Make a Stand for the Human!

Make a stand for the human! It’s a phrase that over the years has become something of a personal mantra which I will throw at bemused friends and strangers alike. And although I’m not quite at the stage of standing on a street corner with it written on a handmade sign there’s still time yet for me to become a total evangelist against the virtual. For it’s a piece of unsolicited advice that I regularly share with those who I fear are unduly attached to all things social media…like er, twitter, blogs, online poker…              [edit: you have permission to throw back at me the equally valid admonition – physician, heal thyself!]. 

I think the first time that I ever said it was when talking to someone on MSN Messenger  – how about that for a blast from the past?! – and after about half hour of soulless tapping away at a keyboard, it suddenly occurred to me…we lived less than a mile away from each other in a city like London which offers, as no doubt the spirit of Dr Johnson was reminding me, “all that life can afford”. Cafes, bars, parks, casinos, lap-dancing clubs…you get the metropolitan drift. And yet, here we were reaching out across the virtual waves while sitting in our hermetically sealed isolation pods. How very Brave New World.

So I suggested that we ‘make a stand for the human’ and meet up IRL as it were. And so we did at which point I remembered what an irritating man he was in person and why we usually stuck to online chats but let’s move on from that particular example in case it destroys the whole argument of this post before I’ve even started…

I was thinking about this on my way yesterday to what is clearly set to become my regular local poker night*. As you may have seen in an earlier post, I experienced during the recent EPT London for the very first time live tournament play with – to put it mildly – somewhat mixed results. Or to put it slightly more bluntly, it was an absolute car crash of panic and bewilderment.

I had heard that the transition from online to live is a testing one but nothing prepared me for the shock to the senses that is sitting at a table peopled by real life human beings without a screen, mouse and instant pot calculation to shield one’s vulnerability. I managed to cling on to about the 6th level of Blinds by simply descending into such a state of paralysis that if I had got any nittier, I would have ended up with a minus VPIP. My brain felt rather like my laptop on being updated to the latest Windows but without even at least the ability to make a nice plinky plonky starting up sound.

And yet, there was something in the experience that I found wonderfully exhilarating. Something new and fresh. An awareness that I was catching a glimpse of a whole undiscovered vista of poker, a world of real people, laughing and talking together rather than avatars and cursors and trash filled chatboxes.

What? Poker is a game played by living breathing human beings? Who knew eh? Bet that’s a shock to all the internet kids…

And that’s the irony of course. We’re talking about poker –  a game that according to some theories about its origins may be more than 200 years old of which only around 15 years has been dominated by the internet. And yet for many, particularly the young ‘digital natives’,  say to them the word poker and it’s only ever viewed through www tinted glasses. For many – myself included until very recently – poker was in one sense very much a solitary activity mediated by clicks and taps.

And undoubtedly, the internet has brought huge benefits and opportunities to the game. A whole generation of players who would never have had the nerve to step into – and more importantly stay – in a casino have found an easy and safe route into learning and improving their game. In the same way that people who would have never dreamed of placing a bet on horses or football in a bricks and mortar bookmakers can  now access such gambling portals from the comfort of their own home. It has been a huge bonus both for the industry but also for those who have discovered – hopefully in a sensible and healthy way – such pleasures.

Furthermore, the internet has opened up new avenues of profit for the legion of hardcore grinders for whom poker is a serious career path. A choice of profession which would be much harder to maintain if play was limited to the physical realm where playing 25 tables at once is rather difficult without the handy power of bilocation.

But still, that voice demanding that we make a stand for the human can be heard crying in the internet wilderness. A voice whose clarion call I really noticed on that fateful night during my EPT tourney experience. A voice which compelled me to not simply give up on live play – as was I must admit partly the temptation – after having such a bewildering time.

It helped that I got to speak during EPT to some great professionals whose primary experience is still very much rooted in the live play scene. Namely, Ian Simpson (he of Irish Open winning fame) was a huge inspiration with his obvious love for playing live and the aforementioned enjoyment that comes from being in the same room as your opponent. Yeah, totally rad 🙂

So thanks to such encouragement, clearly I wasn’t prepared to give up just yet on live play. I did some research and discovered much to my pleasant surprise a weekly tournament in a bar ridiculously close to my home, geared more to beginners – beginners in the sense of those transitioning from online to live, rather than to the game itself. Yes, yet again, those poker gods were smiling on me!

And that is where I was heading again last night and it was on the way to it, after receiving a text from my mother that I thought about writing this post. She said in her message “Enjoy your evening!” rather than ‘good luck’ or ‘hope you win’ etc. And that got me thinking how I actually wasn’t really bothered about winning, that it was all about just enjoying the experience.

In fact I was of course fully aware that with all the various tugs and pulls of variance, even with good play it would be perfectly possible for me to be busted out relatively quickly. But that truly didn’t matter because nothing was going to change the fact that I was going to be hanging out with other poker players watching and learning how they play while getting used to all those practical issues that had befuddled me before. And that was enough to excite and appeal to me.

