Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!
Nate Silver is a poker player. In fact, once upon a time he made quite a tidy living playing online. And poker has taught him something fundamental about the nature of the world that most of us simply never bother to grasp. Poker is such a powerful window into probabilistic thinking not in spite of, but because of, the betting involved: the betting in poker isn’t incidental. It’s integral to the learning process. Our minds learn when we have a stake, a real stake, in the outcome of our learning. It’s why kids learn so much better—and remember what they’ve learned—if they know exactly how or when they’ll apply the knowledge. This is the partner element to learning probabilities from experience: not only do we understand what 29 percent feels like; we now retain that knowledge because if we don’t learn, it hurts us. If we keep betting the wrong amount, we will be punished. If we keep saying “I think I’m good here” without quantifying how often we’re actually good, we’ll lose all our money.
“For a large majority of fund managers, the selection of stocks is more like rolling dice than like playing poker,” says Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-winning economist. Not only do most funds underperform the market, but the correlation in year-to-year performance is incredibly low. Kahneman continues, “The successful funds in any given year are mostly lucky; they have a good roll of the dice. There is general agreement among researchers that nearly all stock pickers, whether they know it or not—and few of them do—are playing a game of chance.” It’s a difficult lesson to internalize outside the poker table. Even people who seem like they suffer consequences, like stock traders, are often loath to admit that they were wrong in their certainties. Because the world is much messier than the poker table, it’s far easier to blame something else. It’s easy to have an illusion of skill when you’re not immediately called out on it through feedback. Poker rids you of the habit in a way nothing else quite does—and in so doing, it improves decisions far afield from the game itself.
Poker isn’t just about calibrating the strength of your beliefs. It’s also about becoming comfortable with the fact that there’s no such thing as a sure thing—ever. You will never have all the information you want, and you will have to act all the same. Leave your certainty at the door.
What Harrington seems to be saying makes a lot of sense to me, too: If I suddenly start opening hands that aren’t expected of me, in super-aggressive style, how will people know how to react? Erik starts laughing. And the way he begins to say, “Well . . .” sounds an awful lot like the Well . . . I give to aspiring writers who’ve just read Kerouac for the first time and are having a mind-blowing epiphany that I already know is not going to end the way they think it will. “Well, there’s definitely an appeal to it. Aggressive people are going to get you. They are going to get you in a lot of spots where you’re going to be like, you know, I can’t handle the pressure or whatever. They’re very good at finding that,” he says. “But they also could get themselves in spots where they’re giving away a lot. I agree with Dan that they’re really challenging to play against and you don’t necessarily always want them at your table—but then you’ll get a beautiful gift from them. You can forgive them anything then.” By beautiful gift, Erik means a lot of chips. Hyper-aggressive play, he tells me, can be a short-term boon. But most of the time, those players go broke. And at the highest levels, they don’t last more than a heartbeat.
Be solid, fundamentally. Cultivate the solid image. And then add the hyper-aggression, but at the right place and the right time. Not always, not continuously, but thinkingly.
There’s never a default with anything. It’s always a matter of deliberation. Even seven-deuce—the worst hand, statistically speaking, that you can be dealt—can be playable in the right circumstances. The thing is, the circumstances are usually not right—and the hyper-aggressive player may run over everyone for a while and forget that at some point, it will all come to a screeching halt. Of course, being too conservative is also a liability. You become predictable. And often times, you lose the ability to press the fold button. You’ve been waiting so patiently for a good hand that you won’t let it go. “If you want to be good in big tournaments,” Erik tells me, “like, let’s say you’re playing a field of four hundred people. You have to be involved in many more hands, because just good cards aren’t going to get you there. They’re not going to get you there a high enough percentage of the time.” And so despite knowing fundamentally sound strategy, you have to be willing to part with it. “It turns out that people who are sort of involved and reckless are more likely to go deep.” To go deep means to make it through a large portion of the field. “You just have to be smart about it.”
“You have to be aware of everyone’s stack size,” he tells me. “When you get to Vegas and start playing, I want you to write down hands for me. And for every hand, you need to tell me how much everyone has behind. You have to always be aware of it.” Normally, people think of stack sizes in terms of big blinds. M takes it one step further, by quantifying your risk of going broke. How many orbits around the table can I sit and not play a hand? Your M is, basically, your cushion for putting in the minimum each orbit. The lower your M, the more in danger you are of busting the tournament sooner. And the letter M itself? It comes from the last name of a player named Paul Magriel.
