Lessons From the Poker Table

One night during my sophomore year of college I was just about to get off from working a double when one of my co-workers invited me over for a “friendly” poker game. I excitedly accepted, my natural competitiveness even prompting me to brag about winning a few bucks in my buddy’s kitchen during high school. James just chuckled and asked how much cash I had on me. Five hours later I was sitting at the table already down $60 and soon to lose my next buy-in as well. I was effectively hooked.

Over the next 3 years, when I wasn’t at work or in class, you could almost always find me at a poker table. Thankfully, I did get better, but I spent plenty of nights that first year donating all the cash I had spent the day earning. I’ve always been overconfident when it came to any sort of game, but No-Limit Texas Hold Em’ finally humbled me. I can say without hesitation that I’m friends with some of the best players in San Antonio, maybe in the country, and while I could hold my own at a table n0w, my natural ability doesn’t even come close to theirs. That being said, playing poker supplied me with a greater education than sitting in classes for four years at a university did. I struggled through a Statistics class my first year of college, but after a few months of sitting at those tables I found myself calculating the odds of hitting my straight on the river and statistics suddenly made much more sense to me. Not to mention I could’ve taught the Nonverbal Communications class I took my senior year. The real beauty of a game like poker, though, is the life lessons it offers. So in honor of WSOP season, I’ve decided to share a few.

  1. Sharks don’t always look like sharks. If you’re at all like I was before I ever played poker, you probably have a mental image of what you think a card shark (or a “good” player) looks like. The person you imagine might be in a hoodie, sunglasses on, earbuds in, much like the pros you see on TV. It didn’t take me long to discover that the guys who showed up to our games looking like this were usually the wannabes who ended up going home with broken hearts and empty wallets. Meanwhile my buddies could have a beer in front of them and carry on an entire discussion about the basketball game going on in the background, all while being able to accurately predict the cards every other player is holding and scoop pots without a lapse in conversation. Sharks pay very close attention, which is why they are commonly perceived as quiet, the unassuming predators you won’t notice until it’s too late. While this can be true (I for one don’t tend to talk much when I play), the most lethal sharks are simply masters of disguise. They choose the role they want to play based on the way they can best manipulate those around them. For instance, if you’ve ever watched professional poker, you may know “Poker Brat”, Phil Hellmuth. Besides his brilliant card skills, Hellmuth is most commonly known for his loud-mouth, bullying, and obnoxious attitude. But if you’ve watched as much poker as I have, you’ve probably also come to the realization that this is just one face this sneaky shark wears. The Poker Brat character is perfect for tables that include amateur players; it’s intimidating, unnerving, and distracting. However, if you watched Poker After Dark and saw Hellmuth sitting with players like Phil Ivey, Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, etc. then you saw a completely different person. Antics don’t work with a table of professionals who have you pegged nine ways from Sunday the second you take your seat. Some of these sharks have reached the point of no longer having to rely on alternate personas. Some sharks probably have a persona only for when they’re being filmed, but play completely differently when not under public scrutiny. The point is, this philosophy is as good in the real world as it is at a poker table. Poker taught me never to prejudge, assume, or underestimate. The shark might not be the one winning every hand, but he/she is undoubtedly the one who learns something every hand. And you better believe they are collecting and storing every sliver of information to insure you never best them again.

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    The Poker Brat
  2. Prepare for how you react when you get what you’ve been waiting for. Relatively early on, I decided my absolute favorite poker hand was 9 7 suited. It’s not an easy hand to place an opponent on, but with straight draw and flush draw possibilities, when it hits, it hits hard. I almost always raised pre-flop with it, depending on the action, and I had won a few pots backing into a straight on the river with it. But one day I was playing and called a small pre-flop raise with my favorite hand, along with 3 other callers, and the flop came 6 8 10 rainbow. In other words, I had flopped what we called “the nuts”. I had waited patiently for this moment for thousands of hours. So of course, I completely blew it. I freaked, it was probably written all over my face, and I placed a huge raise, it might as well have been all of my chips, on the table. Every one folded, and what undoubtedly could’ve been my largest pot to date resulted in meager winnings and a crushed spirit. Not to mention my fellow players all knew exactly what had happened without ever seeing my cards, and whatever decent poker cred I had spent months trying to build was instantly destroyed. How I played that hand has haunted me more than the worst bad beats I ever took, because it had so much potential and I blew it. I’ve found that this sort of thing happens much more in life than it really should. If we want something to happen so bad, how can we afford to not prepare ourselves for when it does? I’ve seen this happen with relationships more than anything. I’ll know someone who lament over being single for months, finally develop a crush on someone, start dating them, and then totally blow it for one reason or another. I’ve seen this happen with work situations more times than I could count. People I’ve known who have whined about not getting promotions and when they finally do, perform poorly. I even have a friend who told me repeatedly he wanted to open a restaurant. He said it was his dream, he talked in depth about what food he’d serve and how great it would be to be an entrepreneur. He mentioned this to me every once in awhile for years. Not too long ago, he told me he had just received a substantial sum of inheritance money from his recently passed grandfather. He was surprised, he had no idea he’d be receiving so much. Naturally, I thought the first thing he’d do was finally open a restaurant. But when I inquired about it, he just looked taken aback and told me he didn’t know the first thing about how to start a business.  I was incredulous, but it hit me that people do this all the time. We’re dealt the nuts and blow it, because what? We thought we’d never be lucky enough, skilled enough, attractive enough, worthy enough?  But we are. So when we are handed the right cards, we have to know how to play them. This brings me to my next point…

