9 Unexpected Lessons I Learned From Playing Poker

I started playing poker online in high school and quickly became obsessed with the game (here are the biggest hands I’ve won and lost — I’m PickleFeet). I devoted hours of playing and studying every day to become better. Along the way, I experienced intense feelings of both joy and depression. But the industry was tumultuous, life got in the way, and I eventually pushed it aside to pursue other ventures. However, I learned a number of valuable lessons along the way. Aside from expected values, probabilities, odds, and how to stare at a screen all day, poker left with me 9 life lessons. Even if you’ve never played a hand of poker before, I am sure you will benefit from internalizing them as well.

1. Focus on the Circle of Influence

The concept of the Circle of Influence and the Circle of Concern was popularized in the book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. Basically, the Circle of Concern is composed of all the topics that we care about, while the Circle of Influence is the concerns we can actually control.

Poker forces you to focus on your Circle of Influence. This means objectively analyzing whether you played each street of that particular hand optimally. The running out of the cards lies within your Circle of Concern, but since you can’t actually change how the cards are dealt, you should not waste emotional and mental energy over it. All you can do is observe the cards and when they’re dealt, and adjust accordingly.

Life will always deal you cards you can’t change or hit you with an unfair river. But complaining about it and blaming things out of your control won’t change the realities, just as repeating how it’s unfair that your AA lost to KK. Only by thinking and acting on things within your Circle of Influence will you improve yourself.

2. Lose With Grace

Life is full of losses and failures. It’s inevitable. We’ve all experienced the days when nothing goes our way and anything we do makes it worse. Or receiving rejection after rejection until we begin to question our own self-worth. Life is variable in nature and shit happens.

Poker works in the same way. Randomness and uncertainty are essential parts of the game. Downswings can and do happen over months at a time. What separates the good players from the bad is how they react to these losses and repeated failures at the table. The losers brag about bad beat stories to garner sympathy, looking for affirmation that their losses were not their fault. Even if they weren’t, dwelling in the past serves no purpose. The winners analyze their mistakes, keep their heads up and prepare for the next hand. Poker teaches you to lose gracefully, to let things happen as they may, and to learn from those better and wiser than you.

Life operates in much the same way. The most successful people in any field are those who embrace their failures and persist. As Thomas Edison said, “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

3. Emotional, Mental, and Financial Discipline

One of the most important aspects to be a winning poker player is to keep your emotions and finances in check. Even the greatest poker players have lost fortunes by letting either or both run wild. The rules are simple: don’t play when tilted (frustrated), and don’t play outside your limits. The difficult part is abiding by them when your money is on the felt, but poker provides the incentive for you: remain disciplined, or lose your money.

In life, just as in poker, a honed emotional control allows you to take things in stride. To keep your composure while others explode with rage. A sharp mental mind cuts through the slack, while financial discipline keeps you grounded. Emotional responses are often unnecessary and detrimental in any decision-making process. Avoid making important decisions when you feel your emotions taking over. Take a step back, breathe, and reevaluate at a later date.

4. Entitlement is for Losers

If there’s one certainty in poker, it’s that the game is unfair and nothing will go the way you want it to. You are not entitled to win the money in the middle because you are dealt Aces. You are not entitled to the money of the whale to the right of you. Hell, you’re not even entitled to keep your money.

Similarly, graduating from an Ivy League college does not entitle you to that 6-figure job out of undergrad. We live in an entitlement society these days that has led to excessive pride, excuses, mistrust, greed, denial and complaints. Those that remain humble and maintain a sense of gratitude for their fortunes will always go further.

5. Ask ‘Why’

There are only a number of options in poker: Bet, Call, Raise, and Fold. Making the decision is one aspect to playing well, but the logic behind the action is far more important than the act itself. Why are you checking the turn and overbetting the river? If the standard is to bet in this spot with this hand, why? Many innovations in poker came from those that asked why and realized sub-optimal plays had been rooted in tradition. These “aha” moments created new precedents.

In life, it is also those that remain curious and ask why that achieve the most success. Those that question the status quo, understand why people do what they do, and aren’t afraid to think for themselves and challenge convention stand heads above the crowd.

6. Structure Goals Properly

In the poker community, a bad goal would be, “I want to make $10,000 this month.” A good goal would be, “I want to play 1000 hands per day of my A-game.” The good goal focuses your mind on the procedure rather than the end result itself. This is how goals are followed. It’s about creating mini-habits that can be easily tracked, and bring mini-rewards for doing so.

If we apply this to life, a weight loss goal would state, “I want to go to the gym for one hour five times a week doing [xyz] routine,” instead of, “I want to lose 10lbs in one month.” The former creates a routine that’s easy to follow and track, and rewards you with the knowledge that you’re living healthier.

7. DON’T be Results-Oriented

The biggest takeaway here is learning how to isolate and judge a decision divorced from its outcome. In poker, you will often make the right decision yet lose the pot. Just as often, you will also make the wrong decision and win the pot. Learning how to objectively analyze your own play and being self-critical is crucial to achieving success.

The same applies for life. Studies have shown that people are much more likely to attribute their successes to their disposition and attribute their failures to outside circumstances. This fundamental human bias is blatantly wrong and it’s the reason why excess hubris exists in industries such as finance. It is also why the poker industry still survives to date, because bad players mistake their wins as skill. If you can learn to not be results-oriented in your approach to anything in life, the decisions you make will be much better than otherwise.

8. Know When to Quit

Quitting may be the number one skill a player can develop. People don’t quit enough when they’re down and quit too often when they’re up. Far too often you will see players playing to chase losses or because their ego won’t allow them to stop. Poker quickly teaches you to leave your ego at the door. You can’t win or be better than everyone all the time. Knowing when to quit can be the difference between going home broke and going home to fight another day.

Similarly in life, quitting may be necessary for you to achieve happiness, whether it be a job, a relationship, a friendship, or a business. Knowing when to do so can save you from yourself.

9. It’s Not About the Destination, It’s the Journey

The poker boom of the 2000s saw a significant amount of people make significant amounts of money by playing a card game. People made more money than they ever dreamed of, and to some, poker became a printing press. Many of my poker friends had lofty goals of becoming televised pros, winning tournaments, playing certain stakes, or hitting monetary goals. And yet, when they reached the top of their mountains, they realized that essentially nothing had changed. They were still poker players grinding it out, one day after the next. The destination was never as it was perceived to be, and continually changed just as soon as it was met.

The lesson here is life is not about the destination, but the journey itself. We often go through life in a state of time travel. Our minds are constantly recounting stories about the past or thinking ahead to the future that we neglect the present. But the most meaningful life may be one lived in the here and now without regards for its conclusion.

If life is a game, it’s a game of infinite levels that can’t be beat. The only way to truly win may be to simply enjoy the infinitely many points along the way. TC mark

featured image – Shutterstock

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