Category Archives: Series: Poker, Chess and Life

Poker, Chess and Life – Part 5 (Success)

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Throughout this series I’ve been using the games of poker and chess to help shed some light on some of the most key concepts we deal with in every day life. Success is the fifth, final and probably most important one to understand correctly. The basic definition of success is the accomplishment of an aim or purpose. Success in taking an exam is to pass that exam. Success in placing a bet is to win that bet. Success in life is much less clear. Whatever it is, it must be comprised by the accomplishment of the aims and purposes that lead to the life we want to live.

It’s very hard to quantify success objectively. If you ask any person whether they’d like their life to be successful they’ll undoubtedly answer ‘yes’. If you ask any person whether they want to earn as much money as possible or raise a beautiful family, they might answer ‘no’. It follows from this that getting rich and having a big loving family are just two possible routes to success for certain people and are not rigidly tied to the concept for humans per se. Nevertheless, these kind of conceptions are commonly taken as definitions of the word these days in many societies. My aim is to quantify success by something different; something that’s universally desirable to everyone and then figure out how to achieve that. I’ll start by looking at how success in games like chess and poker differs from success in the real world and go from there. Ultimately I want to drive at the idea that we have developed a pretty distorted inappropriate idea of success, at least in modern western society.

1. On Success in Games

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Games are great because they’re simplified realms where the objective is very simple. In chess the objective is to win and that entails that your opponent loses. Chess is somewhat detached from real world repercussions. Success and failure at the amateur level reside in a kind of bubble. Some players are obsessive and can’t separate life from the bubble; but for the most part chess is an escape into a different world where slaughtering your opponent through mental superiority is the only concern. In poker things are a little different. The monetary repercussions of success and failure render poker a less isolated environment. Success directly impacts utility in life by defining the amount of resources available to the player. For professionals and semi-professionals the conceptions of success in poker and life may even fuse somewhat.

Nevertheless, both of those games are vastly different environments to the real world, and due to this, success in them should be regarded differently. It feels great to conquer your opponent over the board after hours of heated mental strife. It feels sweet to destroy your opponent in poker while also taking all of his money, or to put it more crudely, the resources that he could have used to obtain a better life. When you put it that way, it seems rather brutish, but winning at the expense of an adversary is highly satisfying. It appeals to some deeply rooted human instinct that we’ve evolved in order to compete effectively. Evolution has trained us to enjoy conquering others. This is the very reason there have been so many wars featuring dictators intent on world domination. Power and gross accumulation of others’ assets feel great in some way we struggle to control. This is why we love poker and chess. They provided us with a chance in the cushioned safe modern world to revert back into a mindset where success really does entail nothing other than brutalising our fellow man.

2. The State of Nature – What Success is Not

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Thomas Hobbes argued that if man were to be placed back into in a natural environment void of any state intervention or protection, he would soon revert to his primal instincts to batter his neighbours to death with his club in order to attain their resources and achieve a better life. I have no doubt that we’d go this way, if that is, we had no memory of a more civilised life of cooperation under the blanket of a state.

This concept of success as triumphant domination does not fit well with the modern civilised world. In a context where our needs are comfortably met without conflict and where survival does not hinge upon winning the next spear fight, this mentality no longer leads to real success. Yet, many of us are still programmed this way: to take and take, hoarding bigger and better things and more prestigious assets than our neighbours. We have changed, and while we can still derive pleasure from the simple attainment of a prize over others in synthetic arenas like games, this instinct no longer leads to maximum utility in the real world. We need to redefine success in an era where the maximisation of material conquest no longer satisfies our yearnings.

Recently I travelled to the east coast of America to stay with a student and teach him while exploring the area. The culture in New York  and the surrounding area seemed to me a distorted version of UK culture in one aspect. Worth as a person and self satisfaction seemed to depend primarily upon two things: money and status.

Let me paint a character to serve as our example. Jim is a 30 year old business man living in New York. He has two children and a wife and works 12 hours a day 6 days a week. He drives a Ferrari and lives in a giant beautiful house. Jim is stressed, anxious and miserable. He derives comfort and satisfaction from his material acquisitions, not that he actually enjoys them, but he’s at least reassured of his self worth by their existence, as per his culture’s doctrine. He has no time or energy for his family and doesn’t manage to step back and appreciate what he’s got. Jim looks down upon those with less than him and considers them bested. He only respects the authority and the status of those richer and more successful than him. The woman behind the counter in MacDonalds is the lowest of the low and shouldn’t even be tipped like the more ‘successful’ restaurant waitress should. Jim is afraid of not being admired and respected and so he has an alpha, overly confident exterior. He’s troubled by countless emotional issues caused by deprivation of the things that would truly make him happy if he were to stop and realise what they were. So as a result, he lifts men up into the air upon meeting them in a bar (this actually happened to me) as a display of masculinity and becomes aggressive when someone inadvertently touches upon one of his inner demons.

Jim is sad, angry, arrogant and cruel. Jim is internally conflicted and doesn’t understand himself. In New York, Jim is very ‘successful’ and envied by all of those ‘lesser’ people. Should Jim be considered successful? Has he achieved the aims and purposes of life? If he is this unhappy, then instinctively it would seem not.

Here in lies my point. This rat race conception of success is misleading us and is causing us to be no happier than people who lived to be 28 and made spoons out of rocks. Jim’s tragic case is proof that no life void of happiness can truly be called ‘successful’. Sure Jim is successful within his work and how much money he’s made, but he surely cannot be called ‘successful’ in life unless, that is, happiness was entirely detached from success. This seems very wrong.

Nowadays we can survive and accumulate possessions very easily compared to our distant ancestors. Do we in general, lead any more successful lives than they did? I think not. If our sky scrapers, sushi, fast cars and executive jobs don’t make our lives anymore successful than those of cavemen, then maybe we need to stop focussing so narrowly on material gain as our sole conception of success. It’s not that resource acquisition is independent to success. Among poorer people the two are intrinsically linked as fulfilment of the survival instinct is the first port of call for a successful life. It’s just that when our standard of living reaches a certain level of safety from death, the maximisation of happiness is no longer best achieved through a blinkered resource grabbing approach.

As shown by Jim, money is only relevant to success where it translates efficiently into happiness and there will come a point where this levels off. Happiness then is the true currency of success and we have developed our materialistic conception through evolving as creatures that once needed to fit Hobbes’ model of the successful human. It’s now time to explore what other than material gain is essential for happiness and therefore success in modern civilised societies.

3. Human Yearnings – What Success Is

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Unlike in games, and sadly for Jim, the defeating of competitors to achieve one single goal is not what constitutes success in life, it’s merely one ingredient and only up to a point. If success in life is simply happiness, then what are the other ingredients to happiness? What follows is a non-exhaustive list of what I take to be the most important constituents of a happy life. We’ve already covered the attainment of basic human necessity in terms of resources so I won’t deal with it again in this list.


A) Self Worth 

Self worth may be caused, like in Jim’s case, by material achievement or attainment of admiration in others. This is just one possible route to self worth however. The humble Buddhist gathers none of the wealth or luxury achieved by Jim, instead deriving his self worth from the pure unfaltering devotion to a cause he deems far more important – his religious code. A grafting housewife of a large family gets hers from ensuring her husband and six children are fed, watered and equipped to lead a good life. The scientist bent on ground breaking discovery gains hers through the acquisition of knowledge and the opportunity to personally contribute to the changing of our world for the better.

Self worth is whatever makes us feel like we have done as we should in life. it could have ethical, material or emotional roots, but it is impossible to imagine happiness without it. The murdering Buddhist monk and the ruined New York business workaholic will feel equally dejected. They have failed at whatever they’ve deemed important to succeed at. They can forget about happiness and success as long as self worth rests in a state of ruin.

