How to Live as a Poker Player, Part 3

In the first two parts of this article, I gave much advice on structuring your poker career, and the proper roles of health, ego, and obsession. But what I have not yet discussed are the spiritual and philosophical aspects of life as a poker player.

How should we live our lives away from poker? What relationship should we have with the game? How can we become happy, and still be poker players?

I cannot promise that what I have to say will fully answer these questions for you. Only time and repeated failures will provide you with those answers. But I can promise that what I have to say will stimulate your thoughts, and hopefully, spur you toward finding your own answers.

Let us move forward, from the health of the body to the health of the mind.


Spiritual Health

The basis of a good life is balance. Not just balance in physical health, but in mental and spiritual as well.

Do not neglect your spiritual needs. And by spiritual needs, I don’t mean religious needs—though if you are religious, then religion can be a powerful source of spiritual nourishment. But for those who are not religious, there are still many paths to spiritual health.

Meditation has been practiced in various forms for thousands of years. Studies show that regular meditation has profound effects on the brain. It can increase pain tolerance, improve resilience to stressors, and is correlated with an increased sense of well-being. There are many different types of meditation that you can incorporate into your life—zazen, vipassana, qigong, mindfulness, to name only a few. If you’ve never meditated before, the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center is a good place to start.

But, if you are a poker player, meditation alone is unlikely to sustain you. As poker players, we are deeply engaged in the world, and so detachment alone cannot solve all of our problems. We must face the world and our desires head on. Thus, the greater part of our spiritual fulfillment must derive from our self-actualization. Basically, self-actualization comes from aligning the self-we-are with the self-we-want-to-be.

The ancient Greek poet Pindar once wrote, “Be what you know you are.” This is, to my mind, the best encapsulation of self-actualization. Decide what kind of person you want to be, and then move, thoughtfully and actively, toward that ideal self. When humans are aligned with this trajectory, they experience a sense of well-being. Self-actualization makes you feel like you’re on the right path. It becomes easy to love yourself, and to honor the process of your life. When humans are misaligned with this trajectory, they often feel lost, as though they are squandering their lives. As a poker player, you have the freedom to pursue self-actualization in a way that most human beings on this planet don’t.

Think about the kind of person you want to be. Not just in poker, but in all things. Visualize that person. Write what you see. Fix it in your mind. What is that person like? What do they do? How do they see themselves?

In whatever way you are unlike that person, in whatever way your ideal self outshines you, move toward it. If you are too pessimistic, try to be more optimistic. If your ideal self can do something you can’t, start learning that skill. If your ideal self is in better shape, or is better-read, or knows another language—follow it! Become! Inch toward who you really want to be, and don’t let a week go by in which you don’t make any progress.

Learn new things. Improve your abilities. Become stronger, kinder, wiser. These are nourishment for the spirit. And it is your spirit, above all else, that will sustain you in poker.

The Journey of Poker

A poker player must be a realist.

In the past, we’ve discussed with great optimism the importance of diligence, being healthy, and taking poker seriously. But it would be delusional to claim that following these precepts means you will necessarily succeed. While it is essential that any poker player become a rigorous student of the game, the fact remains that these things alone, no matter how thorough, are not a golden ticket.

Poker makes no promises.

Perhaps you will not be smart enough. Mentally tough enough. Maybe you won’t have enough time, or energy, or money to brave the torrents of variance that poker will unleash on you. Perhaps—dare I say it—you will simply get unlucky. Poker is ultimately a gamble from start to finish. We don’t get to choose our success. We can supplicate, make libations, practice prudence, but in the end it is the poker gods who choose whether we will prosper.

Part of the journey of poker is its uncertainty. We must live with that. But at the same time, we must take full responsibility for who we are and our success as poker players. There is no excuse not to take up every arm we can, not to scour for every shortcut, not to attempt every unexpected checkraise and slow-play that crosses our path. Though we are at the mercy of the poker gods, we must nevertheless struggle, push uphill, and keep our heads up. This uncertainty is also what it means to be a poker player. It is the journey we all have chosen.

The great imperative, as Nietzsche put it, is to love your fate—amor fati. Choose every moment that comes upon you as if you had invented it yourself. Embrace every failure, every success, every downswing and upswing, every hero call and failed read as your own. That’s not to say that they are all your fault—but you must take them all as unquestionably yours. Don’t seek justice. There is no such thing in poker. There is only fate—so you must seek your fate.

