Poker goes Pop! (B Side)

And as promised – threatened?! – the album has been flipped and the needle is about to be laid down on Side B….

6. Write down your ideas I have a stack of note cards sitting by my piano. The bottom half is blank and the top half has song ideas: titles, lines that rhyme, a staff with a guitar riff on it and so on. When I work with someone I’ll draw on these and it starts something. I made most of my solo album with the help of the cards, often beginning with something I might have written years earlier.

Well, I guess considering the medium that I am writing this blog in, this tip is pretty self evident. All of us who tap out our thoughts online or elsewhere are trying to follow this advice. Many is the time that my daily timeline brings me the most amazing tales of poker mastery which leave recreational players like myself openmouthed with admiration. Some will detail deep thinking and strategic thinking that proves that this game is truly one of the great intellectual pursuits of humanity. Others share their trials and tribulations, bad beats and downswings. And yes, they definitely have their place too!

But whatever the content, there’s always something here that will inspire, amuse, stimulate or help someone out there. And dare I say it, if you’ve managed to stick with me this far, I hope that in some tiny way, I can manage to share something worthwhile in the midst of my witterings smile

So let this be an impetus to anyone who feels like writing down their thoughts or ideas but for whatever reason has felt reluctance – there has never been a better time than now! As a well known sports manufacturer shouts at you on every piece of merchandise….Just do it!

7. Study the greats, get it wrong, go on your own journey For a while I would try to be inspired by songs I listened to obsessively, but what came out was completely different. That’s because the good thing about someone is the thing that’s impossible to replicate. So you end up doing your own thing, almost by mistake. I can never be as good as Duke Ellington, but I’ll get closer to it if I study his best work.

Sometimes I like to imagine my fantasy time machine transporting me back to the original golden age of poker’s emergence as the great American game. Wandering the dusty roads of the Wild West, hanging out with the likes of Poker Alice in Deadwood or white suited sharks on Mississippi riverboats. OK, there’s limits to that fantasy especially when I consider the absence of flushing toilets not to mention Wild Bill Hickok’s tendency to shove a gun in an opponent’s face if he didn’t get the cards he wanted. But still, imagine hanging out with our poker forefathers?

But just like the musical greats that Dan Wilson references, we are blessed in the fact that we have access to the wealth of knowledge that all the greats of poker history have left to us. And yet, we must ultimately call upon that knowledge while doing our own thing. Because in the end, we are the ones sitting at the table not Doyle, not Amarillo, not Sklansky. The buck – or more to the point, the chip – stops with us. And although we can have our heroes and role models, we have to walk the lonely path alone. Yes, we will fall and make huge mistakes and take massive diversions. But with the map provided by those heroes in hand, we can chart our own unique course. And as the Duke would agree, create our own Jazz riffs that suit our natural playing style.

Or as my mate Gav would say, it’s no use playing the drums if you have the lips for a trumpet. Which even if that doesn’t apply to your poker, it’s damn good advice if anyone ever asks you to join a jazz band smile

8. Don’t do it for the money Some kind of universal force has decreed that every time I’ve demanded upfront payment from a label, it’s been a bad experience. You have to take it on trust that a session will produce that piece of magic that will pay off somehow one day. This is a disastrous way to make money because so few songs do become hits, so you have to do it because you love it. It’s the only way.

Now I suspect that this tip is probably the one most likely to have you go ‘huh?’ Or other colourful expressions to that effect….

So yeah, am I mad for even including this one? The whole point of poker is surely to do it for the money, no? As it’s often been said, it’s a game of money played with cards not a game of cards played with money. Right?

Well yes, of course. I’d be a weird player if I suggested that winning money is not a major goal if not the only reason for playing. But I still come back to that perhaps idealistic belief that we play poker because we love this game. And that there are many pleasures that come from it which are not always related to the money. But hey, it certainly helps wink

For what is at the core of all the advice and strategy that is given throughout every teaching resource? The insistent belief that we are not results oriented. That it is all about the correct course of action in a given situation. That if the decisions taken are valid then it does not matter what the outcome was. That EV will out. And that it’s all about doing the right thing regardless of what happens afterwards.

And there is surely pleasure to be derived from that? From knowing that we have obeyed the laws of mathematics, probability and logic. That we have followed a perfect strategy and plan. There is a pristine beauty in that…even if we have to find it in the midst of the horrors of a bad beat. I can’t be the only one who looks back over a session and even if I’m down, be happy in the knowledge that I could not have done any differently and remained true to all that I have learnt.

So yes, I recognise that this advice may seem counter intuitive. Especially to those of you who are striving to make a living from poker and for whom as professionals, the advice “don’t do it for the money” might contradict the rather more pressing need to pay this month’s bills. But even if it’s your working life, I would still argue that there’s much value to be found in making sure that you never stop loving the game. As the old chestnut goes – “Do a job you love and you’ll never work another day in your life”.

With that in mind, as much as you can, try not to lose sight of what it is about this game that first captivated you. And hopefully that’s not just the sound of all those chips scooped up. Although as I say, it certainly helps.

