You show up to the gym to play basketball with some friends. The opposing team’s sitting on the bench, waiting for you. They look tough. Muscular, athletic, big. They’ve got custom made jerseys and monogramed basketballs covered in famous signatures. They’ve got the swagger and the stare and that slightly arrogant smile as you guys practice. You start to get nervous. You think your team’s okay, you’ve practiced hard, but these guys look like they know what’s going on. They’ve got to be good. Real good.
The ref’s whistle blows. The toss-up goes their way, and their center grabs the ball with a terrifying grunt. You run back for defense, praying that he won’t hurt you too badly when they dunk.
Except, the center takes a few steps forward without dribbling. He gets called for travelling. You’re confused, but accept the good fortune and bring the ball up the court. They’ve got a guy defending you, but he’s got no footwork. His balance is off. You feint left and drive right. Open lay-up. Their other defenders look lost. They have no idea where to stand. In fact, two of them manage to run into each other trying to stop you. Their point guard dribbles with both hands, directly in front of him, and looks astonished when you easily steal the ball for another quick basket. In the end, the only point they manage to score is when one of their players, trying desperately to avoid having the ball stolen for the tenth time, wildly throws the ball up behind his back and it somehow finds the backboard and bounces in.
After the game, they dust themselves off. The captain comes up to you and points straight at your chest, puts a nice sneer on his face, and goes, “You punks got lucky today. We’ll get you next time.” Then they walk off the court, swagger still intact, loudly whispering to each other about how bad you guys were, while you stand there wondering if someone slipped you LSD before the game.
Think that sounds like an exaggeration? Yeah, it probably is. Basketball is transparent; when you are horrifically bad at it, it’s obvious to even people who don’t know the game. You can’t hide from it. You’ll get embarrassed, and either quit, find people near your skill level to play it, or be motivated to improve so you don’t shame yourself as badly next time.
In fact, you might think that there is no competitive activity where an analogous scene could occur. It seems downright absurd.
Except there’s this little card game called poker.
Scenes like that occur every time I play at a casino, complete with the swaggering, intimidating look of the players, and the arrogant, nearly delusional things they’ll say after losing (or winning). You think I’m still exaggerating. I wish I was.
Now, the point of this isn’t to make fun at the vast majority of poker players. I bring this up because I believe that the process which led me to become reasonably good at poker (I’m not great) changed the way I thought about a lot of things. It may be the most educationally rich thing I’ve done in my entire life.
I certainly didn’t expect that when I started – I wanted to learn how to play because my friends were doing it, it looked fun, and you could win a little money. I took the game a little more seriously than them, and slowly got better. I began to play a lot more after I graduated from college and through grad school, right up till the justice department decided online poker was a profoundly evil thing, played no doubt by mostly terrible people, and effectively shut it down.
Many of my friends played too. These are smart, smart people, who were very good at other things. They were not good at poker. That’s fine – plenty of things I’m not good at either. But that’s not the problem.
The problem was that they were bad at poker and they thought they were good. This illusion did not waver, even when they constantly lost all their money. It did not waver when well -meaning people, such as myself, politely pointed to their mistakes and the reasoning why they were mistakes.
I bring all this up, because I think the reasons why this happens are interesting. Poker, unlike basketball, is not a transparent game. Because the outcome of every hand is left up to chance to some degree, you can’t simply go “I won this hand, I played it well” or “I lost this hand, I played it poorly”. You have to understand the theory of the game at a high enough level to analyze your play, and you have to understand how to analyze long term results properly. The first of these things is a skill that is very hard to develop. The second of these things isn’t “hard” in one sense, as there are programs that will do it for you, but intellectually and emotionally comprehending those results is a tough pill for people to swallow, especially people who have not studied a lot of statistics (i.e. just about everyone).
These are further complicated by our own minds, which often make intuitive or emotional conclusions about results that are simply false. By not calling ourselves on it, and continuing ot make such false conclusions, they eventually become ingrained. As a result, you have people who have played poker for years and often have habits that are so bad they’d almost be better off using a random number generator to decide their play, and they’d certainly lose less money by giving up every hand.
This isn’t just about poker. The internal conflicts I’ve had to fight through in being a winning poker player transformed the way I think about everything. Sorting through this big emotional mish-mash that our minds create is vital to success in anything, especially when the going gets tough. I use many of the lessons I learned from poker right now, when I’m learning to write fiction, or even this blog.
Anyway, this is getting a little dense, so I’ll stop here. In the future, I’ll devote entire blog entries to different facets of this topic, as it’s one of my favorites to think about. Till then, please enjoy your weekend