Accept everything that comes. This is the only philosophy that survives in poker. Usher in your fate with open arms. If you must suffer, suffer gladly, hoist it up like a flag. Love whatever happens. It is all a part of your journey.

To paraphrase Bruce Lee—do not hope for an easy life. Rather, hope for the strength to endure a difficult one.

The Importance of Being Happy

In American culture, we are fond of telling people to “find happiness.” The phraseology suggests that this is a relatively straightforward task. Supposedly, there exists a thing somewhere called happiness, and we just need to find it. It may take a lot of looking around, we may have to fulfill certain obligations first, collect a certain amount of money, or join a certain social class—but once we jump through those hoops, it will be there, waiting for us.

Unfortunately, happiness is not just hard to find; it is impossible to find. Happiness is not found, but rather constituted. Let me explain what I mean.

There is a well-known factoid that 90% of lottery jackpot winners lose their fortune within 5 years or less. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that lottery winners, like the rest of us, are stupid. But there is a less well-known factotags: [in longitudinal studies of happiness, people who won the lottery had no sustained changes in their happiness level after one year. That is to say, their elevated levels of happiness and life satisfaction from winning the lottery very soon dropped completely back to normal.

Perhaps you find this surprising, perhaps you don’t. But the opposite effect is even more surprising. Happiness studies of people who become significantly physically disabled, the same effect can be found—happiness levels drop, but return to normal within about a year. People permanently confined to wheelchairs, after a year, are just about as happy as they were before being disabled.

This seems perverse to us. It seems to brush off some of the most basic human metanarratives we have—the idea that if we work hard, our lives will be better, and if our lives are better, we’ll be happier.

Time and time again, the evidence insists: happiness cannot be found.

Much of these effects can be attributed to what psychologists call habituation. Habituation is the psychological process by which we adapt to a constant stimulus by filtering it out. An obvious example of habituation is wearing clothes—as soon as you put your pants on in the morning, you feel them on your body, how they fit, their texture and warmth. But right now, as you examine yourself, you likely have no awareness of your clothes at all. It’s almost as though your body has incorporated your clothes as part of you, and stopped registering them as foreign. The stimuli are being filtered out.

Habituation is essential for any complex organism. If we did not habituate, then we would constantly be overloaded with sensory information, so much so that it would impair our ability to direct our attention strategically. From an evolutionary perspective, things that are important tend to move (people, predators, prey). Thus, we evolved to filter out things that are stable and unchanging.

Incidents like winning a large amount of money, or being permanently confined in a wheelchair—these are all situations that, once they occur, are unchanging. Once you have a lot of money, you just have a lot of money. Once you’re in a wheelchair, you’re just in a wheelchair. Your brain starts filtering it out. It becomes the normal, and your brain doesn’t pay attention to the normal (it’s too busy worrying if a saber-toothed tiger is going to jump out of that rustling bush).

Although it runs counter to many of the narratives we’ve been taught, neither having a lot of money nor becoming physically disabled has a significant effect on happiness. So what does? The most inclusive answer would be: your disposition.

This is what I mean when I say that happiness is constituted. We do not find happiness, but we create it out of the ingredients of our lives as they are. People who are happy tend to be happy because of their disposition to see the world and themselves that way. Likewise for people who are unhappy. Our happiness levels tend to be fairly resilient—they usually stay around the same level for most people’s lives.

But there are a few things we can say about how to be happy. Happiness studies reveal a few unsurprising results—couples are happier than single people, religion makes people happier, and optimists are happier than pessimists. People of means tend to be happier than poor people, but studies show rather robustly that income above $75,000 has no effect on happiness levels. That is, income has a moderate correlation with happiness until 75K, at which point the money really stops making a difference (perhaps because past that point, anxiety about money becomes trivial).

Experiences tend to make us more happy than material goods, and so you should aim to spend your money on experiences, rather than stuff. This is in no small part because it is very easy to habituate to material objects, but new experiences are, by their nature, impervious to habituation.

