L I F E I S P O K E R
Life is a poker game.
My friends are sick to tears of that expression, but if I have a guiding philosophy, that’s it. There isn’t a day that goes by in which I do not apply some precept I learned in a dank, smoky poker room to the ordinary tribulations of life. So for what it’s worth, here they are: the lessons about life that I’ve learned in the six-chair.
1. Don’t throw good money after bad.
In poker: sometimes when a player has a hand that once had potential, he’ll continue to play long after that potential has eroded into nothingness. I’ve even seen players continue to bet money in hopes of filling their straight with a 5 when all four 5s have already been shown. He’s “chasing” because he’s blinded by the investment he’s already made.
In life: investments, be they of money or energy or emotion, are irrelevant. When the potential for success seriously diminishes, you need to cut your losses and get out, regardless of how much you have invested. All you’ll do is increase your loss.
2. Don’t bet on the come.
In poker: good players pay to see if promising hands improve. Poor players pay to see if bad hands improve. Betting on the come means betting on a miracle. A busy deity, God doesn’t intervene often at the poker table.
In life: fools bet on miracles. Every lottery player comes to mind, as do religious types who attribute their job promotion, touchdown pass, good gas mileage etc. to the Divine. Relying upon the unlikely is a dangerous, foolish practice that dooms you to calamity. Make every risk you take a calculated one. And enter into every conflict knowing what your objectives are and how you’re going to get out of it.
3. Second best is always the poorest man.
In poker: the worst losses of my career have been because of fabulous hands, most recently a $200 one hour drubbing in which I lost on two full houses, two flushes, and a straight. Great hands, but when they’re second-best, they’re costly as all hell.
In life: it’s easier and hurts less to have never been competitive. This aphorism is particularly relevant in matters of the heart, in which case finishing second is particularly devastating.
4. Atrocious hands require no diligence.
In poker: the most liberating feeling in the world is looking at your first three cards for free and seeing an unsuited 2, 5, 9. Toss ’em back; it’s time for a bathroom break.
In life: don’t squander your finite number of days on earth dicking around with what doesn’t work. Activities and people you can live without waste your time and energy.
5. Lord, protect me from hands with promise.
In poker: if you get a 4,5,6,8 and no 7s are showing and no one seems to be working on a higher hand, you’re going to play to the river ( the seventh card) and get drubbed. But this is the right thing to do.
In life: no risk, no reward. Make the best decision you can, given the facts available to you at the time, and never second-guess yourself.
6. Fly in under the radar
In poker: in most cases, I fold a lot and bet very conservatively when I first sit down at the table. I do this for two reasons: to profile my opponents and to evade their attempts to profile me. Only later, after I’ve learned their tells and tendencies, do I liberalize my betting and attempt to bluff.
In life: always keep a low profile until you understand the dynamics and politics of any situation. Listen, watch, and give them nothing to overhear or watch until you own them. I always enjoy it when people say they thought I was shy at first but were mistaken; it means I succeeded.
7. Represent something
In poker: always represent some hand or another. Sometimes you’ll be honest, sometimes you’ll be lying, and usually you’ll be hiding the fact that your hand has unfulfilled potential.
In life: never let most people get a good look at you, your goals, or your insecurities until it’s too late for them to exploit the knowledge. Use misdirection to deceive hostile people outright.
8. You have to bet into a raiser once in a while.
In poker: people can’t always have good hands, and you if you constantly drop, they’ll start stealing pots. You need to pay once in a while just so they know you might call them.
In life: people must know that they cannot lie to you with impunity. Discover them. And expose them once in a while.
9. Exploit the rules to your fullest benefit.
In poker: screw tradition and etiquette. If you have a hapless fish at the table, check-raise into them.
In life: there is no system devised by men that cannot be exploited. Know the rules and, particularly, their boundaries. Find the loopholes and exploit them unapologetically. When people whine, call them whiners. They’re only upset that you have balls they lack.
10. If you can take no pleasure from winning, don’t play.
In poker: sometimes you’ll play against someone who clearly cannot afford to lose. Myself, I’ve practically taken food out of hungry kids’ mouths at the poker table, and I didn’t care for it�to the point where I didn’t bet as heavily as I would have ordinarily. This is poor poker. When your winning hands come, you must wring every cent out of them. So when I start feeling compassion for my opponents, I leave the table out of self-defense.
In life: immediately extricate yourself from any situation in which you must sacrifice your own interests.
11. Never play when you’re disadvantaged
In poker: sometimes, you’ll be tired or distracted and thus prone to making mental mistakes. Other times you may lack the amount of money necessary to bet a great hand. In all cases, get out. Good players will recognize and exploit these disadvantages.
In life: avoid putting yourself at the mercy of people whose self-interests lie in your failure. Always know your limitations and prevent their exposure.
12. Never bet more than you can afford to lose.
In poker: some people get so enraptured with the thrill of gambling that they lose sight that losing is probable. They’re so busily chasing that elusive Big Hand that they don’t pause to consider the probable consequences. I always bet with the assumption that I will possibly, sometimes probably, lose.
In life: consider the worst possible consequences of every risk. Are they really that bad? Are they worth it? Dwell on it before and while you act.
13. Wait for your moment.
In poker: all players being equal, you will lose 85% of the time. From that 85% spring two truths. The first is that you must wait for your moment, your 15%, and exploit it as much as possible.
In life: when you’re on top, enjoy and exploit it. You don’t know how long it’ll last or if it will happen again.
14. Know how to bet a loser.
In poker: The second truth derived from that 85% is even more important. After all, everyone knows how to bet a winner. But not everyone can bet a loser well. The secret is in paying attention to both your hand and to the ebb and flow of the hands around you. Stay around as long as it’s cheap, to see if you can snag a miracle. Learn how to recognize the very second you’re beaten. Constantly recalculate your odds of winning relative to the cost of staying in. The moment your potential payoff is exceeded by the cost of remaining in the game, get the hell out.
In life: don’t quit any endeavor until you have to, but don’t remain a single second after you know it’s fruitless.
15. Cuff the superior players.
In poker: some players will be more skilled or luckier than you, but the one thing you completely control is your courage. Bet into your superiors when you can. Even if you don’t hit your hand, you’ll have their attention and respect. If you beat them, they’ll surely remember it. And if you anger them, you’ll own them.
In life: let malevolent people know in no uncertain terms that you’re not only unintimidated by them�you’re likely to challenge them. No one is as easily frightened as those who peddle fear, and once you frighten or anger them, you control them.
16. The cards have no memory.
In poker: when the deck is shuffled, all odds are equal again. People who’ve had a spate of bad luck will actually change chairs or ask the dealer to swap decks. Bet into these morons mercilessly.
In life: past success or failure have no bearing on your present chances. A lucky (or unlucky) streak is defined only in past tense; you are never currently in one.
17. Success is equal parts luck, skill, and guile.
In poker: when you win, sometimes you’re lucky; sometimes you play well; and sometimes you just had the guts to fake one or both. Skilled players win all three ways.
In life: pay homage to each side of the trinity. Embrace luck when it comes, for it doesn’t come all that often. Have yourself well prepared for every exigency. And execute courageous ideas others cannot or will not.
18. You gotta bet big to win big
In poker: sitting back and patiently collecting whatever small pots come your way is a reasonable approach to earning a little money, but if you want to scoop up a huge pot, there’s no way of doing it cheaply.
In life: perpetually playing it safe may stave off enormous losses, but it absolutely guarantees that you won’t experience success, either. Strive for a balance between waiting patiently for your moment and making the most of that moment when it arrives.