Raise or Fold:  Learning (From) Poker

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

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

Be Not Afraid (part 1)

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.
—Frank Herbert, Dune, 1965
Unmanaged fear is probably the single most dangerous psychological obstacle to winning at poker. And a life governed by fear is deeply destructive to an individual and—if widespread in a culture—to civil society as a whole. If you let it, fear will destroy your game and maybe even you as well. Learning how to recognize, experience, and yet move beyond your fear is essential if you are to be a successful player.

The impulse of fear is useful when it helps us accurately identify dangers and prepares us to respond in constructive ways. But decisions made under the sway of fear are far less likely to be good ones. Our biological fight-or-flight reflexes are often wildly inappropriate for the contexts in which they are triggered in modern life, and this is especially evident at the poker table. When adrenalin pumps through your bloodstream, when your heart races and your hands shake and your bowels liquefy, when you have the vital urge to flip the table in rage or curl up in a fetal position underneath it, you are unlikely to be considering, say, the choice between leading out with a value-bet or check-raising as coolly and deliberately as the situation warrants.

Fear comes in many guises and manifests itself in many ways, some considerably more subtle and insidious than the basic glandular reaction to an obvious external threat. What are you really afraid of?

Are you afraid of losing (and there are so many kinds of loss to consider)? Are you afraid of looking stupid? Does the demeanor or the playing style of someone at the table scare you? Are you fearful that you will lose control? Are you frightened that your time at the table will cause others to judge you immoral or actively dislike you? Are you terrified that, when all is said and done, you might actually be a winner? (Then what?!?)

I'll be addressing each of these questions.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Move Over, Machiavelli

“It is best to be both feared and loved; however, if one cannot be both it is better to be feared than loved.” Niccollò Machiavelli, The Prince, 1532.

I first started playing poker seriously in a free tournament (hosted by the National Pub Poker League) at a restaurant in Arlington, VA. I was having dinner with a friend, and I noticed people setting up poker tables in another part of the room. I had first played Texas Hold’em with a by-then-ex-boyfriend, and had already caught poker fever, but had no outlet for it. I’m afraid I spent a good portion of that dinner craning my neck curiously and wistfully toward the poker tables. The next week I was there, ready to play, nervous and excited.

I placed third out of forty-two my very first tournament. And my fate was sealed.

It took me awhile to place again. But I became a regular, made a bunch of poker-playing friends, and started to really learn the game. On Tuesdays, I would arrive early to get my preferred seat at my favorite non-smoking table, order dinner, and wait for the lambs to come to slaughter.

One evening, as I wiped the last of my dinner from my lips, I watched as two or three guys in succession made their way toward my table only to pull up short and veer off at the last minute as they realized it was me. The last one, a guy who I’d watched improve a lot over the previous few months, said, “I’d like to sit with you, Cardgrrl, but I’d also like to make the final table. See you there!”

The surge of satisfaction I experienced upon hearing these words cannot be properly conveyed. I felt powerful, wise, and permanent. I was feared, and it was good.

Women’s liberation and the feminist movement in general notwithstanding, women in our culture are still brought up to want — first and above all — to be loved. We are encouraged to do everything possible to be desirable, acceptable, and emotionally unthreatening. We are taught to avoid or swiftly resolve conflict, not to engage it, take it on, or god forbid escalate it. Few men, for example, would put "intimidating" high on the list of desirable attributes in a mate. (It was, in fact, a source of some consternation to me throughout my youth that people did sometimes characterize me as intimidating, especially since I had no intention of being so, nor could I really understand why others perceived me that way.)

But it turns out that, at the poker table, Machiavelli is right. It is better to feared than loved, if you have to choose between the two. This is especially true in tournaments. Tournaments are all about survival and domination, about putting your opponents to the test. If you cannot occasionally move an adversary off a hand when you need to, for example, you are utterly at the mercy of your cards and you are essentially playing bingo, not poker. Predictable behavior is not frightening: the bogeyman does not publish a schedule of his daily activities. He jumps out of the shadows, or emerges unexpectedly in the mundane environment of the laundromat (say), and wreaks bloody havoc. That’s scary. The tyrant does not forgive and forget, or pursue civil justice under the rule of law: he punishes his enemies (and the occasional innocent, just because) all out of proportion to their sins against him, and shows up with the secret police pounding on the door in the middle of the night. That’s intimidating.

