Life Lessons from Poker Pt. 5 – Being Honest With Yourself

Life Lessons from Poker is a seven-part series of articles about how the things we learn in our efforts to master poker can turn out to be indispensable life tools away from the felt. If you’re coming to the series for the first time, Part 1 can be found here.

The most important things in life are often the most difficult, and that’s definitely the case when it comes to emotional intelligence and poker. In the last instalment of this series, I talked about identifying and plugging leaks – whether in poker or life – as both an emotional and financial solution to unexpected setbacks. But the biggest leak of all is one which prevents us from seeing the others. What you might call a meta-leak. What I’m talking about is the human mind’s capacity for self-deception.

Like most problematic aspects of human psychology, our capacity for denial doesn’t exist for no reason. It’s a defense mechanism against grief, regret, and other forms of emotional distress. Those feelings have their own purpose, of course, but we can also easily be overcome by them, which, historically speaking, would have negatively impacted our odds of survival. By pushing negative thoughts and memories out of our minds, we remain able to function.

At the same time, these negative feelings have their own important roles to play. In the case of regret, this is how we learn life’s lessons; regret doesn’t feel good, so we seek to avoid repeating the things which made us regretful in the past.

Unfortunately, the human mind has a self-defeating tendency to seek shortcuts. Avoiding actions which will lead to regret can be difficult, especially when outcomes are uncertain and even more so when the act we’re considering will feel good in the moment. In many cases, rather than avoiding the regrettable act, it’s easier to go through with it, and just rely on denial to avoid the sensation of regret. Of course, this deceives the entire point of having a regret reflex in the first place, but such is the paradox of human psychology.

Allowing oneself to feel regret without being paralyzed by it is a key component of emotional maturity. In fact, one good way to look at regret is as a sign that you’re improving as a person, and an absence of regret probably just means you’re still making the same mistakes because you’ve refused to admit them.

This subject always reminds me of one of my favourite bits of movie dialogue, from The Big Kahuna (an adaptation of a stage play called Hospitality Suite). The movie stars Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito, who agreed to do it for little money because they liked the script so much. Without going into too much detail about the story, Spacey and DeVito play sales representatives while Peter Facinelli plays a junior employee from the same company. Spacey is jaded and cynical, DeVito wise but depressive, and Facinelli young, idealistic and naïve.

Facinelli’s character, Bob Walker, idolizes DeVito’s Phil Cooper, often remarking at how much “character” he has. In one of the film’s key scenes, towards the end, Cooper has a tough-love talk with Walker, in which he explains that what Walker sees as character is simply honesty, and that honesty comes from regret.

Cooper: The question is, Bob, do you have any character at all? And if you want my honest opinion, Bob, you do not. For the simple reason that you don’t regret anything yet.

Walker: You’re saying I won’t have any character unless I do something I regret?

Cooper: No, Bob. I’m saying you’ve already done plenty of things to regret. You just don’t know what they are yet. It’s when you discover them, when you see the folly in something you’ve done […] then, you will attain character. Because honesty will reach out from inside and tattoo itself all across your face.

Self-Honesty in Poker

Of course, the sorts of regrets Cooper is talking about are bigger than anything that happens at the poker table, unless you’re playing well beyond your bankroll, anyway. Having honesty tattooed all across your face probably isn’t great for your EV at the poker table, either. But the point he’s really getting at is that there’s only so far that skill and good intentions will take you, until you’re willing to be fully honest with yourself and take responsibility for your mistakes. That part is as true in poker as it is in life.

One of the things that makes the psychology of poker so interesting is that it simultaneously quantifies our performance, measuring it in dollars and big blinds, yet confuses the issue by mixing in a huge amount of random variance. That combination of factors means that it’s possible to get an accurate picture of your own strengths and weaknesses, but far easier to hide behind variance as an excuse while maintaining the illusion of objectivity. This sort of self-deception arises both on the small scale of how we play individual hands, and on the larger scale of assessing our results and trying to find the games and stake levels that will be most profitable for our skill set.

A classic example of self-deception on the small scale comes in the form of fixating on the odds of a given scenario coming up, rather than on your own play. You might, for instance, river a flush and shove over the opponent’s bet, only to run into a larger flush. That is, in a vacuum, an unlikely event, but the real question is what the opponent’s range is like given the action up to that point, and how many worse hands it contains which would be willing to call that all-in. Unavoidable coolers are certainly part of poker, but you’re not doing yourself any favours if you treat all improbable events as unavoidable. When you analyze the hand in question, you may find that to be the case, but may equally well discover that as strong as your hand was, just calling would have been correct, and shoving was actually a risk with little upside. Sometimes, you can even fold the second nuts, if it’s sufficiently improbable that your opponent has anything other than the nuts.

On the larger scale, there’s a big risk of ego creeping in when it comes to game selection. Perhaps you move up in stakes and win five buy-ins over your first thousand hands. It’s very tempting to believe that you’re crushing the game, and equally tempting to believe that you’re simply running bad when you drop six buy-ins over the next thousand. Worse, if you’ve received some disrespect from other players in the game during that time, you may start to feel the need to prove yourself. Rather than dropping back down in stakes and waiting to improve before making another attempt, you may stay in the game longer than you should and do some serious damage to your bankroll as a result.

