Regrets? Oh I’ve had a few….

I was at a dinner party recently when one of the guests proclaimed, “You should never regret anything! Regrets are poison to the soul! Drop them and be free!”

Clearly the person to whom he was giving the advice seemed pleased with this thought. But as with any absolutist statement, I felt uneasy about this definitive “truth”. Really? You should never feel regret? They serve no purpose at all?

Unfortunately the conversation moved on before I could properly tackle the subject – and thankfully before he could launch into his impersonation of Piaf’s Je ne regrette rien – but on the way home I had, while I’m throwing around random Frenchisms, that classic l’esprit d’escalier moment and wished I’d asked him if he would say this to a rapist. Or to the woman who had just stolen a pensioner’s life savings? Would he say to them that they did not need to regret their actions?

OK, those are extreme examples but even in normal daily life, isn’t it the case that we need to regret some things or else we would never improve? Not to mention the fact that without regrets, we end being dreadful companions to those around us. Because surely the only people who truly have no regrets are psychopaths – those who care nothing about how their actions might affect others and feel no sympathy with any distress caused. Without regret, how could ever understand the true consequences of our actions?

So how does this apply to poker? (A question which I fear readers of my posts will often ask!) Well, this results directly from from the end part of a tournament I played a few weeks back  Don’t worry, I am not going to labour you with my bad beat story although excuse me while I wipe my tears off the keyboard for a moment…

Suffice to say, I made some terrible decisions, allowed myself to be ridiculously outplayed and saw lots of what Sklansky calls clinically “mathematical catastrophes”. And boy, considering how my head was spinning with self-recrimination afterwards, if the Red Cross had a special Poker Emergency Response Team then I would have been calling upon them. And just for the record, with an acronym like PERT, how can there not be such a team?!

But as I calmed down, that feeling of doubt from the party then shot into my mind. Really?! No regrets? You don’t want to regret this? You don’t want to remember this pain? Because how else am I going to avoid doing it again? I can read all the books in the poker universe, but nothing can equal the visceral power of experience. I’d read about mathematical catastrophes hundreds of times but now, oh now, I really did get what it meant. And however much victory is memorable, surely our greatest moments of learning come from those times when we say from the depths of despair, “I wish I hadn’t done that….and I must make sure I will never do it again!”

Now of course, I am not talking about those times when we fold correctly some trash hand which then before our dismayed eyes turns into a full house. The constant advice to every poker player is rightly to keep focused on the play of the hands and never the results which means that we can never regret a correct course of action. However much by the vagaries of luck, it may have won in that particular instant.

But the moment that we try to nullify the pain of regret that comes from doing something we know to be wrong, then we already stunting the potential for our future growth. Even if I think about that session now, it causes me anguish when I think about how badly I played. Hell, I didn’t sleep a wink that night, running over and over again in mind all the ways in which  played badly. But at least that means I can  rest assured in the knowledge that if I do find myself in a similar situation, some sort of Pavlovian poker response should kick in.

There’s that great story about the actor and avid poker player, James Woods, being interviewed during some tournament where he talked about needing a rubber band around his wrist which he could ping “every time I feel tempted to play KJo from EP”. For without that short sharp shock, he’d be liable to forget the greater pain of those past mistakes.

Perhaps he wasn’t aware of the resonances with a very old tradition found mostly in England and Wales called ‘beating the bounds’. It was when a whole village would go en masse to the boundaries of the community and they’d take along with them a boy of an age approaching adulthood. And at each physical marker of the limits of the village, they would whip the child. Charming custom huh? The idea being that it was the only way for him to really know and feel deep inside the limits of his existence. He had to feel the pain to truly understand how far he could go. It was in a sense a form of aversion therapy – teaching in the most visceral of fashions what were the boundaries that should not be normally crossed without caution.

Ok, so I am not suggesting that any of you should be getting the whips out every time you sit in front of your monitor. What you do in the privacy of your homes is very much your own business, just as long as you clean up properly afterwards of course. But there will always be times when we need to mark hard those times when we stray from what we know to be the path of poker righteousness.

Human beings learn from experience. From when we were babies, we learn that certain actions lead to pleasurable results and thereby we decide to stick to those actions as much as possible. It only takes a couple of bursts of such pleasure for our neural pathways to cling stubbornly to the idea that that is what we should be doing from now on.

But of course poker is dangerous territory for this process, it being a game in which in the short term at least, the right course of action does not always lead to a favourable result. So much pain can come from what is in fact the right thing to be doing. So our experience must be analysed and tested constantly in the light of what is objectively the correct action rather than what our emotions might tell us. (A heartfelt shout-out to the blessing that is Pokertracker is required here!) How many times do we play in a certain way which intellectually we know is not logical but which perhaps won us a huge pot once or twice in the past and which we are loath to drop? How many times do we avoid action which our head tells us is clearly +EV but which due to some unforgettably cracked disaster at the hands of a villain’s trash holding, we hesitate to follow?

