POKER TEACHES YOU TO AVOID RACIAL, SEXUAL AND OTHER PREJUDICES.
Prejudice is always wrong, but it is especially destructive at the poker table. It causes you to underestimate your opposition and make expensive errors. To play well, you should be "gender-blind, color-blind, and just-about-everything else-blind, because in the end, winning is based on merit."6
Poker provides an extremely "level playing field." In no other popular competition is everyone treated so equally. You can't play golf against Tiger Woods, but you can sit down at any poker table. You can play against anyone from a novice to a world class player, and you will all be treated as equals. If you get the cards and play them well, you will win, no matter who you are.
POKER TEACHES YOU HOW TO HANDLE LOSSES.
Many people can't cope with losses. A lost job, argument, or - God forbid -romantic relationship is a massive tragedy. They can't accept the loss and may even obsess over it. It takes over their lives, making them look backward rather than forward.
Poker teaches you how to cope with losses because they occur so frequently. You lose far more hands than you win, and losing sessions and losing streaks are just normal parts of the game. You also learn that trying to get even quickly is a prescription for disaster. You have to accept short-term losses and continue to play a solid, patient game. You can't be a winner - in poker or life - if you don't learn how to get over losses and move on.
POKER TEACHES YOU TO DEPERSONALIZE CONFLICT.
Many people take conflicts too personally. They may want to beat someone so badly that they "win the battle, but lose the war." Worse yet, if they lose, they may take it as a personal defeat and ache for revenge. Anyone who has seriously played games with painful physical contact (such as football, boxing, and soccer) is less likely to take conflict too personally. Getting hurt teaches some athletes that conflict is just part of the game and life. Alas, many people never
learn that lesson.
Poker teaches you to depersonalize conflicts because it is based on impersonal conflict. The objective is to win each other's money, and everyone's money is the same. It doesn't matter whether you win or lose to Harry, Susan, or Bob. Everybody's chips have the same value, and everybody's money spends the same.
Poker quickly teaches you that being bluffed, sandbagged, outdrawn, and just plain outplayed are not personal challenges or insults. They are just parts of the game. Poker also teaches you that taking conflicts personally can be extremely expensive.
If you ache for revenge, you may act foolishly and lose a lot of money. Beating "your enemy" can become so important that you play cards you should fold, try hopeless bluffs, and take many other stupid, self-destructive actions. The Chinese have a wonderful saying, "If you set out for revenge, dig two graves: one for him, and one for you." Poker teaches that principle to every open-minded player.
POKER TEACHES YOU HOW TO PLAN.
Many people don't plan well. Instead of setting objectives and planning the steps to reach them, they react impulsively or habitually. Poker develops your planning ability for an extremely wide range of time periods:
- This betting round
- This entire hand
- This session
- This tournament
- This year
- Your entire poker career
Planning for all of these periods requires setting objectives and anticipating what others will do. For example, pocket aces are the best possible hand, and you hope to build a big pot with them. In early position in a loose-passive game, you should raise because your opponents will probably call. In a wildly aggressive game you should just call, expecting someone to raise, others to call, so that you can reraise.
Poker also teaches you to plan for the entire hand. You use chess-type thinking ("I'll do this, they will do that, and then I'll …"). You may sacrifice some profit on an early betting round to increase your profits for the entire hand.
You can also sacrifice immediate profits for longer-term gains. For example, you may overplay the first few hands to create a "Wild Gambler" image that will get you more action on later hands. Or you may be extremely tight at first to set up later bluffs. Poker teaches you to set clear goals, think of what others will do, plan the actions that will move you toward your goals, and always know why you are doing something.
Good planning requires thinking of multiple contingencies. You should do many "what, if?" analyses. If the next card is a spade, you will bet. If it pairs the board, and Joe bets, you will fold. If it seems innocuous and Harriet bets, you will raise. Most people don't consider nearly enough possibilities. When something unexpected happens, they have no idea what to do.
