SELF HELP 35
How To Play Poker, by guest writer Carl
Todays newsletter is written by guest writer Carl, aka @historyboomer.
This newsletter is my process of writing a self-help book, tentatively titled How To Make Money: Financial Advice For Poets. — se
Learning how to play poker means learning how to lose. A lot. Bundles of money, pallets of money, container ships of money. Enough money that you’ll head home muttering to yourself promising to never play cards again (and you’ll do that again and again and again). Assuming you’re playing serious casino-level poker, not just dollar-limit with the crew, you have to get used to the pain of losing. Equestrians learn how to fall off a horse. Boxers learn how to take a punch. Poker players learn how to lose.
I’ve been playing serious poker for over twenty years. Most of it in underground New York clubs like the semi-fictional one in 1998’s “Rounders” with Matt Damon (loosely based on a real club, the Mayfair, that I visited a few times). In those 20+ years I’ve lost a lot of money. I’ve won money too, but that’s easy. When you win, you smile, do a little dance, and pay off credit card debt. Life is good. Winning takes no effort. Losing is the hard part.
Fine, winning takes a bit of effort, but it’s not brain surgery. The key is playing with bad players. Poker pros call this “game selection.” If you can get all your chips in with AA (two aces in poker lingo) against a horrible player who calls with 72 (a seven and a two), you’re going to win. Even players who are just mediocre will be profitable for your bottom line. Take “Fred,” your standard poker fish. I’ll shove (bet all my chips) with KK (two kings) because I know Fred is the kind of guy who will call my bet with AQ (ace and queen). I’m 72% likely to win in that situation. Long-term, playing with guys like Fred will make me money.
And that’s key, of course, winning long-term. It’s the only real metric.
There are some catches, of course. Freds are all over the place, but they’re not alone. Any serious poker game comes with sharks. Cold-blooded predators. They look at you and they see another Fred. Often they’re right. So you do what you can. You pick your games. A game with 6 Freds and 2 sharks isn’t bad. Probably. If you don’t get unlucky, or lose your mind. Or, worst case, get unlucky and then lose your mind.
See, it’s luck that makes poker such a wonderful game. If it were pure skill, like chess, suckers would never play. Why sit down to a game where you lose every single time? With luck, however, sometimes you win. Fred gets his money in with AQ against my Kings and he wins. Why not? He had a 28% chance. Twenty-eight percent happens 28% of the time. It’s getting lucky that keeps Fred coming back for more. This is what makes poker great. Sometimes the longshot wins. Fred walks away happy, singing a little tune, and comes back to play again
In 2016 Nate Silver, math wonk and election predictor (also a poker player), gave Trump a 28% chance of winning the election, and then he did. Lots of folks thought Silver got it wrong. They felt betrayed. That’s because most people don’t understand odds. Clinton had KK, Trump had AQ, and he spiked an ace on the river. 28% happens 28% of the time. This is poker but this is also math and this is also life. You suck it up. You play your best game.
Or you don’t.
Democrats certainly didn’t. Liberals went crazy after Trump won. I remember the stunned looks on New York’s streets that Wednesday. People cried. It broke their brains for four years (and maybe still). Poker players have a word for this: Going on tilt. Going on tilt is what happens when you can’t take the bad beats, the suckouts, the vicious pain of losing one too many hands. The phrase comes from the old pinball machines. Skilled pinball players would rock the machines back and forth to get the ball where they wanted it, but if they did this too much, a flag would pop up saying “tilt,” and the machine froze. Game over man.
In poker, going on tilt means you’ve been emotionally broken. How could you lose that hand? That’s $500, $1000, $15,000 that you needed, to pay the rent, to cover your mortgage, to support your mistress, to buy your NFTs. You’re seeing red. Calm, careful play goes out the window. Maybe you become a Fred, more likely you turn into a Ricky. Pulse-pounding, eyes flaming red with frustration. Out of anger you bet more, even when you don’t have a good hand. It’s not fair! The poker gods owe me! I have to win this hand! Money gone. Or this hand! More money gone! Or this damn hand! All money gone.
You see, poker is just like life. You have to learn how to lose. Not learn rationally, that’s easy. Your rational brain knows losing is a possibility. You have to learn it emotionally. You have to lose a few months rent and not let it affect you, not let it break your spirit. Just smile and buy more chips. Until you go home, busted, muttering.