We can extend this insight to other aspects of our lives. How do we become more happy? One answer is to try to resist habituating to the good parts of life. Find ways to continually remind yourself of how fortunate you are, or how good you have it, or how awesome it was that you accomplished a goal. Savor and mentally relive your good experiences. Some psychologists suggest that you write a gratitude journal every morning, naming 5 different things that you’re grateful for. Another strategy is to go without something you like for a while, and then reintroduce it. To some extent, we can learn how to be more optimistic and appreciative of the world around us.

Studies also show that being happy bolsters our ability to perform. The science of learning demonstrates that people learn and retain new information best when they are feeling good, and creative performance significantly improves while experiencing positive affect (contrary to the idea of the “tortured artist”). It increases your life span, your resilience, it makes you more likeable. One is almost inclined to say that being happy will keep you happy.

And yet, the question of how to become happy remains a tricky question. Many cultures have offered their own answers to this question, and there is no answer that will fit everyone. But for my own part, on the question of happiness I look to the transcendentalists. To them, the question “how do I become happy?” is in itself the wrong one to ask. Rather, one should lead a good life, better oneself continually, and be good to others. Happiness, to my mind, not the purpose of a good life, but rather, one of its consequences.

In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”

I try to live by those words. But if they do not suffice for you, don’t worry; you are not alone. It simply means you must keep on searching.

Staring out the Window

In the end, if you are to be a professional poker player, then poker will be the chief focus of your waking life. Things will be that way for a while. But you must not derive your sense of self from poker. You must remember that you are more than your poker playing self.

I stress this, in no small part, because I failed at this when I was a poker player. And I believe now that this was largely what made me unhappy throughout my career. After enough time, I could not sever my larger identity from my identity as a poker player. I forgot who I was—I lost myself to the game.

Do not lose yourself. You are you. Explore every side of yourself. Even while you are studying poker and invested in this journey, you must not forget who you are, and what you are worth in the absence of poker. Find balance.

And when I say find balance, I mean—integrate yourself in the world! Keep in touch with your friends outside of poker. Always be learning new skills, reading and learning about the world, making new friends and challenging your sense of reality. We all start being consumed by poker, but you must not remain consumed by it.

You will not play poker forever; none of us will. So don’t bury all of your seeds in this plot. Once you have a sizeable bankroll, I would advise you to cash out half of your bankroll and invest it, then treat it as though it’s off-limits. Have a backup plan in case things go wrong (either on your end, or by some catastrophic incident). Have some sense of what you are going to do after your poker career is over. Think about it seriously. It’s an important question. Even if you love poker, to be a consummate professional, you must be thoughtful about all of the possibilities.

Please, don’t be cynical about poker. It’s easy to be. It’s easy to say that poker is a useless game, to treat it with contempt, to see it as a mere money-making machine. Poker can be those things, of course. It can be whatever you want it to be.

But don’t do yourself that injustice. It’s a waste. Poker, if you treat it with respect, can be a rite of passage for the rest of your life. It can be an arena for practicing self-mastery. Poker can teach you patience, fortitude, thoughtfulness, strength. It doesn’t have to be meaningless. It shouldn’t be! Let poker challenge you, let it raise you up. Let it make of you a greater human being than you were when you came to it. It can do all of those things if you treat this game, and yourself, with dignity.

Be careful. Don’t let poker make you jaded or negative. Don’t let yourself lose connection with the rest of the world. Don’t forget the poor, the unlucky, the self-sacrificing. Don’t forget art. Don’t forget books. Don’t forget working with your hands. Don’t forget helping people. Don’t forget sunrises, or mountains, or taking walks on winter mornings. Please, remain connected to the world. Poker may be around for a long time, but you won’t. Don’t let your time slip away.

One last thing. If you ever find yourself, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, staring out the window at a tree, at a bird, at the blue sky… whatever you do, don’t think about poker.

I wish you the best of luck. I mean it. I really do.

\*Storm Trooper image by Kristina Alexanderson.

Note: this is adapted from the rough draft of my first book, How to Be a Poker Player: The Philosophy of Poker. If you like what you read, consider buying the completed book—it's tightly edited and contains new material! Hope you enjoyed. :)


August 02 2013
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Managing Partner at Dragonfly Capital. Effective Altruist. Airbnb, (acquired by Coinbase) alum. Instructor @ Bradfield. Writer. Former poker pro. Donate 33% of my income to charity.

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