Poker and Zen

Ponderings on poker and life...

Emotional Investments Never Pay Off In Poker

March 11, 2012

Tags: Poker, Zen, Tao, Taosism, Philosophy, Strategy, Professional, Life, Tips, Strategies, Fear.

One of the most interesting aspects of poker is that we sometimes find ourselves in a situation on the edge of both victory and defeat. We’re elated because we just landed a nut flush on the river, but we’re also scared because the board paired and our opponent is representing a full house. How we play this hand could mean the difference between success and failure. We’re swirling with emotions. But unchecked these emotions can result in tells and bad decisions doing more harm than good. If emotions can do us harm, then why all the fuss?

Emotions are the product of eons of evolution. They are designed to ensure our survival. “I see a predator, I’d better run and hide.” “I’m hungry, I’d better cry so my mother knows I need to be fed.”

Emotions trigger the production of chemicals in the brain that rush through our bodies and prepare us for battle or celebration. Potential outcomes that threaten survival produce fear-related emotions. Fear causes the release hormones like adrenaline which produces a fight/flight/freeze response. The worst of these chemicals is cortisol which can cause cardiovascular diseases, weaken immune response, and take years off your life.

But we poker players are faced with a very complex problem as the beneficiaries of eons of evolution. The problem is that while very little of what goes on at the poker table has any effect on whether or not we survive, we still have all these chemicals of emotion running through our bodies making our hands shake and our foreheads sweat, making our heart beat faster and our breathing deeper, making our eyes dilate and our stomachs turn, getting us ready to do battle or run for our lives.

The trick to dealing with this is to realize that fear comes from being emotionally invested in the outcome. Your level of fear is directly proportional to the importance that you’ve placed on winning this hand or this event. It would mean so much to you to win this tournament. How it would change your life! It will be crushing to your ego and your wallet if you lose.

A Zen master will train himself (or herself) through mediation to notice a thought as it arises, acknowledge it, and dismiss it in the pursuit of having a clear mind free of thoughts and emotions creating a consciousness of pure awareness. This emptiness of thought becomes a vessel for a new level of knowing that is beyond ordinary thought-centered consciousness. This is what’s referred to as “a moment of zen.”

For a poker player having a moment of zen means that all the energy that might have gone into fear can now be redirected into instinctual responses such as reading tells, deciphering betting patters, more accurately putting their competitors on a hand, and intuitively knowing the perfect strategy for the circumstances.

Being emotionally invested in a game or a hand will never pay off. It can only do you harm both financially and physically. The zen master can be detached from these emotions because he or she knows that success over the long run does not depend on the outcome of this hand or this tournament.

If you want to enjoy a long, happy, healthy, prosperous life playing stress-free poker you must get good at noticing fear as soon as it arises and let it go. Realize that it is the fear itself which can do you the most harm.

"It is our very fear of the future that distorts the now that could lead to a different future if we dared to be whole in the present." — Marion Woodman

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