The Success Principles of Poker: The Power of Silence

Phil Ivey is the greatest pound-for-pound poker player alive.

Patrik Antonius made the online poker world his own. Phil Galfond is an uber-talented player well-respected by his esteemed peers.

What is the commonality? This terrifying poker trident has an astounding technical ability, unwavering emotional control and ... they like to keep their mouths shut.

"Words like violence
Break the silence
Come crashing down
Into my little world
Painful to me
Pierce right through me"
-- Depeche Mode

All three exert power in silence. Opponents can't stand it. The chatter begins. They can't help it.

But as each word spews forth from that nervous froth they reveal every thought while you sit like a wolf eyeing a baby Musk-Oxen with a broken femur.

Do You Like Oysters?

As a young man, I always had too much to say. There was a time when a Managing Director summoned me during a training course. He was sitting behind this great oak desk in the middle of a cavernous hall.


Approaching him felt like a trundle towards the gallows. His hand, palm face up, motioned for me to take a seat. I sat down, and although I didn't count the time, minutes passed without either of us speaking.

Finally, he said: "Do you like oysters?" I laughed, relieved that he had stolen the silence. He didn’t reciprocate. There was a stern earnest to his fat red cheeks.

“They open up to reveal their flesh when the moon is full,” said the man across the table. “Do you know what the crabs do when the oysters open their mouths and talk to the moon?”

I didn't even blink before he answered his own question: "They toss a stone into the opening so the oyster cannot close its mouth. Do you know what happens then?"

I just stared at him wondering what the fuck was going on as he formed his hands into pincers, pretending to be the crab devouring the animal that shits pearls.

After the theater the man across the table told me that the board had picked me out as a potential Director. Only one person had a concern - the man with imaginary pincers. He believed that I was all talk with little action to back up the bluster.

I Was Noise

I was noise, and all the words in the world meant nothing to him. Until I learned to stop violating the silence and stamping all over the voices of those desperate to sing, I was heading nowhere.

I was nothing but an oyster and one day I would be eaten alive by a crab.

"Those who know do not speak.
Those who speak do not know."
-- Lao Tzu

William Kassouf IMG 8019
Put speech play on the map.

Is Silence Weakness in Poker?

Who is the most talked about poker player in the world right now? It's not Ivey, Antonius or Galfond.

It's William Kassouf. The lawyer-turned-poker star was hated and adored with equal fervor after dominating the ESPN coverage of the World Series of Poker (WSOP).

He used words as a mallet to batter his opposition into submission. Many believe what Kassouf did was an integral part of the game. They place ‘speech play' in the playbook alongside the continuation bet, bluffing and folding.

With Kassouf at the table it's easy to see how people view silence as weakness. And then you watch Ivey, Antonius and Galfond. There is no noise.

To them, words are unnecessary; they cloud judgment and create a distraction. It's an art form to keep on the periphery of the conversation, observing the table like a hawk spies a mouse, taking in every morsel without ever holding out your plate.

Silence is the respite of the confident and the strong," writes Ryan Holiday in The Ego is the Enemy.

When you see someone who can't control their words very often you find they can't control themselves. The human tongue can be as difficult to get a grip of as a snake coated in olive oil.

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Phil Hellmuth 2016WSOP
When there is talking, there is no action.

Talking Is a Trip to the Zoo

When there is talking, there is no action. Talking is the action.

You need 100% of your energy when playing poker and talking about nonsense depletes that energy because they vie for the same space.

"Words are meaningless
And forgettable"
-- Depeche Mode

It takes tremendous restraint and composure to replace talk and hype with action. Action is a walking safari in South Africa with a Spud Gun on your hip. Talking is a trip to the zoo.

Talking can improve the game. The banter is a much-needed shot in the arm. But talking can also ruin a game.

Think of all the idiots who chase away the fish by making them feel stupid. The prat who keeps telling the dealer how to do his or her job. The people who waffle on incessantly about bad beats. And the ego junkies who cannot stop sharing their encyclopaedic knowledge of the game.

Slime in this ear. Slime in that ear. Just stop talking!

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Talking Keeps You Stuck

How many of you harbor a wish to one day become a professional poker player?

Are you going pro or are you talking about it?

How many of you tell your friends you're booking your trip to the World Series of Poker (WSOP) but have never left your front gate, rooted to the spot and unable to move because you can't stop talking about it?

And who can blame you? Facebook wants to know What’s On Your Mind? Twitter wants you to tell the world what you had for breakfast in 140 characters.

Poker forums demand your view of everything from Brian Hastings' decision to sell tea to Patrik Antonius being voted the sexiest male poker player alive.

So you type away until carpal tunnel makes you plunge those hands into an ice-cold bucket of piss.

The Check-In

After the oyster incident it took me 20 years to figure out how to stop talking and I still find it difficult. My wife has been my greatest teacher. Each night we check-in. She begins by going through her day, both from an action-oriented standpoint and an emotional one.

Silence is power.

When she first introduced me to this concept, I couldn't stop talking. I wanted to fix her; shower her with my intelligence - my ego invading her mind with all the noise of an orchestra waiting for the man with the stick to show up.

But she taught me about boundaries. She taught me to hold space. She taught me the art of listening.

Meditation is another way of incorporating silence into your life. It takes time, and the benefits aren't easily apparent, but eventually the terror of the void lessens to a lullaby.

I will leave you with the words of Robert Greene and Law #4 of his 48 Laws of Power. Then you decide if you want to incorporate speech play into your game or cut out your tongue.

“When you are trying to impress people with words, the more you say, the more common you appear, and the less in control.
Even if you are saying something banal, it will seem original if you make it vague, open-ended, and sphinxlike. Powerful people impress and intimidate by saying less. The more you say, the more likely you are to say something foolish.”

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