Episode 81: Poker

I talk about parallels between Stoicism, life, and poker. One can apply Stoicism to be a much better poker player and improve their quality of life.

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Rough transcript:

You’re listening to the Stoic Solutions Podcast – practical wisdom for everyday life. I’m your host, Justin Vacula with episode 81 – Poker. I talk about parallels between Stoicism, life, and poker. One can apply Stoicism to be a much better poker player and improve their quality of life.

Poker, as I’ve mentioned in a previous podcast episodes and interviews – mainly on episode 62 of Steve Karafit’s Sunday Stoic Podcast – was one of my main applications of Stoicism and reasons why I became so interested in Stoic Philosophy. Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius won’t tell you how to play Ace King or pocket jacks, but they surely offer great wisdom which can improve your mental approach to life and poker. A seasoned poker player — no matter their technical card skill – will very likely face many challenges including massive financial downswings, difficult decisions, self-doubt, great temptation, unsavory individuals, horrendous customer service, and intense negative emotions. While there may be some upsides, mainly in fun and financial success, profits margins can often be very thin, uncertainly looms, and the game can have a darker nature especially considering that a very high percentage of players are long-term losing players and problem gambling is associated with hardship even greater than financial loss.

Stoic authors focus on the fact that many things are inside and outside our control – we’re to understand what we can and cannot influence having a high level of acceptance for things outside our control, to be prudent in what we focus on – make good choices about the battles we wage, how we use our time, and even what we spend our time ruminating about. We can make changes in life where we have power, but can only do so much especially when others’ behavior or chance events are concerned.

At the poker tables and in life, we are often best served by having a process-based approach rather than a results-based approach being content saying we made a great effort not being overly focused on an outcome; if we took the right steps, we have won even if we did not achieve a desired outcome. We ought to take a different view of winning and success that is not tied to short-term results or gaining money! A desired outcome, after all, is something we should be suspicious of – Stoic authors advise us to adjust our expectations accordingly so as to not be crushed when our desires are unfulfilled especially when outcomes are outside our control.

In poker, if we enter into an all-in situation being a favorite to win, we have made the right move assuming we can afford to play the game; we’ve entered into a situation where our expected value was positive and, if we were to repeat the scenario again and again we’d be a long term winner even though, of course, sometimes the 99% favorite to win will lose. In life, we can similarly execute due diligence putting ourselves in situations which will be of benefit in the long term, we can make the right decisions and find contentment in right action, a solid process, even though sometimes we will experience a result we find adverse.

Stoic authors talk about fortune and chance being a fickle thing, something we cannot rely on, something which is arbitrary. All will face, at the poker tables and in life, a great amount of adversity and prosperity. We ought to handle adversity and even prosperity well not being overly confident recognizing that sometimes we can reap the benefits of chance, but this is not necessarily (and often is not) a result of skill. Some gamblers will think they are Zeus’ gift to poker playing above their means later only to find that they really weren’t so good or even worse talking about ‘bad luck’ or superstitious things not based whatsoever in reality blaming like a ‘lucky or hot seat,’ ‘hot cards,’ a ‘cold deck,’ or ‘lucky players’ while they continue to lose money instead of focusing on their technical approach to the game and their mindset taking some accountability while continuing to improve through study and session reviews. They talk about how they ‘never win’ with certain hands and though the hand is a strong holding. I’ve even heard players arguing about how random shuffle machines or random drawings were fixed and they ask for ‘washes’ of the cards – for dealers to shuffle cards by hand even though an automatic shuffle machine does a much better job – talk about wasting time… While some won’t engage in these behaviors, even the more skilled and rational players will face hardships.

Can you return to the tables following days, weeks, or months of financial downturns while continuing to keep your cool and play your A-game not adjusting to an overly risk-averse or reckless style due to recent losing sessions which may have brought about feelings of fear, anger, dread, or want for revenge? Can you check your ego at the door not being concerned about what other players or dealers may think about you? Avoid thoughts about how you deserve to win because you view other players as being of lesser skill? Can you have discipline to walk away from games which no longer seem profitable and quit a session when you are too tired to focus properly even when you’re down for the night avoiding some urge to, as some say, get even?

