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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.

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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.

 

Session Types. Focus vs Volume.

Have you ever been in that kind of poker rut where you’re doing things you’ve been doing for a while and no longer know why? Some bead of wisdom that once made sense has long been turned into an automated thoughtless process and has crept malignantly into other areas of your game where it’s not welcome. Decisions have become a blur of half thoughts all scrambling over one another to reach the forefront of your mind and influence the finger to hit the right button.

What I’m referring to is the long term breed of autopilot that infects the volume crazed non-reflective grinder. It’s like a rot that grows over your once dynamic and thoughtful game. Succumbing to this ‘game rot’ is so easily done, but with a little planning on how we’re going to approach our grinding time, it can be avoided.

Volume sessions are our bread and butter money churners. They’re what put the dollar signs on the scoreboard at the end of the month. In a volume session we play as many tables as we’ve deemed appropriate to maximise our hourly even if our win rate per 100 hands is lower.  They are essential as making the maximum amount of money is after all our long term goal.

Focus session are a little different. In a focus session we play less tables than usual in order to give our minds more time to contemplate decisions and reach a greater depth in poker thinking. We accept a short term dip in hourly in exchange for improving our game in the long run. They too are essential as they generate time for what I’m going to call in-game thinking and this helps us in the following two ways as shown by the poker learning model below.

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Out of game study is simply the work we do off the tables: either session reviews, theory lessons, watching videos and taking notes or whatever suits best.

Correct application is making sure that these newly learnt or newly enforced concepts are being translated into the right corresponding button pushes and bet inputs in game.

A good foundation is the upshot of applying the well learned concepts correctly and in a long lasting deeply ingrained way.

A strong fluid game is what we’re ultimately aiming for and is one that is both stable due to the good foundations and able to make small changes and adjustments wherever necessarily; to roam off the beaten track and find new temporary ways to play that haven’t been taught in out of game study.

In-game thinking is the ability to think to a sufficient depth during your session and to do this we need time.

So what does this model teach us? In-game thinking and, therefore, in game thinking time, are essential in not just one but two roles. Firstly, the ability to focus on the action in more detail allows us to ensure we are correctly applying the knowledge gained from out of game study and that we’re not creating bad habits through misapplication of new information. Moreover, in game thinking time oils the cogs of our poker game, making sure it’s always warmed up and versatile enough to adapt to new situations we have’t yet covered out of game. Henceforth, we avoid the stagnation explained at the start of this article.

So to briefly sum up, we really can’t do without in-game thinking time. This doesn’t mean that all of our sessions need to be focus sessions. After all, making money is our primary goal at the end of the day. However, if we fill our play schedule with entirely volume geared sessions, we see a gradual decay in the fluidity and solidity of our game and this is a higher price to pay than missing a few bucks in the short term.

Make sure for every few volume sessions you embark on that there’s one focus session thrown into the mix, where your mind gets the time to apply what it’s learned in a stable and accurate way. it’ll also get into the habit of thinking outside of the box and you’ll witness and increase in thought quality during volume sessions and with it an increase in your win rate. Get this balance right and you’re much closer to where you want to be in poker.

Poker Pitfalls – 1. Introduction – The Dollar on the Hook

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There’s a reason so many of us are drawn to this fascinating game. It’s the lure of earning a meaningful amount of money doing something thrilling and fun, while getting to outsmart and conquer your opponents in the process. If you mix the ingredients of fighting, conquering and prospering you satisfy the human model of how to thrive. Cave man fights other cave man with club, bashes skull in and reaps the rewards of dead cave man’s bigger cave. Poker players do the mental equivalent. Who could resist a game that so well fits our evolutionary model of success, but in modern world terms? Maybe you’ll be able to buy that mansion in Vegas you always wanted or be able to one day quit your mind numbing job in the office in return for more lucrative and enjoyable poker pastures.

