Monday, December 13, 2010

On roadblocks to success in poker

Of all the things to try to be good at, poker was probably the worst of choices. But surely not? Surely poker is good for a smart guy who can handle the kind of analytical thinking it demands (and I must say it does; those who think that I'm "gambling" don't really understand how hard good players work to take the gamble out of it).

But I am smart in mostly the wrong ways, and I have character flaws that make it inappropriate for me.

1/ I find it very hard to focus. It's a mystery how I ended up as an editor, because I'm entirely unsuited to that too. I need to be doing six things at once (right now I'm watching Fringe on DVD while I write this, writing a poem in my pauses and I'm feeling underoccupied) or my mind wanders from my primary task. I was hopeless at studying at school. I like to read and can often focus fine on books, but I can't work through things methodically. To be good at STTs, the game I play, you need to study spots by looking at analysis, maths, and working on generalising what you've studied to real play. I've done some, of course, but what I need is to sit down and do a hundred hours of it. Fat chance. I can get through a few hands and then I start doing something else. It doesn't help that I become intrigued: I need to figure out equities, start looking at minor issues that don't help understand the spot, find patterns that are intriguing but useless. Luckily, in game I find I can keep track of other players quite well, because I'm a restless observer. I don't know them deeply but I have a basic idea of what's going on.

How do I resolve this? Well, I could try learning some discipline. I could schedule time for it and try to stick to it. I try to get my buddy B to study with me, but he's not interested enough in improving to bother.

2/ I lack empathy. When I say I lack it, I mean I don't have it. I never realised that was a thing about me until someone pointed it out and showed how it was clear that that was up with me. And it's true. I don't see your point of view. I can't. I'd like to, but I'm entirely unable. I have no idea how I seem to you, how what I say affects you: I can't imagine it. This hurts you in poker because you need to be able to understand how your bets are seen by others. I have to analyse my game in terms of value and I've had to focus on a game where a value game is rewarded because it's so difficult for me to "level" my opponents. In some spots I can, because I've analysed them and figured out why they should work, or because I've generalised from what works against me.

When I say I lack empathy, I don't mean I don't care about other people. I mean I can't understand them. I can't see into them. I don't think it's all that rare because I don't see much sign of other people having it either. But it means I'm not very good at manipulating other people. Socially, although I can often see the "right thing", I can't convince other people of it because I lack the ability to see what would work for them.

How do I resolve this? I'm clever enough to analyse other people in the same way as analysing a problem. I can think about why they do what they do. I mean, my first response to them is to be mystified, but I can relinquish that first response and think more about it. I can also stop projecting onto others how I would feel (and as a consequence, how I think they should feel; no one ever does, or ever is going to do, what they should). That's a terrible flaw in poker. Other people do not see spots the way I do. It's just as well. If they did, they'd be as good as I am and I don't want that.

It would also help not to get angry with other players. Nearly all poker players do this: they transfer their frustration with the randomness of the cards onto the other players. We want them to play bad! It's no use getting upset at the guy calling you with a gutshot. You want him to.

3/ I can't stand defeated expectations. I think if you don't share this flaw, you cannot begin to understand it. I create mental pictures of how things will be, and then when they don't turn out right, I find it incredibly hard to let them go. It feels like a disruption in the fabric of the world.

I know you don't get it. It's not rational. If something is disappointing, you shrug your shoulders and make the best of it. I don't. I struggle to set the world back to rights.

I am modestly good at poker. I can beat the game I play and I know I can. Rationally, I can look at my results over time and see that I am a winner and that that isn't likely to change. I'm aware of how relatively strong my opponents, and I'd know if the games got tougher (I won't bore you with how but it would be pretty obvious). Also, I know that poker has ups and downs. It's a game of chance that you navigate using skill. I have enough skill that I know I can't drown, but every time my head goes under water, it feels like I can no longer swim.

It doesn't help to be risk averse. One way I manage not being able to cope with defeated expectations is to avoid risk. I never approached women in clubs and bars; I don't like gambling with money I cannot absolutely afford to lose; I don't take many chances. But in poker, even though I know I can manage risk well, this is a big drawback. I should play higher stakes. I could probably beat them. But every time I try and it doesn't go well, I feel like I am not good enough, the world is ending, wah wah.

Note that the operative word is "feel". It's like a form of panic. Losing fires up my low self-esteem, reinforcing it, motivating the monkey.

How do I resolve this? In poker terms, it will resolve itself. The more I play and win, the easier it is to lose when I lose.

Wait though... isn't life the same? Yeah, idiot.

I don't feel incapable of dealing with any of this. I can rise above it. It's not anything like impossible. I am, after all, winning, and I can even make a modest living from poker, if I need to (although I don't really want to; although I don't have any moral objection to helping entertain people by playing them at poker, I don't see it as a productive or even particularly enjoyable way to make money).

What's more important is that Naughtyman has inherited the same character traits (I hate to say flaws when I am thinking of them in him). I need to be able to mitigate them in myself so that I can be a good father to him. Nothing means more to me than becoming a good dad, something I often feel a million miles from.

To cap this ramble, I have to tell you that the person to blame for all of it is Anthony "Looney" Toohey, who introduced me to online poker. I never played him online, weirdly enough, but one of my fondest memories is playing him heads up at his kitchen table. I crushed him obv. I should have let him win, given that I was his grateful guest, but really, he needed to be punished for cursing me with the frustration and pain of becoming a modestly good poker player. And while empathy is a bonus in poker, sympathy has absolutely no place. It's a contest, man against man (and woman, because there are some women who play--one of the names I hate to see in my STTs is riverkila, a fine female player), and although the best man doesn't always win, sometimes even a man like me, far from the best, rises to the top.


Blogger Arleen said...

"If something is disappointing, you shrug your shoulders and make the best of it."


December 13, 2010 at 10:28 PM  
Blogger Looney said...

I would have been very disappointed if you'd played anything less than your best. That was one of many high points of your visit (that and traipsing through dark alleys amongst the thugs!) And you took an extra $40 home with you too :)

And I'm NOT sorry :)

December 14, 2010 at 3:27 AM  

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