Looking into the Fire

Hello friends,

It has been a long time since I’ve written. Too long really, though perhaps it has taken me this long for good reason. It still surprises me that people occasionally e-mail me, asking what I’m up to and why I’m not writing in this blog anymore. Apparently my story is meaningful to people, which in the back of my mind I find difficult to comprehend. But for my own part, my life and thoughts have been scattered all over the place. Let me give you some idea of what my life has been since my return to Austin.

When I got home, one of the first decisions I made was that I was going to re-enroll in university and finish my degree. I had abandoned it when I was 20, despite only having a year left, because I wanted to spend more time focusing on poker. Since then people always told me, once you walk away from university it doesn’t matter if you say it’s only temporary—most people never go back and finish. It just never ends up happening. Well, that didn’t sit right with me. So the first thing I decided I was going to do was wrap up my degree, and with grades that I could respect. While I was playing poker I stopped giving much emphasis on grades, ditched classes, became disillusioned with the whole project of academia, and so it’s been a challenge to engender more rigorous habits.


But more than that, my focus has been to better myself. Since the ten day vow of silence I took, I have been trying to understand how to become the man I want to be. I have started rock-climbing, training boxing and Jeet Kune Do, getting into running, working on my writing, reading furiously (a pastime I largely abandoned while I was a poker player), practicing my photography, eating better and more simply (sans grains), I started volunteering teaching an English class to refugees once a week, and I have been trying to direct myself to live more simply, frugally and peacefully. Most of these are things I haven’t done before, or at least with the acuteness with which I am doing them now. I am changing. Buddhists believe strongly in the idea of “purifying the self,” a notion which seems right to me, even though I’m unsure exactly what it means. To what am I trying to distill myself? What is the  substrate that underlies who I am? I’m not sure, but the process seems the right one. It feels like progress, and I suppose that’s good enough.

I think about Alex often. I try to resolve myself, to see that I am what I do. I think about how to choose what is difficult, how to say yes to it, how to make my entire life into one overwhelming “yes.”

My time in Gloucester rattled me when it came to that. It was ten days of pain, frustration, and reflection. Of eating very simple, very little (very vegetarian) food. Meditating on my life, on my shortcomings, on who I am. But more than that, spending ten days separated from all but the essentials of living, well, it made me reflect on just how much extraneous crap I’ve always let into my life.

How do you live better? Become a better person? Connect with people more? Live by your wisdom? Appreciate the world around you?

I guess you could say I’ve been trying to forge a new identity for myself. It occurred to me that for a long time, I was DogIsHead. Some of you might wonder what I mean by that, but some of you get it. Haseeb was never important. I took a back seat to DogIsHead, who had a life of his own, like a roaring train on which I was a mere passenger. Very few knew me, really. I was just the double who followed that greater name around.

But DogIsHead is gone. I am not him anymore. And so I realized on my travels through Europe, I could no longer tell people I was a poker player. It didn’t make sense, that wasn’t who I was. Then what was I? What did I have left? I was just a kid. I was just who I was. I was Haseeb. And I realized that part of the tremendous sadness I felt was that I was grieving. I was grieving the death of DogIsHead, grieving the end of my first adult identity. I had to pick up where I left off, to disembark from the train and stand on the hard ground with my own two feet. In a sense, it’s a rather simple thing – the business of being, of personhood. But at that moment, and sometimes even now, it is hard to know what to do with it.

This is an expansive thing, and in a way I don’t know where to start or if I’m making any progress. But one thing I do know is it has been a relief. a great relief, to be away from the poker world. To just be a normal person again. Well, maybe normal isn’t quite the word, but at least someone unextraordinary. In the past even while I was in school I was always a student second, and a poker player first. Poker always seemed to take primacy. It was the hungry cyclops that domineered the cave of my life. It has been nice to live for myself for a while.

But I realize that something is missing. It’s not quite right. I wanted to get away from poker, from this world, from the eyes of others, and to be immersed in the world of the living again, to simply be for my own sake—it was something I desperately needed. I needed to be there for my brother (who is gradually improving these days), to re-assume my place in my family, to re-figure my place among friends, old poker buddies, within the world around me and within myself. It has all been important. But, I must also admit that I’ve been running away from this. From the poker world. The past. The judgment, the eyes of the crowd, the being-for-others.

Running from it is not the answer either. I have been thinking about this lately. Though I needed to get away from the poker world, away from this defunct identity of mine as a poker player, there is something insincere and reactionary about trying to shut it out the way I have.

Allow me to tell you a brief story. Spring Break was coming up about a couple weeks ago, along with SXSW, the biggest yearly music festival in Austin. It’s a huge sprawling week-long event, with film and amazing music and revelry. There were many bands that I wanted to see. But on the day before Spring Break began, I realized—that I was tired. Tired in a deep, muddy sort of way. Although there was much that I might have wanted to see, I knew in some part of my mind that I wouldn’t be able enjoy it. There would be a frustration underlying it all. I couldn’t explain why I felt this, but I knew it was there. I decided to leave. I needed some time to myself, to try to shake off this heaviness that clung to me. On the night before I left, I sent out an e-mail to a couple I found in Durango, Colorado who wanted volunteers for a leveling job. They told me they’d be happy to host me, and so I decided that’s where I would go. I drove up there (a 16 hour drive) by myself the morning after my classes ended. When I arrived there, the couple showed me to where I would be staying – a tent next to a firepit, hidden in the brush of this plot of land they had recently purchased. The land was situated on a foothill, not far from the Rockies. They told me that they would not be able to provide me with much, and so to do as much work leveling the land as I saw fit.