This was an opportunity whatever happened to immerse myself in a poker environment. And with a beer in my hand while hanging out with a great bunch of people who I could talk hand ranges with – could it get any better than that for a poker nerd!? Ok if you read the footnote below then maybe yes 😉

And what a great night it turned out to be again. It was my second visit there and in that time I’ve met everyone from  diamond dealers to trainee journalists to yesterday’s Carlton and Abdoulie – two clearly up and coming actors who brought as you’d imagine a great vibe to the evening. And as we all sat at the table, sharing wit and wisdom – while making light fun of couple of the more serious types in shades 😉 – I felt like I was discovering anew what a wide and varied range of delights this wonderful and frustrating game can bring us.

Still, I find it somewhat ironic that I am writing this today after the reported news of planned changes to payment structures etc by  Pokerstars which clearly are of great concern to many online players. And in spite of my paean to the joys of the live game, I understand the disastrous implications that such changes may have for the livelihoods of many players and I share their concern as to what it will mean for them.

But reading some of the comments today, I was a little bemused by talk that ‘poker is dead’ or ‘there is no future for poker now’. Yes, I can see that the future of internet poker – particularly with the added confusion of varying regulatory regimes around the world – is problematic for those at the relatively higher levels.

Yet, in a sense it only goes to underline further my point about the live side of the game. It’s rather like when football at the professional level is criticised for various excesses and people will try to argue that football is dead. Well, that might be the case at the premier level etc but regardless of what happens up at those hi-octane heights, down here at the foot of the mountain, as long as there is a patch of open space and a ball then people will kick it around and have a damn good time doing so.

Or to think of it in another way, the music industry has over the past ten years faced many challenges and continues to struggle with how to monetize what it produces. Which explains the famous ‘Bowie Doctrine’ in which David Bowie over ten years ago predicted that musicians would have return to touring and concerts in order to make money. In other words return to their live roots which of course is what is happening now. People may be unwilling to buy music but are more happy than ever to go to gigs – from huge stadia to tiny upstairs venues – and rediscover the enjoyment of sharing that social experience.

Likewise, whatever happens in terms of professional players – and again I share the concerns of my friends at those levels –  it will always be a very different situation for recreational players like myself, for whom this very unlikely to ever be a career path.

And looking back over the long history of poker, it’s clear that that has always been its beauty. From sharp suited card sharks on a Mississippi steamboat to grizzly workers in a Manhattan backstreet bar to refined ladies in Macau – the game is there to be experienced and enjoyed in whatever way people choose to access it.

Of course this being said,  I will continue to primarily play online. It will likely always remain my my main ‘venue’ of choice just for reasons of ease and comfort. But I am glad that my experience of the game has been opened up even further in a suitably old school way 🙂

For underlying it all, is my point that we as human beings are social creatures and what has set us apart from the rest of creation are the myriad ways in which we can connect and cooperate with each other, whether that be hunched around a fire discussing where the best mammoths are or shooting the breeze over beer and cards. And as long as we walk this earth then there will always be a place for poker in creating and maintaining those connections.

So as someone who on the whole likes to be optimistic about life and feel positive about the future of humanity and even more importantly, loves poker more than anything else, that’s more than enough reason to continue making that stand.

*As a footnote, in case you hadn’t already seen me tweet my shameless piece of self-congratulatory egotistic promotion (hey, it’s Twitter – such things are written into the T&C!) then perhaps I should mention that I ended up winning the tourney last night. Ok, not exactly WSOP and it was a fun night so we were all out to enjoy ourselves and not necessarily play totally seriously but still, if there’s a moral to this tale – apart from keeping it human  – it’s the old classic wisdom: if at first you don’t succeed…. 🙂


身の程を知れ!! (Know Your Position!)

I started my studies of Japanese nearly 30 years ago and the very first phrase that I ever learnt – for reasons that are rather lost in the mists of time – was the one above: 身の程を知れ!! Mi no hodo o shire! 

It’s normally translated as Know your place! but needless to say in the context of a poker blog, I think that ‘position’ is a much more apt choice for the phrase. Either way, they were words that back in the days of feudal Japan you wouldn’t necessarily want to hear especially if you were a lowly peasant that had committed the fatal error of getting in the way of your friendly neighbourhood samurai warrior.

Within the strict restraints of a heavily hierarchical society like that of say, 16th Century Japan, your place was what defined and limited your entire life. You were never allowed to forget from the moment of your birth to your death where you fitted in and what you were allowed to do and say. And a phrase like 身の程を知れ!! was an ever present warning to those who might contemplate stepping outside of the normal bounds.

So it wouldn’t take much of a breach of protocol for these to be the last words you ever heard as the aforementioned samurai – who was naturally at the top of the hierarchy – angrily brought his sword down upon you.

And although faux pas in Japan will still suffer various levels of opprobrium, thankfully the sword has been packed away. But the belief in the importance of knowing your position in life still remains very much at the heart of Japanese thinking (as it is elsewhere in East Asia). Always keeping within the set limits of your position and knowing what you can and cannot do is still viewed as vital for a prosperous, happy and efficient society.

It’s for this reason that whenever I have taught anyone Japanese in the past, Lesson One always begins with 身の程を知れ! as the basis for everything that is to follow.  And no, that’s not because I fancy myself as a sword brandishing aggressive brute of a warrior…although now that you mention it….

