurred to me that (barring some kind of life-altering tournament score) I would absolutely have to move—leave my city home of sixteen years, my dear friends, comfortable residence, pleasant seasonal climate, familiar pastimes, rich cultural context. I had no clue that I would find myself ever more radically out of sync with the rest of the workaday world, to the surprising point of a certain discomfort, even for me, the perpetual outsider.

This is a strange place for me to find myself. I have changed careers multiple times in my life. People have often commented to me that they thought I was “brave” for essentially turning the page on one career and moving on to the next without much regret or anxiety. In retrospect, however, I think one of the reasons I was able to do that was that—again, somewhat ironically—I was never truly committed to any of my choices. I always figured: well, if it doesn’t work out, I’ll do something else. I’m lucky enough to have the education, the background, and the intellectual wherewithal to move on to the next thing if the current one doesn’t pan out. And so I have flitted from occupation to occupation (and pastime to pastime) without any truly signal accomplishments and without any deep-seated sense of satisfaction.

I am convinced, however, of this truth now: there is no substantial success in life, of any kind, without commitment. I have to now consider very carefully what I am actually prepared to commit to, because life is short and these things matter. It astounds me that it has taken me so long to come to this understanding, and amazing that I have poker to thank for it.

[Nota bene: "Commitment" is, of course, also a strategic concept in poker, and at some point I'll want to talk about that too.]

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Thursday, March 26, 2009


The ability to monitor one's own behavior and modify it as needed is one key attribute of a good poker player. It's also a signal attribute of successful and happy human beings in general.

For an example of this in action, read this from Bad Blood.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Perils of the Poker Lifestyle, cont.

As you know, I keep vampiric hours.

Some of this comes naturally to me: I have been a night-owl all my life. Almost all of the sunrises I've seen as an adult were at the end of my waking day, not the beginning. And now that my work routinely takes up a large portion of the hours of darkness, I find I enjoy having some time at the end of my workday to wind down before going to sleep.

This effectively means that I am trying to go to sleep right about the time that the rest of the world is getting busy. And they tend to do it remarkably LOUDLY.

This morning, for example, my sleep was shattered by the demolition project going on in the backyard of my across-the-alley neighbor. We are talking hydraulic jackhammers and roaring earthmovers. Simply impossible to sleep though, as the sounds are a combination of extremely high volume and erratic interval, making them both highly disruptive and unpredictable. I defy anyone to remain unconscious through this fracas, short of already being in a vegetative state.

I dozed and awoke—heart pounding and adrenalin pumping as if I were going to have to fight for my life—multiple times before giving up all hope of further slumber. It is no fun to start one's day in a state of physically prompted rage, especially on inadequate hours of sleep.

Now I know why Superman needs his Fortress of Solitude. I bet it's really quiet there.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Occupational Hazards

So far, I've identified two serious occupational hazards for me, as a poker-player.

The first is the negative impact upon my circadian rhythms and social life of the vampiric hours I keep. For example, last night I got home at about 5 am, and didn't get to sleep until around 6 am. I was so exhausted that I unplugged my landline, and silenced my mobile phone so as to not be disturbed. As a result, I overslept a lunch date with my godmother, and had to make a mad dash to the DMV before it closed to get my car registration renewed (yeah, that's another story, involving a $100 ticket which alerted me to the expiration... unlike, say, getting a notice in advance from the city which they're supposed to send but didn't). This week has also featured my having to cancel dinner plans with friends because the tournament I was in ran impossibly long. I am now facing the possibility of the same scenario happening this coming Saturday... I may just skip the game to avoid it.

The second is potentially even more problematic. Last night I absolutely CRUSHED the Crime Scene Game. Sweet, sweet vindication. Played awesome, ran good. It was just delicious. I made a 200% return on my investment, for an hourly rate of 30.5 BBs. Needless to say, this had both a positive impact on my mood and on my bankroll.

Now, you must know this about me: I am not much of a shopper. I'm simply not one of those gals who particularly enjoys shopping; I buy what I need and like and I'm done. I don't buy things as a therapeutic exercise. I am, by and large, a utilitarian consumer (even, I would argue, when I buy higher end computing devices). And yet... when I had my big score at the Venetian, I bought myself a little souvenir trinket at a jewelry store. It was very modestly priced, I love it, and it has garnered much favorable comment when I wear it.