Planning in real life is so obviously valuable and so rarely done well that we don't need to give any examples. You know that you should do these "what if" analyses and plan your work, finances, and life in general, but that you probably don't plan well.
POKER TEACHES YOU HOW TO HANDLE DECEPTIVE PEOPLE.
Many people are easily deceived. Just look at those late night infomercials that promise you'll quickly get rich, become thin, or relieve all your aches and pains. The promoters wouldn't pay for them if naïve people didn't buy them, and they are only the tip of the iceberg. As Barnum put it, "There's a sucker born every minute."
Because poker players constantly try to bluff, sandbag, and generally deceive each other, you learn how to recognize when someone has a good hand, is on a draw to a good hand, or is flat out bluffing
Those skills can help you to spot and react effectively to deceptive people everywhere
. A lot of people want to deceive you, and you should learn how to protect yourself.
POKER TEACHES YOU HOW TO CHOOSE THE BEST "GAMES."
"Game" selection is critically important in both poker and life. Poker teaches you how to evaluate yourself, the competition, and the overall situation, and then pick the "games" that are best for you.
Serious poker players recognize that the main reason they win or lose is the difference between their abilities and those of the competition. If they are better than the competition, they win. If they are weaker, they lose.
A secondary consideration is the fit between their style and the game. Let's say that two poker players have equal abilities. Player A will beat a conservative game, but lose in an aggressive one, while Player B will have the opposite results. Obviously, they should choose different games.
Both factors affect your real life results. If you are less talented or have weaker credentials than your competitors, you should switch to a softer game. You should also select a game that fits your style. For example, you and a friend may have similar abilities and credentials, but different temperaments. Perhaps you should work in a large organization, but he should join a small company or start his own business.
Most people don't know how to evaluate themselves and how well they fit into various "games." So they make huge mistakes that they may not realize for many years. Just think of how many people have changed "games" in their thirties and forties. They finally
realized, "I don't belong here."
POKER TEACHES YOU THE BENEFITS OF ACTING LAST.
If you act last, you have a huge edge. You know what your opponents have done before acting, but they acted without knowing what you will do. Position is so important that any good player would raise with some cards in last position that he would fold in early position.
Poker is an information-management game, and there are many similar games such as selling and negotiating. The primary rules of all these games are:
- Get as much information as possible.
- Give as little information as possible.
For example, when negotiating, you want the other person to go first to learn his position before expressing yours. Let's say you have to sell an unusual house quickly. A licensed appraiser has said that it is worth approximately $250,000, but that it is so unique that he can't put a precise value on it.
Before offering a price, you want to know how this
potential buyer feels. He may love, hate, or be indifferent to its unique features. If he makes the first offer, you get some inkling of his feelings. He may even offer $275,000! Since he seems to love its uniqueness, try for an even higher price.
Job interviewers know the value of acting last. Most employment applications contain a question such as: "Approximate starting salary expected." If you answer, you have given the interviewer your position without knowing what he is willing to pay. Since you are unlikely to get more than you ask for, try to avoid making that first offer
POKER TEACHES YOU TO FOCUS ON THE IMPORTANT SUBJECTS.
Focusing on unimportant subjects causes expensive mistakes at the poker table and in real life. Serious poker players know that all mistakes are not created equal. Trying too hard to avoid small mistakes can cause much bigger ones.
Overreacting to any opponent's small mistakes can cause the deadly mistake of underestimating him. For example, you may see that an opponent overplays a mediocre hand such as queen-jack offsuit. It's a mistake, but a relatively harmless one, especially because he will get that hand only a few times a night. If he plays the other hands well, don't conclude that he is a weak player.
Your own mistakes should also be analyzed, and some of them can be quite subtle, but very important. For example, you may be so intent on playing "properly" that you seem too serious for the weaker opponents who just want to have a good time. So they avoid you, which reduces your share of the money they give away.