The benefit of failure is an objectivity that success simply can’t offer. If you win right away—if your first foray into any new area is a runaway success—you’ll have absolutely no way to gauge if you’re really just that brilliant or it was a total fluke and you got incredibly lucky. The real reason Erik is still around, Dan tells me—I’ll have to see if Erik agrees on this one—is that he can take chances but still retain enough balance to pull back.
Nothing is personal. Everything should be treated like a business. My goals need to be pure: to run the best business I can. “Some of these other people had a goal to become famous, or even more, they just wanted action,” Dan says. And that’s their eventual downfall.
Do I know what I don’t know? Am I thinking well? “As a professional gambler, you have to understand: if you don’t have an objective evaluation of what’s going on, you’re a loser,” he tells me. “This game will beat you—it’s as simple as that. If you don’t understand what’s going on, the game will say, ‘We’re taking your money away from you.’” What’s crucial, Dan says, is to develop my critical thinking and self-assessment ability well enough that I can constantly reevaluate, objectively, where I am—and whether where I am is good enough to play as I’m playing. It’s not about winning or losing—that’s chance. It’s about thinking—the process. Dan himself is a living illustration of how true this is: he quit not during a downswing but at the top of his game.
“Nine years ago, I’d just won $1.63 million. I’m walking out of the tournament, and I look around, I say, ‘This is it. I can’t take this crap anymore. I win $1.63 million and all I do is feel tired and beaten-down. This is just not worth it.’ I just right then and there decided I wasn’t going to play serious poker anymore. My heart’s not in it.” Most people won’t tell you to quit after the biggest score of your life. But Dan could tell that he was getting weaker, he was getting older, and the field was getting stronger. He’d quit before he had fallen behind. And thus my first real poker lesson isn’t about winning. It’s about losing. “You become a big winner when you lose,” Dan says. “Everyone plays well when they’re winning. But can you control yourself and play well when you’re losing? And not by being too conservative, but trying to still be objective as to what your chances are in the hand. If you can do that, then you’ve conquered the game.”
He didn’t take the loss personally. Instead, he reevaluated his options and buckled down on his studying. He was, in essence, “scared into playing well.” And he started winning. Why did he emerge on the other side while so many others didn’t? Obviously, there’s the talent factor—Erik is clearly someone who is very good at the component parts of poker—but there’s a larger skill at play: his absolute lack of ego. His willingness to be objective about himself and his own level of play. “When things go wrong, other people see it as unfairness that’s always surrounding them,” he tells me. They take it personally. They don’t know how to lose, how to learn from losing. They look for something or someone to blame. They don’t step back to analyze their own decisions, their own play, where they may have gone wrong themselves. “It’s a really big handicap in life to think that way. All of us can step into that sometimes, but it’s important to know the difference. It’s like that great Kipling quote: ‘If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two impostors just the same . . . ’”
When people find out I’m working with Erik, they immediately want to know what he thinks of certain plays and how he himself plays certain spots. Will the elusive champion finally give up his secrets? For Erik, the answer is simple: there is no answer. It’s a constant process of inquiry. A hand can be played any number of ways, as long as the thought process is there. And Erik may himself decide to play the same cards, in the same position, even against the same opponents, in a different fashion from one day to the next. There is no certainty. There is only thought.
Most real-world environments are what Hogarth calls “wicked”: there’s a mismatch between action and feedback because of external noise. Activities with elements of surprise, uncertainty, the unknown: suddenly, you’re not sure whether what you’ve learned is accurate or not, accurately executed or not. There’s simply too much going on. And so, in most environments, the problem is far more severe. But despite all this, one thing is undoubtedly true: while practice is not enough and there’s not even close to a magic number for its effectiveness, you also cannot learn if you do not practice. If you’re serious about anything—playing chess, writing a book, becoming an astronaut, playing poker—you have to learn the composite skills. No one is so naturally gifted that they can just get up and go. Even Mozart needed some lessons. If you’re trying to learn poker, there’s simply no equivalent to playing the game, seeing how hands play out, learning the feel of different situations. And the most efficient way to get the kind of practice that used to take people decades of casino sessions to acquire is by playing online. Hands are dealt quickly, action is kept going by timers on every decision, and situation upon situation unfolds in mere minutes, rather than the hours it would take in a live game.
In any interaction, you want to have as much information as possible. When you’re the person acting last, you have the best of it. You already know your opponents’ decisions, their plays, their opening bids. In a negotiation, you have the power. In an argument or debate, you have the power. You know more than they do. They have to initiate. You have the benefit of responding. Position is king.
“For every action, you have to go back and think through everything you know and come to the right conclusion. You can’t act too quickly.”