While there are some benefits to having people like you (you may gain information, you may be given the benefit of the doubt, you may even get a break when you’re behind), they pale in comparison to the advantages gained by striking fear into your opponents’ hearts. I suppose if you could really somehow persuade your table mates that you were a harmless dumb bunny who was just getting lucky over and over that might be ideal. But realistically, that’s only going to work for awhile. Sooner or later any observant opponent is going to put two-and-two together and then, no matter how charming and careless you may appear, the fear and doubt are going to begin to set in. And then you have them.

In a cash game, the trick becomes how not to scare them so badly that they take their money and run away (which is why fear is especially useful in tournaments, where the sheep who fear fleecing cannot request a table change and only get up and leave when they bust out). Misdirection and charm are helpful: consider the table talk deployed so skillfully by a player like Daniel Negreanu, or the goofy but entertaining banter of Phil Laak. Even the obnoxious behavior of famous bad boys of poker like Mike “The Mouth” Matusow and Phil Hellmuth probably serves the same purpose: “Pay no attention to how well I’m playing, get aggravated at my annoying antics instead!”

The Prince must retain initiative and control, and be both feared and respected; these qualities serve the poker player equally well.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

On Money (1st of many)

Money in poker is not like money in any other context. Money is both the medium and the message. I’d like to say that, in poker, money is post-modern. Let us, therefore, deconstruct some of the roles of money in the context of the game.

Money in poker is like a zen koan or a taoist aphorism: you have to simultaneously care and not care about it. This is, as you might imagine, preposterously difficult to do.

Most of us, if we were raised by reasonably responsible parents, actually care a good deal about money. We have some sense of the value of money: x amount of money is a dinner out, y amount of money is a month’s rent or mortgage payment, z amount of money is a year of college tuition or a car. We worry about money, we make budgets, we scrimp and save for desired expenditures, we have JOBS (for heaven’s sake!) so that we can pay our bills and provide for our families. We plan for retirement. We look with smug pity at people who paid full retail for something we got on sale.

Conversely, however, if we are well-balanced individuals, we don’t care too much about money. There are definitely things we wouldn’t do for any amount of money. We tend to be appalled by people whose sole goal in life is the accumulation of wealth. It’s not for nothing that we are familiar with the phrases “filthy lucre” and “money-grubbing.” We are concerned about laying waste to our powers, “getting and spending.” And there’s a world of difference between an honest day’s work for an honest day’s wage and the kind of profiteering and exploitation that has stocked the bank accounts of the world’s wealthy.

People’s lives are definitively shaped by their relationship to money: an early experience of poverty or excess, for example, can have a profound effect on a person’s personality and life goals. Marriages are often strengthened or broken depending on the degree to which the spouses have compatible views on how to manage money. Businesses big and small, and indeed whole societies, rise and fall with their ability to keep money flowing in healthy and constructive ways. There is just no getting around it: money matters. A lot.

Now, welcome to the poker table.

At the poker table, we use money to keep score. We use money to communicate with the other players. We use money as a tool and a weapon. It may seem as if winning money is the object of the game—and of course on some level it is—but actually, the goal of the game is to consistently make decisions that will lead to the greatest possible expected value. My goal is not to win this pot, although that would be nice. My goal is to play this pot in such a way that, if I did it this way every time I encountered these circumstances, in the long run I would maximize my profit. This is a very different proposition, and while it concerns probability it is in no way about gambling. (This is hard concept to grasp. We will return to it again and again.)

The multiple roles that money plays in a poker game have some strange repercussions.

