In 2003, an accountant from Tennessee won the World Series of Poker Main Event and the top prize of $2.5 million. That Fall, inspired by the fact that an amateur could win poker’s most prestigious event, my friend Tom and I visited Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, the site of Chris Moneymaker’s epic victory, and we sat down at a casino poker game for the very first time.
Over the next year or so, I discovered that there were poker casinos in my home area of San Jose, CA, and I began to play and learn the game. I discovered that the skill-set for winning at poker was right up my alley. I have described the game as 20% basic strategy, 20% math, 20% luck, 20% people skills, and 20% emotional mastery. I was good at math, knew I could learn the strategy through some serious study, had previously honed my people skills through sales and leadership positions, and was generally pretty cool, calm, and collected. I quickly fell in love with this game and discovered what would amount to a long-term profitable hobby.
Since that time, I have won First Place in 23 poker tournaments in at least 9 different casinos, and also became a fairly profitable cash game player in some of the biggest cash games in the Bay Area, before ramping down my playing time when I started having kids. I still love playing, and I try to schedule some mid-stakes ($300-$2000 buy-in) tournaments when I can get them into my calendar. As a full-time sales executive, entrepreneur, and father of two, I’m far from a professional poker player. But I have taken it seriously enough to have had good success as a “serious amateur” player.
In my business, I teach young people some of the skills to be successful in business and in life. Setting goals, having the discipline to follow through, connecting with others, integrity, mental toughness … all these and more are a part of what I have trained others on for years. I have found a direct correlation with experiences and lessons I’ve had at the poker table and situations that we all come across in real life. I decided (finally, after considering this idea for years) to put these concepts into written form here, with three simple lessons. I hope you enjoy it!
Lessons From The Felt:
1. It’s not what you get that matters most; it’s what you DO with what you get.
In poker, what you get is out of your control. But what you do with it is entirely up to you. In life, this is largely true. You can control some of what happens to you, but not everything. Regardless of any circumstance, however, you are in control of how you respond.
And how we respond reveals a lot about us. It reveals a lot about our attitude, what we know, and our character. It’s a reflection of what’s going on inside our head. How we respond reveals our ability to weigh and perceive. I’ve learned that our outer world is always a reflection of our inner thoughts and abilities.
The great business philosopher Jim Rohn taught me that “Everything affects everything else.” One discipline affects others, and so on. If you’re unable to fold Jack-8 (a mediocre hand) when facing a raise, you’re probably also unable to resist the extra dessert on the buffet table, and you probably don’t save much money either. Everything affects everything else. What you do reveals who you are.
In addition, it’s never worth it to complain about what we get. Instead we have to learn to focus on what we can control. What we get in life is like the seed and soil and sunshine and rain and seasons for a farmer. Sometimes, those resources are more abundant and other times they are more scarce. But we all have SOME resources, and the superior person learns to make the best of what he or she has.
2. You can’t get faked out by short-term outcomes.
Poker is at least 20% luck. You can get all your chips in the middle with Pocket Aces, and almost any other hand is still nearly 20% to win. Most situations when the chips go in are more like 70-30 or 60-40 (or the reverse if you’re a “fish” 😊). In any one given situation, luck can make almost all the difference.
But in the long run, luck evens out, and over a lifetime for a daily player, that 20% number moves closer and closer to zero. If you are able to get your chips in with an average of 55% equity, you will be a major winner over the long haul. Of course, there will be bad runs or bad nights or even prolonged downturns in your luck. But the whole reason there are “professional” poker players who make a living playing this game is because skill overcomes luck in the long-run.
What poker players learn is a concept called “expected value.” By taking certain actions repeatedly in similar situations, good players win more than they lose. Over time, these wins accumulate into larger and larger amounts.
Life mirrors this concept as well. People who develop their intelligence and understanding, and back this up with mostly good decisions, are putting chance on their side. Of course, some things won’t work out and sometimes we’re simply the victims of bad timing, just like in poker.
But the poker term “expected value” could be translated into life as “expected outcomes.” Landmark Education refers to this as “your probable and almost certain future.” The combination of what you know (knowledge), how you think (attitude), and what you do (actions) is leading you in a specific direction, WITH GREAT CERTAINTY. There may be twists and turns along the way, but you shouldn’t get faked out by these short-term outcomes.