In order to maximise this part of happiness it’s crucial to first be honest with oneself as to what exactly constitutes self worth. Jim might be miserable because his sense of self worth rests on his culture’s depiction of the notion and not what he really desires from life at the deepest level.

B) Companionship

Humans are pack creatures. No matter how much other humans may irritate us on occasion, when left to our own devices for any significant amount of time, we quickly realise how much we’d rather have them around. Being part of a group that treats its members well and shares a certain bond or closeness is essential for happiness. Simply interacting with others satisfies a huge part of our vat of human needs.

One of my favourite films is ‘Into The Wild’, which features a young 20-something man desperate to escape modern civilisation and culture which he cares for not at all. He thus embarks on an expedition into the wilderness ending up in the most remote icy plains of Alaska. In his travels he thrives during human interaction and through the mix of weird and wonderful characters he meets, but ultimately comes to the sad realisation during his final lonely starving minutes that: while he got exactly what he wanted by living alone in the wilderness and self sustaining in the most remote undeveloped lands, none of the would-be happiness was truly obtained as there was no one there for him to experience it with. The final words he scrawls down before his death have stayed with me ever since i saw that film: “happiness only real when shared.”

Loneliness causes insanity. We evolved to depend on each other as those who enjoyed loneliness perished. As a result, we need companions to realise the happiness we gleam from the other sources on this list.

C) Connection 

Connection is linked with, but a little different to companionship. While the former involves sharing your interactions and experience with others, connection is about actually being understood and understanding other humans. The crudest and strongest example of connection, I suppose, is falling in love. There is love in every hollywood movie ever, even ones that could have been good, had they not been poisoned by the cringy, default, inappropriate, sexist love story in which the helpless woman falls for the strapping man who just obliterated a 90 foot tall 50 tonne alien with his fists.

The reason for this is that many people are deprived of real connection and so lap it up like nectar from the wide screen, in the dark, in a room surrounded by lots of other love deprived people all sitting a socially acceptable distance from one another who will never speak to each other in their lives; possibly holding the hand of someone they used to be truly connected to.

Love in this crude form that hollywood likes to butcher and devalue originates from a special kind of understanding. It’s a result of the person you’re in love with actually understanding you for exactly the person you are and wanting to be with that person. It’s like a special bubble that rises out of the ground and encapsulates two people rendering the rest of the world less important. If we don’t fall in love, we don’t feel the churning buzz in the pit of our stomachs that makes us feel a truly connected piece of the world. If no one understands the real you, then you can never completely connect with anything, only parts of yourself can achieve this at different times and you’ll be less happy and therefore successful than you could have been had you found real connection.

True connection isn’t always possible, or if it is then it often fades away after some period of time. Nevertheless, getting as much as you can of this is achievable and essential. I believe that one reason we’re so unhappy as a society is that we hide parts of ourselves from our partners, marry people that we don’t fully connect with out of comfort and social pressure, and maintain a fearful distance from others as some kind of defensive mechanism. This lifeless forced monogamy kills the quest for real connection and we feed instead from pitiful drips of distorted simulations of connection through our entertainment.

Connection is not limited to romantic connection. You can connect with strangers, friends, dogs, books, songs and audiences. Keeping an open mind and being fully yourself around everybody you meet is the surest way to forming true connections so that you don’t need the methadone handed to you by TV shows in which people make connections you only wish you could.

D) Pleasure and Immersion

This one is my personal favourite. If you don’t enjoy life, it’s hard to see how life could ever be successful for you. Entailed by the realisation of pleasure is the avoidance of pain; at least of the fruitless kind. It’s essential to seek out the things in life which make you happy. Sex, good food, drugs, philosophy, terrible hollywood love stories, music etc. whatever thrills and excites you, this is what you have to pursue.

There are three categories of moments in time: past, present and future. Nothing in the past can generate very much pleasure, maybe just a fraction of it’s former pleasure in the condensed dulled form of memory. Things in the future can cause you pleasure, but only because and when the future becomes the present. While it’s possible to look forward to your wedding and derive pleasure in the present from knowing that this great future event is going to happen, that pleasure is microscopic compared with what you’ll experience on the day, when it becomes the present.

Therefore, the present is thee part of time where pleasure should be maximised. Toiling in the present to set up future pleasures is wise only if you’re going to be able to relish them when they become the present. Dwelling on the past instead of living in the moment is probably never ever wise. I suppose what I’m getting at is that forgetting all about the past and the future and fully immersing yourself in the moment is of huge value, to happiness and to success. There are of course limits concerning consideration to other persons and all out egoistic hedonism is a truly condemnable moral practice, but knowing when to just fully savour the present moment and get yourself into the kind of situations you can savour is key.

We all live relatively tiny blips of lives in which it really didn’t matter how much money we made. If you grab the pleasure that comes your way and engineer as much of it as possible for the future then you’ve nailed a key ingredient to success in life.


Conclusion

Like I said previously, games are really fun because they provide alternative realties in which the principles of success become streamlined and instinctively fun to achieve. However, we must avoid being Jim, the guy from ‘Into The Wild’ or anyone else who fails to realise what gives humans real happiness. I’m sure you can add to my rather limited list of human success principles. Feel free to comment and suggest additional ideas. I’d be interested to hear what other things you the reader thinks are essential to success in life. After all, it’s what we’re all striving for.

Poker, Chess and Life – Part 4 (Progress)

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Introduction

Progress is a journey in an upward direction. It’s the getting from one starting place to another place you desire to be at more. Wherever you’re at right now is your starting place, and for most of us, we can conceive of a being at a better place that’s realistically attainable and beneficial for our lives. It’s really an infinite ladder of improvement. Given actual perfection is something out with the realms of human possibility there will always be some way in which you can improve your life and your satisfaction with it. Whether you’re recovering from drug addiction and trying to stabilise, or prospering in every area of life and figuring how you can prosper even more, there’ll always be something to aim at. So let’s start aiming and build something amazing for ourselves so that we may wake up every morning and be thrilled to be alive and living the life we’ve created.

What you just read was somewhat of an idealistic and unrealistic view of progress. It’s so much easier said than done to just set a goal, go out and conquer it, then set the next one. People toil and strive their entire poker careers for years on end and never become winning players. There’s always that guy in your local chess club who eats, sleeps and breathes the game and can’t get his grade out of the class E zone (1000-1200). There are and always will be a massive amount of depressed, angry and bitter people wandering the surface of this planet in some eternal rut, where things never seem to get any better. Progress is not easily made in anything of real worth, so I’m going to introduce a few concepts through the ever trusty spectacles of chess, poker and life and see what we can learn about this enticingly slippery beast.

1. Fluidity vs Stagnation

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Let fluidity be defined as the potential to be ever changing and able to react to the demands of progress. Let stagnation be the denial of progress’ desires and the self induced blockade of the mind and soul that traps people in the same unwanted state of being.

Let’s start out in chess with a personal example from an aspiring 1600 chess player (me). I’ve only recently experienced a much deeper and clearer understanding of the game and this is because I finally decided to change something in my approach to learning it. In chess we talk about our ‘best win’ or ‘best draw’ meaning the highest rated player we’ve ever beaten or drawn with. I’ve had both of these conquests in the last two months and I’ve played and studied the game less in this period of time than for a long time prior to that. So what did I change?

I decided that I’d stop devoting 100% of my chess study time to opening theory, which is something experienced players maintain requires relatively little of an amateur’s time, and studied endgames in depth for the first time in my life. This was a necessary change for me to make and not because endgames are more important than openings. There’s a deeper lesson to be learned here.

I’m maybe a little more comfortable in endgames having done this new study, but in truth, I haven’t gotten into a single one during this period of playing better. Killing people in the endgame is not what’s caused me to start scoring more wins. Rather, what this new type of study achieved was an opening up of new neural connections in my brain, and with them, multiple branches of unexplored thought territory, just dangling there waiting to lead me in some great direction that was previously cut off. As a result, my middle-game play is more creative and logical, and I’m thinking about a few more of the right things and a few less of the wrong ones at every stage of the game.