I will never forget the first time I sat down in a casino to play poker for money. Despite having played in small stakes home games, and online (for amounts ridiculously beyond my bankroll, in retrospect), the first time I pulled out $200 ACTUAL DOLLARS to buy into the $1/$2 game, my hands were shaking and I felt vaguely queasy. I don’t think my hands stopped shaking that entire first session, and I’m pretty sure I came close to fainting when I had pocket aces and made a raise to OH MY GOD TWENTY DOLLARS!!!

Even Monopoly, which is purportedly a game all about making money, has the good sense to make most of the action in the game involve moving a gamepiece around a board and collecting cards. In poker, the way we distract ourselves from what seems to be the inherent lunacy of PLAYING WITH MONEY AS IF IT WERE A FOOTBALL is to substitute chips for cash. This is the first, and probably essential, step in distancing ourselves from the madness. Pay no attention to anyone who says that the use of chips is purely for the convenience of the players. I would wager (no pun intended) that chips were first invented by casinos, and probably not first for use in poker games. The sole goal of casinos is to separate fools from their money as efficiently as possible. These businesses realize that no sane person is going to scatter large-denomination bills all over a roulette table. The guy’ll look at the money lying everywhere and think, “Oh crap, that’s a whole lot of money! I could buy myself a really high-end hooker and some quality blow with that cash!” (Or whatever, you get my point.)

But chips are different. Psychologically, chips don’t really belong to you; after all, they have someone else’s name printed on them, or perhaps they are eerily blank-faced. You don’t own them, you are just borrowing them for the duration of the game. They are not cash. They are not credit cards. They are Money Once Removed. And like those biologically distant cousins, you just can’t work up the same feelings of attachment and investment as you can for those creatures nearer, dearer, and more familiar to you. Chips have a way of slipping through your fingers. I have watched people toss their last $100 chip onto the table saying something like, “Oh well, it’s getting late, I might as well gamble,” and proceed to lose it in what is essentially a coin flip or worse. They would never do that with a hundred dollar bill, or five twenties. These are the same types who calculate the tip at a restaurant to the third decimal place.

So, is the use of chips an Evil Plot?


But it’s also incredibly helpful, because in order to deploy money appropriately in a poker game, you MUST be able to detach from it to the appropriate degree. In fact, one of the challenges with chips (if you play enough) is that it becomes possible to fetishize them almost to the same degree that the entire culture fetishizes cash. Look around the poker table and you will see classic signs of the disorder: towers of chips built with obsessive care; people who count and recount their stacks, who segregate their buy-in from their profits; the fearful nursing of the shortstack to the great detriment of optimal strategy. People get stack envy, for god’s sake. People finger their chips and stroke their stacks in ways that are laughably erotic.

When I look back at the frightened gal who quaked as she bought in for $200, I have to marvel at the emotional distance in my relationship to money that I’ve travelled in a few short years. There’s a drawer in my desk at home, now, where I keep my working poker bankroll. (My working bankroll is different from my overall bankroll by a large amount.) But by any reasonable standard, it’s a whole lot of cash. Until recently I’d only once had $500 in cash on my person, and that was when (many years ago) I had to buy an airplane ticket and for some reason I couldn’t use a credit card. I remember walking from the bank to the travel agency (yeah, like I said, DECADES AGO) in a state of near panic, imagining that everyone would know that I had a large amount of money in my pocket. These days, if you see me in a casino, it’s likely to the point of routine that I’ll have $500 in chips immediately to hand, and ten times that much cash in a safe somewhere nearby.

Even thinking about it boggles my mind. Except that, more and more, it just doesn’t. It reminds me a bit of the transition I went through when I became a professional photographer, and started to acquire high-end camera equipment—sophisticated bodies and really pricey lenses—and at first was deeply anxious when I used them. Eventually, they became merely familiar and beloved tools of my trade. I was not afraid of them anymore: I was no longer concerned about whether I would be worthy of them, live up to their quality, prestige, and excellence, or make best use of them. I knew I wasn’t going to break them or embarrass myself with them. I tossed them casually into my camera bag and got to work.