Today, however, after finishing up at the DMV, I found myself at a Christian Barnard store sporting a going-out-of-business sign. Huge reductions. Bargain bling. Long ago, I bought my favorite watch at Christian Barnard, so I thought I'd stick my head in and see if there was anything cheap and appealing. Well, I found and bought for a song a pretty white gold ring of unusual design. At which point I should have patted myself on the back and walked out. But I did not. Instead I discovered the insidious world of Pandora jewelry, god help me. (As a silversmith and jewelry designer myself, I have to bow to the ingenuity of their scheme.) I now own a necklace, a bracelet, and five charms. Gulp. I am going to have to institute some pretty strict guidelines about acquisition of this stuff, because as far as I can tell it's the gewgaw equivalent of crack.

Needless to say, I would never have given any of this fripperie a second glance if I hadn't just had a big payday at the poker table. But that's exactly the point. Income from the poker table IS MY PAY, and not some kind of "whoo hooo! extra money! let's go spend it! yay!" windfall. I positively cannot afford to make a habit of this sort of thing.

Part of me, though, takes a certain rebellious pleasure in this expenditure. For most of my life, I've spent the absolute minimum amount of time and money on my personal appearance, and eschewed with an almost puritan fervor anything that smacked of unnecessary feminine adornment. Yet the further I plunge into the very masculine world of poker, the more I find myself enjoying gussying-up (nice clothes, cosmetics, and now ~ apparently ~ jewelry). I'm sure there some deep, twisted psychological reason for this, but meh. The key is to keep it all in some kind of moderation.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Romans 7:19

For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.

I know I shouldn't play when I'm exhausted. So what do I do?
I play when I'm exhausted.

I know I should work out every day, and especially on days when I'm playing. So what do I do?
I don't go to the gym and sit around while my legs atrophy.

Once the minimum intellectual requirements are met, the fundamental key to success in this game is pretty simple: self-discipline. That comprises physical maintenance, emotional equanimity, and mental toughness.

I have a ways to go.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Month 5 Gets Put To Bed

The books are closed on Month 5 of my poker adventure.

I'm back from six days of virtually non-stop poker playing in AC. The trip was basically a break-even proposition for me: all my rooms and food were comped, but I barely made a profit at the poker tables and I had to pay for tolls and gas to get there. (I would have shown a much more substantial profit but for two hands: one where I was all in with AA over QQ and lost, and the other where I was foolish enough to go all in against someone who I should have known was incapable of folding top pair. These two hands were both, of course, at a 1/2 table. The players suck, but I experience higher variance there because I don't dumb down enough.)

Fortunately, the trip was useful in a few non-monetary ways. I now am completely convinced about the correlation between physical exercise and success at the table. It's pretty straightforward. The days I worked out before I played, I made money. When I didn't, I didn't. That ought to be enough, right there, to get me motivated to go the gym.

I gathered some new and challenging material for my book, especially concerning my ongoing thinking on the meaning of money. I spent some time on Wednesday with a guy whose attitude toward money (and gambling in general) is worlds away from my own, and it was food for thought. Look for future posts on the topic soon.

After a night playing at The Table From Hell*, I also realized that I need to be more proactive in changing my circumstances if, for whatever reason, I'm not happy with the table I'm at. When I'm not in a casino, table selection is much harder. In AC, I'm generally playing at Harrah's, but I have good relations with the floor staff, and they are very helpful and accommodating to requests. If there's only one table at the given stakes, that's one thing, and you kind of have to just suck it up. But if you have a choice, why not exercise it? One of the edges I think I have over many players is that I genuinely find playing poker to be FUN. I need to continually find ways to keep it that way, otherwise I'll be just another grim-faced grinder without any alternatives.

*The Table From Hell comprised Chatty Asian Girl Who Knew She Was Hot But Wouldn't Shut Up EVAR And Ended Up With Everyone Hating Her, Two Sloppy Beligerent Drunks, Lagtard Luckbox, Cranky Pro, Stinky Man, Lovely Sunshiny Dealer Who Finally Lost It and assorted other characters. It was the slowest, noisiest, and most annoying table I've ever sat at. Finally, in desperation, I went to the floor and moved back to 2/5. Blessed relief.

