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….

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