Some of the biggest weakness I have seen in people are, on my evaluation, their mental game as it’s called in poker – misplaced priorities, desires, values, and distorted ways of looking at the world. They create problems for themselves and continue to live in wretched ways. Financial punishment, I’ll surely say, happens at the poker tables and in life. I’ve seen people, in angry states, throw chips in trash containers, push all-in blind, talk about how they know they are making a bad play but make it anyway, and easily lose thousands of dollars in a single night.

I’ve seen one person, drunk and angry at a dealer, distribute hundreds of dollars among players and gloat about how the dealer is getting none of it only to be escorted out of the casino and banned for life. Players, often men looking for attention and even hookups, overtip drink servers and dealers creating their own personal ruin. People talk about playing marathon sessions of 24 hours or more, often in games which really aren’t of high quality, and surely they can’t be playing well. Drunk driving, almost certainly the result of a long losing session, led to a dead jogger and a man being jailed for life. With a better mental game, surely, they would be more content and not be in a financial hole – they’d have freedom in more ways than one, something the Stoic path can help us achieve.

Stoicism calls for a radical acceptance of life’s ups and downs with a bring it on attitude encouraging us to think about what we call misfortune before it happens – the premeditatio malorum, it’s called — so we can be better prepared for hardship and not be so off-kilter when we face adversity. The skillful poker player must be brave to continue playing, hopefully not foolish, and weather the storm to emerge a victor even when some sessions will be losing ones – prosperity is not guaranteed! Some months for me have included fluctuations, so-called downswings, of $10,000, but I pushed through and have had significant winning years in my play history spanning several years following humble beginnings in penny stakes online games to higher-stakes casino cash games amidst significant study, improvement, and revision. Life and poker – the path may be difficult, but there are many positives we can focus on rather than overly dwelling on the negative in a self-loathing defeated state – we’re to make the most of things and walk away from situations we no longer determine to be prudent to continue in. We can learn many lessons from poker and Stoicism as games parallel life. Moderation, gratitude, acceptance, prudence, reduced desire, bravery, and so many other prominent themes in Stoicism are extremely helpful at and outside the poker tables.

I’ll conclude with some passages from Seneca I’ve reflected on and applied to my poker play and life. I can speak at greater length in this episode, but strive to remain around the ten minute mark!

On enduring hardships:

“I should prefer to be free from torture, but if the time comes when it must be endured, I shall desire to conduct myself therein with bravery, honor, and courage. […] The conclusion is, not that hardships are desirable, but that virtue is desirable, which enables us patiently to endure hardships.”

On bravery:

“ For it is more of an accomplishment to break one’s way through difficulties than to keep joy within bounds. It requires the same use of reason, I am fully aware, for a man to endure prosperity well and also to endure misfortune bravely. […] I should bestow greater praise upon those goods that have stood trial and show courage, and have fought it out with fortune. Should I hesitate whether to give greater praise to the maimed and shriveled hand […] than to the uninjured hand of the bravest man in the world?”

Philosophy as a mental defense:

“What a wonderful privilege, to have the weakness of a man and the serenity of a god! The power of philosophy to blunt the blows of chance is beyond belief. No missile can settle in her body, she is well-protected and impenetrable. She spoils the force of some missiles and wards them off with the loose folds of her gown, as if they had no power to harm; others she dashes aside, and hurls them back with such force that they recoil upon the sender.”

Finally, on not letting chance disturb your character:

“Prosperity is a turbulent thing […] Fortune has no jurisdiction over character. Let him so regulate his character that in perfect peace he may bring to perfection that spirit within him feels neither loss or gain, but remains in the same attitude, no matter how things fall out. A spirit like this, if it is heaped with worldly goods, rises superior to its wealth; if , on the other hand, chance has stripped him of a part of his wealth, or even all, it is not impaired.”

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Podcast music, used with permission, is brought to you by Phil Giordana’s symphonic metal group Fairyland from their album ‘Score to a New Beginning.’ John Bartmann offered free consultation and audio edits for episodes 51-63. Thanks to generous patrons and fans of this podcast who help support my work. Have a great day.