Let their poker experiences be your guide

March 12, 2011  

Deal Me In, by Stephen John and Marvin Karlins, was a holiday gift from my son. The book, published by Phil Hellmuth, is full of interesting anecdotes and I read it in one sitting. It offers short bios of some of the most notable and successful poker players. It was an enjoyable read. Then I thought there must be something to learn here, something to help with peak performance and head games.

This is not a traditional book review, but more a comment on what can be gained in poker psychology from reading poker biographies.

I read it a second time with that perspective, that is, what could I learn about the psychology of successful professional poker player and what might that information add for the rest of us achieving our own peak performance?

While writing this column I was reminded of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To thine own self be true,” is Polonius’ last piece of advice to his son, Laertes, who is in a hurry to get out of town. Polonius has in mind something much more than the self-knowledge that the phrase now suggests. As Polonius saw it, borrowing and loaning money, carousing with women of dubious character and other intemperate pursuits are “false” to the self.

Understanding yourself in the poker world is essential. Once you have an understanding of who you are, you can apply it to poker. You can work to peak performance and develop an understanding of your comfort zone and how to expand it. You also need to understand your relationship to money, which will be covered in a later column. But for now, know who “they” are and how that can teach you about yourself.

This is not a psychological analysis of any of these great players. Instead, just like at the poker table, it’s an attempt to get a read based on limited information. But aren’t they all? Let’s try to uncover some patterns that might prove useful to the aspiring pro, or the person who plays at the same levels as these folks, even if it is an entry into the World Series of Poker, or to any of us trying to figure out where we are in the poker world. Once we get a handle of where we are, we understand our comfort zones and just how far to push them.

Besides, what is the point of reading a poker book if I can’t learn from it? I looked for patterns: what similarities exist among these notable pros and how that is relevant to the rest of the poker world.

I noticed very few spent a great deal of time working in the 9-to-5 world. They didn’t get jobs and progress through the world of work; they didn’t start businesses and sell them and then become professional poker players. They didn’t get used to the grind for income to which most of us are accustomed. They won and lost and risked astronomical amounts of money and were all great risk-takers, not only at the table but in life. They went all-in: good, bad and ugly. They fit in the purest sense the entrepreneurial spirit. This was the same spirit that was glorified for a number of years in America (until the economy went bust) and the one that defines extreme risk-takers.

They think of money differently than most; they didn’t save for retirement, buy houses or have a cushion. Having a cushion, safety net or poker account was anathema to how they achieved their success. They raised stakes, played, lost and raised another stake until they won. They had a passion for poker and each spent their lives devoted to becoming the best. It should be remembered that for each of these elite pros there are thousands who have gone bust and have not made it. Making this kind of decision has its pitfalls and tremendous downsides. But for the few who make it to the top it is a special life. It’s not that much different than other high-risk, high-reward ventures. Money means more than the paper it’s printed on, or the chips it represents. Money is linked to emotions, feelings, desires, status and thoughts.

For some poker players there’s left-pocket and right-pocket money, for others it is always all at risk. How many people feel comfortable putting $50K, $100K and $250K on the table knowing it is their total net worth? I began to wonder how much one’s game changes when playing with “poker money” vs. “real money” and what happens when all money is poker money. There is a poker truism: “Never play with scared money.” For some folks all money is scared money and for some, like most of these players, no money is scared money.

These pros are incredible risk-takers. They took risks with their lives, but didn’t necessarily see it as risk. The road to being a poker pro is one of risk-taking and being able to live with the consequences and the variance. Several psychological questions arise. What is the nature of risk and how does risk-taking in life translate to risk-taking at the table?

So what is risk? Is there a measure we can use or is it a perception? If one doesn’t perceive it as risk, is it risk? A good friend of mine who left the corporate life to enter the life of real estate development told me he loved controlled risk. He loved the roller-coaster life, but knew the car was always on a track. Reading this book suggests many poker pros don’t care about the track. Risk also has been translated to mean aggression.

All of the pros seemed to have a natural and intuitive understanding of gaming, which was later refined. In a way they self-selected poker professionalism. They had to develop skills but they had a knack for this way of working and this aspect seems to be an important factor. Even when they lost they realized they were good at what they were doing. This understanding of the game later became analysis of probabilities, reads and game theory, but it seems that first came the intuitive understanding of the nature of poker.

Like any successful person who experiences struggles, they all said, “Don’t do what I did … it is not as glamorous as you might think.” Many of them like to gamble in other ways as well. Some fell prey to the temptations of gambling and drugs. Most have a streak of narcissism. Those who have this tendency often succeed, but at the expense of other domains that people value, such as family. Narcissism isn’t always bad; imagine an actor without it, a politician, a poker pro. But like every psychological trait, some people have features, others traits and other disorders. There is a continuum. Read the book and judge for yourself where each player lies.

I also found interesting that the world of Internet poker can be the realm for the introverted. Not sitting face-to-face allows one to develop their “avatar” or persona; those who are socially anxious, shy and insecure can play on a computer screen, no social skills needed.

This kind of book can be more than entertainment; it can be a learning experience that can help you keep your head in the game and reach your peak performance.

— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. His column will give insight on how to achieve peak performance using poker psychology. Email questions for him at editor@anteupmagazine.com.