Poker and Zen

Ponderings on poker and life...

There's Only One Hand in Poker.

March 06, 2012

Tags: Poker, Zen, Tao, Taosism, Philosophy, Strategy, Professional, Life, Tips, Strategies, Kung fu, Newbie

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.

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