The above explains the dollar in poker; the shiny glowing bait that promises you a rise to stardom, a life of freedom and fulfilment or maybe just an immersive and profitable hobby depending on the scope of your poker dreams. But what’s the hook? The hook is all the things combined into one that cause the overwhelming majority of aspiring poker players to fail to make any money in the long term at this game. The hook is the reason the few players who are profitable winners long term can sustain themselves and more through this game, and the hook is the thing stopping you from succeeding at poker right now. It’s the jagged reality behind the candy floss dreaminess we fall in love with.

Poker pitfalls is a series of posts where I set out to break the hook apart into it’s constituent parts. Through my years in the poker teaching industry, and through my own journey as a poker player, I’ve compiled an extensive list of all the things that commonly can and do go wrong in the quest of the aspiring grinder. It’s like a bottomless pit of failure waiting to happen. Success takes a lot of dodge work.

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If you’re a new player, then this series of posts is for you. I’m going to try to prepare you for the sharp plummets back to reality that threaten to flatten your poker progress and crush your poker dreams whatever they may be. Fear not though, the pits are avoidable, we just need to have the right approach to the game. The reason so many fail on what you’re embarking on is that so few actually have the right approach to avoid them.

If you’re a more experienced player, the chances are you aren’t all that successful at poker. No offence, it’s just a statistic. You’ve been caught by the various pit traps over and over again, reaping little bits of dollars just to run into a new and improved set of obstacles around the next bend. This series is for you too. You’ll be able to build on all those good habits and ideas you’ve been able to learn so far while eradicating those that are so detrimental to your progress. There’s a very good reason you aren’t getting anywhere and that’s not that you suck or that you’re stupid; it’s that you’re human. Humans fall victim to the poker hook just as fish do to the metal jagged variety with worms on them. I’m going to try to show you how so you can stop biting the metal.

I’ll make this series as regular as I can and will introduce the first pitfall in the next instalment. I’ll finish off for today with a recent quote from someone who came to me for coaching. His frustrations about his progress thus far completely epitomise the nature of the struggle the majority of us go through in this fiendish game. Stay tuned for more soon and please subscribe if you’d like to get automatic updates as I reveal a new pitfall and how to avoid it.

“Poker is seriously one of the most difficult games I’ve ever come across. Usually if you put a fuckload of effort into something over the course of years, you get somewhere.”

 

 

 

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.

So Let Me Get This Straight…You’re A Gambler Then?

Imagine you were a librarian and whenever you told anyone you were a librarian, they looked at you bemused and distrusting  and asked you if that meant your house was made of books.

Anyone who’s ever played professional poker, or even had poker as a serious hobby knows of the confusion and worry a serious dedication to this game elicits from the uninformed. I’m pretty lucky at the moment. Everyone around me understands or at least accepts that what I do is a legitimate and a reliable way of making an income. This is partially to do with the fact that much of my time is spent teaching others how to play poker and not just playing poker myself these days. In any case, it hasn’t always been this way and I, like all poker players, have experienced many a bewildered look when telling people what I do. What follows this look can vary from scorn to fascination to awe.

At a house party around 4 or 5 years ago, a friend of a friend asked me how I was spending the summer in between years of university. I replied that instead of finding a summer job in a cafe, supermarket, or bar, I was playing online poker full-time just as I’d done part time to generate extra income during term-time. The response I got was an acute spearing of outraged laughter followed closely by a patronising apologetic wave as she tried half heartedly to undo the damaged portrayed by my blatant look of dismay. When she’d composed herself enough to speak, the first words out of her mouth were something to the effect of ‘I’m sorry it’s just that….but what if you lose!’

Lots of you reading this will no doubt not know the first thing about poker. This is pretty normal. There are lots of sports, activities and professions I know nothing about. I know absolutely nothing about prototyping bionic legs. I have a fresh slate of ignorance about such a profession and this is largely because there are (at least to my knowledge) no films about bionic leg developers, in which they’re badly or shallowly portrayed. This is the problem when it comes to poker: there’s an army of terrible poker movies or poker scenes where 8 gangsters sit in a smoky room each with one of the 8 most difficult hands to get dealt, all at the same time. Bond-like character has the royal flush while bad russian cigar smoking guy has four nines. Some blonde haired student kid wins the lottery and loses all of the money in one unlucky hand of poker. As offended as I was at that house party, upon later reflection I realised that it wasn’t this girl’s fault that she’d exploded with uncontrolled laughter at me. What else was she to think? After all, I was planning to enter a room full of gangsters and place all my money down on the table hoping to get dealt that Bondian royal flush.