“You’ll get used to it—it’s really not a big deal,” Erik says. “Even a few seconds of reflection, that’s all you need to just go through every action. Stop and take a breath and think through your alternatives. Am I folding? Am I calling? Am I raising? Everything is always a possibility. You have to be careful you’re not acting too fast. It’s a major hole for a lot of people. Even I’m sometimes guilty of it.”
“When you’re multiway,” Erik tells me, “you tend to have to be more straightforward.” There are simply too many variables to juggle. Like a general working out a multistage plan, I have to think multiple streets ahead. Will I be in a good position to react if the hand continues? I bet because I want them to fold, but what if they don’t? What do I do next? What if they raise? How do I respond then? Every good strategist has to think through all the possible permutations. The more players there are, the harder it is. And yet, if I’m to be reflective rather than reflexive in my actions, I have to learn to do it, and to do it in the time allotted.
It certainly doesn’t help that this is one of the first hands of the tournament: my timing is off for any major moves. I don’t yet know anything about any of the players. I haven’t had a chance to form any reads. I don’t know my enemy. What are the weak points? The strong points? When do I defend? When do I attack? How do they behave when they’re strong? When they’re weak? Do they bluff too often? Not enough? Just right? It’s a headache thinking about it for one player, let alone four of them.
Online poker may not be as good for reading people as live games, but that doesn’t mean you can’t study patterns of behavior. How players bet, when they bet, how much they bet. If you play with someone enough, you begin to sense what kind of player they are. Some are aggressive and loose: they play too many hands and bet their life when they do. Some are aggressive and tight: they bet insanely, yes, but they only play very strong hands. Some are passive and weak: they love to play as many hands as possible but will fold the moment someone raises the stakes on them. In an online environment, you have the ability to not only play against the same people repeatedly, but then to take notes on their profile and color-code them. That way, the next time you meet them, you see right away where they fit into your rating scheme.
Had I observed more hands, I would have realized at least one important thing: at this particular table, in this particular battle arena, people really like to fight. They’ve put on their military gear, and by god, they are going to go into battle. They didn’t come here to sit on the sidelines and watch while others do the fighting. They want to be in it themselves. Here, people really like to see flops and turns. They don’t often fold to bets; they want to see it all through to the river. That knowledge would have told me that the action was very likely to be multiway on most any hand. And that, in turn, would have informed my choice of weapons and tactics—stronger weapons, stronger positions, more select lines, but more aggressive ones once selected. Lines that can stand up to multiple attacks over multiple steps. For such a campaign, I would need hands with more robust equity—that is, hands that have the possibility of constant improvement—instead of my meek little weakling of a draw.
“You have to learn to pay attention to board texture,” Erik tells me. Is it a dry board, one where the cards don’t have much relation to one another—different suits, values spread far apart, making it unlikely that someone has a strong draw? Is it a wet board, one where the cards are closely connected—two or three of a suit, cards that could form a part of a straight, a landscape that means players who don’t yet have a strong hand can suddenly find themselves with a monster if a draw completes? Is it a static board—no new cards are likely to change the situation that much? Is it a dynamic board—many draws, like straights and flushes, are available, and any new addition is likely to change the advantage and can significantly change the value of your hand? The texture is the changing battleground. Different textures require different strategies. You’re not going to launch the same campaign in the mountains as you will in the plains as you will in an ocean battle. Dynamic boards need you to tread lightly and think ahead more carefully; static boards allow you to be more shortsighted without suffering the consequences too greatly. That single-suit board might be great for bluffing if I were heads up, playing against a single opponent—but multiway, it becomes a swamp for me. At this stage in my journey, the point isn’t to master the precise approach I need to take on every single possible type of terrain. It’s to realize that terrain is something I have to learn to pay attention to, take into account, and adjust to. I’ll master the precise movements of the adjustment as I go. But it’s surprising how many people never even pause to think and blunder on, prior strategy in hand, no matter that their original map may have been gravely mistaken. I did that here, and Erik’s job is to make sure I don’t do it again.
I’ve been unthinking in far more ways than that. My half-pot bet? Why did I do that? Bet sizing and what it accomplishes is an incredibly useful analogue for most any decision. How much are you risking to accomplish what, exactly? What are the situations where you want to bet frequently and small? Where do you want to bet less often, but big? When do you over-bet? When do you want to appear pot-committed, like Thomas Schelling and his rogue driver playing a game of chicken, ripping the steering wheel from the car in a display of ultimate commitment to not swerving? And how does it all change depending on your opponent?
Every tactic you use, you have to ask what it accomplishes and whether the same thing could have been accomplished more cheaply. Do you need to send in the whole battalion where a handful of soldiers would do? Is this the job for a scout—a tiny probe bet? Do you need to pull out the big guns and show up with your whole army?
