身の程を知れ!! (Know Your Position!)

I started my studies of Japanese nearly 30 years ago and the very first phrase that I ever learnt – for reasons that are rather lost in the mists of time – was the one above: 身の程を知れ!! Mi no hodo o shire! 

It’s normally translated as Know your place! but needless to say in the context of a poker blog, I think that ‘position’ is a much more apt choice for the phrase. Either way, they were words that back in the days of feudal Japan you wouldn’t necessarily want to hear especially if you were a lowly peasant that had committed the fatal error of getting in the way of your friendly neighbourhood samurai warrior.

Within the strict restraints of a heavily hierarchical society like that of say, 16th Century Japan, your place was what defined and limited your entire life. You were never allowed to forget from the moment of your birth to your death where you fitted in and what you were allowed to do and say. And a phrase like 身の程を知れ!! was an ever present warning to those who might contemplate stepping outside of the normal bounds.

So it wouldn’t take much of a breach of protocol for these to be the last words you ever heard as the aforementioned samurai – who was naturally at the top of the hierarchy – angrily brought his sword down upon you.

And although faux pas in Japan will still suffer various levels of opprobrium, thankfully the sword has been packed away. But the belief in the importance of knowing your position in life still remains very much at the heart of Japanese thinking (as it is elsewhere in East Asia). Always keeping within the set limits of your position and knowing what you can and cannot do is still viewed as vital for a prosperous, happy and efficient society.

It’s for this reason that whenever I have taught anyone Japanese in the past, Lesson One always begins with 身の程を知れ! as the basis for everything that is to follow.  And no, that’s not because I fancy myself as a sword brandishing aggressive brute of a warrior…although now that you mention it….

No, rather it’s an excellent way of summing up all the stuff that you need to remember when speaking Japanese right from the most basic words and grammar. Always being aware to whom you’re speaking and what your relative position is to them. And I hope that by now – if you’ve read any of my other stuff – you won’t be surprised that I would wish to link to this poker and then in a wider sense to how we all live our lives.

Ironically one of the very first pieces of poker advice that I ever heard was exactly about this. It was in an interview with Jake Cody and he was asked what was the most important thing for players to remember: “Position. Never forget the importance of position!” was basically what he said. So already we now have the image of Jade Cody as Rochdale’s answer to a samurai warrior….

And of course the importance of position should already be clear to all poker players. Whether we actually keep it in mind at the table though is another matter as we can all confess to a litany of committed OOP sins during those times when we have been in a suitably revolutionary mood and decided to cast off the shackles of position…with the usual subsequent results as many a downswing graph will testify.

But as always, what interests me here is what are the deeper lessons that we can draw from this away from the table and in our lives in general?

I am reminded that one of the most fundamental and ancient pieces of wisdom in history was inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi – Know Thyself. Phrase it however you like – Know yourself. Know your limits. Know what you can do and what you can’t do – an eternal admonition which will remain a good piece of advice for as long as human beings continue to be the gloriously messed up confused creatures that we are.

Or as the Souda, the Byzantine encyclopedia of the 10th Century explained it –

The proverb is applied to those whose boasts exceed what they are.

A good one to remember when you need an apt if rather unexpected riposte to the trash talker who rages about the bad beat of his cracked aces. For we all must never forget that there are no total sure things in life apart from death…and showdowns. Just as there is no such thing as a 100% equity hand pre flop. Everything can change in the twinkling of a dealer’s eye and in the turn of the cards.

Which brings me to my moment in the dentist’s chair a while back. Fear not, this little tangent is not going to involve any drilling sounds or root canals although it does contain a rather irritating misunderstanding about our game. I’m lying back, mouth stretched open awaiting nervously whatever implements Dr L is about to prod me with when he does that thing that dentists love to do which is strike up a conversation when we are at our most orally challenged. I say conversation but of course it’s very much a one-sided affair with him opining and me answering with an inarticulate ‘Urrrgh….aarg…innngg’.

Noticing my copy of Harrington on the chair, he launches into something that clearly he’s thought about for a while, “I just don’t get it, this poker lark. What is there to do?! You either have the cards or you don’t. You have a winning hand and that’s it! Where’s the skill in that? Sounds like a waste of time to me…”

Now I have always gone by the classic rule in life that there is a whole section of society that it’s usually wise not to annoy and irritate. These include people who bring/prepare your food, tattooists, hairdressers and anybody who performs intimate internal examinations. Needless to say, I was not in the mood to start arguing with the dear Dr L. Besides he gives me a great price 🙂 So I went for the much safer and compliant option of just ‘uuuuuurgh aaaargh….enggh’

But if I had had the time and desire – not to mention the actual ability to form words – then I would have tried to patiently explain that poker is always about relative hand strengths never absolute. That it’s always about position and how that relates to the other. And if he didn’t get that then I would have pointed to the fact that it’s just the same as in life – that it’s all about context and our current situation. That what we can do successfully in this particular  place may fail miserably somewhere else. It’s never just about what we have but where we are when we have it. As in poker, as in life.

Years ago, I had an argument with a friend who had clearly watched far too much Oprah or some other inspirational TV and was going around saying, “I can do anything that I put my mind to. Nothing is impossible!” Now that is of course a wonderfully positive outlook and I applauded his can-do attitude. But as I tried to explain to him – and in the process sounded like the old grinch killing joy wherever I saw it – you still have to know your limits. You still have to look honestly at yourself and know what is within your capabilities. Or to put it in poker terms, you have to know what is EV+ and what is chasing after a draw without the right odds.

Or as I said to him, however fetching I might look in ballet tights, there is no way at 43 that I could ever dance in the Royal Ballet corps. Not with my knees! And please, for your own sake, try to keep that image out of your mind for the rest of this post, it will only distract….

I volunteer at a hospice once a week and during my time there I have never ceased to be educated, amazed and humbled by the myriad ways in which human beings accept the inevitability of their situation and come to terms with, as it were, the final hand that they have been dealt.

But I have noticed that sometimes the patients who struggle and suffer the most are the ones who ironically led the most exciting and/or successful of lives. The ones who were always in control and strong in whatever they did. The ones who – to think of it in poker terms again – always had the button, always had position. But even for them, of course the time must come when Fate is in position, is raising them hard and strong and all they can do is sit in SB having to accept what comes. Just don’t expect me to tell you what Death’s 3bet range is, that’s stretching the analogy even further than I can go!

Yet, as ironically the Samurai of feudal Japan would surely be first to tell us, true strength comes from always having a total and clear awareness of what our  true situation is and thus know realistically what the best course of action is rather than just clinging to fantasies and chasing dreams.

Ultimately we do have to accept our position in whatever we do. We have to know our place in the end whether we like it or not. And work with that to the best of our capabilities right up to the very last showdown. So let’s do that with all the grace and composure that we can muster. For that, more than anything, is the true way of the warrior.

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!