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Three Ways Poker Can Help You With Life Decisions

Three Ways Poker Can Help You With Life Decisions

Mike Caro recently posted on his website an article he wrote some time ago for Card Player magazine. In it he opines that everything we do in life is a gamble of sorts.

“Every conscious act requires risk,” states Caro. “Every conscious act requires decision. You put those two facts together and you realize that the secret to success in life is not to avoid gambling, but to gamble well.”

Today I’d like to discuss not poker strategy per se, but a few of the things I have learned from poker about how to live life better — namely, how to “gamble well” with decisions outside of poker.

1. You can’t know what you can’t know

Pardon the tautology, but I couldn’t think of a more pithy way of encapsulating the idea. My point is not to beat yourself up over decisions that didn’t turn out well because of information that you didn’t have, and couldn’t have had, at the time you made them.

You probably know the poker term “rabbit hunt.” It’s when a player asks after the hand is over to see what cards would have come. I’ve recently been playing in a weekly home game where this request is made with a frequency I’ve never encountered before — maybe a third of all hands. The players see what cards would have come had the hand continued, then drive themselves crazy with regret, with “woulda-coulda-shoulda” thinking.

I have never asked to rabbit hunt, and can’t imagine that I ever will. Learning what cards would have come is not just useless, it’s worse than useless. When you see that your gutshot straight draw would have hit, it makes you wish that you had called instead of folding, even though folding was the correct decision. The almost inevitable result is that you’ll be more likely to call incorrectly the next time a similar situation arises.

Life presents us with countless opportunities to torture ourselves for a past decision in light of information that only became available later. Should you have bought that Apple stock in 1984? The answer depends not on what actually happened to the stock subsequently, but what one’s best analysis of its prospects were at the time — which most people thought were not good.

This sort of thing happens to us constantly. You get into the shortest checkout line at the grocery store, but the only person ahead of you ends up with the world’s longest transaction, with every complication and delay possible, while the other lines move quickly. You buy a new car, one highly related for reliability by independent sources, but it turns out to be the rare lemon, with hidden defects you could not have discovered. And so on.

I suppose it’s natural to wish one had chosen differently in such situations. But give yourself a break. You’re not clairvoyant and never will be, so don’t blame yourself for not making a decision based on information that was unavailable.

2. Don’t take things personally

Phrased another way: It’s not about you.

The dealer didn’t declare a misdeal after giving you two aces because he’s out to screw you. Things just go wrong sometimes. The guy to your left didn’t call your pre-flop raise with {7-Clubs}{3-Hearts} and flop trips because he hates you. Yes, of course he’s trying to win your chips, but he’s also trying to win everybody else’s — just like you are.

Even when something in poker seems like it’s directed at you personally, often it really isn’t. Maybe you’re the guy who took a flier with {7-Clubs}{3-Hearts}, caught a lucky board, and are now at the receiving end of a verbal tirade from the guy you felted when he couldn’t let go of his pocket aces. It’s not really about you — he doesn’t know you well enough to actually dislike you. He’s really upset about his bad luck, or his own inability to sniff out the trap you set, or maybe the fact that he just got fired from his job and can’t really afford to lose money at poker, or how his teenage son is using drugs and he can do nothing about it. You’re just the most convenient target of his inchoate rage at the moment.

So it is in the broader world. Somebody darts into your lane on the highway, forcing you to brake suddenly. It feels personal, doesn’t it? It’s as if he has selected you out of the thousands of other drivers he could inconvenience and endanger, as if he were a bully kicking sand in your face at the beach because he sees that you’re a 98-pound weakling. And you’ve got to retaliate, to defend your honor and your right to your place on the road, right?

No. He’s a jerk, or maybe an inattentive or drunk driver, but his actions are not about you personally. In fact, maybe his actions have a reasonable motivation that would arouse your sympathy if you knew about it.

You can choose to take this driver’s action personally and react with anger — but know that it is a choice, and that you could choose differently. You could instead choose to react with indifference, or even compassion. That part of the situation really is all about you.

3. Probabilities are real things, not abstractions

Suppose you’re contemplating getting laser eye surgery, hoping that you can dispense with wearing glasses. Instead of automatically signing the long, detailed consent form without reading it, you take it home and study it. You find that it says that the risk of a serious adverse outcome on your vision is 1%. (I’m making up this number. Don’t take it as an actual medical fact.) That’s small enough to dismiss — a negligible risk, right?

Well, let’s stop and think about it. A one-outer on the river in hold’em is about a 2% event, but how many times have you seen it happen? A lot, right? Sure, it’s not every day, but it occurs often enough that something in that same ballpark of frequency should perhaps give you pause.

Of course, the probability of a bad outcome is not the only factor to consider. You also have to take into account just how bad that outcome is. If it’s the loss of one buy-in, a 1% risk of loss versus a 99% probability of doubling up is obviously about as good gamble as will ever come your way in a poker game. But if 1% of commercial jets crashed, killing everybody aboard, nobody would ever fly, because we would all deem that risk way too high. Loss of or damage to your vision would obviously fall somewhere in between.

Plus, you have to consider the upside. If the risk of a serious adverse effect of general anesthesia were 1% (again, not to be taken as a real number), you might not want to take it for a purely cosmetic nose job. But for a life-saving appendectomy or removal of a cancerous tumor? Yeah, sign on the dotted line in a heartbeat.

Years of playing poker has taught me to think more concretely about seemingly abstract probabilities, and how to weigh better real-world risks and rewards.


One of my favorite devices in these articles for PokerNews is to take something I’ve read or experienced recently and find a way to learn from it something about poker. But the process works the other way, too — things you learn from playing poker can teach you about how to think and act outside of the poker room.

Life’s a gamble. Make it a good one.

Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the “Poker Grump” blog.

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  • Life's a gamble. Poker can help you learn how to "gamble well" when making decisions outside of poker.

  • What you learn from playing poker can teach you about how to think and act outside of the poker room.

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