Another error is taking a "by the book" approach that can cause strategic mistakes. For example, you could play your cards in a technically correct way, but almost never bluff. You would lose the profit you could gain from good bluffs, and your opponents will not give you much action on your good hands. The same principle applies to always playing hands the same way. The predictability costs you more than you gain by always being technically correct.
A business analogy would be running your organization so rigidly that all the ordinary decisions are made well, but:
POKER TEACHES YOU HOW TO APPLY PROBABILITY THEORY.
- Your employees are not motivated to be creative when the usual routines won't work. In fact, they may fear being punished for violating procedures.
- Your organization can't respond effectively to the inevitable surprises.
- Your good employees quit.
- Your organization becomes a typical bureaucracy, filled with deadwood and unable to achieve its goals.
If you are like most people, you don't think in terms of probabilities, or you do so very crudely. You think something:
- will happen
- won't happen
- probably will happen
- probably won't happen
You are unlikely to make finer distinctions such as between 30%, 20%, and 10% probabilities.
Poker teaches that these distinctions are important and develops your ability to calculate them. You learn that you should sometimes call a bet if you have a 30% probability of winning, but fold with a 20% probability. You also learn how to estimate probabilities quickly and accurately.
This neglected skill can be applied to many real life decisions. For example, if you have to fly to Los Angeles for a sales call or job interview, it may be worth the time and expense if the probability of success is 30%, but not if it's 20%. Hardly anyone thinks that way which causes many poor decisions.
POKER TEACHES YOU HOW TO CONDUCT RISK-REWARD ANALYSES.
These analyses are a more formal way to use probability theory. Since life is intrinsically risky, you probably can't win at poker or life without accurately assessing risks and rewards.
Risk-reward analysis is a form of cost-benefit analysis which also includes the probabilities of each possible result. Let's say that the pot is $100. You have a flush draw that you expect to win if you make it, but lose if you miss. It will cost you $20 to call the bet. The odds against making your flush are exactly 4-to-1. If you make it, you will win another $20 because you are sure your opponent will call one last bet. You are sure you cannot bluff. Should you call the $20 bet?
You will certainly lose more often than you will win, but the potential gains may outweigh the potential losses. Because we are concerned only with the long term, let's do it 100 times:
You will win $120 twenty times for a total win of
You will lose $20 eighty times for a total loss of
Your net gain for 100 times will be
Your expected value
for each call is
You should obviously call the bet.
Poker players constantly do risk-reward analyses, and these analyses are often much more complicated. For example, in deciding whether to semi-bluff7, you should estimate the probabilities, gains and losses of:
- winning the pot immediately because your opponent(s) fold
- winning because you bet again on the next round and your opponent(s) fold
- winning because you catch the card you need to make the best hand
- losing because you get called and don't catch your card.
The math can get difficult, but advanced players learn how to make these analyses quickly and accurately.
The same sort of analysis should be done whenever you have a real life risky situation. Unfortunately, most people don't do it. They buy stocks or real estate, take a job, open a business, or take personal risks without identifying all the outcomes and estimating the probabilities that each will occur. So they make many bad decisions.
Poker is such an excellent teacher for risky decisions that Peter Lynch, former manager of The Magellan Fund and Vice Chairman of Fidelity, once said that a good way to become a better investor was to "Learn how to play poker."
POKER TEACHES YOU TO PUT THINGS IN CONTEXT AND EVALUATE ALL VARIABLES.
People often ask poker experts, "How should I play this hand?" They are usually frustrated by the standard answer, "It depends on the situation." The expert then asks them about the other players, their own position, the size of the pot, the action on previous hands and betting rounds, and many other subjects. Most people don't want to hear, "It depends on the situation," and they definitely don't want to answer questions.
In fact, they usually can't answer them because they have not counted the pot, thought about the other players, and done all the other things that experts do. They want to know the two or three simple rules for playing a pair of aces, or a full house, or a flush draw, and the experts won't tell them because there aren't any simple rules
If you play seriously, you will learn that the KISS formula (K
hort and S
imple) does not apply to poker. More importantly, it does not apply to most significant real life decisions. It has become popular because people want to believe that life is much simpler than it really is. Poker teaches you to ask the same sorts of questions about investment, career, and other decisions that you ask at the poker table so that you make much better decisions.
