Better Living Through Poker

We all know that poker can impact your wallet – by keeping it full of lettuce, by getting your credit cards cut up by angry maitre d’s, or else just introducing some day-to-day to how lopsided you are when sat on a hard surface. But on the whole the finances of poker are there on the surface, apparent to a first glance and often physically stamped in clay numerals on the face of a casino chip.

But there is a less plutonic impact poker can have on you and yours if you take the attitude that poker is not a game but – as it were – a state of mind. When away from the baize players don’t often apply what they spend hours and hours honing at it. Which is a waste of hard won talent and hard practiced skills.

Here are a few key examples of how playing poker can move beyond Friday night card sharking to all week lifehacking.


  1. Life Odds

First up is mathematics.

The idea of pot odd is fundamental to playing profitable poker. Most introductory texts will start with pot odds and work outwards. If you play a lot you probably already eyeball your pot odds several times per hand. It’s an automatic action that is part of each decision at the table.

Pot odds are specific to gambling; but the expected value equation (on which pot odds are based) is a near universal decision assessing tool. From the obvious, like buying insurance. To the obscure, like whether you bring an umbrella with you when you go out. The money odds are not always as clear IRL as they are at the table. I mean, how do you quantify the discomfort of your hair from frizzing up in a downpour against the inconvenience of draggin an umbrella about with you?

Percentage likelihoods may only be rough in cases like these (just ask your weatherman). But that doesn’t mean you can’t make broad assessments based on what information you have. We estimate risk and reward all the time. By making EV calculations part of regular life you can make those estimates far more useful to your decision making process.

Poker has prepared you to do that.


  1. Doubt

Related to using expected value more often is the idea of accepting doubt.

Will Hillary go to jail, or will Trump? Will the world end this year or next? Will your mum ever stop sexting me? Most people have a cast concrete idea of what the outcome of certain situations will be (ie. Trump, tomorrow if we’re lucky, and only if I stop replying to her). But the truth is that until reality coalesces these remain weighted random outcomes (or more correctly pseudorandom).

Anything could happen.

That’s something that becomes easier to live with when you play a game where you see tens of thousands of coin flips out over even a modest poker career. You get used to situations that can resolve themselves many ways and so become less likely to dogmatically turn descriptions of the world into demands of the world.

In other words there is no shame in not knowing for sure. Unlike what we are taught by the examination systems of the world which tends to say that ‘I don’t know’ is a failure, reality is full of stuff we don’t or cannot know. The ability to live with doubt and eschew certainty is key to thinking well.

A similar symptom of the failure to deal with different levels of certainty is that when a politician changes their mind they are seen to have ‘shown weakness’ or ‘flip-flopped’. But that is to be expected in a world as complex as ours. as Bertrand Russell famously said, ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?’

Poker teaches us these skills and you can take them away from the table with you.


  1. Body Language

Let’s get back to the more practical skills we all learn at the table. One of the most overrated in poker and underrated in real life is the ability to read people. Rounders has a lot to answer for in terms of how specific and important tells are viewed as being to the poker player. Most will put their faith in betting patterns over a scratched nose eight days a week.

That said, more general tells like the indications of excitement, disappointment, fear or elation are useful for catching the odd bluff, or knowing when to time your own. Away from the tables most players seem to switch this form of observation off though, ignoring the tells of bosses, loved ones, and traffic cops.

In fact we seem to segment these ideas so much that FBI lie detection maven Joe Navarro, after writing a book on reading body language called What Every Body Is Saying was able to sell the market on a repackaged version specifically for poker players called Read Em And Reap.

Being attentive to the hidden emotions of those around us can help us to manipulate others nefariously and it can help us be kinder to those we care about.

Whether you go all Machiavelli or take a more Dalai Lama approach on this is one is between you and your conscience. Either way it’s a tool you should get out your belt more often.


  1. Mindfulness

Calculating pot odds, assessing possible outcomes and getting reads on players all require of you that you pay attention to what’s going on. Suppressing your own tells requires awareness of your own emotional state and control of one’s body. These are very close to the key ideas of mindfulness – the broad term under which secular meditative practice tends to fall nowadays – namely the skills of attention and intentionality.

For those who hear the word meditation and sneer at the idea of California mum’s bragging about their yogis, I can put your mind at rest (as it were): the science is in on this. Meditation improves your health – largely by assisting with emotional distress like unhappiness and stress – cognitive function and concentration. It is also part of the most common non-pharmaceutical interventions (usually coupled with CBT) for mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Its strong juju.

Meditation practice usually takes the form of focusing your attention on one specific thing (like your breath), and bringing it back to that one thing whenever it wanders. In this way you practice observing the wandering of your mind, and concentration.

That sounds a lot like paying attention to a game of poker. Tracking the play, looking for tells, observing patterns. Expand that to the rest of your life and you can expect to feel better. Try the book Painless Poker for an intro to meditation for poker players.

  1. Valuing Decisions Over Results

Speaking of pain: let’s talk bad beats. They sting, but there is always the ready salve of ‘I played it perfectly, the other guy’s a luckboxing idiot.’

Sometimes that’s harder to do in real life when your project doesn’t get picked up in the office, or your team loses at the football. All you can do is produce your best work, kick (UK) or throw (US) the ball to the best of your ability and it will all come out in the wash.

Bad luck abounds and in life luck means everything you can’t control. In the grand scheme of things that is every-damn-thing. You are tiny, and you make no difference.

That can be a relief because it means that not everything that happens to you is your fault, no matter how many time Barry tells you about The Secret at your office water cooler or the changing rooms.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to do better. But it is worth remembering that trying is all you can do, like in poker you can only ever improve your odds.

In the short run you can get two outered but that doesn’t make you wrong, mind you hitting your two outer doesn’t make you right either.


  1. Life Tilt

Mindfulness and avoiding results based thinking are both powerful tools for taking control of your emotions, a useful life skill and one that, again, poker singles out for you.

In life, just like in cards, tilt happens. In both cases how you deal with it makes a massive difference to your overall results. However you deal with tilt at the table, take that with you wherever you go.

With all these skills you can treat poker as a kind of weight machine. One where you isolate and exercise these particular life muscles that the game is good for exercising. And like weight lifting you can focus on just lifting bigger and bigger weights at the gym, or you can go home and use your muscles to help your neighbour move their couch.

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