I’m not a very good commander yet. I don’t know enough. I don’t see the full battlefield. I’m not even sure if I’m picking up the right weapon. In this case, for instance, I decided my hand was a great drawing hand because Erik had demonstrated something similar with the same hand—except of the suited variety. I didn’t think much of it. After all, I’d read that suitedness adds only 2 percent of equity to your hand, and boy, didn’t I feel good in that knowledge. Two percent is not a lot. It’s basically the same thing. Erik tells me. “I mean, you actually are very weak here and you shouldn’t even be in this hand, but that’s not the point. The point is, you can’t play based on how it will look. Not playing scared is not the same thing as being aggressive. It means not making decisions because you’re afraid. It’s not about being passive or aggro. You can be way too aggro and still scared. And being passive can be strong.” In the world of poker, Erik is the dragonfly. He doesn’t strut or preen. He doesn’t announce his presence with a roar. He just watches quietly—and then changes his hunting approach based on what he’s observed in his prey. He doesn’t just know what his opponents are doing. He can predict what they’ll do and how they will look doing it, and he will craft his own future movements accordingly. It’s fitting that, while an insect rather than a bird, the dragonfly is a creature that flies. There’s a distinctly avian quality to Erik’s watchfulness.
I tell him about my war epiphany—not in detail, but something really eloquent along the lines of “So, really, poker is like war. And I need a good strategy.” He thinks for a second. “I look at it like you’re part of a jazz band.” Not what I was expecting, but then again, things with Erik rarely are. “You’re trying to play connected and in sync with the rest of the players. It has nothing to do with you, really. That’s not the jazz part. It’s all about what are these guys doing, and how do I respond to it?” He continues, “I think there have been players that are successful because they have a style. But to the best extent that you can, you have to be a free thinker. You don’t want to have one style, you know?”
Almost every time I play, I hear Erik telling me: “Pick your spots.” Any idiot can win any given hand with the best cards. That’s not the point of poker. You get dealt the best cards only every so often, and if you wait for them every time, your chips will run out. What’s more, you won’t win any money once you finally have those aces in hand, because even the least attentive player will have noticed that you only play with the best hand and will stay as far away as possible. So even when you win, you will lose. The point is winning over the long term—and winning as much money as you possibly can with your best hands, all the while losing as little as possible with your worst. And in order to do that, you need to learn to pick your spots: know when to be aggressive, and how to be aggressive. The passive player doesn’t win. And the scared player, who always thinks someone can beat him, doesn’t win. But the openly aggressive player doesn’t win, either; he follows the fate of Aggressive Idiot Asshole. You have to be a strategist. Not playing scared doesn’t mean barreling your way over everything and everyone. It means being aggressive, yes, but strategically so: against the right people, in the right circumstances. There’s the troublesome suited queen-eight, which I seem to misplay each time I get my hands on it. I recount one hand where I called from the small blind after a raise, only to see Erik start shaking his head before the hand history is even halfway out of my mouth. I stop myself midsentence. “Calling here is a mistake, unless you have a very good read,” he tells me. The hand is simply not strong enough to play multiway out of position. I nod, sadly. It’s so pretty. I’d hate to fold it. “Actually, you should seriously consider raising it instead,” Erik says. It’s not strong enough to call but I should raise? “Raise big. Maybe 6x,” which means six times the prior raise size. That seems an awful lot for a hand that’s not very strong. Erik explains. “Use your image. Coming from you, that’s super strong. And even if you get called, you’re not in terrible shape. But just calling is lighting chips on fire.”
I seem to be lighting a lot of fires. Like when I call the same queen-eight from the big blind—“That’s fine; you’re getting a good price”—and then fold on a flop where I miss making any pairs after someone bets and someone else calls. “You should consider check-raising here,” Erik says. “Coming from you, the check-raise here screams strength.” If a player is good, he’ll fold most of his hands at that point, so crazy would I have to be to attempt to bluff into three players.
There’s a false sense of security in passivity. You think that you can’t get into too much trouble—but really, every passive decision leads to a slow but steady loss of chips. And chances are, if I’m choosing those lines at the table, there are deeper issues at play. Who knows how many proverbial chips a default passivity has cost me throughout my life. How many times I’ve walked away from situations because of someone else’s show of strength, when I really shouldn’t have. How many times I’ve passively stayed in a situation, eventually letting it get the better of me, instead of actively taking control and turning things around. Hanging back only seems like an easy solution. In truth, it can be the seed of far bigger problems.