POKER TEACHES YOU HOW TO "GET INTO PEOPLE'S HEADS."
Poker teaches you to understand and apply psychology because understanding others is absolutely essential. In fact, poker has often been called "a people game played with cards." If you don't understand the other players, you can't win
We have already discussed psychological subjects such as avoiding prejudice and selecting the right games. We will end this long essay by briefly discussing poker's most important psychological lesson: teaching you what other people perceive, think, and want.
The first step is shifting your focus from yourself to them, and poker forces you to make that shift. If you focus on your own cards, you can't win because poker hands have only relative value. The important issue is not how good your cards are; it is how they compare to the other players' cards. A flush is a very good hand, but it loses to a bigger flush or any full house or better. So poker quickly teaches you to think of what other people have. It also teaches you to think about what they think you have. And even what they think you think they think.
We and others have written extensively about these subjects, but space limitations allow us to give only a few examples. Good players always consider the other player when making any decision. With the same cards and situation, they would fold if Charley, a very conservative player, bets, but raise if Mary, a very aggressive player, bets.
Good players would also think about how their opponents think about each other. For example, if a perceptive opponent bets into someone whom he believes is very likely to call, he is probably not bluffing. If a good player reraises a maniac, he probably has a much weaker hand than if he reraised a tight opponent. Understanding his perceptions of these other players greatly improves your decisions when you are contesting a pot.
Understanding other people is vital in virtually every area of life. You can't have good personal relationships or succeed in business without being perceptive about people. Since its value in personal relationships is so obvious, we will discuss only two subjects, negotiating and investing.
"The absolutely essential step toward negotiating effectively is to shift your focus from your own position to their position. Unfortunately, most people focus on their own position. Their actions say, in effect, 'If I could just get them to understand MY facts and MY logic and MY needs, they would make the concessions I need.'
The other side is saying exactly the same thing.
"They therefore have parallel monologues instead of a genuine dialogue. Both sides repeat themselves again and again, hoping to convince the other to accept their position. But eloquence is no substitute for understanding, and you cannot gain that understanding without shifting your focus and sincerely wanting to understand the other side."
All good poker players know and apply David Sklansky's "Fundamental Theorem of Poker." Less well known is his "Fundamental Theorem of Investing": "Before making any investment ... you must be able to explain why the other party is willing to take the other side of the deal... if you cannot come up with a good explanation, your buy, sell or bet is almost certainly not as good as you think."
Unfortunately, most people don't seriously analyze the other party's reasons. Their attention is focused primarily on themselves, their economics, their analysis, and their reasons for buying or selling. If they thought about the other party's motives and perceptions, they might realize that they are making a disastrous mistake.
The principle is very clear. You should always determine as accurately as you can why the other party is willing to sell, buy, or do other business with you. If you don't understand his reasons, "all the statistics, income statements, balance sheet data, or analysts' recommendations mean little. There is still some reason they are taking your bet - and, if you don't know it, you don't like it."
We could quote many other authorities on the value of understanding other people, but there is no need to do so. Instead, we will close with a quotation from one of the best selling books of all time: How To Win Friends And Influence People
by Dale Carnegie: "If there is one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person's point of view and see things from that person's angle as well as your own."
Since you can't win at poker without seeing things from other people's angle, you will learn this valuable lesson. You will then become much better at winning friends, influencing people, and making decisions about virtually everything.
We have described many - but certainly not all - of the skills and personal qualities that poker develops. Most of poker's lessons are variations on one theme: Think carefully before you act
. That principle applies everywhere, and far too many people ignore it.
The government's attempts to outlaw poker are based upon a misconception of its nature and value. It is not "just gambling," and it should not be subject to the same rules and penalties as other gambling games. Instead, the government should allow you to play poker in regulated and taxed places because poker is good for you and good for America.