I am going to focus intently on my writing this month. I've accumulated a lot of very valuable direct experience, and I need to spend some time digesting it and reshaping it for the book. I'm starting to feel that time is growing short for me to get this thing written, especially as I expect that I won't have much time to work on it during the WSOP. Time to crank it out!

Without further ado, my stats for Month 5. Numbers in parentheses are Month 4 for comparison purposes.

ROI on live tournaments: 261% (0%)
Obviously the wins in AC were the big factors this month.

ROI on live cash games: 7% (63%)
It seems that I alternate between having strong cash months and strong tournament months. It would be nice to be able to fire on BOTH cylinders at once.

Combined live ROI for the month: 34% (56%)

Total live tournaments ROI to-date: 92%
Total cash game ROI to-date: 257%

Current live bankroll ROI: 37%
I am now five months into my experiment and I have, cumulatively, put every dollar of my original bankroll at risk at least once. This suggests to me that 37% may start to approximate an expected rate of return on my money. If I absolutely, positively had to live on my poker income, I could. But it would be very, very difficult.

Here's another item worth noting: I have put four times as much money at risk playing cash games as I have at tournaments. Despite the swings, cash games are indisputably more profitable for me than tournaments. They are clearly the bread and butter of the professional life. On the other hand, a big score in a tournament could vastly overshadow the profits possible at the cash stakes I play. The big tournament win is obviously still worth pursuing, but on some level it is much more of a 'lottery ticket' than the regular returns of a cash game livelihood.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Day 93: Back on Track

Well. That was interesting.

If you read the 2+2 Forums enough, eventually you will come across the concept of "life tilt." It's usually used in a humorous/exasperated way, extending the notion of "tilt" in poker (playing in a non-optimal way due to an emotional reaction to circumstances) into the rest of life. The phrase "life tilt" is funny in part because it's so clearly used as hyperbole, e.g.: "The way the guy to my right counted out his stack of hundreds by TWOS put me on life tilt." or "My girlfriend's constant hinting about a ring is putting me on life tilt." (Okay, maybe that last one isn't so much hyperbole for the 2+2 demographic.)

So consider this, to begin with, my confession. My confession of the sin of pride.

I have always claimed to tilt less than most poker players I know. Having seen at least my fair share of bad beats (more than my share? don't we all think so?), the miracle card just doesn't faze me that much. Rude comments don't piss me off enough to affect my game. Needling doesn't get to me. Even playing with people I loathe just doesn't put me off my game the way you might think it would. At the poker table I'm pretty thick-skinned and relatively unflappable. When playing alone at home online, I may rant and rave out loud ~ my array of invective can be quite impressive ~ but I like to think that my play remains pretty steady.

So what the hell happened the last couple of weeks?

Life tilt happened.

There was the incredibly frustrating trip to AC. There were some disappointing developments in my personal life. Logistics got the better of me on a few occasions; things I thought were settled ~ over-and-done ~ turned out to be unfinished business. And I was playing poker with a vengeance: way too much and with the wrong motivation (the desire to make up losses). I was not going to the gym, not sleeping enough, eating like a 400 lb. shut-in, and failing to keep enough company with people who love me and vice versa.

I have known for a while now that I am vulnerable to the cumulative effects of multiple stressors. In the last ten years I've had two episodes of fairly severe depression, both brought on by the convergence of several highly stressful events (in one case, for example: a car accident, quitting a job where my supervisor was a nutcase, and the collapse of a relationship all in the space of a couple of months). What I think I've failed to recognize is the much milder version of the same syndrome. There have been no catastrophes in the last couple of weeks, but the stressometer was definitely starting to redline. And I was not taking the proper steps to manage my response. This is classic vicious circle material.

Naming it does not solve the problem, but it's a start. Okay, so I'm pressing the reset button.