Any time I hear a poker player comment about their “unlucky dealer” or how they never play the first hand of a new tournament level or some other random garbage, I tell them, jokingly: “It’s bad luck to be superstitious.”
3. Adversity is a part of the game, and mental toughness is critical for success.
No matter how well we prepare ourselves for success, in poker or in life, there will always be bad days or challenging experiences. Three quick thoughts on this … first, maintain a level head by recognizing that “variance” is NORMAL. Variance is change, inconsistencies, imbalance, discrepancy. It’s a little like the weather; it’s fickle.
Any time a poker friend of mine recounts some “bad beat” story, my typical response is, “Wow, I’ve never seen that happen before!” Of course, whatever had happened WAS something I HAD seen before, and so had my friend. Realizing that this sort of situation is not that uncommon enables you to get past it more easily.
It’s also important to understand the concept of “sunk cost.” A sunk cost is something that has already been lost. It’s over, and you have to move forward with the resolve to not let this affect your future decision-making. Recently in a tournament I was playing, I lost with Pocket Aces against Pocket Queens, all-in before the Flop. In the very next hand, I made a risky play with Pocket 6s because I “wanted to get my chips back.” (Alas, none of us is perfect, and I sometimes fall victim to bad decisions). What I did here was multiply my own loss in the long-run by not recognizing the concept of sunk cost.
This is ESPECIALLY critical in life. A lot of people multiply their own bad decisions by trying to make up for something that was already lost. For you blackjack players out there, this is like stubbornly doubling down on 12 because you lost the last hand with 20. Not smart.
Mental toughness is the key to maintaining discipline in these situations. And like building a muscle on our bodies, the muscle of good decision-making is built through repetition.
Third and finally on handling adversity, perspective is really important. I once lost with Quad Queens in a big tournament at the Venetian. Sure it hurt in the moment, and there was probably a few minutes of “Why me?” floating around in my head. But in the long run, this was just a blip on the screen of all the hands I have played in poker. Actually, losing with Quads gave me a cool story to tell.
Put your losses and your challenges in life into perspective. Most people who might be reading this blog are probably really fortunate. We “run good in life,” as my poker friends would say. If that’s true for you, then learn not to fret all the relatively minor adversities that come along. By learning how to handle those situations, you prepare yourself to someday handle a truly MAJOR adversity that might show up.
The first two lessons can be put to great use with lesson #3. If you fail at any goal in life, learn your lessons, reflect well and strategically, then MOVE FORWARD with renewed discipline and resilience. This is the essence of having a growth mindset vs. fixed mindset.
Let me end with this nugget: Even in an endeavor that involves some level of deception, one’s honor is very important. Play to win, yes. But there’s no room for cheating, angling, or other sorts of bad behavior. That stuff has a deteriorating effect on one’s attitude and self-image. A lack of honor leads people in a downward spiral, as invariably as what I said about intelligence, depth, and good decision-making putting chance on your side. Never sell out your honor for a few bucks in a game, or for any sum in real life.
What I love most about poker is that it REVEALS a lot about people, and it enables us to learn a lot about ourselves. Your probable and almost certain future is being determined today. Learn the game, develop your understanding of people, and make good decisions. You’ll be a winner, in poker and in life.
Here’s a photo of my favorite poker story to tell … The board ran out right to left here, with the Ten of Diamonds being the River.
Great article Dan! The comparison of poker player’s mindset to situational analysis of our own daily lives is well represented here. Very well written!
So much can be learned from the game. In sales it’s necessary to listen well to be able to ask good questions. An equivalent in poker is watching people’s actions for pattern recognition (are they just staring at flop when weak or looking back at chips with genuine smile when strong) to determine how to proceed in the near future with a slight edge.
I don’t play that often, but really enjoy the times that I am able to play. I’m 79 and believe that one never stops learning. Great information.
Well put Dan! There is always a better version of ourselves we can strive to be. Every aspect of one’s life plays out on the poker table and in a cash game you can always ask for a table change!