No, rather it’s an excellent way of summing up all the stuff that you need to remember when speaking Japanese right from the most basic words and grammar. Always being aware to whom you’re speaking and what your relative position is to them. And I hope that by now – if you’ve read any of my other stuff – you won’t be surprised that I would wish to link to this poker and then in a wider sense to how we all live our lives.

Ironically one of the very first pieces of poker advice that I ever heard was exactly about this. It was in an interview with Jake Cody and he was asked what was the most important thing for players to remember: “Position. Never forget the importance of position!” was basically what he said. So already we now have the image of Jade Cody as Rochdale’s answer to a samurai warrior….

And of course the importance of position should already be clear to all poker players. Whether we actually keep it in mind at the table though is another matter as we can all confess to a litany of committed OOP sins during those times when we have been in a suitably revolutionary mood and decided to cast off the shackles of position…with the usual subsequent results as many a downswing graph will testify.

But as always, what interests me here is what are the deeper lessons that we can draw from this away from the table and in our lives in general?

I am reminded that one of the most fundamental and ancient pieces of wisdom in history was inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi – Know Thyself. Phrase it however you like – Know yourself. Know your limits. Know what you can do and what you can’t do – an eternal admonition which will remain a good piece of advice for as long as human beings continue to be the gloriously messed up confused creatures that we are.

Or as the Souda, the Byzantine encyclopedia of the 10th Century explained it –

The proverb is applied to those whose boasts exceed what they are.

A good one to remember when you need an apt if rather unexpected riposte to the trash talker who rages about the bad beat of his cracked aces. For we all must never forget that there are no total sure things in life apart from death…and showdowns. Just as there is no such thing as a 100% equity hand pre flop. Everything can change in the twinkling of a dealer’s eye and in the turn of the cards.

Which brings me to my moment in the dentist’s chair a while back. Fear not, this little tangent is not going to involve any drilling sounds or root canals although it does contain a rather irritating misunderstanding about our game. I’m lying back, mouth stretched open awaiting nervously whatever implements Dr L is about to prod me with when he does that thing that dentists love to do which is strike up a conversation when we are at our most orally challenged. I say conversation but of course it’s very much a one-sided affair with him opining and me answering with an inarticulate ‘Urrrgh….aarg…innngg’.

Noticing my copy of Harrington on the chair, he launches into something that clearly he’s thought about for a while, “I just don’t get it, this poker lark. What is there to do?! You either have the cards or you don’t. You have a winning hand and that’s it! Where’s the skill in that? Sounds like a waste of time to me…”

Now I have always gone by the classic rule in life that there is a whole section of society that it’s usually wise not to annoy and irritate. These include people who bring/prepare your food, tattooists, hairdressers and anybody who performs intimate internal examinations. Needless to say, I was not in the mood to start arguing with the dear Dr L. Besides he gives me a great price 🙂 So I went for the much safer and compliant option of just ‘uuuuuurgh aaaargh….enggh’

But if I had had the time and desire – not to mention the actual ability to form words – then I would have tried to patiently explain that poker is always about relative hand strengths never absolute. That it’s always about position and how that relates to the other. And if he didn’t get that then I would have pointed to the fact that it’s just the same as in life – that it’s all about context and our current situation. That what we can do successfully in this particular  place may fail miserably somewhere else. It’s never just about what we have but where we are when we have it. As in poker, as in life.

Years ago, I had an argument with a friend who had clearly watched far too much Oprah or some other inspirational TV and was going around saying, “I can do anything that I put my mind to. Nothing is impossible!” Now that is of course a wonderfully positive outlook and I applauded his can-do attitude. But as I tried to explain to him – and in the process sounded like the old grinch killing joy wherever I saw it – you still have to know your limits. You still have to look honestly at yourself and know what is within your capabilities. Or to put it in poker terms, you have to know what is EV+ and what is chasing after a draw without the right odds.

Or as I said to him, however fetching I might look in ballet tights, there is no way at 43 that I could ever dance in the Royal Ballet corps. Not with my knees! And please, for your own sake, try to keep that image out of your mind for the rest of this post, it will only distract….

I volunteer at a hospice once a week and during my time there I have never ceased to be educated, amazed and humbled by the myriad ways in which human beings accept the inevitability of their situation and come to terms with, as it were, the final hand that they have been dealt.

But I have noticed that sometimes the patients who struggle and suffer the most are the ones who ironically led the most exciting and/or successful of lives. The ones who were always in control and strong in whatever they did. The ones who – to think of it in poker terms again – always had the button, always had position. But even for them, of course the time must come when Fate is in position, is raising them hard and strong and all they can do is sit in SB having to accept what comes. Just don’t expect me to tell you what Death’s 3bet range is, that’s stretching the analogy even further than I can go!

Yet, as ironically the Samurai of feudal Japan would surely be first to tell us, true strength comes from always having a total and clear awareness of what our  true situation is and thus know realistically what the best course of action is rather than just clinging to fantasies and chasing dreams.

Ultimately we do have to accept our position in whatever we do. We have to know our place in the end whether we like it or not. And work with that to the best of our capabilities right up to the very last showdown. So let’s do that with all the grace and composure that we can muster. For that, more than anything, is the true way of the warrior.

How was your first time?