Back in 2001, Jen Harmon, a rare female poker pro in a world dominated by men, spoke to Ira Glass on “This American Life” about losing. “The first time I lost $3,000, I went home and cried like a baby.” “When I lost $10,000, the same thing. When I lost $30,000, I couldn't sleep for four days. When I lost $100,000 the first time in my life, I couldn't sleep for a week. But then, the next time I lost $100,000 and the next time I lost $100,000, it's like your pain threshold just goes up.”
I’ve never lost $100,000 but I’ve lost enough to hurt a lot. Harmon is right. You do get used to it. You never like it, but you learn to accept it. Or you go on tilt and lose it all. Like a boxer learning to take a punch, a poker player learns to lose. Your pain threshold goes up.
Poker is built around luck. You are guaranteed to lose some of the time. Even if you’re playing well, even if you’re surrounded by a sea of Freds, you can lose hand after hand, session after session.
So you pace yourself. You don’t gamble with all your money at once. Do you have $20,000? Sit in a $500 game. If you lose that, maybe buy once more, maybe walk away. Don’t risk more than 5% of your bankroll in a session. Because bad luck streaks can hit anyone. I’ve had streaks that went on for months, where I started to wonder if I could ever win again, where nothing made sense, the world had gone mad. Were my eyes bleeding? Was I walking upside down? Until suddenly sanity returned and the wins came back. It’s always been that way. So far.
As Stephen wrote in one of these earlier newsletters, everything happens in cycles, but sometimes the cycles outlast you. (Wait, is Stephen editing my manuscript? Did he just quote himself?)
Want to know my nightmare scenario? It’s what statisticians call “normal distribution.” Random events happen along a probability curve, sometimes called “the bell curve.” Poker hands are random events. Generally you’ll have an average range of hands and win an average amount of time. But given how many people play poker, there have to be some folks who just ended up on the positive end of that curve. They just win more than they should through dumb luck. Well, same’s true on the negative end. Some poor schmos win less than they should for their entire lives. That could be you and me, and the bad luck could hit at any time. It’s not superstition, it’s just the bell curve, and we could end up on the wrong end, forever. That’s when I wake up screaming.
A way to avoid screaming and handle poker’s fluctuations is to get investors. Why not? This is what financial advisors do. They gamble with the best stuff possible: other people’s money. Even if you lose, it’s not YOU losing. Poker players are the same. If you’re good, or people think you’re good (probably more important), you can get someone, or someones, to “take a piece” of you. This is very common in poker. A pro goes to Vegas to play in all the big games. They sell 50% of their action to 4 or 5 players. At a discount, of course! If I sell half my action, maybe I’ll promise to pay 30% to my backer. If I lose $10,000, I really only lost $5,000 and my backer lost the other $5,000. If I win $10,000, I give $3,000 to my backer and keep the other $7,000. In a dream scenario you sell ALL your action and can’t lose!
I’ve had backers in some games. Not a huge amount but enough to help me through the rough patches. It means I win less when I win but I lose a lot less when I lose. Poker players call this “reducing variance.” It’s one more element in bankroll management. You’re always watching that bankroll because if it goes away, you can’t gamble any more, and there’s nothing worse for a gambler.
There’s one more important way that poker is about losing. It’s the dirty not-so-secret that everything else rests on. Most players are losers. Without the losers, without the Freds and Rickys, Jen Harmon and folks like her couldn’t make a living playing poker. Nobody knows the real numbers (although the online poker games may have a good idea) but a rough estimate is that 90% of casino or club poker players lose. That means 90% of players have to learn to accept losing if they want to keep on playing.
Why would you do such a thing? I don’t know. I strongly recommend that you don’t! Whenever anyone asks me, I tell them not to play poker for serious money. It’s a bad game with bad people. You want to play poker? Play it with your friends in a dollar limit game where you can drink and laugh and nobody loses the rent. (And keep an eye on the guy who keeps wanting to raise the stakes; he’s an amateur pro, which are the worst kind, because they’re trying to make money off of their pals.)
You still want to play poker? You’ll need to learn how to lose.
This is Carl, as far as we know:
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