You gain incite and access to new ways of functioning by mixing things up and making sure your mind is exposed to enough different stimuli. It’s through variety that we maintain fluidity. This is one of the key demands of progress and we stagnate whenever we ignore it.

This same trend occurs in poker all the time. So many of my students, when I first get my hands on them, have a completely rigid and binary approach to learning the game. They’ve adopted what I call the lazy model of poker learning which is in part the fault of most learning materials out there on the market. This model is one where the student absorbs all of their new information passively through the incredibly accessible format of videos and podcasts. When you learn via spoon-fed passivity alone, you learn only a fraction of the material you’re bombarding yourself with and learn it to a pathetic degree where it depletes the entire brain’s power just to wrap your head around it each time it’s needed. Actually applying the new material is another story entirely and most passive learners fail miserably at this when they suddenly switch from listening to clicking buttons.

Immersion and student centred learning break this mould, not just improving the learning model, but also ripping open tons of new brain paths where the student is jolted into action. RIP stagnating video munching poker zombie; the fluid mind is now in town and with it the gears of progress begin to slowly churn into motion.

There are countless examples of stagnation vs fluidity in life. I went through a rut where I wrote absolutely nothing in the way of poetry or music for about a year and a half which is very unlike me. My creative and expressive faculties were about as stagnated as you could get. Then I moved out to Italy for 6 months and began teaching English over there. The simple increase in interaction with different types of people ignited a new source of inspiration and caused me to write 12 poems and probably the best song on guitar I’ve ever come up with.

Keep things fluid by constantly leaving the door open for diversity. Seek new experiences and challenges, however minor, and you keep the wheel of progress rolling along, learning more about yourself along the way.

2. Dreams vs Reality

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I’m a real fan of finding necessary balances. It seems so often that you need both a dose of one thing and an equally important dose of its opposite. Dreams vs reality is just another example of the harmonic push and pull pattern we commonly witness in the world.

Let me cast my thoughts back to 2007 for a second and introduce a younger and less balanced version of myself, blindly roaming the poker world in search of glory.

We had no internet connection in the grubby little apartment I’d begun renting with two friends. My daily routine was to wake up around 1pm, go down to the internet cafe across the road for 4 or 5 hours and play 6-max cash games online until it was time to go to work and deal gambling games for other people by night. My bankroll management was absurd as I played 100NL (big blind is $1, full starting stack is $100) under-rolled and under-skilled with just $1400 to my online poker name. Even then, when the variance involved in the game was greatly underestimated, this was still considered a foolish amount of buy-ins to wield. By nowadays’ standards it’s just laughable.

I didn’t care though. One evening I wrote out my ‘plan to become a successful pro poker player.’ This plan involved a series of steep under-rolled jumps up to the next limit. Over a period of just a couple of months I’d scheduled myself to be playing 2000NL (or 10/20 as it’s commonly called) with just a $20k bankroll. I was naive and unrealistic and my first few attempts to breakthrough and make a meaningful amount of money from the game failed miserably. I would grind up a bankroll of around $1500-$2000 playing sit ands gos, a game I found boring, but was undoubtedly better at than cash games at the time. Eventually, I’d have my inevitable break down at 100NL cash and blow the entire roll. Much to my continued frustration, this became a pattern.

I spent many an eventless hour between 4am and 5am on a Wednesday morning standing at a deserted roulette wheel in an empty casino, spinning a ball for non existent players. Each time marking out the winning number to the one man audience of my inspector. During this down time, my ravenous appetite for poker grew ever stronger. All I wanted out of life was to make a living from the game I loved so as to escape this nocturnal drudgery. I had so much ambition that it deluded me and overwhelmed my brain with emotion on a daily basis. The dreams to be that guy who could go around saying “I make a living from poker” were so powerful that they decimated any grasp I had on reality. I had no idea what I was doing and no hope of finding out this was the case.

Over the next few years I went through a very humbling and satisfying transformation. In 2009 I finally decided that I wasn’t as good at poker as I used to think. I joined a community of experienced, improving and beginning players and quickly got told how horrible some of my play was. For the first time in my poker career, I accepted criticism, sought objective truth and took no offence from the stern words of more experienced players.

And so, I absorbed my first dose of reality, levelled the scales of dreamy ambition and began a successful charge through the micro and low stakes. I made a meaningful amount of money that more than funded me through university for the 4 years to come and paid for an 8 week excursion to California and Vegas. For the first time, I felt good about my results and my game and was able to look back with humorous pity at the flailing version of myself in that internet cafe. I think if that guy could see now that I make a comfortable living from playing and coaching poker full time and was about to write a book on the game, he’d be pretty satisfied.

Raw ambition is amazing. It’s the spark on the fuse that gets you started and ensures you’ll dedicate your energy to something as fully as possible. It’s like the battery powering the machine. However, if the machine is powered to lash out in all the wrong directions, that power goes to waste. This is where reality comes in. You need to make sure you’ve found the objective truth about what you’re trying to achieve and can be honest with yourself before this ambition can take you anywhere meaningful. Dreams are totally essential too though. No uninspired drone can intentionally succeed at something they love. Dream infinitely and let your ambition propel you, but make sure you don’t neglect how things are attainable in the real world. Balance is everything for progress – so be a realistic dreamer.

3. The Track vs The Forest.

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Time for one last balance of opposites and a little analogy to get it across. I read a quote day that went something like:

“The purpose of school is to bring new humans up to speed on the progress of humanity so far.”

There are two types of progress we can make in the world. One is absorbing pre-discovered material as taught to us by those more experienced in whatever we’re trying to get better at. Making progress in this way is to advance down the track already laid out for you. The other is to think about things independently, come up with your own ideas and direction, or in metaphorical terms, to go roaming through the woods, forging your own path as you go. Here’s why I think real progress demands a mixture of the two.

In chess we talk about blunders, in poker we talk about huge mistakes, and in life we tend to use the word ‘regrets’. Whether you lost your king’s bishop to a simple tactic, made a horrific call on the river or married the wrong person; it would have been good to have prevented that from happening. The blunder I’ve always feared the most in life is going down a professional road that doesn’t make me happy. From the tender age of 17, we’re pressured to make a life determining choice right off the bat. Choose which university course you’ll do! What do you want to be when you leave school? Where can you earn the most money and secure that nice house and car every person of worth must own?

Pressures come not just from our education system, but from the media, where we idolise the celebrities who have ‘succeeded’ even if they’re ‘success’ has made them miserable, propped up only by the cocktails of drugs that will ultimate end their lives prematurely. I’m going to refer to this whole system of pressure and rushed decision making as the human processing plant. As far as the plant is concerned, people are merely firewood for the world, each one finding a tolerable slot in the cogs of the machine to serve out their days and get all the stuff they think they’re supposed to get. To quote a song my girlfriend wrote: “Whose ambition are you making your mission?”

So the upshot of the human processing plant is that people end up lost and confused or confined to some job, and therefore, some life that ultimately just isn’t the one for them. It’s not that everyone should find thee number one absolute destiny for themselves, this is pretty impossible, but let’s at least try to get somewhere near.

This is where the woods come in. That initial direction we’re pushed down might luckily be the right one, but in most cases it turns out to be largely incompatible with who we are. If we never explore away from that and discover the truth about what we want in life, we’ll never know which track to try to make progress on.

My suggestion therefore, is that we need to first confront the woods and discover who we are before blindly following any one path as the processing plant would have us do. After we’ve figured this out, we can jump onto that track and start to seek advice from those further along it. Poker, for example, is a very community based learning zone. We learn by working with a coach, fellow aspiring players or by watching videos by players who have already achieved what we’re aiming at. You need this hierarchy of knowledge. The school model of progress makes a hell of a lot of sense, but only if we’re on the right track to begin with. Progress is utterly meaningless if made in the wrong area. We need the woods to know what’s right for us. We need to be lost before we can find anything great.

