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.

I’ve spent more of my life playing games, studying games, thinking about games, and ultimately writing about and designing games than I have on any “marketable” skills, more than on my physics degree, various teaching jobs, and my graphic design career combined. Many people I’ve encountered over the years have considered that – expressly or implied – a waste of time. That’s not surprising, as our language itself has a tendency to contrast “play” against more productive activities. The phrase “all work and no play,” for instance, suggests that the two are antonyms.

The opposite of work is not play, however, but idleness, and play of all sorts is and always has been a way of developing skills and learning about the world. That’s perhaps easiest to see when it comes to sports and the physical play of children; wrestling with one’s older siblings or climbing around on rocks are not wastes of time, but a relatively safe way to practice skills that may prove critical, even life-saving in adulthood. That’s so fundamental that it’s not even limited to humans, but seen in most mammals and even some birds.

Yet, even though the modern world and economy prioritize mental skills over physical ones, the connection between games (tabletop or digital) and those skills seems more elusive to most people than that between, say, play-wrestling and self-defence.

What does poker have to teach us?

Poker is in an odd spot here, because in the post-boom years, its viability as a career has become more present in the public consciousness, and if there’s money to be made at something, then it’s not a waste of time. Nonetheless, the primary benefit of playing poker is still seen as winning money or, if not, learning to be better at poker so as to win more money in future. Former pro players who move on to other things don’t generally include their time playing poker on their CVs, not only because of the fear that their gambling may be seen as a character flaw, but because it’s not seen as a skill with applications in other areas.

When it comes to those who’ve spent countless hours poring over hand ranges and working out game-theoretically optimal strategies, it’s easy to say that they’re developing math skills, and it certainly is good practice in that regard. Most of those who go to those lengths to study the game already have a background in mathematics, computing or some related field, however. Despite having such a background myself, what’s more interesting to me is what games teach you about life. After all, baseball wouldn’t be useful as a sport if all it taught you was how to strike a flying projectile with a stick, nor would chess be useful as a mental exercise if all it taught you was visualizing configurations of pieces on a grid.

So, if sports are abstractions of physical life skills such as fighting, hunting and survival, of what mental life skills is poker an abstraction? In what ways does decision-making at the poker table help us make better decisions away from it?

Three broad categories

This is a series I’ve wanted to write for some time now, but it’s potentially so far-reaching that I’ve struggled with the question of how to structure it. Ultimately, what I’ve decided on is to do it in seven parts: this introduction, plus three sets of two related topics. I’ll lay out the nutshell version of each today, and follow up with a longer article on each topic individually in the weeks between now and the winter holidays.

Broadly speaking, non-athletic games in general and poker specifically can teach us things in three areas:

Cognitive Behaviour: This is a fancy term for a mode of thinking, or a particular mental point of view. When people talk about things like “positive visualization” or “compartmentalization,” this is the sort of thing they mean. Poker is full of traps for players who engage in the wrong sorts of cognitive behaviour, but once you’ve learned the right way to look at the game, it turns out to be a useful way of looking at many situations in real life.

Emotional Intelligence: No one likes to lose, especially not when there’s money on the line. A bad run in poker can be as emotionally trying as any of the stressors we encounter in day to day life. Being self-aware is fundamental to good decision making, as it’s all too easy to be in denial about how one feels, and you can’t control something you don’t understand.

Practical Skills: Not everyone is a math whiz, or has the patience to pore over range charts and EV calculations. However, even without approaching the game at that level of detail, there’s a lot of practical skills one can develop to help one’s game, which have alternative applications away from the felt as well.

Cognitive Behaviour

Statistical Thinking: When considering possibilities for the future, most of us have the instinct to focus on the best- and worst-case scenarios, when these rarely occur in reality. Poker teaches us that we’ll rarely catch the best or the worst card in the deck, and instead have to consider the more probable, less extreme scenarios and their relative likelihoods. Similarly, in life, most decisions call for an examination of the full range of outcomes, not simply comparing our hopes to our fears.

The Action/Inaction Fallacy: When we’re not sure what to do, we tend to do nothing, because it’s a way of avoiding responsibility. In poker, the same psychology manifests itself in beginners’ tendencies to do a lot of checking and calling, as these passive actions feel less like a firm decision than betting, raising or folding. We soon learn, however, that in poker, the passive option is a choice just like the others, with its own consequences, and there is no escape from that responsibility of choice. So too, in life, doing nothing is itself a choice and one that should be made conscientiously: a stressful realization, perhaps, but an important one.

Emotional Intelligence

Seeing Through Variance: There’s a huge difference between poker professionals and amateurs in terms of how they go about trying to improve their game. Amateurs tend to focus on individual hands – could I have folded bottom set here? – while professionals look for systematic leaks they can plug. Figuring out how you should have played a given hand may be useful, but you’ll never be in an identical spot again; realizing that your long-term win rate in the cutoff is lower than in the hijack and figuring out why that is will be immensely more valuable in the long term. The same is true for life; large one-time advances and setbacks are often down to chance and beyond our control, yet can blind us to details of our day-to-day behaviour which produce much larger long-term impact on our lives.

Self-Honesty: All the mistakes one can make while playing a hand pale in comparison to the fatal error of failing to be honest with oneself. No matter how badly you butcher a hand, your losses are limited to the chips in front of you, but refusing to abandon a losing strategy or leave a tough game can wipe out a bankroll in fairly short order. Similarly, in life, the lies we tell ourselves – and are told, particularly by advertising – for the sake of our egos can lead us to repeated, irrational behaviours that are destructive to ourselves and others. Accepting fault or failure can be painful in the short term, but is essential to one’s long-term wellbeing.

Practical Skills

Bankroll Management: In a society where so many live beyond their means and ultimately pay a price for it, it may seem good enough to live at the limit of, but within one’s means. But finances are susceptible to the same brutal swings in life as they are in poker, and a seemingly sustainable lifestyle can become unsustainable quite suddenly if one doesn’t have the money in reserve to endure those swings. Some poker professionals prove to be flashes in the pan, while others stick around; one thing all of the latter have in common is that they understand that the primary benefit to having money is not having to worry about money, and that preserving that ability to absorb downswings is more important than taking shots or spending winnings on indulgences. Likewise, in life, having financial security does a lot more for one’s happiness and wellbeing than any acquisition or concrete lifestyle improvement.

Understanding Small Sample Sizes: The human brain is evolutionarily adapted to recognize patterns; unfortunately, it’s so good at this that it often picks them out where there are none. Deciding whether or not an apparent pattern is real or just an unusual run of luck is a key skill in both life and poker. This can be tricky when the sample size is small – that is, when we have only a few examples to go on. That’s often the case at the poker table: Perhaps we’ve seen the same player take the same line twice and show down a bluff each time, and need to know how confident we should be in calling him the third time. To succeed, poker players need to learn how to establish a degree of confidence based on limited observations, as well as how to combine multiple forms of partial information to form an overall best guess; once again, these are skills with far-reaching application in other areas of life.

Next: Statistical Thinking

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