I was chatting with my dear poker buddy Nighty (Atrocious Nightmare to you!) earlier telling him about my first ever experience of live tournament play during the recent EPT London. And how utterly bewildering, exhilarating and at times terrifying it was for a recreational online player like me.

So to say welcome to this blog and thank you to Nighty for already enhancing it with his insightful and intelligent presence,  I dedicate this little piece of whimsy to him and indeed to all online poker players who feel fear and trepidation at the thought of sitting down at a real live table with real live breathing human beings without a screen or a mouse for protection. Not to mention the fact that you can’t play in your underpants…well, not in most casinos  😉

This is my summary of how the evening went with a suitably chaotic stream of consciousness that perhaps sums up well how I felt….

Ok, deep breath. Look confident Charlie. Walk into the room as if you own it…

Um, lots of people. Lots of tables. Lots of very confident looking people. And me! What could go wrong?! It can’t be that different to online. Can it?! Right, they’re saying we need to find our seats. Take a card. Any card. Seat 7? Hmmm where’s that again? Oh sorry, I’m in the wrong seat. Ok this…oh sorry, how embarrassing, I’m in the wrong seat again! Ha! Ah yes, thank you. Oh, stranger to my right talking to me…hello, my name’s char….What? These are my chips? Thank you. Read the values on them. Get used to the different colours.  Ok, stack them right…oh, here’s my cards? Look at them…still need to stack chips! Oh,  what’s my hand again? Was it hearts or diamonds? How many chips have I got? Damn, I’ve forgotten what my cards are again…

What? Two people have already bet?! I was still stacking!! Er, what’s my cards again?! Oh, you’re waiting for me…two people bet, was that a raise or a call? How much is in the pot? Everyone’s looking at me. Waiting. Watching. Am I giving away too many tells? Dammit, I’ve got enough tells to keep Mike Caro in business. Stay cool. Poker face Charlie! Er, what’s my cards?! Ok fold…

Yes, as I was saying my name is Char…what do you mean it’s me again? I’ve not looked yet. How many chips to call? Um, fold! Damn, I still haven’t stacked right. Yes, as I was saying…what?! Oh er, a beer please…how much was that bet did you say? Yes I bet! What, it’s already been raised?! I fold. Don’t look at me like that, I’m getting there, I’m getting there!

Oh damn, what’s the pot…what are my cards?! Ha! Yes, I’m laughing because I think that man over there just said a joke and I have no idea what it was as I wasn’t concentrating and am now laughing to be polite but I. Just. Want. To. Know. The. Pot!!!!

So yes, what were we saying? Oh how did you guess that it’s my first time. Well yes, as it happens it is. But…what?!!! My turn again! Fold!! Ah yes, I’m Big Blind…what? The level went up? Which chip is that again? How much has he got?! Damn, how did they all manage to get so many and um, I have so little? Talking of which, how much do I have again?!

People getting up. Sitting down. Getting up. Chip racks. I’m being moved. New dealer. Sit down. Antes!! New person next to me. What? My turn again. My name? What’s the pot?! My name? What’s my name?!?! Who am I?!!?  Where am I?!??!

AAAAAARGH! I want my mouse!!!!

Oh, look Queens! Yay! I know what to do. All in! Oh….busted….

And so the maelstrom ends.

Thank God it’s all over. Utterly terrifying and confusing…

When can I do it again? 🙂

Ancient wisdom for the Good Life….delivered poker style

At a poker table there are some things you control and others you don’t. You don’t control how your opponents bet (though you can influence them sometimes). You don’t control what hands your opponents get and what hands they decide to play. You don’t control the hands you are dealt either. You don’t control what comes on the flop, turn or river. You don’t control the cards in any way.

[But] you control which [hands] you play. You control your betting decisions. And you control your behaviour.

As a poker player, you are only responsible for what you can control.

The above comes from one of the first books that I ever read about poker – Ed Miller’s Getting Started in Hold’Em. It’s a classic text and remains an important introduction to the fundamentals of the game.  But the reason why I start this post with the quote above and more importantly, why it has stayed with me ever since the first time I read it, is that for me it is the perfect example of how poker is never just poker. At least,  it doesn’t have to be if we have the ears to hear the deeper lessons which can speak to our lives away from the table.

I would argue that what Ed is talking about here is actually a piece of wisdom – albeit phrased slightly differently – which can be found within every major spiritual, philosophical and therapeutic tradition. The sort of lesson which provides an answer to the question first posed by Aristotle and subsequently taken up by all and sundry – how do we live the ‘Good Life’? Or as the great thinker would have said if he’d been living in Atlantic City not Athens, how do we play good poker? For I am sure he would have recognised that the two are mutually dependent.

Why? Because what Ed describes is exactly what theologians, philosophers and therapists have made their business for thousands of years – how to deal with the changes and upheavals of an uncertain world in which so much of the circumstances of our lives are beyond our control. How to remain happy and stable in an essentially unstable and chaotic environment?

Our lives are filled with so many ‘uncontrollables’ which is why the passage above is so important for not only our poker but everything that we do in that it reminds us to focus on that which we can control and let the other stuff just be. Obsessing over any variable about which we have no control will always bring us suffering in the end.