What follows is a FAQ guide for those of you whose perceptions of the poker profession are limited, confused and/or based on almost nothing of factual value. The following questions should resonate well with other poker players – we’ve answered them year in year out for the last however many years and will be answering them for the rest of our poker careers no doubt – or for as long as they continue to make James Bond movies.

There are countless people who approach poker as a bit of fun or as something to do after a few beers on a Friday night. There are people who have ruined their financial status through poker or treated the game like it’s no different from the spin of a roulette wheel. These people are not poker players, they’re just people who have played poker at some point. I’ve bandaged my finger before, that doesn’t make me a nurse. A poker player plays poker as a serious hobby or profession and seeks to make money in the long run from doing so. The following answers refer to how poker players approach the game.

1. But what if you lose all your money?
We don’t ever risk all of our money at the same time or even close to that. We use the term ‘bankroll’ to refer to the chunk of money we have kept independent from our day to day finances solely for the purpose of poker. This money is our investment in the game of poker. A winning professional will withdraw money from this float into real life funds, but never the opposite. Although there is an element of luck in poker, we never risk enough of our bankroll at the same time for this luck to ruin us in the short term. If we have a reasonable skill edge in the games we play, and play stakes that only constitute a tiny amount of our bankroll, our risk of losing this whole bankroll even in the long term is insignificantly small.

2. But surely it’s just the luck of the cards?
It’s not just the luck of the cards. Poker is a game that has an element of luck and an element of skill. The luck comes from the fact that you can’t control what cards will fall where. The skill comes from the fact that you can control what actions you take in any given poker situation. Better players make more logically correct choices that lead to a higher expectation of money. This expectation will be positive in a good situation and negative in a bad one, but the trick is to maximise the positives and minimise the negatives. If you roll a dice infinity times, you’ll roll as many 6s as you do 5s, 4s, 3s, 2s, and 1s. This is called the law of large numbers. When you play poker you’ll encounter as many good situations as bad ones in the long term (or pretty close to that since we can’t play infinity hands) We can’t win every hand, but we can win overall by having a significant skill advantage over our opposition.

3. Poker is gambling though right?
There’s no black and white answer here and I think the best response is ‘yes and ‘no’.Gambling’ is a taboo word in many societies and to many people. If you type gambling into google in search of a definition you’ll find: ‘1. playing games of chance for money; bet.’ and ‘2. taking risky action in the hope of a desired result’ Neither of these two definitions fit very well with the game of poker and here’s why. Although we do play a game of chance for money, we know that this chance only affects our results on a short term basis and that’s why we use the large bankroll described in answer 1. Poker is also a game of skill, so if a game of gambling is one of purely chance, then no, poker is not gambling. We certainly don’t take risky action in the hope of a desired result. Although we may take micro-actions in the game of poker that are ‘risky’ in a sense, we do these based on logical calculations that they are the most profitable thing to do in the long term, not on hope that it will all work out. Our decision to play poker for income in itself is not risky provided our skill and bankroll management are sufficient.

4. How can you possibly play poker online? You can’t see the players to read what they’ve got!
Inferring information from body language and physical demeanour is the most prominent part of poker decision making portrayed in the movies. They like to pretend that poker is just an art of psychology and person reading, and that anyone that’s good at these things makes a poker hero. In reality these aspects account for about 5% or less of the skill in live poker and someone who was well versed in this alone would get massacred in a game full of professional poker players. The other 95% of live poker prowess comes from a deep logical, mathematical and strategic understanding of the mechanics of poker. I won’t go into detail here, but a quick search on poker strategy online will begin to unearth the monstrously deep complexity to this game. We can make a living online because we are better than our opponents at making decisions in this complex technical realm using information about betting patterns, what cards are out, opponent tendencies and much more.