When you put it that way, in the prosaic business-ese of bankroll management, it becomes clear just how crucial it is to respect the power of luck, the role of variance, if I’m ever going to learn to understand it. Yes, in the long run, the Eriks of the world will be ascendant, their skill triumphant. But you will never see the long run if, in the short term, you don’t buffer yourself against the vicissitudes of chance. It’s not an ego thing. It’s practical survival. True skill is knowing your own limits—and the power of variance in the immediate future. Because who knows how long “immediate future” might last? After all, probability distributions don’t care about the past. Skill is not being an idiot who signs up for $140 tournaments when I don’t even have a designated bank account for poker playing and am taking all the tournament cash out of my monthly life budget. Without a safety net, your skill couldn’t matter less. Yes, in the long run, the Eriks of the world will be ascendant, their skill triumphant. But you will never see the long run if, in the short term, you don’t buffer yourself against the vicissitudes of chance. It’s not an ego thing. It’s practical survival. True skill is knowing your own limits—and the power of variance in the immediate future. Because who knows how long “immediate future” might last? After all, probability distributions don’t care about the past. Skill is not being an idiot who signs up for $140 tournaments when I don’t even have a designated bank account for poker playing and am taking all the tournament cash out of my monthly life budget. Without a safety net, your skill couldn’t matter less. You can be the most talented player in whatever your chosen profession, but if you’re not buttressed against the immediate impact of the worst case scenario, you may never get a chance to recover. I grimly assent to lower my target. “I think we need to take you off-Strip,” Erik says after looking over the rest of my list. “I want you to see the real
“Do you have a question about how you played the hand?” “Well, not really,” I answer. “I mean, I had a set. . . .” “Then I don’t want to hear it.” I’m taken aback. “Look, every player is going to want to tell you about the time their aces got cracked. Don’t be that player,” he continues. “Bad beats are a really bad mental habit. You don’t want to ever dwell on them. It doesn’t help you become a better player. It’s like dumping your garbage on someone else’s lawn. It just stinks.”
“Focus on the process, not the luck. Did I play correctly? Everything else is just BS in our heads,” Erik tells me. “Thinking that way won’t get you anywhere. You know about the randomness of it but it doesn’t help to think about it. You want to make sure you’re not the person in the poker room saying, ‘Can you believe what happened?’ That’s the other people.”
It’s easy to see how the bad beat seeps into everything. It’s not just complaining about the runout. It’s complaining in general. Once you do that, you slide into dangerous mental waters. I have a bad table draw—why are all the good players at my table while I see so many easier tables around? I’m card dead—why are other people getting all the big pairs, and I’m getting unplayable crap? (Later, Erik will pull me aside in a big tournament and tell me he’s worried about my thinking. I’m describing things as happening to me rather than taking responsibility for my actions. If I don’t stop, I’m not long for this event.) The bad beat frame determines how we look at others. The great players don’t play that way. It’s too draining, and it makes you too much the victim. And the victim doesn’t win. Bad table draw? It’s a challenging table that will force you to play well. You can’t change tables, so you may as well call on all your inner powers to play the best version of your game. See it as an opportunity to learn. Card dead? No one knows that. If your face reads card dead, everyone will walk all over you as you meekly fold. If you decide to take the opportunity to cultivate a conservative image and then make a well-timed move, suddenly you have the upper hand. The best players don’t need pocket aces to win. Everything is in how you perceive it. It’s the old glass half-full versus half-empty, except we live it all the time without realizing it. Bad beats drag you down. They focus your mind on something you can’t control—the cards—rather than something you can, the decision. They ignore the fact that the most we can do is make the best decision possible with the information we have; the outcome doesn’t matter. If you choose wisely, you should make that same choice over and over. Focusing on the unlucky runout is just toxic—and even if you’re not putting the garbage in someone’s yard, it’s already poisoning your mind and making you less able to execute clearheaded decisions in the future. The concentration of some of the world’s best players in this little gathering is palpable. These past weeks wandering the casinos, I’ve gotten used to the chatter, the drinks, the beers and cocktails that everyone seems to consume at a steady pace just because they’re free. I’ve gotten used to the endless table talk, everyone fancying themselves an expert reader of humanity and gunning to get an edge with the old “Are you really doing that with top pair?” and then looking pointedly for a reaction. This is a different world.
Pay attention: what he’s always told me. But there’s only so much attention I have, and so many directions in which it’s being pulled. Luckily, it seems I’m not the only one who finds focus difficult. He continues. “This is the funny thing about modern poker: even top players are sitting there, on their phones, and they’re missing all the information that’s on the table. It’s really kind of insane.”