Which reminds me, there’s a wonderful concept in Judaism called lishmah – which means doing something just for the sake and pleasure of doing it. Not worrying about the results or whether you can get anything out of it. Just do it because you love doing it. And with that openminded and almost innocent attitude, all sorts of new discoveries can be made along the way.

9. Nobody said it was easy . . . Occasionally I console myself that any artistic thing I love was a huge process. There’s no great album, novel or film I love that was easy to make, even if they seem like they were, just like a great footballer makes it look easy. It’s the same with songs.

And do we need to be reminded that nobody said it would be easy? Didn’t that first book or intro article we ever read say that this is a game that can be learned in a few hours but will take a lifetime to master? But be honest – deep down, didn’t you think that maybe, just maybe that wouldn’t apply to you? That maybe it would all come easily. That you would be different. That you would take to this game in an instant and that all would come easily? Actually what am I saying?! Maybe you were different and judging by some of the stratospheric graphs I see online, clearly for some it was that easy path.

Well, that’s as maybe. But I know I am not the only one for whom it has not all been easy sailing. And nor does it continue to be. It’s a hard struggle at times and it’s taken a while for me to recognise that yes, they weren’t lying. At least not to me they weren’t! It’s not easy and nor is it going to be. It requires lots of work, striving, studying, playing and thinking. And I still need to remind myself of this fact especially when things are going just a little bit too smoothly and that poker demon voice says inside, “Hey Charlie, you shark you! You’re getting the hang of this at last!” And with that, oh what penance does ensue!

And how the poker gods like to punish such hubris!! If only to remind us that good things may come to those who wait but you have to work hard for them first. And let’s face it, the best things in life are always those riches that are only attained after great struggle. For nobody ever treasures the easy win. The best victories are those that come after much blood and toil. Just please don’t stain the cards while you’re at it…

10. . . . but it is easy when you’ve got it right The build-up to writing a song can be difficult. Finding something you care enough to write about is complex, you can find and lose your inspiration from one year to another. But funnily enough when you are in the moment, when you are at your best, it sails by. It’s a beautiful thing.

Ahhh that journey to Poker Nirvana! The mountains and valleys that we walk through in the quest to find our A game and be in the zone. For when the cards are running just right and position is perfect and the fish are swimming merrily and the chips just seem to flow effortlessly in the right direction towards us – doesn’t it feel amazing? Isn’t that the Promised Land that we all yearn for? It is after all the reason why we love this game so much. OK, those highs cannot be there all the time and sometimes their memory is an all too distant thing. But even when it’s just a faint recollection of a glorious upswing, it’s always enough to keep us coming back for more. For it really IS a beautiful thing. And we must never lose sight of that beauty.

OK, as always that was something of a quest! And again, as always I apologise for the long winded journey. But if you managed to get this far, I hope at least that Dan Wilson’s thoughts will resonate in some way or other. Whether that be in terms of your poker or just wherever your life may be leading you at this time.

So with the lyrics of an upbeat pop song ringing in your ears, may your poker always be top of the charts!

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Poker goes Pop! (A Side)

I was planning to make my next post here a hopefully illuminating tale about a samurai and a zen monk…but all you Japanophiles will have to wait a little longer as I go on one of my tangents inspired by an article I spotted ages back in the Times. It was an interview with the song writer Dan Wilson, the man responsible for Adele’s worldwide hit Someone Like You and who was promoting his album, Love Without Fear

In the article, he gives his top ten tips on “how to pen a pop classic”. What has that got to do with poker, I hear you cry? Well, seeing that I never miss a chance to crowbar the game into any lessons of life then it won’t surprise you that I spotted some resonances. But I think you’ll agree that the advice he offers is actually pretty salient for whatever level we are at in the game.

So, here’s his top ten with my own humble offering of some added poker footnotes…or at least the first five as I recognise that even by my verbose standards, it may be a lot so here’s Side A of the vinyl first….

1. Write a lot of songs Write songs without concern of whether they are good or bad. Finish them and move on. Don’t worry about quality because once you’ve written 12 bad songs you’ll write one good one and when you write a hundred bad songs one of them will be really good.

Now obviously we all care about playing quality hands – although I do tend to forget that important point when the devilish charms of KJo UTG are too much to resist wink – and we want to play our A game at all times so we wouldn’t necessarily argue that it’s ok to play ‘without concern’ as to whether our game is good or bad. We see plenty of players like that at the table (or at least we really hope to!) so we know to what disasters such an attitude can lead.

But, there is definitely something to be said for getting out there and just playing. Especially at the beginning when finding your feet as a poker player. Get those hands – good and bad – under your belt. I can still remember vividly that panicked feeling when I first opened up a table and saw my first flop….and feeling utterly bewildered. Everything I had read, every inch of Sklansky Strategy went flying out of my mind and it all became a blur of colours and pretty pictures. A total information overload which could only be solved by getting into the deep end and splashing around wildly in a deluge of hand after hand. And after drowning many times, finally managing to float….not to mention smooth, flat and whatever other type of call you care to mention.

