Ponderings on poker and life...
My question today is, if Buddha (founder of Buddhism) and Lao Tzu (father of Taoism) and Bodhidharma (father of Zen) were all alive today and playing poker what style of poker would they play?
A couple weeks ago I played in a WPT satellite at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa, Florida. I outlasted three quarters of the field even though the best hand I got all day was a pair of tens and that hand ended up being a misdeal.
On the way home I stopped to do some shopping and ended up on US19, a typical St. Petersburg main route running through urban sprawl. Strip mall after strip mall, fast food joints, car dealerships, etc. for miles and miles. And the lights! There's a traffic light every four or five blocks.
I happened to notice that there was a car following the same route that was in the front of the pack at every light. That seemed a little odd to me so I paid closer attention to see what was happening. I noticed that the driver would speed off as soon as the light turned green, pedal to the metal, and haul ass only to be stopped in his tracks at the very next light. This went on for mile after mile.
I admit, I drive like an old lady. For one because I'm a relaxed person and I'm in no hurry to get anywhere, and also because frankly I don't like to gamble with my life or my vehicle, I hate all the red tape that comes with accidents and speeding tickets, and I like to save on gas and maintenance. So this guy would shove off, and I'd take my sweet time only to catch up with him at the next light. Again and Again. I'm sure the guy burned five times more gas, put ten times more wear on his breaks, and was probably a Type A, high blood pressure poster child.
This scenario relates to a poker concept called "variance." Variance refers to the swings a player has between winning and losing. The more aggressive a player is, the more hands they play, generally the more variance in their bankroll. Some days they can have exceptional success and other days they can lose their shirt. Rocks on the other hand have low variance because they take fewer chances, play fewer hands, bluff less often, and don't chase maniacs to the showdown without a very strong hand.
An overly aggressive style does not necessarily produce a higher hourly rate than the slow pace of the rock. I've sat at tables where many of the players' stacks are going up and down, up and down, up and down. They're playing three quarters of the hands dealt to them. They get on a rush or win a big pot often only to be cooled off at the next traffic light, so to speak. Meanwhile, I'm plodding along with an average stack, watching the maniacs get busted out left and right.
Let's just say for the sake of argument that the hourly rate of a successful hyper-aggressive player is the same as that of a rock. Which style of play is better? To a Zen master, the answer is "The Middle Way." The Middle Way is a concept created by The Buddha himself. After spending his youth living in luxury as a prince and his young adult years sitting on a stump contemplating his navel and starving himself half to death, he came to the conclusion that the middle way is the best way. The idea is to not be overly pious and also not be overly hedonistic. Take the middle way, live long and prosper.
If the Buddha was a No Limit Hold'em player he would advise you to take the middle way. In No Limit Hold'em you've got to not only play an aggressive and unpredictable game but you've also got to be patient if you want to be successful and at the same time have some measure of serenity. His advice to the hyper-aggressive types would be to slow down a little. Stop shoving all in every time you flop a flush draw. And to the rocks he'd advise live a little more dangerously, don't play so slow that you're playing a predictable game.
Here's a thought experiment for you. Let's say you're in a massive multi-day event, playing "the middle way" and at every break you're sitting on an average size stack. Meanwhile, the player across from you is playing a high variance game but is the chip leader at every break. How far will each of you make it in the tournament? The answer is you'll end up heads up at the final table with equal stacks. You'll be feelin' groovy while your opponent will have burned five times as much gas and put ten times as much wear on his brakes... if you catch my drift.
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
Zen and poker may seem vastly different, but they have similarities. Both involve the ability to remain focused and free from distractions. Both require the ability to detach from past experiences, future expectations, and emotional reactions. And both involve sitting still for long periods of time.
I've been a "fan," so to speak, of the ancient eastern philosophies of Zen and Taoism since I was a young boy. I was heavily influenced by the 70's TV show "Kung Fu." Kung Fu, translated roughly to "empty hand" is the art and science of doing battle with whatever resources you have at your disposal - even if all you have for weapons are your empty hands and your bare feet.
Kwai Chang Caine, the show's main character spent his childhood living in a Taoist monastery learning the martial art and philosophy of Shaolin Kung Fu. Upon becoming a man and "graduating" from the program Kwai Chang headed off to seek his only known family, a brother living in the United States. The story took place in the rough and tumble days of the wild, wild west. Coming from life inside the monastery walls he was most definitely a stranger in a strange land.
Among the many qualities that Kwai Chang inherited from his studies was the art of being humble. Although he could - and did - kick the crap out of anyone that threatened him, you would never know it by looking at him or talking to him. He was quiet, polite, gentle, calm, respectful - and never, ever on tilt. When he was threatened he didn't make faces and scream and shout, he just kicked ass while maintaining a calm poker face and went right back to being humble.
I think I'm a lot like Kwai Chang. Just as he spent many years learning his skills before venturing out into the world, I spent many years studying poker strategies before venturing out to the tables. I'm a newbie to the game as far as anyone in it is concerned but I've been cloistered in a monastery of my own for the past 6 years studying and practicing. I'm a stranger in a strange land. As I make my way into the wild west of No Limit Texas Hold'em, I do so with humility and a great deal of respect for the game.
In Kwai Chang's time there were powerful men with loud mouths and big guns who wielded great power over people, but they often become the victim of the violence that they subscribe to. Live by the sword, die by the sword, as they say. As my adventure unfolds, I see that a lot in poker as well. A lot of loud-mouthed, self-absorbed players try to intimidate their enemies at the table with constant aggression and verbal assaults. Eventually someone quiet and respectful - like me - opens up a can of whoop ass on them and takes them down. At that point they often lose their temper and end up bemoaning their tilted and miserable lives.
One thing that most of those kinds of people have in common - they are not happy. They may be raking in big bucks on the WPT or at the tables in Vegas, but they are not happy campers. I would rather walk the country side with all my belongings in a sack on my back eating roots and grasshoppers than be rich and miserable. And this is how I intend to approach the game of poker. I've made up my mind that I want to play poker and travel the world and win a lot of money - but I want to be happy doing it.
That's what this blog is about - poker and zen. How to play poker and how to be happy doing it. How to apply the tenets of Zen to poker strategy and to life as a professional poker player.
Zen is about living in the moment, being here now, letting go of the instinct to examine situations in the context of past experiences and future expectations, and suspending judgement on whether or not things are going well or badly at the moment. Poker is a game you win over a lifetime, but to be successful over the long and winding road your strategy must unfold moment by moment.
In poker each hand should be played in it’s own context without regard for whether or not you are up or down in a game, or whether you’ve just taken a bad beat, or if you just doubled up twice, or if the comedian next to you hasn’t changed his lucky shirt in 4 days. If you let those things effect you your game suffers. More importantly your quality of life suffers. The stress can actually increase your blood pressure, decrease your immunities, give you gray hair (or make you bald) and literally take years off your life.
If you truly want to be successful - and happy - you have to let go of past experiences, let go of future expectations, let go of the results of your actions, let go of your fears, let go of your losses - and your wins - let go of judgment, let go of hate - and friendship - let go of everything and play the hand you have in front of you as if you are Kung Fu fighting in slow motion. Observe your enemy's strengths and weaknesses. Use his momentum against him. Block his attacks and land your punches. Do it all with a straight face. And after each hand shake off the pain, gather your wits, and return to center as if the results of your actions are neither good nor bad.
There is only one moment in the life of a Zen master - this moment here and now. There is only one hand in the life of a poker master - the one he or she is playing right now.
As my story unfolds I will be sharing my observations in this blog. I hope you'll join me.