Friday, October 24, 2008

Day 66: My Writing Desk

beautiful latte

I've started a new program of finding cool places to eat and drink coffee that have free WIFI. This beautiful beverage was served up to me at Open City, which is a pleasant downhill walk from my apartment. It's a nice place to sit and write.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Day 28: Working It

It was a good day today.

I had an immensely productive afternoon: four hours of substantial progress on the book. I sat in my local Starbucks, sipping on a quad-shot venti latte and just cranking. I have rarely in my life felt as in the pocket. I am more persuaded than ever that I am doing the right thing at the right time, and it feels really, really good.

Then I zipped across the river to a tournament hosted this evening by one of my A League colleagues. Although not part of our quarterly points system, this game featured a large buy-in and fifteen participants.

I played my ass off: a creative, error-free game. Despite getting knocked down pretty hard a couple of times ~ once at my original table and once at the final table ~ I stayed calm and just fought my way back into contention. I climbed up from a low of 4 BBs heads-up to take the game. Every decision I made was a good decision, and (as one must to win a tournament) I got lucky with good cards when I really needed them.

It was a damn good day today.

Live bankroll: 102.3%
Online bankroll: 94.8%

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Monday, August 18, 2008

A Year of Risky Business

I was brought up all wrong.

My parents were both artists, and they raised me to believe that a person should follow his or her own vision, passionately and eagerly, whether or not that vision is shared or approved of by the rest of society. It was therefore sheer good luck that we led a modestly middle-class existence as I was growing up.

The upshot of this family ethos, for me, has been a series of creative careers ~ many of which could actually have been lucrative, had I given money-making the slightest priority. But no, I have preferred to do what engaged my enthusiasm rather than what was likely to plump up my wallet.

In other words, I am an idiot.

I am, nevertheless, a consistent idiot; I am doing it yet again. I am following my interests and inclinations despite many very good rea$ons not to do so. I am setting aside a well-established track record in interactive web design to pursue a totally unrelated career trajectory.

Perhaps I am also an insane idiot. It's entirely possible.

In an effort to mitigate the potential bad effects of this madness, I am setting a time-frame in advance: one year. I will give it a year and give it my all. At year's end, I will assess my progress and either bring the experiment to an end or drink a very large amount of champagne whilst celebrating wildly with those I love.

For the next twelve months I will be playing poker and writing.

Yes, poker. Specifically No-Limit Texas Hold'em (mostly), both in tournaments and in cash games. And yes, for money. I hope, eventually, for lots of money. But initially for modest stakes in casinos, online, and in home games. If I manage to break even (including my poker-related expenses) this year, I will consider it a raving success. If I cover my ordinary living expenses as well, I will break out the aforementioned champagne and be ~ temporarily, I trust ~ insufferably proud of myself.

But what about the writing... why would anybody muck up a perfectly delightful plan to play poker all the time by adding writing into the mix?

Damn good question. (Kindly refer back to the speculation about sanity cited above.)

All silliness aside, however, I will be writing because I'd like to share with others what poker has taught and continues to teach me about facing a challenging world succesfully: who I am, what I want, how I respond to fear and stress and even success, what I know about other people, and how to always keep observing, learning, and adapting no matter the circumstances.

I don't intend to write a poker strategy book. I'm nowhere near good enough to do that. Poker is a game of many, many layers. I am just beginning to peel them away, and with each new one I realize how very few I've mastered and just how deep the game really is. I do think, though, that I have something to offer in reflecting on how learning to play poker well can build skills that will help a person to live well too.

Like this blog, the book's working title is Raise or Fold, and an important part of this year's activity is the commitment to finish it within that timeframe. (No book, no champagne.) I'll be posting work-in-progress from the book as I go. I'll also be posting about my day-to-day experiences at the poker table, the status of my bankroll, and ~ to some extent ~ the other parts of my life that contribute to my ability to play my best, including exercise and charitable activities.

Your comments and criticism will be gratefully received: for heaven's sake please don't hold back!

Live Bankroll: 100%
Online Bankroll: 100%

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