Finally, the role of the woods is not confined to some initial search for direction. Paths weave in and out of them forever and it’s our job to try to find the best ones. However, being on a good path shouldn’t deny us the chance to roam off and dig a new one in the earth to a place no one’s ever been before. Many of the best discoveries I’ve made as a poker instructor have been from independently coining new concepts and ideas then putting them together into a form I can successfully teach. If we’re all just regurgitating the same information, no path truly goes anywhere new. We end up just trudging in unison learning the very same things the person in front of us learned however long ago. Many of these things my be great or even essential to know, but surely they aren’t exhaustive. You make progress both by following the progress of others and by creating your very own progress.

To summarise this section, we first need to discover the correct direction, so that we don’t make that fatal blunder of following the wrong path for our whole lives. Only then can we make progress that is truly worthwhile and happily join a some beaten tracks. Even then, when we’re contently traversing those tracks, there’s nothing to stop us veering away into the world of creativity and exploring unchartered territory. We can always make additional progress independently, and by feeding it back into our chosen path, we enhance the progress of those around us, who have made the same initial choice in what the hell to do with life. This is the model of progress. It’s a trade of between listening to others and going solo.

Conclusion

It seems progress is all about balance. We need equal doses of inspiration and practical know how. We must find some compromise between listening to the advice of others and finding our own way in the world. To avoid stagnation we need to take plunges into unfamiliar territory and always be experiencing different parts of our chosen field. Finding what that field should be is only half the battle. Progress is elusive and slippery, but the very thing that gets us out of bed in the morning.

 

Poker, Chess and Life – Part 3 (Skill)

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Skill in anything is an attractive thing to strive for. It’s something we can develop and hone to achieve the things we want. To put it simply: skill grants access to success. But what exactly composes skill in poker and chess, and can the same thing be applied to life? Can we simply develop our skills in the same structured way and guarantee ourselves the same level of prosperity as we can in the realms of strategy games?

1. Skill As Decision Making (poker and chess)

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As always we set off by looking at our concept in question through the lens of the chess player. You win a game of chess by being more skilled than your opponent. Being more skilled than your opponent is represented by the fact that you make superior moves to the ones he makes. Therefore, being skilled at chess is simply to possess some faculty that consistently enables you to make good decisions. Good decisions lead to better outcomes than bad ones do with a firm degree of reliability in the purity of the chess world and so skill translates directly and instantly to success.

In poker there’s no real fundamental difference here. Skill is still the underlying currency of success and it can be reduced here also to brute force decision making; it’s just that now there exists a delay in the translation of this skill to success as we saw last time when we examined luck and learned that this game contains a great deal of it. A common misconception about poker held by the uninformed outsider is that since poker is a game of luck, it can’t also be a game of skill. This is completely false and to quickly explain why I’ll use the following analogy that I so often find myself falling back on at social events.

Imagine we each have a coin and decide to play a coin tossing game where the idea is to toss your own coin and flip heads more than your opponent does with theirs. When someone flips heads, he/she scores a point but scores nothing for tails. Our coins are perfectly normal apart from one small but crucial detail: mine is weighted in such a way that it lands on heads 51% of the time. Your coin, on the other hand, is just a regular two pence piece from your pocket and lands on each side 50% of the time.

What would happen if we played a match of ten tosses each? Well, I’d flip heads 5.1 times out of 10 on average to your 5 times out of 10, but on one occasion in isolation, anything could happen. There will be many times where you toss more heads than me and over this small sample it would be impossible for an onlooker to determine that any one coin was favourable to the other. However, if we toss 100,000 times instead of 10, we’ll find the 0.1 extra heads I toss per 10 to be decisive. I will flip more heads than you than you due to the law of large numbers which says that statistical likely hoods hold true over large numbers of trials. I am crowned champion over a 100,000 toss match thanks to my ever so slightly better coin.

Now let’s imagine this small edge of being able to toss more heads was not in fact due to me holding a bogus weighted coin, but was a result of my superior skill in coin tossing. Now we can see how skill can generate a positive long term expectation in a hybrid game of skill and chance, but that the more skilled party can easily still lose over the short term. Here in lies the unreliable nature of success in poker over the short term but near certainty of long term profit for the more skilled party in the long run. In poker, this skill equates to choosing what action to take with a certain hand in some distinct situation. The player who makes the better decisions wins the money in the long term so again skill is just this ability to choose good options.

2. Skill As Decision Making (life)

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Jerry (50) dropped out of university at the age of 19 as it wasn’t for him so he’s chosen instead to travel and pursue his passion for music for the last 25 years. He’s now making his way through Australia with his wife teaching the guitar while she teaches piano. He says couldn’t be happier.

Sally (50) has worked as a solicitor for the last 25 years and grown to loathe it. She feels like her life has passed her by without her even realising, each day a meaningless blur in a procession of routine drudgery. She’s thought about changing her life at various points, but never found the moment to join the police force like she’d always fancied.

So what do Sally and Jerry have in common? They’ve both made choices for the last 25 years that have resulted in different levels of satisfaction with how life has gone. It seems pretty obvious that Jerry has chosen better than Sally and thus lived a far more positive life over the years. Just as in poker and chess, there’s a sense in which skill is simply a person’s ability to make good decisions. Of course Sally’s knowledge of the legal system and Jerry’s knack with the guitar are sub-skills, but if we want to generalise away form sections of life to the bigger picture of life itself then skill is at least partly decision making.

There are two issues rearing their heads here so I’m calling for a short time-out to deal with them.

The first is the subjectivity of success. ‘Success’ as intended from now on is subjective to the agent in question and not comparable to how others perform on an objective scale. Mike might not be as intelligent or brilliant as Fiona, but he could be more successful in life if he achieves more good stuff (whatever that turns out to be) than she does relative to their respective natural abilities and opportunities. Fiona might be a natural born world class pianist who received world class lessons from infancy. Mike didn’t have this chance so this needs to be taken into account. Of course there will be external factors governing overall achievement in life, but success should be measured in an equal manner so we’ll be overlooking any of these natural strokes of luck from now on.

The second issue and the one I’m going to need to leave on the sidelines until part 5 is what exactly constitutes success in life. Could Sally not be considered more successful than Jerry if she’s saved a lot of money, bought a house and raised a family in the last 25 years where as Jerry has not? Maybe her sacrifice in doing something she hates was worth it should we zoom out and see the bigger picture. Sure, maybe! it depends on what we think the currency of the good actually is in this baffling realm. Maybe that currency is different from person to person. This question is worthy of more space than can be allowed for in this section so stay tuned for fuller exploration soon.

That aside, I want to investigate why some of us are more skilled in life than others. Why do some of us repeatedly make bad decisions and end up in bad spots while others seem to chose prudently and reap the rewards? I have three explanations for this that might lead us down a path to improving our skills in life. They are: desire invasion, decision discipline and decision automation.

By desire invasion I refer to something more than just a lack of willpower or lapse in judgement. Many types of people, for example, addicts, criminals and mentally ill people suffer from an inner programming so profound that it overrides any hope of decision making carrying out it’s normal duty of pursuing the best outcome. The poker equivalent is the enraged recreational player who has a gambling problem and chases his losses without rationality or sense of limiting the damage. The chess equivalent is extremely rare and even more bizarre than the rest of the chess community, but i suppose he’d be the board trashing, abusive type of player who gets so mad at the game he starts to make moves in a shortsighted emotional manner and hence gives up decision making in any rational sense. These people are not necessarily unskilled at life, they simply suffer from something debilitating that prevents that skill from being exercised. Even the most gifted poker player in the world will be a loser if he can’t keep it together for long enough to think clearly and implement his ability.

For the rest of us, success in life I believe is very much a case of skill in decision making. We understand this on some level yet many of us constantly make decisions we know deep down to be mistakes.

The first culprit here is decision discipline or lack thereof. Just about every poker player suffers from this deficiency at some time or another. We know that we should fold the river because analysis shows calling to be unprofitable, yet we chose to call anyway and convince ourselves somehow that it’s okay. We know playing h5 and opening up the kingside is probably theoretically bad, but we can’t resist the chance of winning via a brilliant (or lucky) mating attack. We resolved to run 3 times a week this year and give up Papa Johns pizza as this was much better for our well being, but hey, it’s two for tuesdays today and it’s really cold outside.

Those who succeed find ways to keep discipline levels high more frequently and enforce strict codes of decision making upon themselves. Those who fail succumb to bad decisions they could have avoided with a stronger faculty of discipline. Success in life requires discipline, otherwise the brain will just make the bad decisions it seeks for whatever irrational or emotional purpose. Discipline here usually involves the overriding of emotional interference of any type. It takes Sally discipline to quit her job as a lawyer and pursue actual happiness just as it takes me discipline to stop ordering pizza. Her job is controlling her fear enough to make the change where as the rouge desire I’m trying to reign in is temptation or perhaps gluttony.

If we separate emotional urges from our rational analysis, we’re better placed to make the right decision. Sometimes, however emotions can lead us to the correct choice. The saying “follow you heart” has a hell of a lot of truth to it in my opinion. However, other times we’re best placed ignoring emotional impulse and reasoning out the problem. The real skill in life then is using our cold calculating abilities to decipher which emotions are worthy of listening to and which are striving for unwanted ends. This isn’t going to be easy, but as a friend of mine likes to maintain, large problems need to be broken up into steps and now at least we have a starting point.

Finally we come to decision automation. I came up with this concept thanks to a poker illness many poker players are afraid of developing – the dreaded autopilot! This is a frame of mind that can exist in almost any mental activity where the brain, due to distraction or fatigue, stops thinking authentically and begins to rely on habitual patterns to make decisions. We suddenly find ourselves on the turn without any idea of how we got there. We have to trace the hand backwards to reason that we must have open raised KJs from an early position and been called by the big blind. Then we must have continuation-bet the flop and been called again. Our minds switch off when they lack the focus or energy to create new thoughts to deal with a situation and shift into this autopilot mode so damaging to our win rate.

Perhaps unsurprisingly by now, I’m now going to say that the same thing happens in life all the time. How many decisions do we make, completely unaware of the fact we’re making a decision at all. And how good of a decision can we possibly make where this is the case? I didn’t go for a run today because I didn’t even think about it until I was in bed, yet at every point of the day where this was a possibility, my subconscious was choosing not to bring it to my attention. If we can develop a system of flagging up important decisions as and when they occur, we can minimise decision automation. We may also need a system of bookmarking certain things so we remember to consider them and consciously make a decision about if and when to do them. The more you automate your life, the firmer the grasp routine will have on your mind and the quicker the mould will grow over that beautifully dynamic creative and inspired part that’s always seeking to make great choices and better your life.

So to recap, in order to not end up like Sally, we need to build decision discipline to quell the destructive randomising effect of emotion while still using it as a guiding beacon the times we find we agree with its impulse. We also need to banish autopilot decision making and keep fresh our inspired originality and creative pallet so that we may paint things into our lives that aren’t staring us right in the face. Be aware and be disciplined; in chess, in poker, and in life!

3. Skill Beyond Decision Making – Immersion

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If skill in life leads to success, and decision making isn’t always sufficient for success, then skill must be more than just decision making. Why would I say decision making isn’t always enough? Well, when we make a good decision we gain useful things that can be enjoyed or transferred into happiness. In order to experience happiness or pleasure from the things we’ve gained though, there’s one ingredient missing, and this ingredient I’m going to call ‘immersion.’

Let’s imagine Julia read this article, but stopped before this section. She became obsessed with making decisions every moment of her conscious waking day and making the right ones. She built an amazing career, made a beautiful family with her successful husband and became very rich (all thanks to me). Unfortunately, her days are now nothing but a massive fest of stress and worry as she battles with decision after decision, adamant that she’ll make lots of right choices about important things.

So Julia isn’t very happy and that’s because she never allows herself to blend in with the world and enjoy the fruits of her labour. If we’re doing nothing but choosing what to do next, we can’t savour the present. We enter some bizarre self contradictory loop where we spend the present always setting up the future so that it will be better but then we chose not to cash in that betterness and instead set up the next future so it will be better so on and so on. I think we’ve all encountered neurotic stress-heads like Julia. She has a great decision making faculty but lacks the other half of skill in life – immersion.

Immersion is the ability to switch off the decision making brain and allow yourself to profit through endorphins and positive inner well being. I find that some of the most enjoyable times in life are those where you get completely lost in the moment. The times you remember forever are those which felt the most special at the time. The very things we try to manage and even suppress in order to make good decisions are the things we need to let loose in order to gain from those decisions….emotions! We are supposed to thrive by becoming one with our environment and simply being sometimes.

As someone with very hedonistic views, I may be biased here, but I’m going to go ahead and state the weak claim that no achievement is really anything if life is void of pleasure and happiness. The happiest people seem to me to be those who can successfully flick the switch of decision making on and off at the appropriate times. Switching it on to create the circumstances conducive to happiness and turning it off again in time to enjoy them.

In poker and in chess we have no need for such a balance. Skill is not measured by how much we enjoy the trip but by the destination that is the winners’ circle. In life though, I;d say you’re pretty bad at life though if you create an empire of resources that noone ever enjoys. The poker equivalent would be building a massive stack in a tournament to then leave the computer and let your stack disappear along with any hopes of winning money. To be like Julia is to create a winning endgame in chess then blunder it all away in horrific fashion.

Conclusion

Skill is vital to success in chess, in poker, and in life. Decision making is vital to skill in all three realms. We need to control our emotions in order to proposer at this and make sure we stay vigilant enough to have the right factors up for decision in the first place. The more we avoid the natural inclination to autopilot our way through the world, the more beneficial the topics of our decision making become. The more we conquer our irrationality and channel emotion in the right way, the better the choices we make on these matters. At the end of it all though, it’s totally irrelevant how much we achieve if we neglect immersing ourselves in the world and enjoying what we’ve created. Life is a finite blip in the grand scheme of things. Don’t blunder it all away in the end game.

Skill in life is just the ability to achieve what is good for us to achieve. More about that in part 5.

 

 

 

Poker, Chess and Life – Part 2 (Luck)

Find the other parts of this series of articles here: part 1

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Now we’ll move from subjectivity to luck, a more central notion in our everyday thinking. Luck has been personified as a lady who randomly comes to the aid of those she decides she likes that day. Apparently irish people are just more fortunate than the rest of us. What is this magical force we seem  to posit as an all powerful erratic entity, turning the tables of our lives one way or the other whether we like it or not?

The questions I’ll be looking at in this part will be partly aimed at separating the various semantic applications of the word ‘luck’. I’ll be asking what it means to call something and someone lucky, in what sense luck exists as a thing and then investigating how much it applies in chess, poker and life given what we’ve learned. And as always, what these three realms teach us about our relationship with luck.


1. What Does It Mean to Call Something Lucky?

I’ve found chess is always a nice place to start. It seems to be the most different from the other two realms, like a box of clarity where the waters are far less mirky. Your first thought might be to dismiss chess as a game where luck simply plays no role, but I don’t think that’s quite right. If luck does somehow exist in chess then here might be the best place to find its definition or at least definition.

Clearly when you win a game of chess against me it’s because you made better moves than I did and avoided mistakes more successfully. It’s never solely because you were lucky that day and I was unlucky. In poker you might beat me even though I played better than you did, at least in the short term. In life you might constantly make awful decisions, but have a rich family that constantly bail you out and ensure you’ll live a higher standard of life than I do. In chess, it seems that any good results must be an indication of out- performing your opponent. There are no lottery tickets to win or people to bail you out – you create your own demise and you’re fully responsible for it. Chess is a judge of desert and one who administers its justice with iron willed reliability.

It seems absurd to claim that luck can decide a chess match, yet people do say things like: ‘He was very lucky, I was crushing him for most of the game’

So what does this mean? If you were getting the better of me for 36 moves then you made a mistake which allowed me to find a winning combination out of the blue against the odds, it seems you’re justified in saying ‘That was a lucky escape, you were really under the cosh.’ You might even call it a ‘swindle’ or say that I didn’t deserve to win the game.

It’s false to claim that my shock win emerged from a combination of factors beyond the control of the players. It was fully a consequence of the moves we made on the board. So in what sense, then, can it be lucky?

Here we stumble upon our first meaning of luck.

(i) ‘Lucky’: unlikely and beneficial

In this interpretation it’s not at all mysterious how my win can be lucky and your loss unlucky. If you played the game 100 times from move 30 where I was a bishop down and stubbornly refusing to resign, you’d probably find I win less than 5 times, but this situation just so happened to be one of those few times in a hundred. Therefore, we call ourselves ‘lucky’ when we realise a generally unlikely positive outcome and ‘unlucky’ when that outcome happens to be negative.

In life we use the very same meaning of ‘luck’ – it often has nothing to do with whether the action is a result of skill or of pure chance. All that seems to matter for us to be able to apply our term or its antithesis is that it was statistically unlikely. A successful athlete when asked about their success will consider themselves lucky to have got to this point, irrespective of whether their success was a result of hard training and dedication or of being fortunate enough to evade drug use detection. Take the following statement for example:

‘Jenny had her swimming skills to thank after managing to swim 8 miles to safety after her yacht capsized in the middle of the ocean. In a later interview she said “I’m lucky to be alive.”

This statement sounds natural, but, in some sense we’d like to say that Jenny isn’t lucky at all. The very reason that she survived was due to her own abilities and had nothing to do with pure chance that lay outside of her control. Yet, we’d all agree that she was indeed lucky to be alive. Why? Because most people who end up in the middle of the ocean with no help around probably die.

A man who fights off a bear using martial arts training is also considered lucky to be alive, and his survival is a sole consequence of his physical skill. Most people don’t emerge from a bear fight as much more than a shredded mess, so this guy is lucky that he did.

It’s for this reason that you can call my chess victory over you lucky.

There we have it, luck doesn’t need to have anything to do with pure chance. A person can be fully responsible for their fate and still be called lucky or unlucky depending on how statistically unlikely that fate was for the average person.

The interesting thing in poker is that we’re simply never fully responsible for our fate in the short term. If we win a hand we’re always lucky to some extent – we need to be in order for our opponent to have a weak enough hand to fold or for us to have good enough hand to win at showdown. In poker, if we won in a 50/50 coin flip type of situation, we were lucky, but if we won a chess match against an opponent exactly as strong as us then luck had nothing to do with it. This brings us to the second definition.

(ii) ‘Lucky’: beneficial and out with the benefciary’s control

This is by far the most common use of the work ‘lucky’. A person profits from something that was consequentially (mostly) separate from any of their intentional actions. The same is true in life. If I win the lottery, I’m lucky because this win is almost exclusively down to chance. My buying the ticket is a necessary precursor to it, but whether I win or not is completely out of my control.


2. What does it mean to call someone lucky?

You might think I’m wasting time having just defined the word ‘lucky’ in relation to happenings, but there’s a huge difference here in the way we use this term when applied to people. Consider the following uses.

A: Sally is so lucky. She lost her phone last night and it got handed in.
B: Never forget how lucky you are to have clean water and a roof over your head.
C: Ross is so lucky, honestly he always flops the nuts.

In A, we’re using ‘lucky’ in exactly the same way we did when referring to things. Sally is lucky in virtue of a good thing happening to her that was either unlikely, outwith her control, or both.

B is a little different. While we’re still calling someone ‘lucky’ due to events that have taken place in their life. We’re going right back to their initial placement in the world. We’ll come back to this kind of luck later.

C is the most interesting use of the word. It refers to someone having a tendency for unlikely or uncontrollable things happening to them on a more frequent basis than would happen to the average person. The fact that we were able to separate two meanings of ‘lucky’ in part 1 is now essential in order to see what’s going on here. One definition can only be used fallaciously in this way while the other has a lurking truth to it, although one that isn’t obvious at first glance.

Ross has flopped the nuts a lot recently i.e made the best possible five card hand available after the first two betting rounds. Does this provide us with evidence that he has a tendency to score better in the realm of random chance than others? No. All it means is that up until now he has scored better. The gamblers fallacy is the belief that chance has a memory; that it will behave differently based on what it has done in the past. This belief completely false, yet gamblers still horde round a roulette table counting the amount of times certain numbers have come up so that they can bet on those that have appeared the least often. 7-red may not have been spun in 60 spins, but it is no more likely to spin in the future than 24 black which has come up a staggering 9 times. Similarly Ross is no more likely to flop the nuts on the next hand than Paul or Emma is.

There is no such thing as being lucky in sense C with definition (ii), when we make this assertion with the connection that it extends into the future, we’re simply committing the gamblers fallacy. That said we do it all the time in life. “You open it, you’re much luckier than I am” and “I’m an unlucky person” are just complete nonsense speak when referring to definition (ii), where lucky means: beneficial and out with control of the benefactor. But what about definition (i): unlikely and beneficial?

The magician and TV star Derren Brown conducted an experiment where he temporarily tracked the daily lives of two groups of people: those who considered themselves lucky and those who considered themselves unlucky. He went around placing £20 notes on the ground in front of them, sticking up flyers offering great and rare opportunities on their route to work and other such potentialities. What he found was that those people who considered themselves ‘lucky’ were more likely to spot the money on the ground or take advantage of the opportunity on the flyer, while the ‘unlucky’ group were more likely to miss out. There is no magical force like the one Ross was accused of benefitting from that makes the first group more prone to taking these chances, it’s clearly linked to their disposition. A positive outlook proved to render a person more likely to achieve or get something unlikely. The first definition of ‘lucky’: unlikely and beneficial, can vary based on the person’s attributes.

Ross might not be any luckier than Paul when it comes to flopping the nuts in the future, but if he’s better at achieving rare benefits, then we’d still call him ‘lucky’ and in this way there’d  be an element of truth to what we say, but as Derren Brown showed, that truth has nothing to do with pure chance throwing it’s weight around disproportionately. The good old saying ‘we make our own luck’ is half true and half false – true when we use definition (i) and false when we use definition (ii). This explains why some agree with it and others disagree.

3. What Is Luck as a thing?

We don’t just talk about luckiness as a thing that applies to people and events. We like to posit with our language an entity we refer to as ‘luck’ We talk about lady luck, luck shining on us today and being given a break by luck. Much of this talk is metaphorical, no doubt, but there’s definitely a tendency to see luck as some independent force from the rest of the world and this it is not.

We’ve already busted the myth that luck is some mysterious beast of chance that favours certain people for no reason. To recap, something is lucky/unlucky if it occurs due to factors out with someone’s control or occurs despite having an unlikely statistical probability. Luck then, is simply a measure of out-of-controlness. There’s a lot of luck in poker because lots of things happen that are out of our control to a large extent. There is less luck in chess because most of the things that happen are controlled by our actions.

So to debate the metaphysical question, of ‘is luck even a thing in the first place?’, as is so often the case with difficult questions, I believe the correct answer to be yes and no.

Yes, luck is a thing in that it’s a functional measurement of how little control or unlikeliness features in an outcome or category of outcomes (depending on the context) it’s also the measurement of how many good or bad things happen to you that have a high degree of out-of-controlness.

And no luck is not an independent entity that makes it’s own decisions about what will happen to people.

In fact, everything that happens due to luck has a determinable cause. The coin landed on heads not because luck decided it was so, but because the velocity and angle at which it was tossed into the air determined the angle at which it hit the ground which in turn determined which side of it would land face up. You won the lottery because the glamorous ex footballers wife’s brain sent certain signals to her hand that in turn resulted in balls 2 4 19 24 26 and 37 being pulled instead of some other permutation. We call these things matters of luck, because there’s a very high degree of uncontrollability in their execution, at least from a human perspective.

4. Poker and Life

So far, I’ve managed to purport a way of defining luck that fits with our semantic tendencies. Now perhaps we can use this understanding to observe the differences in our three realms where there are varying degrees of luck. How do things change in places where luck plays a larger role and how do we as humans react to different levels of luck being operational? If you found the earlier part of this article, a bit of a slog, don’t worry; so did I, but I thought it was necessary to better understand what we’re dealing with before we go making assumptions about how it affects us. I’m also a philosophy graduate and thus can’t help launching into a tirade of defining stuff. At least I refrained from using Latin.

Let’s start in poker where luck is at it’s highest. In poker we’re constantly grinning and bearing luck’s ruthless beatings. A serious poker player logs on to put in some hands, expecting to have an edge, yet realising that this only makes him marginally more likely to win rather than to lose that day. He knows deep down that the fruits of his labour will pay off in the long term, not the short term, and tells himself that money won or lost is not really won or lost until he’s played a great deal more hands than he can that day alone.

Nevertheless, and despite the most sincere and determined efforts of his will, he often buckles, swears, punches cats, or stabs himself in the leg due to bad short term luck (yes that last one really happened. No…not to me)

So why is it so infuriatingly hard for most of us to cope in this realm where luck levels are sky high? I think it’s because we’re not conditioned to it. Poker and chess are both really frustrating games and one reason they’re really frustrating at times is precisely because we’re dealing with levels of luck very different to those we’ve evolved to handle. We evolved in the realm of life where our luckometer reads 40 – to give a random arbitrary scale to things. Our minds grow up in an environment where the luckometer hovers around 40, possibly peaking or dipping at 30 or 50 depending on where we are in the world and what’s going on. If your father makes a living from the stock market you might do better some months than others and eat well for sporadic periods and then badly when things don’t go as expected. However, in general we get accustomed mentally to luck level 40 and moreover have probably evolved to function in a world where the lockometer reads there or thereabouts.

Then we step into poker and find the luckometer to read a scorching 600 degrees. This is immensely hard to deal with psychologically. If you’re a poker player who tilts then you shouldn’t feel alone, but in the majority of poker players who were not born with the mental mechanism to adapt instantly to such a climate. That said, we can adapt, slowly and carefully. I was far far tilter five years ago as a poker player than I am today. In fact, five years ago I’d blow my entire bankroll of $2000 in a few days of titled mayhem. Today it’s rare that I lose more than a tiny % of my roll in a week.

To recap a little, this high luckometer reading comes from the frequency at which intentional action translates into desired outcome. When our scale reads 40, we expect this to happen most of the time. I go shopping and purchase a bunch of products and I expect to be able to eat those products later on. In fact about 99.99% of the time I will indeed enjoy the fruits of my purchase. Very rarely, a bus will veer off the road and smash my shopping out of my hands on the way home, barely sparing my life, and in this case I’ll go hungry. But imagine if this happened 25% of the time, that’s one time in four that you went to buy your shopping, something smashed it all to pieces before you’d eaten a morsel. How infuriating would that be?

Imagine if every time you made the best choice about what to do that day it resulted in you having an awful day 40% of the time. What if when you tried open the fridge, you fell over and hit your face on the ground 15% of the time. Now imagine a full day full of all of these infuriating disconnects between intentional action and outcome and how angry you’d get. It’s a wonder we poker players even keep it together as much as we do.

But if we’d evolved in a world where the luckometer read 600, we wouldn’t be phased by these mini disasters anywhere near as badly. We’d be built to shrug it off, get up off the floor and try again to open the fridge, consoling ourselves with the thought that in the long run it’s beneficial for us to take the impact to our face in order to keep our food cool and delay the next potentially disastrous trip to the supermarket. Poker makes us mad because we did not evolve to deal with a reading of 600 on the luckometer. Realise that this is to be expected and try to adapt. Let’s not hate ourselves for reacting the way we’re programmed to. You tilt today and you probably always will to some degree, but so do all of your opponents and what sets you aside is how you try to lessen that – fortunately our opponents are really bad at improving in this respect so, as is often the case in poker, we’ve found a way of deriving an extra edge.


5. Chess and Life.

Like I said at the beginning, I don’t believe luck is absent from chess. There exist small and infrequent bouts of luck such as which colour you draw for the match and whether your opponent finds a ridiculously unlikely combination to beat you that a player of his strength seldom sees. Nevertheless, we must admit that our luckometer reading in this realm is going to be extremely low. Let’s call it 3.

So far the pattern has been that we cope better in environments with lower luckometer readings, but this is too shortsighted a view. It’s all about adaption and we simply cope better where the amount of luck is proportionate to what we’re used to. In poker it’s more than ten times what we’re used to, in chess it’s less than ten times what we’re used to. This is equally unsettling.

The following might sound totally bizarre and verging on psychotic to a non chess player, but some of the lowest, angriest, most unsettled etc. I’ve felt in a 15 minute period over the last few years has been immediately after losing a game of chess in an irritating way. I actually suffer more at the hands of tilt through chess than I do through poker in many cases. A lot of the friends I’ve met through chess share this bizarre emotional instability when it comes to the game. Winning can generate levels of euphoria that seem utterly inappropriate as an emotional representation of the fact that you’ve just moved bits of wood around a slab of wood, better than your opponent did. Losing and feeling utterly furious with yourself seems like an absurd response, but it’s a very natural one.

I believe I tilt worse i.e get angrier in chess than in poker because I’ve devoted much time to adapting to a luck level of 600. I’ve spent days reading up on the mental game of poker and applying the advice I’ve found. My brain is at least semi prepared for the high luck readings in that environment. You rarely if ever see literature dedicated to improving your mental game in chess, even though this is surely imperative to good results and something a grandmaster takes very seriously at the highest level. Perhaps my emotional instability at the chess board and that of my friends is only this bad because we feel we shouldn’t need to adapt to luck levels of 3. We think that surely such a low luck level can only help us keep our cool.

Imagine the luckometer also read 3 in life. There’d be very little spontaneity. Everything that wen’t well for you would be direct result of your brilliance and nothing else. Everything that went badly only proved to show your inadequacies. Getting your shopping destroyed by a renegade pavement bus would be even more irritating, as a failure to avoid that situation would be entirely your fault – there would have been ways to see it coming and react to it. You destroyed your own shopping by not taking them.

In chess we enjoy our victories euphorically because we know that we earned every bit of them in some way or another. This makes our defeats all the more bitter as we know we caused them in full. The brain fails to cope with very low luckometer readings just as it does high ones.

Conclusion

Luck is a curious beast. When we call someone or something ‘lucky’, we often mean different things. We personify and objectify luck in a way that just doesn’t fit with reality as in fact, luck is merely just a measure of how little control we have over a potentiality. We have adapted over time to function well in our environment. We’ve not just evolved and grown up to suit the weather, culture or society we’re a part of, but also to cope well with the amount of luck in that environment. Poker and chess show us that what appear to be irrational and unnecessary emotional responses are in fact just ordinary reactions from programmed creatures, unversed in dealing with extreme levels of luck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poker, Chess and Life (Part 1 – Subjectivity)

Introduction

I like chess, but sometimes it drives me crazy. I like poker, but sometimes it drives me crazy. I like life, but guess what? Yeah, it drives me crazy sometimes.