Here's the thing: I cannot sustain this experiment without a high level of self-scrutiny and a degree of self-discipline that I'm simple unaccustomed to exercising. And the key to this is management of my emotional well-being. I'm never going to be a poker genius; I don't have the raw talent and I'm not young enough to bake the skills in so that they are purely intuitive. If I'm going to have any edge at all, it's going to have to come from mental and emotional maturity. That means I must make the things that contribute to strengthening that equanimity a priority ~ a priority way ahead of the actual poker-playing.

To play good poker, my head has to be in a good place. And for my head to be in a good place, I have to be leading a good life. Duh, right?

If it's so easy, let's see you do it.

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Sunday, October 5, 2008

Day 48: Marathon

Fifteen straight hours of poker. I am completely exhausted, and can only cough up these few poor sentences before I drag myself off to church, then nap, then dinner.

I once again failed to cash in my A League end-of-quarter tournament (I bubbled, painfully). This is an ongoing travesty for me, and I'm embarrassed by it. I'm not sure why this particular especially lucrative prize continues to elude me. It is beyond frustrating.

On the upside, however, I cashed in the subsequent tournament, and did very, very well in the cash games between and after.

This is all well and good, but it is not terribly conducive to a well-ordered life, and I suspect I've just let myself in for a very nasty cold or something. I have been shredding my stamina for the last ten days or so, and it's bound to catch up with me.

I will probably be posting thinly for the next five days or so, as I try to get my life at least vaguely organized before my four-day trip to Vegas on October 9th. I've got a lot of ground to cover, and not a lot of time. And I need to try and bank some quality rest before I start up the madness again in Sin City.

Combined Live and Online Bankroll: 106%

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Day 40: Total Exhaustion

Thou shalt not pull two all-nighters in a row.

Thou shalt not expect to play decent poker when thou art ready to pass out from fatigue.

Thou shalt get up from the table and go to sleep until thou has regained a clue and a sense of proportion.

Thou shalt exercise caution in mixing business with pleasure.

Hmmm. Which one should I write 100 times on the blackboard first, do you think?


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Day 37: Life Tilt

Some days, life makes it hard to play good poker. Today was one of those days. Extraneous concerns clouded my head. I am preoccupied with people and matters that have nothing to do with cards.

Feeling gloomy and lonely, which doesn't help either. I'm lucky I have friends I can vent to, because ~ as noted earlier ~ the poker table is a pretty solitary place, and not a venue for exposing your vulnerabilities.

I played a lengthy session online tonight, all the while chatting with a friend and fellow poker-player on the other side of the country via Skype. Made me feel less alone with my angst, for which I was mightily grateful.

My online bankroll continues to grow back toward its previous full amplitude, which is encouraging, thanks in part to a HORSE sit'n'go. (Wouldn't it be INSANE if I ended up being a HORSE specialist?)

Poker is easy; life, on the other hand, life is hard.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Day 26: Laugh

One little tournament this afternoon, during the course of which I think I actually dragged a grand total of three pots before I was eliminated ~ all-in with great odds to double up and be back in the game, but nuh-unh. Denied. What else is new?

The rest of the day and evening was a vast improvement, featuring good food, good company, and a lot of laughs. I am reminded that it is possible to get to be a geezer and still be silly and funky and have a great time acting out and being irreverent.

I am a much goofier individual than my poker persona (or indeed my former professional life) generally reveals. I am a grown-up (yeah, really I am), but I'm also not a grown-up. There's plenty of kid in me: and the kid likes to dance, and laugh hysterically at dumb jokes, and climb over fences, and ask "why?" a lot, and make up secret languages, and exchange blood oaths with friends, and stay up past my bedtime and then sleep in, and have dessert before dinner sometimes. The kid in me is wildly enthusiastic about some things, some activities, and some people, and will walk through fire to get to them. Most of all, the kid isn't the slightest bit worried about looking stupid or undignified, because a) the kid knows she's not stupid, no matter what anyone else thinks and 2) dignity is for grown-ups and statues.

And besides, silliness has a dignity all its own, if you look at it the right way. Silliness is a big fat 'f*-you' in the face of death and oppression and bureaucracy and stifling convention. If you can't be silly, you aren't free.