I remember reading recently a quote from a Tibetan Lama who said something like, “Letting go is always the easiest option and in the long term will bring us huge relief. But in the short term it’s often the hardest thing to do and with which we struggle the most.” But the more we can let go of our fears and anxieties about those uncontrollable factors, the more of course we can then use our energy to concentrate on those elements which we do have control over and therefore which should be more important than ever to us.

Ever since reading the passage above, I summed it up for myself in a simple form which I often say to myself, whether playing poker or when faced by any difficult situations in my life. I call them the Three Miller Controllables of Poker&Life 🙂

I remind myself that I can only control the three following things…

  • The hands that I play.
  • The money that I bet.
  • My mind.

Obviously it’s already clear the meaning of the above as far as poker is concerned. But how we apply this in a wider sense to the way we live our lives?

Well, take the first Miller Controllable and the question it poses to you – look at your own life with brutal honesty and clarity and ask yourself, what are the situations in which you allow yourself to get involved which you know intuitively are not good for you? Which are going to lead ultimately to unhappiness of varying degrees of severity. It could be something as benign as eating that second piece of cake which – and I’m looking at your shapely waistline via your hacked webcam as I type this – you really don’t need. Or it could be finding yourself in a sticky situation which you are going to regret in the morning. Damn those 3am booty calls!!

In other words, what are the KJ hands of your life? Or the JTo after a raise and so on? Basically the hands that look SO good at the time but in spite of the fact that you know you’re supposed to fold them, you still cling on. You still ignore all the ancient wisdom whether it be from Oracle at Delphi or its modern day equivalent, Pokerstove.

What are the hands in your life that you should be saying no to? And most of the time, you have the power to say no to it and refuse to let yourself get involved. Note though that I say ‘most of the time’. Because of course, just as in poker, there are the Blinds of life to be paid. Situations which we cannot escape due to duty, obligation, responsibility etc. The trick is to discern the position we find ourselves in – just like at the table – and whether we are truly obliged to get involved or whether that’s just the story we are telling ourselves to rationalise our bad decisions. Rather like the man I once saw playing who every time he lost with an incredibly dud hand would say “I had to play that! It was my mother’s birthday!” Somehow I don’t think with that strategy he’ll be giving Dan Colman a run for his money for a while….

And leading on from that, we have the second Miller Controllable – how much money we bet. Again, the whole issue of bet sizing is clearly an important subject and one that wiser heads than me will never cease debating. But how do we interpret that in a life sense?

When we find ourselves in any situation – whether it be one we were initially wise to undertake or not – we never stop having the choice as to whether to continue and even more importantly, how much of our time, energy and indeed money we wish to invest in that project.

Just as in poker, life never follows a set 100% predictable course. The volatility of events mean that at the flop we have the nuts but by the river all is lost. And the fatal mistake of any life is clinging to what used to be and the hopes and expectations that we had back then which are now redundant. And unless we are vigilant and recognise when the situation has turned against us and then make our escape, we store up even more trouble for the future. Or as the late Lou Krieger of blessed memory used to say, “It’s ok to fall in love at first sight with AK. You just don’t have to get married”.

So even if it seemed like a good in the beginning, if we recognise that we are on a losing or self-destructive path, we must be able to withdraw. Stop investing our valuable time, energy and resources in something that will not benefit us. We must again find the power of no. Which I believe was the title of a self-help book a few years back and which I seem to remember a friend once taking a little too conscientiously to heart. He ended up saying no to absolutely everything and became something of a running joke, so as with all things, moderation!!

Finally – and I believe the most important of the three Miller Controllables – the Mind. And this is the point at which I imagine Guru Ed sitting on his zabuton cushion in his poker chip adorned monastic robes issuing the sort of wisdom that swamis on mountaintops are pontificating on all the time.

The mind. Behaviour. Attitude. Mindset. Psychology…call it what you will. It’s a subject that is more than ever at the forefront of debate about successful poker play. And of course life. Tilt may be a word unique to the poker world but its meaning and manifestation is as old as humanity. The frustration of dealing with circumstances that are beyond our control and the suffering that undesired results bring are the biggest challenge that we all face as human beings.

And the quicker that we can wrest control and see through the lie which tells us that we are ruled by our emotions, then the more we can create a stable internal environment in which the best decisions can be made…for our poker and our lives. Yes, in the storm of bad beats and busted draws (just as in the storm of broken dreams and destroyed relationships)  we can feel like we have no choice but be buffeted by our rages and passions. But we always have a choice. And we always have the ability to control our mind.

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this and you will find strength.

That was a quote from Marcus Aurelius – Roman Emperor, writer, philosopher…and although it hasn’t been confirmed yet by antiquities experts, something of a card shark….

Either way, he was definitely a man who could see the power that comes from maintaining self-control. Of course it’s not easy. But then if there’s anything that a life of poker practise teaches us is that nothing worth while doing is easy. And just as we often make the most basic of poker mistakes again and again, we just have to get back in the saddle and try again. While never losing hold of the wisdom that is out there to support us in our quest.

And in the past few years on the subject of controlling tilt etc, there has been some great additions to the poker canon including The Poker MindsetThe Psychology of Poker and more recently the sterling word that Jared Tendler and Barry Carter have done in their two volumes, The Mental Game of Poker.

