Years ago, poker taught me a few lessons about life

I have been sick, and several developments have interceded upon my life: The festivals, preparing to leave my job, preparing for a move to a new apartment next month. I haven’t yet been able to fully sink into Flower Season residency

Among the many reference texts I’ve consulted, as I begin this treacherously intimidating but insightful journey of discovery, are my old poker books.

Years ago on the side I was a casual but regular, and winning, poker player. Despite growing up in Las Vegas I had never had any interest in poker (and had no idea how to play Texas Hold’Em) until my family talked me into playing a home game with them one night during a holiday visit several years ago. I played every hand with little idea what I was doing and lost my five dollar buy-in (we were playing for nickels and dimes). I didn’t think much of it until I watched a TV poker program, suddenly understood everything that was happening on screen for the first time and immediately became hooked on learning how to play the game well.

I bought a couple of books and slowly immersed myself in the basic strategems of solid Hold’Em play as I gathered a modest bankroll and played occasionally. Piquing an interest in No Limit Hold’Em tournaments, I went browsing for a good strategy book and was stricken by a particular book: The Poker Tournament Formula by Arnold Snyder.

Snyder, an on-the-sly card-counting blackjack player and author/editor by trade, had taken up Las Vegas poker tournaments during the poker boom and devised a successful approach to winning at them that inspired his book. The book challenged not just conventional wisdom but many of the popular poker strategy books of the time, advocating a bold and selectively aggressive approach as well as a focus on elements other than the quality of your cards (most strategy guides focused exclusively on how to play your cards). Snyder saw tournaments as a people game of intimidation, considered cards only one of many key elements rather than the ultimate one, and saw his chips not as money to be hoarded like manna but as a tool for reading opponents and winning pots.

While I found his poker principles instrumental to developing my tournament poker ability, I was also particularly stricken by how his advice and approach towards poker held a mirror to the rest of real life.

– We are often controlled, held back from what we want most, by empty intimidation and baseless fear.
– When we hold back and wait for the “right” opportunity, it either never comes at all or never comes until it’s too late for us to take advantage of it.
– And all the while we’re being intimidated or shoved into submission by others.
– Often our fears are unfounded, and when we stand up to what scares us away from what we want… we often conquer it and succeed when we otherwise would have failed.
– The people who are most willing to risk complete failure are often the ones who succeed most.
– Yes, sometimes you stand up to your fears and they come true and knock your ass down. Yes, sometimes you will embarass the shit out of yourself in front of a bunch of jerks.
– And if you get back up, consider the experience and keep trying, you’ll get a better idea from those experiences when it’s right to let go, and when it’s right to face things head-on.
– You will regret the chances you didn’t take a lot more than the ones you do.
– You will learn a lot more from facing that which intimidates you than from shying away from it.

People are frequently taken aback at how boldly I pursue things in my life, from my art to merely what I’m willing to say in a discussion or in writing and many things in-between. But it’s always made sense to me to be willing to risk failure, whether failure is a misunderstanding or embarassment in front of an audience.

I have to admit I got that mindset from poker, and kept it long after I decided to stop playing and do other stuff (like get back into theatre!). I guess life in many ways is poker. We are constantly being bluffed by others, having the stakes raised on us, folding to pressure, risking an investment and hoping the odds will come through for us, watching our bankrolls, trying to win big, busting out, facing the risk of losing everything, etc etc.

Between all that we are human beings with feelings, ambitions, and all sorts of other elements that definitely are not a cut-throat winner take all game. But in many ways we are playing the game of life and trying to win at it.

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