5. So are you a good bluffer?
To bluff in poker is to bet with a hand you take to be the worst hand in an attempt to make your opponents fold a better one so that you can win the pot. Knowing when and how to do this is a result of being well versed in understanding poker situations and your opponent well enough to recognise good opportunities. Bluffing is just another technical part of the game and is nowhere near as massive a part of it as the movies make out.

6. So do you know what everyone’s got?
Most of the time we don’t, but what we do is draw upon all our poker knowledge and the information present in the situation to deduce what range of hands we expect our opponents to play in this way. We can then make a decision based on what we should do against the types of hands our opponents are mostly likely to have when they take X, Y or Z action and play accordingly. This is called hand reading and is a far cry from the soul reading you’ll see in the movies when Bond’s psychic intuition allows him to fold a straight flush.

7. What’s the most money you’ve ever won in a hand?
Far less than is glamorous or mind-blowing because in the real world we manage our bankrolls to make sure that we’re only playing the stakes, and therefore, sizes of pots that we can handle losing many of in quick succession. The upshot is that people who have won a $10,000 pot, are either extremely successful high stakes poker players, or degenerate gamblers.

8. You lost money today? I thought you were supposed to be good at poker?
Poker has something called variance. Variance is the normal fluctuation that occurs on a short term basis due to the luck element in the game. Variance causes even great players to lose over a small sample size like 5000 hands (that’s much smaller than it sounds!) Another thing variance does is it causes bad poker players to win over small samples. This is what keeps the games profitable for us. We have to lose a lot of the time, this is par for the course and it keeps weaker players interested. Why would the average person play chess for money against a grandmaster? They wouldn’t because chess is a game of skill and their expectation of winning a single time would be less than one in a few hundred. Casinos lose lots of the time. It’s the fact they have a long term edge over their punters that keeps them in business. Life is no different for the poker player, short term luck is what makes poker profitable in the first place and is unavoidable. Me losing today is normal.

9. So it’s all maths and odds and stuff isn’t it?
No. While mathematical calculation and knowledge of the chances of certain things happening are an integral part of being a solid poker player, having a strong faculty of reasoning, problem solving and being able to make logical deduction using the correct variables are more important. Becoming a decent poker player requires lots of practical experience and is more of a skill than something you could just cram knowledge for. The mathematics of the game is just one of the basic tools in the hands of a skilled player.

10. Do you not want to get a real job?
I’ve heard this one a fair bit. It comes from the fact that poker has an unstable and dangerous reputation. Poker players have no boss, no structured working hours outside of those they set for themselves and no restrictions as to how they live their lives. They can take holidays whenever they like as long as they can afford it and decide what time to wake up in the morning. Nevertheless, being a professional poker player can be one of the most challenging and stressful professions in the world. If you work in a supermarket, you can turn up hungover, disinterested and still make the same amount of money at the end of the day, as long as you can avoid being fired for your lack of enthusiasm. In poker these things equate to financial suicide. A poker player has to constantly work on his game to stay ahead of competition, structure his working day so that he doesn’t slack, have the correct balance of study to play, manage his bankroll and select the best games to play in and loads more. This is a profession that has a lot of pros and cons. I could write seven articles about them. The point is that those of us who play full time for a living and succeed generally work very hard, learn a real skill to a high level of competency and deserve the benefits of freedom we get from that. There are definitely moral objections to choosing the life of the poker player and I can understand why some people who work hard in more widely accepted fields feel like poker players are in some way cheating the system. More about all of that in another article though.

Girl at party: I forgive you. Non poker playing audience: I hope this has helped you to better understand what we do and why we do it. Next time you meet a poker player you can start at question 11 whatever you want that to be. We love it when people take a genuine interest in what we do and most of us love to talk about it as we’re a little obsessive by nature! People are usually really curious about my line of work and like to ask more. I love this, and take pride in the fact that it’s a little unique and mysterious. If you meet one of us and want to know more please ask away! Just try not to assume you already know what we do based on a film you once saw. Librarians don’t live in book houses, but we only know that because it’s common knowledge and Bond never dated such a librarian.