The trick is knowing what to regret and what not to. So I suppose we could argue that our friend at the dinner table was partially right. You have to drop the regrets about the bad beats, suckouts and all those catastrophes beyond our control. But on the other hand you must never stop regretting the missed chances and the lost value. For how else are you ever going to learn? You have to feel the pain and regret so as to not forget. It can be the spur to future action. For the best response to any grief or regret, is to use that as a foundation for a renewed dedication to further self-improvement.

Or it may just spur us on to write something, to help others in a similar bind while getting it off our chests. Which of course is exactly what I am doing now. So I could argue that I definitely shouldn’t regret what happened at the table that fateful night as in response, it got me thinking about what it means to regret and the ways in which something positive can come of that.

As to whether you regret reading this post all the way to the end, that’s a whole different matter which I shall leave for you to now decide 🙂

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The Undiscovered Country

I was at a launch the other evening for the new book by Charlie Morley. Charlie is an expert on Lucid Dreaming which as you may know is the phenomenon whereby while sleeping, you become aware within the dream that you are dreaming and actively shape whatever course of action that you then choose to take.

It’s a fascinating subject and although Charlie comes from a Tibetan Buddhist background, it’s definitely not something which is restricted to those of a – to use the dread word – ‘spiritual’ bent. It’s nothing ‘woo’ and certainly doesn’t have to be anything weird or esoteric. It’s just the brain with all its mysterious power and untapped potential. And is yet another example of how little we understand about what is often referred to as being akin to an undiscovered country.

And although I don’t have as much personal experience of becoming lucid within my dreams as I would like, it’s happened enough for me to understand the varied benefits that it can bring. It is as Charlie says, a chance to ‘meet’ with one’s own mind and explore whatever desires and more importantly issues – psychological, emotional, intellectual etc – which we may wish to face and tackle in a totally safe environment. For what could be safer and more comfortable than within the ultimate virtual reality that is your own mind?

I am just glad to report that one of the most memorable ‘encounters’ with my own sub-conscious demonstrated the sort of humour that I would hope to find there. One of the techniques for encouraging lucid dreaming as part of a pre-sleep practise, is to ‘ask’ the sub-conscious to manifest itself as some form of guide or teacher within the dream. This can often be expressed as someone who we personally regard as a trustworthy voice in our lives.

Again, I must emphasise, this is not something magical. You’re not asking for help from an exterior force or being. Instead, this is simply addressing one’s own brain as you drift into sleep – rather like the process of hypnosis – to encourage a particularly receptive state of mind as you enter the deep sleep phase.

So when I did this, you can imagine my surprise and amusement on becoming lucid, I should find James Hartigan and Joe Stapleton of EPT fame floating into my dream. “What are you doing?” they asked.

“Um, lucid Dreaming?” I replied hesitantly.

“Sounds like a load of rubbish,” mutters James.

“I’d just stick to poker if I were you,” adds Joe. “Much more EV than lucid dreaming…whatever that is!?”

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that in the end, my brain will always suggest poker as the best course of action 🙂

But the reason why I mention the other night’s book launch is that it got me thinking again about this deeply mysterious and still vastly uncharted territory that is the brain. I say ‘again’ as it’s been a subject that has been particularly on my mind – as it were! – since my last post and the reason why to some extent, I have rather neglected this blog lately.

Around the beginning of December last year, my mother had a stroke and with that, she – along with all of us around her – were forced to contemplate in very real terms those aforementioned mysteries and complexities of the human brain.

As I said to my mother when trying to reassure her in the midst of her distress – “It’s like all those problems you had with Windows 7. Your operating system has gone haywire and the reboot is going to take a while… ”

Or for a slightly more scientific perspective on what a stroke feels like, if you have a little time, I strongly urge you to check out this amazing and very inspirational TED talk describing a stroke from the inside.

Which all served to remind me of what should be obvious to all of us – what an incredible and amazing asset our brain is. Something that in particular we as poker players must give thanks for. As I touched upon before in my comparison with Five-a-side Football one of the great virtues of poker is that it’s a past-time which at no point does the dream of success ever truly die. It may become more and more unlikely but – thanks to our potentially ever inquisitive minds  – the possibility of reaching the top is always technically within our grasp.

I was playing at my local pub tourney recently and there was the World Darts Championship on the TV. And the guy next to me nodded towards the fine figure of a man on the screen and says, “Look at that! Isn’t that great?! What other sport can you think of where you can be unfit, old, lead a degenerate lifestyle and still be a world professional…?”

I paused for the appropriate effect while gesturing around us…”Er, poker?”

“Oh yeah…Ha, forgot that!” came the sheepish reply.