Of course, it is possible to have the opposite problem, to be too quick to blame yourself for things which are down to luck; for instance, it took me a long time to realize that I had a knack for MTTs, because I attempted them rarely and didn’t experience a deep run within the first few tries. Generally speaking, however, poker players suffer from thinking too highly of themselves rather than from a lack of confidence – those inclined to self-doubt tend not to enjoy the game enough to stick with it for very long.

Self-Honesty in Life

In life, as well, we can tell ourselves little lies and big ones. The old cliché often (probably incorrectly) attributed to Albert Einstein is that “insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.” But the more often we’ve made a given decision, the more emotionally invested we become in insisting it’s the right one, and that when it doesn’t work out well for us, external factors are to blame.

In these cases, realizing our mistake doesn’t just mean taking responsibility for the latest occurrence, but all the other times we’ve done the same thing, making it harder and harder to make that admission to ourselves. I once saw this phenomenon described on a poker forum as “increasing commitment to a failing course of action,” and thought that was a pretty neat way of summarizing it. Of course, by the same token, the more often we make a given mistake the more detrimental it is to our lives, so the most painful admissions are often the most important.

There are any number of forms this can take, from drug and alcohol habits, to constantly finding oneself in the same type of bad relationship, to poor money-management, or even bouncing around between jobs in a single field when a complete change of career would be more satisfying.

In life, as in poker, the solution is to look for the consistent thread running through your various problems. If you’re often finding yourself out-kicked at showdown, the problem may be that you’re too sticky with one-pair hands, or that you’re playing too many offsuit broadway hands out of position. As a real life example, if you’ve had conflicts with every person you’ve worked for, the problem may not be with all of those various bosses; the problem might be with your own ego, or perhaps you’re just working in the wrong industry or sector.

Entitlement Tilt

This problem can become especially toxic when it’s reinforced by messaging from society, family, or advertisers. Then it can turn into what’s often described as “entitlement tilt.” Poker books and websites will tell you that if you adopt the strategies they describe, you’ll be a winning player. Parents may pressure their children to seek out a given career path or lifestyle. Perhaps you feel pressured to keep up with the Joneses… but those Joneses may themselves feel pressured to feign happiness because to do otherwise would be to admit they were chasing the wrong goals all along. It takes various forms, but the general pattern is that you’ve been told – and believe – that if you do certain things or possess certain characteristics, some form of reward will come to you; when it doesn’t, it feels like being cheated, and entitlement tilt results.

In some cases, entitlement tilt can become extremely dangerous. Falling for one’s own lies over and over may lead to depression, but when they come from outside, the natural response is anger. You’ve done “everything right,” that is, everything you were told, and the promised result isn’t delivered. If you’ve played any poker at all, especially online, you’ve surely witnessed this in others and probably experienced it yourself.

Even extreme cases of entitlement tilt in poker usually only result in severe financial losses, or at worst being banned from a gambling establishment. In other areas of life, they can turn deadly. Mass shootings are on the rise, especially in the United States, and although various forms of bigotry and zealotry often play a role, the most consistent theme is a sense on the part of the killers that they were taking revenge for something they were owed, but hadn’t received, be it money, status, recognition or even sex.

You Can Only Control Yourself

You can’t control the deck in poker, no matter how many times you ask the dealer for a scramble or holler for your one-time to come in. You also can’t control what other players do: Even if you correctly put your opponent on King high and bet enough that he “should” fold, there’s always the chance that he’ll call anyway, whether through genius, ego or sheer idiocy. The only aspect of the game over which you have control is your own betting decisions.

As frustrating as it is, this is the case in life as well. When things go wrong, it’s always tempting to look for someone else to blame, and quite often it is in fact the case that others are at least partially responsible. But even when you’re ethically correct to blame others, it doesn’t get you anywhere in practice. You weren’t able to stop those people from acting as they did this time, and you won’t be able to stop them – or others – from acting against your interests in future.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t be angry at those who’ve wronged you, but rather that anger, like regret, can help you to make better decisions in the future. The key is to make sure the anger and regret are correctly placed, and that you act on them rather than stewing in them. Again, the focus is on what you can do, not what you wish others would do.

If the person wronged you by accident, perhaps you could have communicated better, or perhaps she needs to be reminded to be more attentive. If he wronged you on purpose, chances are there were warning signs you overlooked; you can avoid that person in future, but better still is to learn to avoid others like him, or strategies for limiting the harm they can inflict.

This is not victim-blaming: failing to protect oneself from harm doesn’t mean one deserves it. Pragmatically speaking, however, it’s useful to see good and bad people as a form of life variance. They will show up in your life whatever you do, and you can’t force a bad person to become good any more than you can wish that Three of Spades into the Queen of Hearts. What you can do, however, is try to mitigate your losses when the bad ones come along, and get maximum mutual benefit out of your relationships with the good ones.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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