All of which focuses on something that – to return to my original point – is not just good for our poker but for our general well being and emotional, psychological and spiritual health. Apply the lessons of the Three Miller Controllables away from the table as much as at it, and it can surely only have beneficial results. Both for our game and our way of life.

I don’t know whether Ed Miller was aware or not at the time of writing that he was imparting a deeper wisdom than what you would normally expect from a beginner’s poker text but I do know that I will always be grateful for the imparted insights.

And if you happen to see him passing down the Strip in Vegas on a fluffy white cloud, after this you won’t think it’s because he’s joined Cirque du Soleil. And if next time he walks into a casino, he’s heralded by a sudden unexplained shower of lotus petals, well you know why now….

Confessions of a Nitbitch

So I was standing at the upstairs bar at London EPT – a scene of many late night drinks over the course of the events – and was chatting to Ian Simpson. He of much recent poker success including of course Irish Open Champion 2013.

In spite of this, I managed to become the poker equivalent of that person who doctors at parties dread. The one who starts pulling off various items of clothing and saying, “Do you mind just taking a look at this funny patch? I’ll hold your vol-au-vent while you do…”

And although needless to say no literal undressing occurred in the Grand Connaught Rooms, I am afraid I couldn’t resist exposing to Ian my game’s answer to the weird looking verruca. And alas, after a brief consultation on his metaphorical poker examination table – involving some distasteful probing into a shocking fold of JJ in LP in a tournament the night before – the harsh diagnosis came that I was (according apparently to the esteemed Dr Jason Somerville’s criteria) a nitbitch.

Not a rock. Not Mr ABC.  Not a conservative steady-as-she-goes careful player. Not even just a nit. But a nitbitch. I must confess I found the ring of it quite charming at first and in another world, it might have ended up the title of this whole blog….I’m a nitbitch…loud n proud! Or something equally sassy…

But then, in the end, who wants to be a nitbitch for the rest of their life? I somehow don’t think that when the eventual winner of the November 9 lifts up the much desired bracelet next month, he will say to the cameras, “God, I knew being a nitbitch was the best strategy….”

But allow me to at least say a word in the defence of nitbitches (nitbitchery?) before we completely condemn the condition as terminal and beyond hope. And although I won’t go into the full gory details of what I did to deserve such an accusation, suffice to say I was in a position where I knew that if I called the shove to my right – along with the subsequent shove that I expected would then follow from my left – I would face of course the possibility of my little fun tourney coming to an abrupt end.

But that’s poker, I hear the cry! You go for it when you have it. When the edge is there, however fearful, winners go for it. They take those risks and they seize the mathematical moment to thrust forth.

Yes, yes Professor Sklansky thank you for reminding me of that. But can I make the suggestion that sometimes, there are other concerns that may dominate? Yes, we of course want to play our best game and hopefully with that win through. But the joy of poker has always been the way in which it can be accessed, experienced and enjoyed in a whole multitude of ways and at so many different levels. And for me, one of the massive discoveries of being at a huge event like UKIPT/EPT was seeing what a social game Poker can be even at those serious stakes. The interactions and connections were a good reminder of the huge fun that we can have whenever we sit down together at the poker table.

So the context of that particular hand was that I was having so much fun at the table – not to mention copious drinks and food thanks to the wonderful hospitality of GPI – that I really did not feel ready to get up and go.

And at this point, I call as my main witness for the defence, Mr Lee Jones, he of Pokerstars PR fame. It just happened that a couple of hours before playing, I heard him commentating with Mssrs Hartigan & Stapelton and he said that there comes a time in a tournament when you go so deep that you just don’t want to get up from the table ‘because it’s so much fun!’ Just sitting there, chatting and laughing, you know you’ll feel sad to be away from that environment. And as with every decision moment in poker – as in life – context is all. The position we find ourselves in, both relative and absolute, will influence how we act.

So yes, such thoughts were in my head as I was playing and as yet another plate of canapes went by, another glass was filled, and laughter rang out…I folded my JJ. And yes, you guessed it, I would have won nice and big and busted two players. But, at least I stayed at the table longer…

Besides, what can I say, Harrington never wrote a section on the canape situation!

So has this helped me to feel better about being a nitbitch? Actually, not really. Especially when I tell you that I managed to reach the final table and then busted out at 4th place. So needless to say, the nagging thought is there….if I had just had those extra won stacks to back me up, who knows….?

I guess the moral of this sorry tale is that however much short term relief the path of the nitbitch may bring, it can only store up much regret for the future. All of those couldve-beens!

I accept my diagnosis. I must take the cure, however bitter a pill! But in the meantime, pass me that vol-au-vent will you….?

The Meaning of Life, Poker…and this blog.

As my previous post touched upon the psychology of poker, it reminded me of why I wanted to set up this blog and the sort of things that I would like to explore. And if someone – anyone! – comes along for the ride and finds something of interest then all the better…

I guess I would like in my own humble way to explore some of the deeper lessons, thoughts and revelations that a voyage through the poker universe has already opened up to me. And hopefully to some of you too. A kind of commonplace blog with some of the odds and sods that have fascinated me along the way. With a touch of psychology here, a bit of philosophy there…even some theology and esoterica thrown into the mix to make for something a little more quirky, a little more off the wall.

