Poker, Money, Expected Value, and 'Life EV'
More than other competitive pursuits, poker is a game where the amount of dollars, Euros, or other currency won or lost gets put forth as the literal measure of success or failure.
We try to play games, choose strategies, and select buy-ins to maximize our win rate when we're in good beatable situations, and minimize losses when we're in bad ones.
Follow the money, stupid... right? Simple enough.
Within this approach, one can even drill down into technical concepts like the Kelly Criterion, "risk of ruin" calculations, and other mind-spinning statistics and concepts, all of which might be used to try to pursue winning and best outcomes while also providing enough leeway to have capital to stay in the game safely.
For the 98-plus percent of us who think in words, pictures, and/or math below an AP level, a simple framework through which to observe the even broader balance of related considerations is simply expected value (EV) vs. "life EV."
The fact is, how money (and the winning and losing of it) affects each of us is not a clean and tight formula. It's not necessarily wrong to take the path with a worse expected outcome in monetary EV, because how that monetary EV will translate into real-life experience(s) varies for each of us.
We don't resort to complex projections at every expenditure of poker funds, yet the idea often gets lost in math-y ramblings that can guilt the non-conformer. We are not "average consumers" fitting of formula going through life to earn "units" with linear feelings of happy and sad that increase or decrease in tight correspondence with our unit accumulation or loss.
Instead, we're irrational creatures with different life priorities and risk tolerances. Poker players are a combination of nits, degens, and everything in between, driven by complex partial-energies that may travel opposite directions across the nit-to-degen scale, depending on all sorts of personal factors.
Think of it this way — a non-poker example. Jeff Bezos is not going to place a net worth gamble on a 51 percent proposition. He might even pass (very rationally so) on a bet with a 90 percent likelihood of winning, or even 99 percent. That's because what you get in return for more or less money is a complicated answer in reality. Like the story told at the end of the movie Charlie Wilson's War, "we'll see" what cause-and-effect ensues.
Yet within some poker communities, there exists a lingering attitude that the above concept is heretical enough to shame and classify those who would eschew pure $EV directives as belonging to a lower respect and mental class. Maybe the ego and pride in what stake or buy-in you play, combined with number-driven mathematics, results in this attitude or belief.
I've seen many professional online grinders over the years neglect their "life EV" in order to pursue the highest perceived $EV opportunity in the now, doing so to the point of personal discomfort and life impact. Enduring some "run bad" within one standard deviation can create stress, damaged confidence, and missed future opportunities without any (seeming) counterbalancing positive life factors.
A degen willfully pursuing a life of degen-hood with its (for him or her) intoxicating rollercoaster of twists and turns may be energized under such circumstances. Those who are of a more normal range of risk tolerance get pulled along strictly "by the numbers" are often much worse off.
Likewise, there are a number of lower-stakes players who could compete (and even crush) several levels higher, but who remain at reduced stakes. For some those stakes represent the correct life EV zone for them. They choose those stakes because of their own personal risk tolerance and/or life responsibilities.
For other lower-stakes players, they simply don't have a high enough self-image to picture themselves competing with players up the ladder. For them they may actually be able to increase their overall life EV by moving up and facing better competition, and can enjoy the potential benefits that would ensue (in both self-improvement and possible earn).
Calculating your life EV means answering a complicated, interwoven, exponential question of sorts. It's not one of those simplistic linear outflows that mathematicians can encapsulate in digestible formulas upon which to pontificate with statistical precision.
We're rationally irrational beings who are allowed to make life decisions both within and outside what the numbers tell us — intelligently. We don't have to file a 10-K or 10-Q report to justify every decision like a corporation does. (Those are the names of reports mandated by the Securities and Exchange Commission, not poker hands. But we don't have to file reports on how we happened to have played 10-K or 10-Q, either!)
That said, this doesn't mean we should all start going out and "trusting our instincts" to call that big three-bet when short-stacked with rags against the trembling hand of an 80-year-old (unless that's your negative $EV thrill-ride). But it does mean that "instincts" and "comfort level" (on both the safe and aggressive side) are things that can and should be combined with mathematics and probability strategies as we go through poker and life.
Remember — in poker, money is a means to an end, and the formula for calculating that end is different for each of us.
A former California attorney, Greg Byard lives in Tijuana, Mexico and has been an online professional poker player for 13-plus years.
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