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Beyond Pain in Poker
Mike Caro once wrote about a particularly unhappy state in poker in which one is "beyond pain."
The day has not gone well. You have been beaten and beaten so long and so hard that nothing matters anymore. You've given up; you no longer feel the blows.
There's only one goal left - donk off that last chip so you can go home, curl up in a corner and whimper pathetically.
Sound familiar? We've all been there or been close. Perhaps Mike discovered this state through his own personal experience. Like other states of mind with pathological features, this one has been extensively studied.
It is a well-known psychological condition and was alluded to in an earlier piece published in Poker Listings. It's called learned helplessness and what we know about it can help us avoid it. So, back to the classroom, but don't worry; there won't be any pop quizzes and the lecture will be short.
The original research was carried out in the 1960s. The studies had disturbing features (so disturbing that they will never be repeated). Dogs were subjected to inescapable painful shocks. They had to take their punishment since there wasn't anything they could do. As you might guess, over time they became passive and helpless.
But the surprise finding was that the helplessness continued. Even when an avenue of escape was made available, they didn't take it. Worse, leading them through the escape route wasn't much help either; they still wouldn't take it on their own. It was almost as if they were, literally, beyond pain.
To a poker player, this feels familiar. Substitute a bunch of bad beats in a row and you might just feel like one of these electrocuted dogs. And like them, even winning a pot or two doesn't help. You're a crushed soul just waiting for the next bad beat. You become passive; you know they're going to start hammering on you again.
But there was an intriguing wrinkle in the experiments wherein we find one of life's important lessons. Down the hall, other dogs were given similar treatment, but with a twist. At the outset, these dogs were given several chances to get away from the shock before the avenue of escape was closed off.
This seemingly trivial change had a remarkable impact. Later, when subjected to the shocks, these dogs reacted very differently. They weren't happy, of course, but they did not become helpless.
When an escape route opened, they took it. It was as though they recalled their first experiences and knew that there were paths out, ways to deal with the awful things that life threw their way.
These states turn out to be common in everyday life. Here's another experiment: People were asked to solve simple math problems. Some worked in a room where there was a loud and annoying noise in the background, others in a quiet place.
The first group made more mistakes than the second - surely no surprise - and no one would fault you if you thought the noise was the problem. But it wasn't. It was the fact that the people couldn't get away from it.
To show this, some people in the noisy room were given a button and told, "Look, we know the sound is annoying. If you really need to turn it off, just press this." The folks with the button solved problems at about the same rate as those who worked in silence, although (and this is the neat finding) virtually no one bothered to press the button!
You see the point. It isn't just the bad stuff that causes the problems; it's how you feel about it. It's not noise or pain in any pure sense; it's whether you (dog or human) believe you have the capacity to assert yourself.
You don't have to turn the noise off; you just have to know you can. You don't have to escape from shock; you just have to recognize that you can when the opportunity presents itself. That's the psychology lesson for the day. Take the message home; it's a good one.
Back to poker and being "beyond pain." Can we immunize ourselves against this pathological (and financially destructive) state?
Yup. Good players do and you're going to have to because, no matter who you are, the assaults are going to come, often in waves - rivered two-outers, runs of spirit-crushing suck-outs, endless hours of nothing but rags. The metaphorical shocks will arrive; life's noise goes on and on.
Here are some tricks to try. First, keep chanting the mantra: "I can't change the hands I'm dealt; I cannot stop others from catching miracle cards."
Second, recall better days, ones where the deck hit you in the head and the chips were stacked so high you couldn't see.
Third, remember the statistical nature of the game. It's a random process, this shuffling of cards. No dealer is out to get you; there are no "lucky seats."
Fourth, tighten up, at least temporarily. This will cut down on the number of hands you lose and ease the pain a bit.
Finally, focus intensely on the table and the other players and banish negative thoughts.
While you may feel as though you will never win another hand no matter how long you live, it isn't true. But if you think yourself into a helpless state, you can become like one of those poor dogs, curled up helplessly, wallowing in self-pity.
One of my favorite movies is Papillon with Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. It is a tale of two men sentenced to Devil's Island, that most hellish of prisons. Anyone who has seen it has to admire the astonishing psychological resilience of McQueen's title character.
He has survived years on the island, living through beatings, torture and extended terms in solitary as punishment for failed escape attempts. He never submits. He knows that eventually he will find a way out.
At the end, as he floats out to sea on his raft of coconuts lashed together he shakes his fist at the sky and yells, "I'm still here, you bastards." Papillon would have made a hell of a poker player.
Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of The New Gambler's Bible and co-author of Gambling for Dummies. Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.
Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
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