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 🙂