This is the first time I am seeing him in person, and what I notice right away isn’t the beard or the hair or the washed-out sweats. It’s the poise with which he carries himself at the table. His posture is perfect. Both hands rest lightly on the felt, long fingers perfectly quiet, resisting the rustle of chips or flip of cards. His gaze is even and intense, absorbing the whole of the room. He’s the embodiment of focus. When I glance at him two hours later, the only thing that has changed is the size of the stack of chips in front of him. It has tripled.
Chewy is a rare exception in the world of professional poker—indeed, in any professional world I’ve ever encountered, even at the elite levels. Most of the players around him are fiddling with their cell phones, texting away, scrolling through the sports scores and asking if a nearby TV can be switched to a different channel, making bets, and following a hand only when they, personally, are involved. Chewy, like Erik, is always present and watchful. He talks to no one. His phone is nowhere to be seen. His eyes constantly follow each player, and it seems to me that he must surely be picking up on subtle behavioral patterns that elude me. I keep waiting for him to pounce—but he plays quietly and, it seems, more passively than many of the others. Here’s the thing about blockers: blocking a value combination doesn’t mean your opponent can’t have a value hand. If you hold an ace, sure, there’s less of a chance your opponent has pocket aces—but he’s still allowed to have them. Blockers improve your probabilities, but they are still far from certain. And what solvers and highly algorithmic and mathematical approaches sometimes end up doing is giving you a false sense of certainty: because the math tells me this, I’m more confident (correctly so), but perhaps a bit too confident given the extra data. And so I may fail to take in new data—the behavior of a player at the table, say—as I make my decision because I have a slightly misplaced sense of security. He can’t possibly call me here, goes the thinking. The extra information should rightly give you more confidence—but nothing close to certitude. The relationship between information and confidence is a highly asymmetric one.
“The good thing about poker is there’s enough luck that you never have to admit it’s your fault you lost.”) Attention is a powerful mitigator to overconfidence: it forces you to constantly reevaluate your knowledge and your game plan, lest you become too tied to a certain course of action. And if you lose? Well, it allows you to admit when it’s actually your fault and not a bad beat. “That’s my challenge to you,” Phil says. Never do anything, no matter how small it may seem, without asking why, precisely, you’re doing it. And never judge anything others do without asking the same question. “Every action your opponent takes has a reason behind it, whether conscious or unconscious,” he says. One of the most common things he hears from people who are starting out—and sometimes even veterans of the game—is how hard it is to play with bad players. They are impossible to read, the argument goes, because “they could have anything.” Not true, Phil argues. “Even terrible players make the plays they make for a reason, and it’s your job to figure it out,” he tells me. “When a hand is shown down, try to walk back through your opponent’s decision and come up with reasons they might have had for taking the actions they did.” Don’t judge them. Don’t berate them, even in your head, by thinking what an awful play they’ve made—a bad bet, a crazy call, an insane raise. Just try to figure out the why behind it.
“Generally speaking,” Erik begins, “your tournament cash rate should be around twenty, twenty-five percent. Not fifty percent.” What? I’m cashing too much? How is that a bad thing? “The way the math works is that the money is concentrated up top. The only people who really make money in this business are the ones who can make it to that final table,” he says. That makes sense, but I still am not sure how I’m doing anything wrong. “You need to be playing for the win, not for the min cash. If you’re cashing this much and then busting soon after, you are doing something wrong. You’re getting to the bubble short-stacked.” I think back on my tournaments and realize that he’s right. Every single time, I just tried to hold on until the money. For multiple hours, as we got close, I’d get cautious, fold hands, bow to pressure. I didn’t want to be the person who bubbled—that is, bust out of the tournament right before being paid. I wanted the cash. And wanting the cash isn’t the same as wanting the win. “Generally, the people who cash the most are actually losing players. You can’t be a winning player by min cashing. It’s just not possible.” Do the math, he urges me. How much does airfare cost? Hotels? Food? How high were the entries to the tournaments I didn’t cash? Now how much am I making for this trip? I’m deflated to realize that far from a €1,470 profit, I’m actually losing money. Compare this with Vegas. Yes, that was a tiny pond. But I won over $900 for a $65 buy-in, more than fourteen times my investment. And my second-place Aria finish? An almost eighteen-fold return. Those fields were small enough that to cash, you all but had to final table. The money was concentrated at the top, just like here, but I’d reached it. This isn’t just a better player pool. It’s a much larger one. Instead of beating out thirty or a hundred players, you have to get through hundreds, sometimes thousands. The math is completely different. The considerations are different. Sure, I may have learned the basics of not busting early, of slowly building chips, of playing a solid game of poker. But I haven’t really learned about the dynamics of multiday events, about bubbles, about the type of aggression you need to exhibit—can’t avoid exhibiting—if you want to actually have a shot at finishing well. At this level, it becomes a far different game. I feel momentarily overwhelmed. It all suddenly feels that much further out of reach, instead of closer.