Which means rather than discussing when to play AQo or how to size our bets – however important those things surely are! – in this particular blog, I am more interested in looking at what poker does to us as human beings. How does it resonate with us in the challenges and obstacles of life outside? Does it make us better people? If poker is the game of skill that we insist it to be, how does it affect us psychologically, emotionally, spiritually….and if you want to join me in going that little bit further and getting really deep here, then how about we ask those biggy questions that maybe we don’t always have time for – What is the meaning of poker…if of course there is a meaning! Although I am guessing that if like me, poker has become a huge part of your life then you would agree that if it doesn’t have meaning then God knows what we are doing spending so much of our time on something meaningless.

No, I will strongly preempt anything I might say with the firm affirmation that yes, poker does have meaning. Or as I always say, poker is my life now. And life is poker…

Or to use a concept that the rabbis of Israel were fond of in the time of the Temple of Jerusalem – for a devout Jew there was only two states of being…at the Temple and on the way to the Temple. Which meant that everything that happened on the way would essentially be seen through the lens of the question – how does this help for the supreme quest? What does this mean? Is this useful? So if you’ll forgive me transposing that in a potentially sacrilegious way to our own beloved poker, then you could argue that for the committed and indeed devout poker player, there are only two states of being for us….at the poker table and on the way to the poker table.

And I would argue without doubt that since starting to learn and play poker, I have not only learnt many valuable lessons about psychology, intelligence, rational thinking, logic and my own emotions – ahhh the joys of tilt!! – but that working with those many challenges thrown up by the game make me a better man. And will continue to do so. For I would go as far as to say that the qualities of a good poker player are qualities that we want to see at large in human society. Big statement huh? Only if I were not talking in the main to poker players maybe. Cos surely, here of all places I’m preaching to the converted when talking to this flock, right?

And even if you don’t agree with the above assertion then you will surely agree with the bleeding obvious statement that it’s not easy. If there’s one thing that marks out the fool, it’s when he suggests that anything about poker is easy! For all of those qualities that I praise above are in a sense utterly unnatural. Only a weird and wonderful lucky few are innately born with those strange habits that make up the psyche and mentality of the the truly able poker player.

For as one of the great experts of poker psychology, Dr Alan Schoonmaker writes in The Psychology of Poker the mentality of a successful poker player – the classic TAG style – is not a natural human attribute. Aggression is of course part of our primordial DNA but the ability to switch that aggression on and off in a very controlled and tightly focused way is not something that is naturally present in human beings. It has to be learnt, nurtured and trained and does not come easily. As Dr Schoonmaker suggests, the only people who display it in their regular life are elite soldiers, police and other professions where long periods of calm are momentarily interspersed with explosions of sometimes violent reaction.

Or as he memorably puts it, a successful poker player must become the stone cold killer. For presumable a professional assassin would make a fine shark. Although if there do happen to be any hit men hanging around on this site, let me just say you’re very welcome here….just don’t come and play at any of my cash games.

And aye, there’s the rub – one of the wonderful contradictions that I love about poker: the fact that on the one hand we will argue the virtues of learning this game as a way of improving ourselves while on the other, we accept that our goal is to become stone cold assassins who annihilate anyone who stands in our path.

Which is why I always take as my role model the Japanese samurai as the perfect example of how those two states coexist. The way that a samurai would strive to be a refined, civilised, educated warrior – constantly improving himself as a human being while also always being ready in an instant to call upon that wisdom and judgement in the service of brute force and aggression. Surely the ideal template for the perfect poker player?

And then there is all the other bodies of wisdom that will speak to our experiences in poker. Wisdom that belongs to what we sometimes clumsily refer to as the “Eastern Traditions”. Teachings about the nature of action and of not attaching ourselves to the results of those actions but rather focusing on doing the right thing. Accepting that in the long term, everything works out how it should and how – contrary to what those bad beats will make us feel – that there are certain laws of the universe that cannot be denied. Even if you are a fish who insists on playing J2o to the river and hitting your full house! The Buddhists will say “Karma is.” to which the poker player will reply “EV is.” 🙂

I was watching a video by Boomer (one of Pokerstrategy’s coaches) the other day and he spoke about his ‘favourite subject in the universe – awareness’ and it’s comments like that which I love as it’s the sort of thing that could come straight out of the mouth of a Buddhist monk or Hindu swami. Whether Boomer looks good in saintly robes sitting crosslegged on the top of a mountain is something that I will leave to the imagination of those who know him…

But this is a classic principle of the synchronicities that you will find in any moment of truth. And what boomer says, applies to any form of mind training just as much as to the specific example of poker. To be aware, to be fully present in the moment – that’s a vital foundation for any improved way of life. It is as a Catholic theologian once called it, realising the “the sacrament of the present moment.”

Or to put it in a more earthly way that will be familiar to us, as a billboard in Vegas once said, “You have to be present to win”.

Again, that’s the sort of message that would have the Buddha nodding strongly in agreement…while he riffled his chips 😉

Anyway, that’s a taster of the sort of thing that gets my mind working. Phew! Yeah, who said that less is more huh?! So, I understand that it’s not necessarily a take on the game that’s shared by everyone but if you’ve read this far – and well done Sir/Madam, you’ve already earned karmic merits just for that! – and it’s the kind of quirky talk that you like then maybe now and then we can explore this sort of thing a little further together.
The Buddha always said that one of the essential things for the path is gathering together noble friends to walk with you. And I am sure that if Lord Gautama had happened across his local cash game, that’s exactly what he would have said as encouragement to the players.

