10 Life Lessons I learned from Playing Poker
I played poker as a teenager, but I took it up more seriously twenty years ago. The intrigue and intricacies of the game found me when I needed the comfort and distraction of a high-level intellectual challenge. It feels funny writing that last phrase, as most people think of poker as a game played in the smoke-filled backroom of a bar by shady, unshaven men. Well, I do have a beard, but I have a degree in philosophy and was an internationally ranked chess player. So, when I say poker is an “intellectual challenge” at the upper levels of play, I speak from experience, having played with the likes of Brunson, Helmuth, and Negreanu.
As a poker player, after winning several local tournaments, I rose to the level of competing several times in The World Series of Poker, including the $8 Million Dollar Main Event. How did that happen? I studied and practiced and studied and practiced some more. To give you a sense of my commitment to learning, I recently donated sixty-one books on poker strategy to the local library (I kept my ten favorites).
With a degree in philosophy and being a writer, I’m always thinking about something in one realm of life that I can apply to another to gain greater perspective. When I got deeper into poker, I found there were serious life lessons that could improve the rest of my life and maybe yours too. A few years back, I did a presentation to a national business organization on the “10 Life Lessons I Learned from Poker.” It was the highest-rated presentation of the year. The ideas resonated and I share them briefly here.
1. Follow the 40/70 Rule
Poker, like life, is a game of incomplete information. We don’t know what cards the other players hold, what the next card will be, or what luck will do to support or upset our plans. But we must make decisions all the time with incomplete information. Colin Powell espoused the 40/70 Rule—that is, if the action you are contemplating has between a 40% and 70% chance of success, it’s worth taking the risk. That’s as opposed to waiting until you have 100% certainty and letting opportunity pass you by or below 40%, facing failure. As an example, the generals assessed the raid on Bin-Laden beforehand as 50/50. They attacked and succeeded.
Lean towards 70, but sometimes 40 is all you get.
2. Pick the Right Game and the Right Table
Table selection in poker cash games may be the player’s most critical decision. It’s putting yourself in a position to win before you even start the game. In life, similar decisions might be who to marry, what job to take, and where to live. In business, you might ask the question, “Who would you rather be—a good manager in a great industry or a great manager in a doomed industry?”
3. Position, People & Position
Understanding your position relative to the other players in poker or in life is critical for a happy outcome. General David Shoup made this analogy: “The commonest mistake in history is underestimating your opponent; happens at the poker table all the time.” Does this remind you of anything? I think of the Russians in Ukraine and something Sherlock Holmes said to Watson, “You see, but you do not observe.”
4. Know When to Holdem’ . . .
One of the earliest poker/life lessons from the Texas road-gambler Amarillo Slim: “It’s not Results, it’s Decisions.” Huh? I had to think about that one at first. Yet, what he’s saying is that if you make the right decisions consistently, even if you fail in the short run, you will succeed in the long run. Remember, you’re dealing with incomplete information and applying the 40/70 Rule. You’re keeping the odds in your favor, but there are no guarantees in any given hand and on any given day.
But in the long run…
5. Study Your Game
If you want to be good at anything, you need to study. Would you want a brain surgeon who didn’t study his game? No. By studying poker, it made me better than 98% of the other players (I had an international ranking in the top 2% of players).
What’s your game? Learn everything about it from its history to its strategy.
6. Pokernomics 101 – Manage Your Bankroll
The famous poker pro Stu Ungar won a million dollars one day in a tournament and blew it all at the craps table the same day. This is not good bankroll management. Knowing how to save and manage your money, avoid unnecessary risks, and plan for the future will keep you in the game.
I can’t say I’ve always been great at this, but I’m working on it.
7. Avoid Going ‘On Tilt’
Tilt is a common word in poker, which means losing your cool when something bad happens. Going on Tilt usually leads to bad, emotional decisions. Meditate, go for a walk, sleep on it, talk to a friend, breathe—there are many ways to deal with what poker players call ‘bad beats.’
The lesson: never make important decisions when you’re on tilt.
8. Learn from the Best
The most successful people have mentors. Who’s your Yoda? How do you find one? She may find you.
Be open to it when she appears.
9. Play Everyday
“90% of Success is showing up.” You must be in the game to win or to have that one lucky, serendipitous event that will change your life forever.
10. Be Ready to Go All-In
Be willing to commit when the time and circumstances are right, and the risk is low. We go all-in when we get married or start a new business or have a child.
What happens if you lose?
Pick yourself up and start over. There’s always another game.
Postscript: Summer left a comment below asking which 10 poker books I kept. To answer, here is a picture of the bookshelf with those books. I was inclined to keep books with wonderful stories about poker rather than poker instruction, e.g The Big Deal, The Biggest Game in Town, Dead Money, King of a Small World, etc. As an author, I’m all about stories and these are great ones.
Read for FREE some of Charles Levin’s short stories: