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Poker, Chess and Life – Part 5 (Success)


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


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


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


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.


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 2 (Luck)

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


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.


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)


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.