I want to investigate these three spheres more closely and take a look at the nature of each as I think there are a lot of interesting comparisons to be made between the three. This article is for anyone who has an interest in poker, chess or life and wants to read my take on how they relate to each other; the differences and the similarities.

I’m going to examine how each of five concepts functions in each of the three realms and what that can teach us about these concepts. The concepts in question are subjectivity, skill, luck, progress, and success, which are all pretty central things to how we approach the world. Poker and chess are of course internal sub-parts to the realm of ‘life’ – which I use to cover everything a human could encounter in any way during their existence, be it conceptual or actual; common or rare. Anything you’ve ever heard of or thought of falls into this realm and much more.

A word of warning: some basic knowledge of poker and chess will be necessary to follow parts of what follows, but I’ll try not to go into complex detail about either or bombard the non game geek with geeky gaming jargon.

 Part 1 – Subjectivity 

If something is subjective then its value, nature or description is not fixed by external reality, but is dependant on whoever is experiencing it. I hate marzipan. I think it’s revolting so to me marzipan is a horrible thing that should never be eaten, but that doesn’t make it so objectively; in fact many people love to eat it and would use completely opposite adjectives to describe it. If you want to say ‘Marzipan is great’ you’re not wrong, and neither am I, we just disagree about its value as it affects each of us differently.  What you can’t do, however, is tell me that Marzipan is a type of frog. If you said this, you’d be wrong. It’s name and what that references is fixed objectively by reality i.e by the way it’s been coined and used over time.

The value of marzipan is subjective, but it’s nature is objective.

So with that out of the way lets begin in the realm of life. In life, many subjective matters tend to cause negative actions in us humans from friction and argument to war and death. People feel an inherent discomfort with others perceiving the world differently to the way they do, possibly because that threatens their ability to determine truth and determining what’s true is really important if you’d like to survive. Common examples are religion, culture, ethics and lots of other stuff where it’s a murkier matter separating right from wrong and good from bad. Some of us like to blow each other up over these matters, invade each other’s country, or perhaps just to write hateful posts on the internet behind the safety of our keyboards. If you removed all of the subjective stuff from the realm of life, you’d probably see a huge reduction in the amount of bad things that are done to humans by humans. I’ll start off by saying that as a species, we don’t handle subjectivity very well.

But, enough about the depressing side of life, let’s jump into the realm of chess and see what we find…64 squares, 32 pieces, and a rigid yet extremely large number of possibilities.

In chess much is objectively certain – most statements of the form ‘X is good/bad’ are necessary truths and it would be absurd to believe otherwise. To think the pawn is the most powerful piece or that the best way to start the game is by throwing a knight to the side of the board (1.Na3) where it’s placed far from the most important squares is not a reasonable difference in opinion but a failure of logic. While there are some subjective parts of chess that remain a matter of taste, such as which opening is best to deploy or whether open or closed positions are more fun to play, they are usually unimportant to our chess lives and we’re happy to disagree on them just as we are marzipan. Each situation (position) has a fixed evaluation and a computer can instantly tell us who is winning and by how much. It can also tell us with a great deal of accuracy what the best thing to do is. The reason for this is that chess is an extremely concrete and narrow realm where the vast majority of the beliefs we can hold are determined by the objective reality of what is on the board. Anything that matters in a game of chess can be found by exploring the fixed and transparent nature of the position – and in rigid terms which a computer can handle very well.

Therefore, in chess, there are no massive disagreements about what is true or correct. We can unearth huge amounts of truth and reach an extremely high level of competency because when we find something to be true of chess, it’s true regardless of different cultures, moods or tastebuds. A rook will always have no legal moves at the start of the game, if you say otherwise, you’re simply wrong and no ethical belief can justify your absurd claim. Objective realms lead to faster learning as observable matters are solved through agreement. In life, we haven’t come close to solving the problem of abortion in harmonious agreement because it’s too subjective. If there’s an objective solution, it’s shrouded by our subjective takes on the elements of the problem.

So there’s a practical benefit to the concrete objective nature of chess. We have a simple streamlined way of handling the world and hence live in certainty and peace with fellow players. We disagree about nothing that matters on an unsolvable basis. A chess novice is often wrong and accepts his ignorance while seeking to improve himself. Imagine if an uninformed racist could acknowledge his failings so quickly and respectfully in the realm of life – but he usually can’t – because that realm is too subjective. It’s too easy to find some reason to justify your views, or even to disband reason altogether and let emotion do the work. The chess equivalent: ‘I don’t care that 1. Nh3 is a poor placement of a piece – the knight has a right to experience that square. I’m a proud owner of two knights and so I should decide their future’ is ridiculous, but we only see that clearly because we have no subjective smog distorting our view as we so often do in life.

So in chess, mass objectivity helps us to learn quickly and in the same direction as others. In life we’re divided and at war over many of the numerous subjective matters that we just can’t seem to resolve. How subjective is poker and can we learn anything from that?

Poker undoubtedly lies somewhere in between the other two realms. We have a logical framework much like in chess that we can use to make concrete observation. We can state lots of rational facts such as ‘You have to win at least a third of the time to call a pot sized bet on the river.’ and ‘a flush draw has more chance of beating top pair than a straight draw does’. We can use these objective truths to build a network of strategic thinking and know that sometimes we’re definitely doing the right thing.

The problem with poker is it’s complexity. We’re cast into the role of the estimate maker because even if there exists some absolute solution to a situation, the factors that go into it are too vague, numerous or have uncertain weight. We might not  know exactly what range of hands our opponent can have when he takes X action, or even what it’s most likely to be. We might not know if it’s better to call the river shove or not in a spot where villain’s range is unclear and we have around the middle of ours. We constantly have incomplete information. We’re constantly approximating how is best to proceed based on the factors we consider and how much weight we give each one. As a result, we disagree a lot. Some good players give certain factors more importance than others do, or disagree on how to assess them.

So poker is similar to chess in that there always exists some concrete reality that calls for one decision being the best. It differs in that the door of poker lacks the lucid peephole into this truth that a great chess mind or chess computer can grant us access to. There is something to be discovered as the exact answer, but what that thing is is often difficult to find and then verify. Poker is not so subjective as life, however. There are no areas in poker where there may well be no objectively correct action to take. Knowing that this action exists is what motivates us to come as close to it as possible and this final point may be of wider significance than it seems.

From this look at subjectivity I think we can summarise a few main points. Firstly, disagreement and conflict are in some way intrinsically linked to the level of subjectivity present. The problem here is that because much of our world is objective, we like to assume it’s all objective. Consequently we battle over things that may not have a truth value and in some cases kill each other over an issue as irresolvable as whether marzipan tastes good.

Secondly, objectivity, especially in the transparent form, yields mass opportunity for learning. The more we can eventually agree on, the further we’ll come as knowledge seekers. When we don’t know something in chess, we know that we don’t know it and we can go about trying to discover it. Life is opaque and frightening. Discovery can challenge not just one idea but your entire framework. We might assume subjective matters are objective, but perhaps we’re also guilty of the converse – believing we can justify objectively false thoughts under the guise of our heart felt opinions and feelings.

Finally, when we know for a fact that there is one best action to take in every situation we seem to be motivated to take it. This is the guiding bubble of the strategy game. In life we often have no guarantee that we’re even aiming in the right general direction or else we’re dissuaded from trying by the thought that we just have no idea where to start. In games, the objective good is winning, the objective bad is losing and there’s very little else that matters. In life, there is no definite concrete outcome and perhaps it’s the subjective journey rather than the objective result that’s most important. If the end of the game in life is death, then I’m not sure that I care whether I’ve won or lost.