“Good players are going to realize if the min cash is important to you,” Erik says. “And they’re going to take advantage of that. They’ll really abuse you.”
What was I thinking, indeed. Well, I know exactly what I was thinking: I was acting based on stereotypes and incomplete knowledge, all the while imagining that I had a very good read on someone I had no business reading to begin with. I wasn’t using tells. I was using my implicit biases. Some were formed from experience, sure—I’d played with plenty a muscled and tattooed bro who’d tried to bully me out of pots over my months in the game; in Atlantic City, they practically rule the felt—but they weren’t formed from specific experience with this player, and they were far too broad (and biased) to be useful.
I see a shaved head and tattoos, and bingo! I think aggression. I think maniac. I think bully. I see someone in his seventies, smiling sweetly and asking me to translate for him because he’s found out I speak Russian and he doesn’t understand English—of course! I’m happy to help—and I think, when he raises me in a huge pot, well, I guess I have to fold my two pair because he clearly has me beat. And then, of course, he triumphantly turns over the bluff and I find myself short on chips and feeling awfully sad that the nice old man I helped could have possibly bluffed me like that. There are no friends at the poker table, the saying goes, but I still somehow take it personally. Why did he have to turn over the bluff with quite so much glee? Couldn’t he have at least had the decency to pretend he held a good hand? It turns out that if you look at enough hands over enough hours, you do start to develop a sense of patterns that may yield meaningful data. The patterns tend to come in two flavors. The first has to do with thought process: How does a person approach and think about the game? “The way people handle their chips when they are more indecisive, or their bet style at the top of their range—these are the sorts of things we pay attention to,” Blake says. He gives the example of pocket aces versus seven-nine. With aces, I know exactly what I want to do: raise. My thought process is clear, clean, and concise, and my gestures will likely follow. But seven-nine is more of a borderline hand. It could really go in any direction. If someone has raised before me, I could fold, I could call, or I could three-bet. I can genuinely consider all three strategies—and my gestures may correspond accordingly. I may hesitate in a way I don’t with the absolute best cards. Or take more time to act. Whatever I do, I may inadvertently be communicating my thought process through my actions. “You see this type of thing in players’ hand movements all the time,” Blake says. “I’ve seen this at the biggest stakes in the world. Sometimes, players have been playing for so long they’ve developed these subtleties in gesture and they don’t really realize it.” Diagnostic situations. Who you are comes out at the poker table. Your baggage, your experiences, your confidence, the stereotypes you hold. Eventually, there will come a dynamic where you unwittingly act it out.
If my journey is about understanding luck, about feeling out the boundaries of control, about knowing how to optimize and reclaim power over what you can do while minimizing the perils of happenstance that you can do little about, then poker has already done its job well. It has taught me the pitfalls of the gamble, the necessity of selecting games so that you have an edge, so that you have a statistical advantage, so that your skill can win. It has taught me to avoid situations where skill falls by the wayside, where you have to rely on variance alone to break your way because you simply can’t measure up otherwise. The Main Event just because isn’t quite as bad as the lottery, but it surely isn’t good. Here’s a free life lesson: seek out situations where you’re a favorite; avoid those where you’re an underdog. This doesn’t mean never take shots. Shot-taking is a tried-and-true thing in poker, where someone plays a tournament at a higher level than before, enters a cash game at higher stakes than before, to see if she can hack it. If you never take shots, you never know when you’re ready to move up. But in a way, these past two weeks were a shot: they were higher stakes, more intense action, huge player pools. And what they’ve illustrated is that, while the seeds of success are there, I’m not yet ready. The smart thing is to pull back, play smaller, regroup, build up, and try again—better, smarter, savvier, more skillful in both the ways of poker strategy and the ways of mental strength. If I take the intent of my journey rather than the arbitrary end goal meant as a hook for a book proposal more than anything else, the conclusion is clear. Postpone. Come back for July, sure, but instead of the Main, play more of the smaller side events. Build my bankroll back up. Hone my skill. And shoot for the Main in a year’s time. Don’t jump into the arms of chance and say, “Please don’t let me fall!” Don’t play above your weight class after you’ve just been punched down. It’s a question of respect for the game—and not just the game of poker. It’s beyond simple journalistic curiosity. It’s only a few months ago that Phil Galfond reminded me to always find the why behind every move, every decision, every action. And here’s one thing I know for sure: no matter the decision, the why shouldn’t ever be for the simple glory of saying you’ve done something. At least to me, right now, that’s not good enough.
