A Little Riff on Zen

Andy Black

I've been rummaging around through the poker "literature," such as it is, looking for trends.

Usually, when I do this, I find little "streams" of articles that focus on some topic, some particular strategy or game selection gambit, which is what you'd expect.

An idea floats around the poker world, gets talked about and eventually someone writes an article about it.

Other poker writers, bloggers and the rest of us motley crew of scribblers descend on the topic and, bingo, articles on it spread like some virus through the community.

A couple of years ago, the "float" play was a hot topic. It turned out to be a neat way to counter the continuation bet from a pre-flop raiser and, suddenly, everybody and their crusty old aunt in Fat Creek, Texas was floatin' their way to fourth street.

Soon after it became clear that the gambit was vulnerable to a re-trap by checking the turn with a big hand. Voilà; a baker's dozen articles on this one popped up.

Before these there was the "post-oak bluff" and the one that drove everybody nuts, the "smooth-call with AA" that got a serious run when it was revealed that Johnny Chan liked to do this and if someone of Chan's stature does it, then you better write it up.

Anyway, you see the point. There's no need to go into any more of these tired old horses, including the ones I've jumped on myself.

No, the riff that I'm interested in here today is a new one. It is a surprise, a very pleasant one.

In the past several months I've seen a number of articles written by top players and respected writers, and more than a few interviews with long-term highly successful pros, poker teachers and counselors all emphasizing the same thing: patience, control, calmness, a looking-inward mode of existence, the quiet moment of Zen-like tranquillity.

The old psychologist is smiling and feeling real good about this game right now. For years now I've been arguing that developing the proper mental approach to this game is as important as acquiring fundamental strategic skills, that knowing oneself is the final gate through which one must stride to become a truly successful player.

Here is Michael Craig (author of the engaging ) talking about playing, not writing about poker: "... most of my lessons are about temperament. I am playing for me [his emphasis] and not critics ... these are hard lessons and contrary to human nature."

And here's Phil Galfond (aka OMGClayAiken, nosebleed-level hero and WSOP bracelet winner) analyzing his success: "I am lucky to have the mental toughness ... I can handle downswings and still play my game."

And from Tommy Angelo (from Elements of Poker): "When I play poker, if I am hopeful that I will win, it is inevitable that I will sometimes be disappointed. When I start with a good hand and I hope to win the pot, I invite disappointment. When I am disappointed, I do not play my best. At my best, I am hopeless."

I love it.

Not content with just a line here or there, Charlie Shoten penned an entire book (No Limit Life) on reducing stress and remaining calm and mellow. He also gives speeches and runs seminars on the topic.

I applaud all of these writers and players and call for more just like this. More analyses that are psychologically deep and penetrating, more seminars on how to stay cool and overcome the table rage that besets so many, more advice on maintaining one's equilibrium, restoring balance and smoothing off the rough edges of life in a crazy-quilt game where luck and random nonsense sneak into everything.

If you want to become a genuinely good player you need to develop this kind of demeanor.

Note, I didn't say "winning player." I said "good player." You can be a good player in a lot of ways, and the one that concerns me most here is a player who enjoys the game and lets it increase the quality of his or her life.

The truth is that the crushing majority of poker players are not winning players. Estimates vary, but there's a loose consensus that a mere 5% to 10% are long-term winners. The rest lose.

Every poker book and nearly every poker columnist tries to impart enough advice and information so that their readers will become winning players. As well-intentioned as they all are, this is not possible because of the vigorish, the rake.

When played in an organized setting like a poker room or online, more money goes on the table than comes off it. If we all could follow the advice of the experts and play optimal poker we would all become losers, losers to the vig. And the game would wither.

So, my concern here isn't with you all becoming winning players. It isn't going to happen. My concern is with you all becoming good players, ones who enjoy the game, relax at it, use it for sensible recreation, who have fun.

If you do manage to become "good" enough at it so that you also win a little spare change, so much the better, but that is not why I am applauding this recent surge in articles and books focusing on these Zen-like, emotional elements.

The optimal state for a poker player to be in is the one where, when he loses he walks away from the table with the same sense of satisfaction as when he wins, when he heads home feeling as good about himself and his life as he does driving home from a football game.

Three bad beats in a row? That's life, baby. If you got all your chips in with the best hand, there's nothing you can do about it.

If you're a tad ticked, that's OK too. Just like you would be if your team lost on a fluke when a tipped pass in overtime got run back. Nothing to be done. Go home, relax and remember you still got a life.

Author Bio:

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 coauthor of Gambling for Dummies'.

His new book 'Poker, Life and Other Confusing Things' from ConJelCo Publishing was just released and is available on Amazon.com.

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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Arty Smokes 2011-06-07 00:29:24

Nice article. I'm naturally quite highly strung, but I try and take a stoical attitude to wins and defeats. Bad beats pulled off by donkey calling stations can be very annoying, but if I go into a session expecting to suffer the occasional bad beat, then they are easier to handle. They are part of the game than one just has to accept.
I think it's important for players to come away from a session not judging it on their monetary gains and losses, but with a sense of playing well. If I made correct decisions but lost money, then I was unlucky. If I made poor decisions but made a profit, then I was lucky. If I broke even and made a mixture of good and bad decisions, then there is room for improvement; something that should be seen in a positive way.

Laci 2010-03-29 00:23:16

If you still wish to play poker, you are not calm. If you still wish to be calm, you cannot be calm

Arthur Reber 2009-01-22 19:04:00

An odd comment for a winning player to make.


Johnny C 2009-01-15 17:41:00

Written by a loser, for losers.

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