I guess in my innocent poker buddy’s defence, in recent times there has definitely been more of a movement away from that classic bad boy lifestyle that was the norm for poker players. Although as I have touched upon before in this blog, there are enough Bilzerians out there to make sure the stereotypes don’t totally go away. But it’s much more common now for professionals to argue that poker is as much about the physical as it is about the mental; and the likes of Eugene Katchalov and Jonathan Little have been vocal advocates of the benefits of health and fitness for their game.

But of course, although physical stamina definitely plays a vital role especially for tournament players, in the end it’s the ability to maintain concentration and phenomenal levels of psychological equilibrium that really distinguishes the top level players. Although needless to say, the two are often linked in the sense that with physical fatigue, mental fatigue will soon follow.

Either way over the past few years there has been a lot more awareness of the necessity of mind training and a healthy psychological approach to the game. In fact just as I wrote that sentence, I note a tweet from Daniel Negreanu with a link to his article on the Buddhist Practise of Mindfulness and how it can help your game.

It’s fitting then to this discussion that just before Christmas I won in a  Red Chip Poker competition a copy of a book by Dr Patricia Cardner and the aforementioned Jonathan Little: Positive Poker which is at the forefront of recent texts detailing that push to recognise the importance of the mental aspect of the game.

Granted there are those who are always going to be cynical about something that can look a little bit too ‘new age’ or esoteric. And I am aware that even just in this post, I have used both ‘brain’ and ‘mind’ interchangeably when admittedly, the two words don’t necessarily point to the same thing, depending on where you stand scientifically, psychologically, spiritually etc. But I don’t think I have the space, time or for that matter intelligence to do justice to that whole debate as to brain vs mind so I hope you let me off that big philosophical hook for now!

Suffice to say, at least from a spiritual point of view, the nature of ‘mind’ and what that means is something that Buddhists have been exploring for centuries before science joined the discussion. So I will leave those finer points to such higher authorities 😉

Instead, to return to Charlie Morley, I am reminded of something he said at the book launch. “When I tell people about some of the benefits – even physical – that lucid dreaming can have, they say to me dismissively,  ‘Ah well that’s just the placebo effect.’ And I say to them, Just?! Just the placebo effect?! Don’t you realise how amazing the placebo effect is? It’s never just!! It has the power to change and heal in ways that we are only just beginning to understand!”

His point being that saying something is  ‘all in the mind’ is not necessarily a way of dismissing a result. The fact that it is all in the mind – whatever we may decide the ‘mind’ is – may be the very reason why it’s changing things for the better in someone’s life.

For example, as someone who volunteers at a hospice and so naturally has an interest in issues around pain relief, I love some of the studies that have been done with gaming and how patients need less pain medication when engrossed in a game. Which will come as no surprise to any gamer not to mention poker players for whom all sorts of discomfort and urgent bodily functions can be totally ignored for hours at a stretch 🙂 And what is that but the power of the mind to choose what should be worthy of attention at any given time?

After I wrote the above paragraph, I am reminded of the following quote from a professor of clinical psychology Paul Salkovskis, that I stumbled across in a newspaper article discussing depression.

Pain is an almost entirely psychological phenomenon, What is happening in your life will impact on pain. A fine example is soldiers in wartime getting a finger shot off and being carried off the field in a state of euphoria, laughing. For most of us, if our finger was shot off, we wouldn’t be laughing. Pain is made worse or better depending on your psychological state.

This is something that Buddhists were telling us long before any scientific studies had been done into the placebo effect and/or the ability to through suggestion,  train the brain to ‘switch off’ its pain receptors. Not surprising then so many poker players now realise that mindfulness and meditation practises are perfect answers to the problem of the ‘pain’ of tilt not to mention the challenge of maintaining concentration over long periods of time.

Indeed, the core teaching of the Buddha was concerning the unlimited power of the mind to shape and change the environment both within and without. The only restrictions are those that we choose to place upon ourselves. The horizon of opportunity is vast if we can only wake up to that reality.

So to finish, I want to leave you with one of my favourite images from that stressful period as my mother began her road to recovery. It was around two weeks after the stroke and although she had been discharged from hospital, she was going through a difficult time adjusting to the situation at home. But with some tough love – and a fair bit of nagging from me and my sister – we called upon those impressive reserves of mental strength, positivity and willpower that  we knew my mother possessed. With that, we got the promise that the next day she’d put on the make-up and her glad-rags and show that in spite of any physical debilitation, her mind was still ready for the fight. So you find below the proof of that determination to not be bowed by circumstance. And I know she will curse me for saying it, but for a woman of 82 – not to mention the stroke – I think she certainly showed herself worthy of that battle…

fruity lady

A reminder again that our mind’s power is boundless. That all of us can go wherever our imagination chooses to take us. And we are only limited by the limits that we have decided to attach to our thoughts. So here’s my belated New Year toast looking forward to a mindful year ahead with all its possibilities and opportunities. And as we celebrate that incredible muscle which is our brain, let’s put it to work and discover ever more of that undiscovered country.