There's a possibility that my poker persona may be too restrictive, even at the table. Maybe I could bring the silly a bit more. It might confuse other people, and it might make poker even more fun for me. (Hard to imagine, but still.) Laughter is disarming and a great stress reliever.

I'm going to think about that a bit.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Day 23: Poker Is Not A Team Sport

In poker, we have a word for team players. We call them "colluders" or, more colloquially, "cheaters."

Poker is a game of individuals, with each player explicitly out for his or her own best interest ~ as defined by the goals of the game ~ at all times. No quarter should be asked for or given. The expectation is that there are no friends at the poker table, or at least no deference to friendship. Taking it easy on a pal or a spouse is called "soft playing," and it is also a form of collusion, even if it is not expressly planned in advance. It's not supposed to happen, and depending on the environment the consequences can range from eye-rolling tolerance to disapprobation and outrage to abrupt ejection with prejudice.

It is odd that such an inherently social game should also be so solitary. It can be very, very lonely at the felt.

There is no one to consult with in the middle of a game. The "one player to a hand" rule is pretty clear on this, and it tends to be enforced pretty much across the board. You have no one to lean on in your decision-making, and no one to take the blame or reap the rewards but yourself. "It's on you," they say when it's your turn to act. And it really is on you, and on no one else.

If you play a lot of poker, then, despite sitting at a table with as many as nine other people, you are actually spending a lot of time on your own, psychologically speaking. You must be self-reliant. You must generate your own initiative. You must keep yourself focused. You have to be comfortable with being in your own head a lot of the time, even while you interact with others around you. Part of you must always be observing, measuring, calculating, and self-monitoring.

And since everything you do or say at the table constitutes information for your opponents, you must always be aware of what you are emitting, and modulate it for the intended receivers. This is not an environment for spontaneous truth-telling, which is the heart and soul of true friendship, or indeed any authentic relationship.

To survive the rigors of the table, a friendship ~ or any close personal tie ~ must be able to tolerate setting clear boundaries around the activity of playing poker. Both parties must understand the nature of the game, and freely and enthusiastically assent to the no-holds-barred, bare-knuckled, cage-match-brawl nature of the competition. They must respect the rules and be able to leave the game behind emotionally when it's over. They must truly understand and believe that it is, in fact, just a game. And when they are away from the table, they must take extra pains to renew the bonds of trust and affection between them, so that the difference between the game and the rest of life is made explicit and underscored.

I have witnessed the stresses that intense competition in poker can bring to a relationship. With deep concern I observed as a couple, friends of mine who had been married for more than a dozen years, found themselves on the brink of separation in part because of the way they played poker together. People often bring their problems to the table with them; without a strong ability to compartmentalize, they find that their play is affected by their life circumstances and their life circumstances are influenced by their play. And, in general, this is not a good thing.

Paradoxically, however, it is also possible for real friendships to be born around a poker table. People with a shared passion for the game sometimes discover that they have other interests and values in common. They also see each other under conditions of stress and challenge, they can watch how the other responds to success and disappointment, they have a chance to observe something about the other's attitudes toward money, risk, etiquette, and discipline. They often find out quickly how adaptable the other is, how creative and resilient, as well as something about an individual's inherent optimism or pessimism. You can learn a lot about the quality of someone's judgment and the character of his integrity by watching him play poker. Of course everything one perceives at the poker table comes with an asterisk attached ~ "*when playing poker" ~ but few people are such masters of deception that nothing of their real personality is revealed in their game. Friendships that begin in the context of poker can have a head start on a whole lot of information that might otherwise take years to acquire.

Because of the individualistic nature of poker and the hours of intense solo striving that the game entails, strong friendships and other intimate and familial relationships become especially valuable in the life of a poker-player. Without them, the player has no place to be his- or herself, unselfconsciously and without ulterior motive, with others. Without them, the player has no occasion to experience the voluntary vulnerability that makes generosity, compassion, and love possible. The poker table is not a place for the pleasures of selflessness or the dignity and honor of self-sacrifice. These emotional gestures and moral choices are as essential to our full humanity as the will to succeed; without an opportunity to exercise them, our souls wither and die inside us. And what will it profit us if we win the whole world, but lose ourselves?

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