So if it’s a journey that you fancy joining me for from time to time, I’d be happy to have the company while I witter on about whatever weird philosophical thoughts that occupy me at the time.

In the meantime, I hope that you go out there and be the civilised, refined, calm….and utterly ruthless killers that you are called to be!

Are You a Psychopath?

Are you a psychopath? As opening greetings go, it’s perhaps not what you’re normally used to hearing. That is unless you’re the person that I read about recently, who thought it a good idea on a blind date to excitedly offer to show the girl his ‘impressive collection of knives and axes’ that he had apparently spent years collecting. Although I gather she hurriedly left before even asking the all-important “Are you a psychopath?” question….

No, the reason why I am thinking about all things sociopathic, is that I was reading a while back an article about Andy McNab – a kind of celebrity ex special forces operative here in the UK – who has co-authored a new book called The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success.

In the article, Robert Crampton of the Times undergoes with McNab the sort of neurological test that supposedly can determine a psychopathic character. This involves sitting in a cubicle wired up to various machines monitoring brain functions while watching a succession of scenes: some neutral, some pleasing and then at unexpected moments, images of extreme horror – victims of accidents and murder, dismembered bodies and all sorts of gruesome gore. And throughout this – with the added stress of sudden blasts of white noise through headphones – the electrodes measure how the brain is reacting.

It’s what is known as the emotionally modulated startle-response test or as the co-author of the book, Professor Kevin Dutton calls it, the gold standard for testing psychopaths. It is by monitoring how a person responds to moments of visual or aural stress that it can be judged to what extent they may have psychopathic tendencies.

Well, not surprisingly however much Crampton tried to stay calm, his brain reacted with the appropriate levels of stress and anxiety. But McNab on the other hand, the highly trained soldier and indeed killer, showed no noticeable change. As the journalist writes…

His physiological response….bore no correlation to the image in front of him at the time. He flatlined. “I didn’t care” he says. If anything, his results suggest the trees and lakes stressed him out marginally more than the dismembered bodies.

So perhaps not the man you want to invite out with you for a nice quiet walk into the forest…

But needless to say it got me onto the subject of poker and how the psychologist Dr Alan Schoonmaker had written at length in books such as The Psychology of Poker about how TAGs should emulate the “stone cold killer”. So with that in mind, it could be argued that what we think of as the perfect poker attitude, clearly reflects some psychopathic tendencies.

It’s that ability to not only be able to unleash aggression but even more importantly to know the exact moment when it is appropriate to do so; while never allowing the inner calmness and emotional balance to be affected by what is unfurling before your eyes. To be able to say at any time in the heat of the battle, just like Andy McNab, “I didn’t care”. It means being utterly unaffected by whatever gory horrors may result from our actions. Of course in our case, withstanding gruesome images is probably best represented by the mental terror of seeing an opponent river quads with his deuces while we watch our AK full house collapse. But gore is gore, in whatever form it comes…

Of course, it doesn’t mean that we should approach our game with an air of indifferent nonchalance. I don’t know much about armed covert operations but I can guess that McNab didn’t stroll into enemy territory while whistling a happy tune. Rather, like any warrior, he would move with stealth and poise, patiently waiting in a heightened sense of awareness until the moment is right for the lethal attack. Viewing each new development in the light of cool logic rather than allowing emotion to affect the decision as to when to act.

And it’s that ability to determine between what are valid opportunities for action and what are situations that are a waste of energy and/or potentially dangerous which for most of us does not come naturally but must be developed. And it’s clearly a quality that all poker players can appreciate when for example they find themselves caught up in the maniacal mood of a table and start getting involved in hands which they have no rational business being in!

Knowing which battles you should fight and which more importantly are the ones you have the right odds to win, is something that every tactician from Sun Tzu onwards has rightly regarded as essential for victory. It all starts with conquering the enemy within, the inner demons who stand in the way of our success. As Lao Zi says, “Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.”

And like the ‘good psychopath’, we must remain placid and unmoved, especially in the face of the many elements beyond our control. Indeed, it’s the way that a person handles these ‘non-controllables’ that really shows how much he or she is instead in control of themselves and their actions. As Crampton writes about McNab, “If he can’t influence an event, he simply shuts off from it.”

So next time the flop hits magically the hand of the fishiest opponent on earth and you’re about to declare all-out war, remember those words. You can’t influence the event so shut yourself off from it and – as difficult as it may be – strive to remain unaffected by what is clearly beyond your control. For by definition, a true psychopath will not go on tilt. They may coldly plan out the downfall and destruction of their enemy but it will never be with an unbalanced mind or erratic play. Which brings us back to the textbook definition of a successful TAG.

Of course as the journalist showed in the article, it’s not something that comes easily to a ‘normal’ person. But hey, nobody ever accused poker addicts of being normal so all the more reason why we should strive to develop this all important poker – psychopathic! – mindset.

Anyway, you must excuse me now, I have to go and clean my knife collection. I find the machetes are particularly hard work and I have a fish to gut for dinner tonight…