Seven Things Poker Taught Me

I don’t tell people these days that I used to be a professional poker player. It seems like a weighty and cumbersome admission, one that always leads to the same tired conversation. The last time I played a hand of poker was well over a year ago. That life feels like an episode long behind me—an identity I’ve left behind.

And yet sometimes, in my dreams, I find myself playing poker again, multitabling 25/50 and 50/100 heads up matches, battling the regulars. Sometimes I am sitting in the Aria cardroom, staring down a backwards-capped grinder, tracking the movements of his eyes. And whenever I wake up from these dreams, it always takes me a moment to remember that poker is no longer part of me—that my life is entirely different now. How long will it be until my mind lets go of poker? Will it ever?

I had a conversation with a good friend of mine the other day, and he asked me: so now that you’re done playing poker, what do you think you took away from it?

Consider that.

What a fucking question, right?

I was a professional poker player for 5 years—from 16 till I was 21. How can I separate what I learned from poker from what I simply learned in the process of growing up?

Poker taught me a great deal. Poker was a maddening mistress, and yet it was also one of the wisest teachers a human could ask for. So I came up with the seven most valuable lessons that five years in the fray of poker taught me.


1. Poker taught me not to trust my own perception.

Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Why do games run at all? In every game of poker, there are winners and losers. And for the most part, people only play in games that they think are profitable. So in almost every poker game, there must be a loser who doesn’t know it. This used to puzzle me. How can so many people be deluded all at once? What’s stopping them from realizing their own incompetence? And what makes me different from those people?

Many will blame this on ego, but that falls short of capturing the more startling realization—your own perceptions of whether you’re winning or losing can never be fully trusted.

Perception is riddled with biases and illusions. Cognitive science, psychology, and neuroscience have demonstrated this again and again. The more we study it, the more we realize how fallible our perceptual apparatus truly is. I came to realize that I often saw what I wanted to see, that I involuntarily drew the same patterns over and over again—I realized that the fish isn’t always a fish, that the obvious play isn’t always so obvious, and how I can think I’m beating somebody who is, in fact, destroying me.

Poker is an industry that runs on delusion, and even though I was a pro, I knew that I was subject to the same forces as everyone else. So I learned to distance myself from my intuition, to carry my instincts with suspicion, and to always remind myself that what I thought was a sure thing… often wasn’t.

2. Poker taught me how to control my emotions.

I am, indeed, a king, because I know how to rule myself.

Pietro Aretino

Poker taught me to control my emotions—or perhaps it’s better to say that poker “trained” me to control my emotions. In that sense, it’s not so much a lesson as it is a process one undergoes.

This lesson, I think, needn’t be a pessimistic one, because hidden within it is a simple, almost obvious truth—that life is not about the destination, but about the journey. There is no conclusion, no great prize at the end of anything. There is only the movement, the climbing, the rack and tumble of living. So why do we choose goals? Why do we have dreams? It is not for the goals themselves, or the endpoints we imagine—but it is, instead, to orient the process of our lives.

This is a lesson that I am only coming to understand now. We are, by our nature, forward-looking creatures. But the most meaningful life is one lived in the present, without regard for its finality. Buddhists say that “from the moment we are born, we are all racing toward death.” And yet, they also say, “he who abandons all hope rests content.” Just as life is not about death, a path is about not about where it ends. Its value lies in the infinitely many points in between.

December 20 2012
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Effective Altruist. Software engineer. @Airbnb alum. Instructor @Outco. Writer. Blockchain Believer. Former poker pro.

San Francisco
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