The Meaning of Life, Poker…and this blog.

As my previous post touched upon the psychology of poker, it reminded me of why I wanted to set up this blog and the sort of things that I would like to explore. And if someone – anyone! – comes along for the ride and finds something of interest then all the better…

I guess I would like in my own humble way to explore some of the deeper lessons, thoughts and revelations that a voyage through the poker universe has already opened up to me. And hopefully to some of you too. A kind of commonplace blog with some of the odds and sods that have fascinated me along the way. With a touch of psychology here, a bit of philosophy there…even some theology and esoterica thrown into the mix to make for something a little more quirky, a little more off the wall.

Which means rather than discussing when to play AQo or how to size our bets – however important those things surely are! – in this particular blog, I am more interested in looking at what poker does to us as human beings. How does it resonate with us in the challenges and obstacles of life outside? Does it make us better people? If poker is the game of skill that we insist it to be, how does it affect us psychologically, emotionally, spiritually….and if you want to join me in going that little bit further and getting really deep here, then how about we ask those biggy questions that maybe we don’t always have time for – What is the meaning of poker…if of course there is a meaning! Although I am guessing that if like me, poker has become a huge part of your life then you would agree that if it doesn’t have meaning then God knows what we are doing spending so much of our time on something meaningless.

No, I will strongly preempt anything I might say with the firm affirmation that yes, poker does have meaning. Or as I always say, poker is my life now. And life is poker…

Or to use a concept that the rabbis of Israel were fond of in the time of the Temple of Jerusalem – for a devout Jew there was only two states of being…at the Temple and on the way to the Temple. Which meant that everything that happened on the way would essentially be seen through the lens of the question – how does this help for the supreme quest? What does this mean? Is this useful? So if you’ll forgive me transposing that in a potentially sacrilegious way to our own beloved poker, then you could argue that for the committed and indeed devout poker player, there are only two states of being for us….at the poker table and on the way to the poker table.

And I would argue without doubt that since starting to learn and play poker, I have not only learnt many valuable lessons about psychology, intelligence, rational thinking, logic and my own emotions – ahhh the joys of tilt!! – but that working with those many challenges thrown up by the game make me a better man. And will continue to do so. For I would go as far as to say that the qualities of a good poker player are qualities that we want to see at large in human society. Big statement huh? Only if I were not talking in the main to poker players maybe. Cos surely, here of all places I’m preaching to the converted when talking to this flock, right?

And even if you don’t agree with the above assertion then you will surely agree with the bleeding obvious statement that it’s not easy. If there’s one thing that marks out the fool, it’s when he suggests that anything about poker is easy! For all of those qualities that I praise above are in a sense utterly unnatural. Only a weird and wonderful lucky few are innately born with those strange habits that make up the psyche and mentality of the the truly able poker player.

For as one of the great experts of poker psychology, Dr Alan Schoonmaker writes in The Psychology of Poker the mentality of a successful poker player – the classic TAG style – is not a natural human attribute. Aggression is of course part of our primordial DNA but the ability to switch that aggression on and off in a very controlled and tightly focused way is not something that is naturally present in human beings. It has to be learnt, nurtured and trained and does not come easily. As Dr Schoonmaker suggests, the only people who display it in their regular life are elite soldiers, police and other professions where long periods of calm are momentarily interspersed with explosions of sometimes violent reaction.

Or as he memorably puts it, a successful poker player must become the stone cold killer. For presumable a professional assassin would make a fine shark. Although if there do happen to be any hit men hanging around on this site, let me just say you’re very welcome here….just don’t come and play at any of my cash games.

And aye, there’s the rub – one of the wonderful contradictions that I love about poker: the fact that on the one hand we will argue the virtues of learning this game as a way of improving ourselves while on the other, we accept that our goal is to become stone cold assassins who annihilate anyone who stands in our path.

Which is why I always take as my role model the Japanese samurai as the perfect example of how those two states coexist. The way that a samurai would strive to be a refined, civilised, educated warrior – constantly improving himself as a human being while also always being ready in an instant to call upon that wisdom and judgement in the service of brute force and aggression. Surely the ideal template for the perfect poker player?

And then there is all the other bodies of wisdom that will speak to our experiences in poker. Wisdom that belongs to what we sometimes clumsily refer to as the “Eastern Traditions”. Teachings about the nature of action and of not attaching ourselves to the results of those actions but rather focusing on doing the right thing. Accepting that in the long term, everything works out how it should and how – contrary to what those bad beats will make us feel – that there are certain laws of the universe that cannot be denied. Even if you are a fish who insists on playing J2o to the river and hitting your full house! The Buddhists will say “Karma is.” to which the poker player will reply “EV is.” 🙂

I was watching a video by Boomer (one of Pokerstrategy’s coaches) the other day and he spoke about his ‘favourite subject in the universe – awareness’ and it’s comments like that which I love as it’s the sort of thing that could come straight out of the mouth of a Buddhist monk or Hindu swami. Whether Boomer looks good in saintly robes sitting crosslegged on the top of a mountain is something that I will leave to the imagination of those who know him…

But this is a classic principle of the synchronicities that you will find in any moment of truth. And what boomer says, applies to any form of mind training just as much as to the specific example of poker. To be aware, to be fully present in the moment – that’s a vital foundation for any improved way of life. It is as a Catholic theologian once called it, realising the “the sacrament of the present moment.”

Or to put it in a more earthly way that will be familiar to us, as a billboard in Vegas once said, “You have to be present to win”.