I spent that week alone, in a self-created solitude.

In that time I saw a lot of the landscapes, went hiking on the Colorado trail, and met some fascinating people while I was there. But most of the time I spent alone, contemplating. It occurred to me that maybe the reason why I brought myself there was that some part of me knew instinctively that I needed to stop for a moment. To recede from the clamor and rally of my life, and take stock. To remember who I am, where I’m going, to be able to see beyond the breadth of a moment or a day. This is important.

And it was there that I decided it was time to return and to face this. Poker was an important part of my life. And in truth, it still is. I can’t get away from that, and it would be dishonest to try, or to pretend. I’m not a poker player anymore, that’s for certain. But nevertheless, I am very much a part of this world in my own way. I am a child of poker. I need to think about what I can give of value back to  this world. When I thought about it, I realized that in all my time as a poker player, what gave me the most pleasure and satisfaction was in teaching, in helping others. There is always something more meaningful about doing for others than for oneself—this is something which poker does its very best to obscure from our minds (the emphasis is always on protecting information, on looking out for your own EV and no one else’s). Despite being a teacher, I always considered it something secondary while I was a poker player. But I realize now it’s the only thing that sticks. The people who I’ve helped, and the value I offered them is the only thing on which I ever look back with fondness.

That’s what I want to do. In my time as a poker coach I coached well over a hundred poker players. But I don’t want to coach poker strategy anymore, especially since I haven’t played in such a long time—that’s no longer my domain, and I’m not interested in that. But when I was a poker coach, I taught my students more than simply strategy—I taught them how to learn, how to control tilt, how to think about themselves, how to manage their emotions and engage their rationality, and in a sense how to be a poker player in the first instance. The psychological side of things, which I learned not only in my personal study, but in my experience as a poker player and as a teacher. How to how to balance and manage one’s life, how to navigate the labyrinth of the gambling world, how to live well in spite of the beast we call poker. The living, more aqueous side of the game.

I still want to help people. I don’t know if these abilities are truly helpful to others, but I want to know if they are.

So I’ve decided to take this on as an experiment to see if this is something I am capable of. I want to take four clients from among the readers of my blog. To be a candidate you must be a serious poker player, play serious stakes and have a decent amount of experience, be capable of learning and following directives—but most importantly, you must have serious issues in either tilt, learning, or self-management. This is something I want to explore. So for one month, I will be doing this for free, just to help people and see what impact I can have. I want to see what happens. If you are interested in this, please send me an e-mail to haseebcoach at gmail dot com. Include details about what stakes you play, a (brief) poker history, and what your main issues are. I will choose four people to work with over the coming month, and see what comes of it.

On a concluding note, I told you guys before that I was going to write something in depth about the ten days I spent in Gloucester. I ended up writing something—it was very intense and personal, and as it happens, long. It ran about 21 pages single spaced. But after poring it over carefully, I don’t like how I wrote it. I’m going to keep it to myself for now, but it has been a good experiment for me in writing, and I am gradually honing my craft. By the time I finish  my book, I hope I will have something more complete. Something I can be proud of. It will take time, but I am learning. I apologize to you who were looking forward to the story, but perhaps it is better after all that I spare you mine, so that you might be made curious enough to seek out one of your own. Also, I want to thank everybody for the kind and encouraging comments re: my family situation. We are all doing better, and I believe things will only improve.

To end, I wanted to include for you guys a short piece I wrote while I was camping in Colorado. It was spurred by the storm of confusion and frustration I felt, which tends to form when one is alone. It is personal, but I wanted to share it with you all. I hope you guys can appreciate it.

Looking into the Fire

I sit in silence before the fire pit. It is darkness now at my campsite. I say darkness rather than nighttime, because when you have lived your life in the city as I have, nighttime refers to a certain period of ease and comfort after the day is done. Sure, in the city the sky darkens, cools, hunches low to the ground just as it does out here. But it is a relaxed, easily-lit night, a restful intermission between periods of productivity. And of course, you are assured that nighttime is safe. That the darkness that subsumed the sky is only a formality; a nod to less modernized times, perhaps. Your burglar alarm is cocked, your heater shields you from the cold, and the paneled lights of Denny’s and Wal-Mart go on humming into the night, prepared to save you should tonight be the night you need saving. Indeed, in the city the dark is snuffed out, with the gentle glow of nighttime inserted in its place.