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    Not one of my more serious games in college…
  3. Luck exists, but to really get ahead you have to understand how to capitalize on it. I like that saying “Luck is when hard work meets preparation.” I believe that, but I think it’s only half of what luck is. I think “luck” and “law of attraction” are exactly the same thing. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, the ones who go around saying over and over, “I have the worst luck” DO have the worst luck. And vice versa. So when we do get that stroke of luck, it is oh so important we understand how to capitalize on it. Because when something lucky happens, that’s your chance to say, wow I’m so lucky, and whole-heartedly believe it, for as long as possible. And the longer you believe it, the luckier you’ll stay. Here’s my proof:  My favorite World Series of Poker Main Event ever was in 2009, because that was the season of Darvin Moon. Moon was a self-employed logger from Maryland who enjoyed playing poker with his buddies back home. He satellited into the Main Event, meaning he won his entry by winning a smaller tournament. Moon thought briefly about pocketing the $10,000 that the main event ticket costs, but inevitably decided he couldn’t pass up the once in a lifetime opportunity to play alongside his heroes, not to mention fly in a plane and go to Vegas for the first time. My friends and I watched the in awe, absolutely fascinated by Darvin Moon. He was a big teddy bear, with red hair and an ever-present Saints cap, who was quiet but funny and self-deprecating when he did speak. He won hand after hand after hand. On Day 1, he was dealt pocket aces 6 times, and hit a set (three of a kind) on the flop 3 times. He consistently played the hands correctly, he capitalized on every pot, but it was undeniable that he was extremely lucky. He acknowledged this, always admitting he was a lucky guy, and he became fond of saying, “If I win, I win, if I lose, I lose. I’m just happy to be here.” Spectators began to watch with both admiration and horror as he lasted day after day, eliminating poker pros such as David Benyamine and Billy Kopp in huge pots, until he made it all the way to the final table of the WSOP Main Event. Once it was down the November 9 he also knocked out Steve Begleiter and Phil Ivey, in both cases, Moon was behind but caught cards to win; Ivey lost with A K to Moon’s A Q when a queen came up on the flop, and Begleiter’s pocket queens lost to Moon’s A Q when he caught an ace on the river. He made it all the way to heads-up with Joe Cada, and you could see on Moon’s face the exact moment he believed his luck ran out. This was a man who taught himself poker, everything he knew was from watching tv and playing in the garage with his buddies, and heads up poker is a whole new game. He lost to Cada in the 79th heads up hand, following through with an expensive bluff that didn’t pan out. Although disappointed, Darvin Moon, a logger from Maryland, walked out that day with $5,182,601, and his life was forever changed. The man understood how lucky he was and how to capitalize on it. Ever since 2009, I’ve tried to be like Darvin Moon.

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This entry was going to be longer, but I got side-tracked watching YouTube clips of that 2009 WSOP, so I’ll leave you today with the last poker lesson that I’ve truly taken to heart, “If you can’t spot the fish (sucker), you ARE the fish.” I know you’ve all heard that one before ,but it’s so true. If you can’t pinpoint the problem, you’re the problem. I was the fish at that poker table for months, until a new one walked in the door and I realized it had been me the whole time up until that point. The good thing is, we’re all fish sometimes. But with hard work and a little bit of luck, we can become sharks.

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My favorite player of all time with his favorite hand.
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