Again, that’s the sort of message that would have the Buddha nodding strongly in agreement…while he riffled his chips 😉

Anyway, that’s a taster of the sort of thing that gets my mind working. Phew! Yeah, who said that less is more huh?! So, I understand that it’s not necessarily a take on the game that’s shared by everyone but if you’ve read this far – and well done Sir/Madam, you’ve already earned karmic merits just for that! – and it’s the kind of quirky talk that you like then maybe now and then we can explore this sort of thing a little further together.
The Buddha always said that one of the essential things for the path is gathering together noble friends to walk with you. And I am sure that if Lord Gautama had happened across his local cash game, that’s exactly what he would have said as encouragement to the players.

So if it’s a journey that you fancy joining me for from time to time, I’d be happy to have the company while I witter on about whatever weird philosophical thoughts that occupy me at the time.

In the meantime, I hope that you go out there and be the civilised, refined, calm….and utterly ruthless killers that you are called to be!

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Are You a Psychopath?

Are you a psychopath? As opening greetings go, it’s perhaps not what you’re normally used to hearing. That is unless you’re the person that I read about recently, who thought it a good idea on a blind date to excitedly offer to show the girl his ‘impressive collection of knives and axes’ that he had apparently spent years collecting. Although I gather she hurriedly left before even asking the all-important “Are you a psychopath?” question….

No, the reason why I am thinking about all things sociopathic, is that I was reading a while back an article about Andy McNab – a kind of celebrity ex special forces operative here in the UK – who has co-authored a new book called The Good Psychopath’s Guide to Success.

In the article, Robert Crampton of the Times undergoes with McNab the sort of neurological test that supposedly can determine a psychopathic character. This involves sitting in a cubicle wired up to various machines monitoring brain functions while watching a succession of scenes: some neutral, some pleasing and then at unexpected moments, images of extreme horror – victims of accidents and murder, dismembered bodies and all sorts of gruesome gore. And throughout this – with the added stress of sudden blasts of white noise through headphones – the electrodes measure how the brain is reacting.

It’s what is known as the emotionally modulated startle-response test or as the co-author of the book, Professor Kevin Dutton calls it, the gold standard for testing psychopaths. It is by monitoring how a person responds to moments of visual or aural stress that it can be judged to what extent they may have psychopathic tendencies.

Well, not surprisingly however much Crampton tried to stay calm, his brain reacted with the appropriate levels of stress and anxiety. But McNab on the other hand, the highly trained soldier and indeed killer, showed no noticeable change. As the journalist writes…

His physiological response….bore no correlation to the image in front of him at the time. He flatlined. “I didn’t care” he says. If anything, his results suggest the trees and lakes stressed him out marginally more than the dismembered bodies.

So perhaps not the man you want to invite out with you for a nice quiet walk into the forest…

But needless to say it got me onto the subject of poker and how the psychologist Dr Alan Schoonmaker had written at length in books such as The Psychology of Poker about how TAGs should emulate the “stone cold killer”. So with that in mind, it could be argued that what we think of as the perfect poker attitude, clearly reflects some psychopathic tendencies.

It’s that ability to not only be able to unleash aggression but even more importantly to know the exact moment when it is appropriate to do so; while never allowing the inner calmness and emotional balance to be affected by what is unfurling before your eyes. To be able to say at any time in the heat of the battle, just like Andy McNab, “I didn’t care”. It means being utterly unaffected by whatever gory horrors may result from our actions. Of course in our case, withstanding gruesome images is probably best represented by the mental terror of seeing an opponent river quads with his deuces while we watch our AK full house collapse. But gore is gore, in whatever form it comes…

Of course, it doesn’t mean that we should approach our game with an air of indifferent nonchalance. I don’t know much about armed covert operations but I can guess that McNab didn’t stroll into enemy territory while whistling a happy tune. Rather, like any warrior, he would move with stealth and poise, patiently waiting in a heightened sense of awareness until the moment is right for the lethal attack. Viewing each new development in the light of cool logic rather than allowing emotion to affect the decision as to when to act.

And it’s that ability to determine between what are valid opportunities for action and what are situations that are a waste of energy and/or potentially dangerous which for most of us does not come naturally but must be developed. And it’s clearly a quality that all poker players can appreciate when for example they find themselves caught up in the maniacal mood of a table and start getting involved in hands which they have no rational business being in!

Knowing which battles you should fight and which more importantly are the ones you have the right odds to win, is something that every tactician from Sun Tzu onwards has rightly regarded as essential for victory. It all starts with conquering the enemy within, the inner demons who stand in the way of our success. As Lao Zi says, “Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.”

And like the ‘good psychopath’, we must remain placid and unmoved, especially in the face of the many elements beyond our control. Indeed, it’s the way that a person handles these ‘non-controllables’ that really shows how much he or she is instead in control of themselves and their actions. As Crampton writes about McNab, “If he can’t influence an event, he simply shuts off from it.”

So next time the flop hits magically the hand of the fishiest opponent on earth and you’re about to declare all-out war, remember those words. You can’t influence the event so shut yourself off from it and – as difficult as it may be – strive to remain unaffected by what is clearly beyond your control. For by definition, a true psychopath will not go on tilt. They may coldly plan out the downfall and destruction of their enemy but it will never be with an unbalanced mind or erratic play. Which brings us back to the textbook definition of a successful TAG.

Of course as the journalist showed in the article, it’s not something that comes easily to a ‘normal’ person. But hey, nobody ever accused poker addicts of being normal so all the more reason why we should strive to develop this all important poker – psychopathic! – mindset.

Anyway, you must excuse me now, I have to go and clean my knife collection. I find the machetes are particularly hard work and I have a fish to gut for dinner tonight…