One of the most important lessons of poker strategy, intimately connected to self-assessment, is this: sometimes, it’s the hands you don’t play that win you the title. We remember the hero calls. What about the hero folds? What you don’t do rather than what you do—that can be greatness. The art of letting go can be the truly strong one. Acknowledging when you’re behind rather than continuing to put good money after bad. Acknowledging when the landscape has shifted and you need to make a shift yourself as a result. It happens all the time in our lives. We find ourselves in an appealing situation—and then we hold on to it for dear life, even when any objective outside observer would tell us that the appeal is long gone. We start at a promising job, only to be stymied in promotions over and over—yet we cling to the notion that the job is great. We embark on a promising relationship, only to find we have less and less in common with our partner—yet we forge ahead, refusing to admit that what seemed so right is now wrong. Sometimes, the most difficult thing of all is to stop playing. All too often, we stay in a hand long after we should have gotten out. No matter how good your starting hand, you have to be willing to read the signs to let it go. You are not playing in a vacuum. You are playing opponents. You have to follow the game. My starting hand couldn’t be better: Erik Seidel as coach, my background in the psychology of decision making as fuel, all the advice and resources I could hope for at my disposal. But, as I’ve realized in my assessment after my June WSOP foray, the game has changed. It’s no longer about a simple exercise in seeing how far I can go. On that journey, I’ve already learned the importance of playing well—and that means choosing my battles correctly. I know that, at least for now, it’s time to fold, not to double down. I know this, I’ve thought it through, but somehow, I can’t quite verbalize it to myself in the moment. And doubling down is exactly what I do. This is the exact sort of fallacious, unbending thinking I observed in my failed investors in grad school—the ones who conceived of a strategy and then kept executing it even when the environment changed for the worse, because they were smart, optimistic about their own abilities, and no quitters. And here I am, doing the exact same thing. Even on the morning of the Main, I have the opportunity to call it off. One thing Erik has stressed, over and over, is to never feel committed to playing an event, ever. “See how you feel in the morning” is a refrain I’ve grown used to hearing from him. His point is a simple one: your edge is your edge only if you’re playing your best game. To play your best game, you need to be your best you. Rested, sharp, focused. If you’re off, a game that would have been a winning endeavor can suddenly become a losing one. An almost sure thing can become a gamble. I thought that it was just his way of letting me off easy, in case I got jittery about playing a big event—but, no, he does it himself. I’ve seen him skip a major $500,000 tournament—one with quite a prestigious title—because he wasn’t feeling his best. He’d done a self-assessment, decided he wasn’t quite where he wanted to be at the moment he needed to be there, and calmly bought a ticket to New York, where he spent the week of the tournament seeing the latest of Broadway and taking in art at the Whitney. No regrets. He lives what he tells me. Never feel like you have to do something just because it’s expected of you—even if you’re the one who expects it of you. Know when to step back. Know when to recalibrate. Know when you need to reassess your strategy, prior plans be damned. Everyone thought he’d play. I thought he’d play. He’d thought he’d play. And then he didn’t. And it was all fine.
“You need to think in terms of preparation. Don’t worry about hoping. Just do.” That phrase resonates. It’s what Erik was getting at with his admonition about bad beats—the worrying about what could and should have been, the hope that replaces analysis and actual reflection. It crystallizes why I shouldn’t have played the Main, not this year—it was a decision based on hope. The doing part of me knew I had a lot more to accomplish before I was ready. I find myself nodding in agreement. It’s time to stop hoping and start doing.
Life happens, and through it all, we play. We play, gaining perspective, survival skills, the strength and knowledge to be the conqueror rather than the conquered. We play, and we acknowledge, with the full force of the outside world, just how lucky we are to be sitting at the table, to have the chance to even play the game. “Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born,” Richard Dawkins writes, in Unweaving the Rainbow. “The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Arabia. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton.” It’s mind-boggling to even consider. “In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.” We are here, and we have the chance to experience life, in all its vicissitudes, all its unfairness, all its noise. Out of countless billions—trillions, quintillions, more than the mind is capable of imagining—of possible people who were never to be, we are the ones who are allowed to play at the table. We have won the impossible, improbable lottery of birth. And we don’t know what will happen. We never can. There’s no skill in birth and death. At the beginning and at the end, luck reigns unchallenged. Here’s the truth: most of the world is noise, and we spend most of our lives trying to make sense of it. We are, in the end, nothing more than interpreters of static. We can never see beyond the present moment. We don’t know what the next card will be—and we don’t even know when we see it if it’s good or bad.