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….

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