So yes, put the necessary work into study and theory while needless to say, staying within your limits and keeping an eye on that all important bankroll management; but in the end, experience is all. And that learning curve, even if it takes the decidedly depressing direction of a downswing, requires us to get out there and get dirty. For as Dan Wilson would surely agree, play 100 bad hands and one of them will be really good…

2. Get in front of an audience Figure out a way to play your pieces to people because when you do that there is an instant internal feedback process. You don’t even need people to say anything; you’ll know which one is bullshit and which one is really great. It takes the audience — and the terror — to tell you what works.

This is the first of the tips that definitely apply to every community – both online and IRL – which has at its core the study and discussion of poker. I don’t think I have ever read a strategy article or book where the advice does not include the suggestion that to improve we need to share, discuss and analyse together our game. It’s the great contradiction that poker is a pastime which can be at the same time intensely solitary – a shout out to all those valiant grinders out there in darkened rooms! – but one that brings us all together in one big weird, sometimes dysfunctional but always beguiling community.

But I would also suggest that the above advice also applies to those of us who play in live games. Knowing “which one is bullshit and which one is really great” is a skill that is even more important when you have your opponent sitting in front if you. And that unique ‘terror’ that can come from poker in the flesh – which I wrote about in earlier posts – will be a great educator as to what works. And again, the ‘internal feedback’ that he mentions is something that we all know is vital to improving at any level of poker play. The cards may speak their own absolute language but it’s the judgement of our peers that will help us become the players that we wish to be.

3. Forget about getting the number of that famous pop star. Cultivate your friends instead Help people move house, let someone cry on your shoulder, set up a gig with them, write a song with them. Every time someone tells me, “It’s about who you know,” I reply: “Yeah, it’s about who you know now.” Don’t try to find some big dude who will help you. Work with the people around you.

I love this one as surely it’s great advice for whatever we are doing in life? Instead of always thinking “If only I could hang out with that person, things would be SO much better…” we work with what we have here and now and find the treasures that can be discovered in this moment rather than some fantasy other-world. And that is definitely the case when we consider the resources and huge reservoirs of poker wisdom that we all now have access to.

Sure, it would be great to have Esfandiari, Negreanu et al on speed dial – “Eugene, I’ve told you before – stop ringing me when I’m busy!! “ – and pick their brains but again, as Dan W says, you must ‘work with the people around you’. Which means I guess that I should give up hoping that one day a certain pro will ask me out for a drink…<sigh> Ok, I’m too much of an optimist to let go of that particular fantasy just for the moment but that notwithstanding, I am perfectly happy to talk to the rest of you 😉

And let’s face it, although the idea of the “big dude” who comes along and helps you reach your goals is great, it’s all those “little dudes” who are with you every step of the way that truly deserve the thanks and appreciation for helping you get where you are today in your game.

4. Put in the hours, but get out there too After I take my girls to school I come back home and play piano for an hour, then I’ll start trying to come up with something. Songwriters spend hours staring at a blank page, despairing, but once you have a way in, all your history and experience comes into use. And once a week, have a beer with a friend. Force yourself to have a life because it all feeds in.

“Force yourself to have a life because it all feeds in” – I suspect that for many of us, this mantra should be carved into the wall above our computers. And above our office desks. And above anywhere else that takes up an inordinate amount of our time and energy. For this is a piece of advice that most human beings at some point in their lives should take to heart.

It’s easy to lose perspective especially when we are engaged in a lifelong pursuit of such power and attraction as that of poker. But the message is clear – that we are often strengthened and improved as much by our time away from the table as when we are playing. This is in a sense a counter balance to the advice given by the first tip but the key is to find the happy healthy medium between the two.

I note that increasingly throughout the poker world there is more of an emphasis on the importance of a good fitness regime showing how much the mind – and so in turn our game – can benefit from everything from a gym workout to just getting away from it all with a brisk walk or chilling out with mates. And indeed, as every bodybuilder knows – it’s in the recovery periods where the true muscle growth occurs. The guy who insists on training hard every day will soon find that all he gets is lots of injury, stress and not much progress compared to the wiser individual who knows when to rest and simply do nothing.

5. Feed your mind Input is really important. Culture is set up as a gigantic gift that you can then feed back into, which is why I’ve just been to hear an organ recital and have a look around the National Gallery in London.

Again, it’s all about what we feed ourselves with. Whether it be our body or our minds, we do not work and play in hermetically sealed environments. It’s all part of one big holistic picture and our poker being something that calls upon both physical and mental stamina, cannot be placed separate from everything else we are doing. Just as feeding ourselves with junk will have consequences for our physical training and well being, we must be aware of how we focus our minds and the resources that we call upon to strengthen our emotional and intellectual muscle.

Over the past few months, I have seen various poker players mention how for example meditation has helped their game. This should not be a surprise at all as any mind training can only help improve the sort of skills that are vital at the table. And we are not talking anything woo here. It’s not magic or calling upon higher powers. It’s the simple realisation that the greatest and most powerful tool that we have at our instant disposal is our mind. And that’s something that should be obvious to any poker player who sees this game as one of the ultimate tests of its power. So feed it well and see what that power can do!

And with that, I ask you to wait while I flip the album (extra bonus points to those who actually remember doing that) and put on Side B. Hoping that is, that you actually want to hear the other side….