But out here, there is darkness. There are no streetlights to illuminate the trails to my campsite. There is no white noise to comfort my ears. There are no walls to hide me. I look up, and there is only the emptiness of the world. I crane my neck to find the end of it, but the emptiness widens, like a great maw threatening to swallow me up. Oh. I see stars. Tiny innocent specks. Though it is cloudy, I can make them out here and there. But in reality they are more than just specks. That, up there, is the universe. Of course, I cannot see it really, since the actual universe is a dazzling cornucopia, endlessly dappled with orbs of color. Or so I am led to believe. But here, the stars are small, whitish points.

I want to make sense of it. This haphazard celestial splatter, looking down on me. There is an unmoving aloofness to it all. There are no faces or figures. It is unloving, unhating. I strain to voice the overwhelming question: Why? How? Says Who? But it is as though I am in a dream where I want to shout but find my vocal cords are suddenly missing, and I hear only a frozen, internal scream. In this dream nothing comes out, but it wouldn’t matter, because I couldn’t be heard anyway. We’ve all felt it before. Look up there in the darkness. On a chilly night like this, you would hope to see something looking back at you, some emotion or artifice beneath it all. But all I see is this, a faceless infinite swirl. It watches me in silence. It says nothing.

If only I were not here, if only there were no one here to behold all this namelessness. It oppresses me, it rots my head like a peach under the sun. If there were no one here, then the question could never have been asked, and we would all be the better for it. We might all be saved, be free, in a sense. But things are the way they are, I suppose. This goes without saying.

I look down again, rejoining my campsite, but it is too dark to make anything out. My lungs go on, busily pumping out the business of breathing. Cold tingles in my ears, and I hear the barking of a dog in the distance. The dog belongs to a neighbor who lives on the next plot of land on this foothill at the base of the Rocky Mountains. The dog was barking before—it always does when it senses me here, an obnoxious habit—but now its cries have become more intense. It is not quite a howl. Instead it is a long ululating bellow, as though it is wrenched in pain. I am paining it. I am an intruder into nature, and the dog feels it; it announces this to me in the language that all creatures know. This is a simple thing. I do not belong here.

The firewood is prepared from earlier in the day. I crumple up a local newspaper sheet by sheet, catching glancing phrases as I do: the plights of city budgets, the passing of winter fashions, advice for the lovestruck. A woman, a passionate fling with a charming Australian businessman, and now she can’t stop thinking about him. How does she know if it’s really love, she asks? Confused in Chicago. I stuff the cold balled up sheets into the crevices between pieces of wood.

The design I have made is ugly and slipshod, but it’ll do. I light the paper. It is stubborn at first, but after applying my lighter in a few spots the paper starts to throw up flames of its own. Paper burns fast and theatrically; it makes a show of itself. But I am unsure whether it will take to the wood. I cannot know. I can only watch and wait.

A fire contains many things. And for that reason there are few things that are quite as absorbing as a fire. There must be some part of my DNA that remembers what it was to be a prehistoric man, squatting over its warmth, entranced by its flickering existence. He must have understood how unlike fire is to the rest of the world. When he looked around him he saw a stone-faced earth, catatonic gods, a night that abandoned him in darkness. But here, in this crackling fire, was life, flitting and fluttering like a furious heart. Yes, fire contains many things – the warming nurture of a mother, the sputter and sharpness of a man. It is the human essence. Even the Greeks knew it.

I came here, to this campsite, to escape the world. My anger, which follows me wherever I go. The frustration of hapless love, of my unfinished self, being reminded again and again that I do not know who I want to be. But these things are not important, and in a sense they melt away when one is not looking. I gaze into the fire, into the burning face of life. It has taken to the wood now, it cracks and hisses, coughs up puffs of smoke. The blaze is alive. This is existence. Here, in this fire, is everything. The heat of movement, the sting of pain, the light of living. In this moment, I am here. I am me, being myself, sitting by this fire alone on this foothill at the base of the Rocky Mountains, having lost what I never had. Benevolence and malevolence in one fiery mind. This is the only answer.

And alone up here, looking into this fire, I think of anger. Of acceptance. Of oxidation and combustion, of the long of life, and the health of loved ones. A fire contains these things too. I think of Rilke, of Nietzsche, of Kierkegaard. I think of the poker gods, of Alex and his hands buried in his pockets, of my brothers. I am them and they are me. I am the fire. I begin to catch. My eyes, my legs, my clothes are consumed. And my heart, which is motionless, must be in the fire too. Nothing escapes, nothing escapes the cleansing violence of the fire.

Even the past, and the dog who moans plaintively in the distance.

Nothing but love,

March 31 2012
Like this post? Subscribe.
I'll send my new posts (and secrets) to your inbox.
or subscribe via RSS.

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

San Francisco
Load comments 

Hey everyone, Sorry for being slow to update this blog. It’s somewhat lame of me, I know, but I’ve been tremendously busy this last month. I was slogging through finals and finally finished this first semester, was working through the month of free mental coaching, and a slew of other things in my personal life – I started working with Habitat for Humanity (it’s a volunteer construction gig, which is...
read more


Despite my promise to write once I got out, I have been silent on this blog for a month now. In fact, it’s probably been about a month since I haven’t hated any word of mine that has touched a page. For those who are wondering what I’ve been up to—since the vow of silence I spent a few days in London and then finally flew back to Austin on...
read more

Dec 2011