Poker's Lessons for Winning at Life

Although declaring that we are living through a time of upheaval is far from novel, it remains no less accurate. In his essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx famously remarked to the effect that history repeats itself – first as tragedy, then as farce. If we suppose, mostly uncontroversially, that we are endowed with free will, contemplating the implications of Marx's observation leads us toward an unpleasant conclusion: we don't learn from our mistakes.

It's not difficult to find parallels between current events and historical events, and realize that many of the challenges humanity faces today are in fact timeless. Neither the ongoing refugee crises in the Mediterranean Sea and Bay of Bengal, for example, nor the economic malaise or political maelstroms in the US and across Europe, are unprecedented even in the 20th century. We repeatedly react in a predictable fashion, and fail to innovate our thinking.

As a poker player, I struggle to understand why this is so. Poker is a deeply strategic game that involves a significant element of chance, so becoming a winning player demands that you acquire several key skills, one of which is to learn from mistakes. Some years ago David Sklansky, one of the original poker theorists, co-authored an article with Alan D. Schoonmaker called Poker is Good for You, in which they argued that many of the skills required to master poker are transferable to everyday life. Their original list is too long to repeat here in full, but I have selected and elaborated on some core points.

Poker is a Great Teacher, and Favours Those Who Think Critically

Learning depends on feedback, and the more frequently you get feedback, the faster you will learn. Poker provides quick feedback because it usually rewards correct decisions and punishes mistakes. When you make mistakes in poker, it is usually expensive and emotionally painful, but when you make correct decisions, you usually win money and can gain social approval. Poker teaches you to recognize patterns and detect outliers, to adjust your tactics and reexamine your assumptions as you encounter new evidence – something known as Bayesian inference.

Imagine how democracy would benefit if we adhered to this logic more fully as a society. We would be better at asking our leaders incisive questions, and would better recognize when their answers were unsatisfactory. Tragically, the present state of democracy is quite the opposite. A mature democracy would not penalize a candidate who flip flops opinions over time when given new evidence, but would instead encourage an open discussion over the merits of switching viewpoints. Furthermore, one would think that over time election seasons would offer up increasingly better choices, with each candidate being more impressive, knowledgeable, and of greater integrity than the next. Instead, polls indicate that the two remaining candidates for president, one of whom is probably the least qualified and most vulgar candidate in American history, both have historically low approval ratings.

Poker Improves Your Study Habits

One of Western culture's major flaws is that it caters to the whims of the market, which can explain why we reward anti-intellectualism by enriching and making celebrities of TV personalities and athletes who contribute no more to society than any ordinary person. There is no loving parent who would rather their children iconize Kim Kardashian or Justin Beiber over Neil deGrasse Tyson or JK Rowling.

Winning at poker over the long run means understanding and applying disciplines like math, psychology, logic, risk-reward analysis, and probability theory to the situations you encounter. Poker reveals the value in possessing these skills, and engenders the concentration and perseverance needed to acquire them. If the human family is going to succeed in transitioning to a new energy regime, eradicating poverty, avoiding an antibiotic-resistant germ apocalypse, averting nuclear war, and colonizing Mars, we are going to need a greater share of the population to be experts in useful skills, and far fewer who waste their potential with vapid pursuits of vanity or personal wealth.

Poker Develops Your Discipline, and Teaches You to Focus On the Long Term

Perhaps the most important lesson that poker can teach you is, as Sklansky and Schoonmaker say,

. . . that a bad play can have good results and vice versa, but that making decisions with positive, long-term expected value (EV) is the key to success. If you make enough negative EV plays, you must lose. If you make enough positive EV plays, you must win. It is just that simple.

In other words, slow and steady wins the race. Internalizing this wisdom is vital for remaining tenacious in the face of difficulty. The statistical variance involved in poker can and will beat you down in the short term, just as it will exaggerate your perceived skill at other times. You don't win at poker over the long term without realizing that the process by which you approach a problem is ultimately all that matters, and that results-orientated thinking – also known as hindsight bias – is a fatal weakness. Poker teaches you to trust the math, and trust the process.

If we were to adopt this same approach in the way we make collective decisions as a society, we would no longer scold our leaders for failing to “fix the economy” overnight – or any major problem for that matter – nor would we be naive enough to believe the ones who claim to be capable of doing so. Economics is about making strategic trade-offs in the face of scarcity. The world will be better off when more people understand that there really are no shortcuts.

Having discipline in poker also means playing at the appropriate stakes. If you play at higher stakes than your bankroll allows, the game's natural variance puts you at risk of going broke, regardless of how skilled you might be. It can be very difficult for a poker player to move down stakes to compensate for a downswing, because when you get used to playing with hundreds or thousands of dollars at a time, your ego can get in the way and make it tough to take smaller games seriously. Most poker players who succeed in the long run overcome the temptation to play too high by being disciplined in their bankroll management. If they go on a big downswing, they move down stakes until they win back what they lost.

Many people would do well to heed the same wisdom in an era when household debt is at an historic high. In the fourth quarter of 2015 household debt in the US was more than 79% of GDP, and nearly 98% of GDP in Canada, largely thanks to bloated housing prices. The 2008 financial crisis famously began in the mortgage securities market, partly caused by the fact that, one way or another, millions of people had taken on mortgage debt that they could not afford. Largely as a function of culture, home ownership is far more common in North America than in the rest of the world. People chasing the American Dream are reluctant to rent when they feel entitled to buy, which can lead them to take on more debt than is prudent relative to their income level, job security, and spending habits. Discipline in poker is a transferable quality. Resist the temptation to “ball out” if you can't afford it. There is no shame in being responsible. There is no wisdom in playing with fire.

Poker Develops Your Realism

Poker is a non-moral game. It has no favourites. Poker players who deceive themselves about their own ability, about the logic of their decisions, or about the relative skill of their opponents will swiftly be slapped across the face by the ice-cold hand of reality. Losers deny reality and never improve. Winners swallow their pride and adapt by being ruthlessly introspective.

Inflated egos and obstinate denial are all too common in everyday life. In the context of international affairs, for example, some are convinced that terrorists act violently because they “hate the freedom” that we in the West enjoy. Critical thinkers, on the other hand, acknowledge that religious fundamentalism plays its part, but insist that several other factors including Western arrogance, xenophobia, and imperialism are obviously relevant as well. Nobody ever wants to admit that they might be part of a problem, but if one is truly committed to the pursuit of truth, self-reflection is an unavoidable part of that journey. Denial is not only cowardly, but also selfish, because it stands in the way of progress and justice.

Poker Teaches You to Understand Risk, and Helps You Put Your Ego Aside

Among its most valuable lessons, poker teaches you that it is okay to be wrong. Suspending your ego is a valuable trait in a poker player. Suppose that you think there's a 60% chance your opponent is bluffing. If you call his bet and are correct, you will win a lot of money, but if you call his bet and are wrong, you will lose a lot of money and will be very embarrassed. Suspending your ego in this situation removes the social cost that you would otherwise incur when you are wrong 40% of the time, and allows you to play correctly mathematically without reservation.

Unfortunately, we learn implicitly from a young age to fear failure and to avoid risk, without being properly informed of the caveats involved in that prescription. For instance, one of the largest impediments to learning a second language is the embarrassment you feel when you say something silly in a social situation, even though doing so is a normal and necessary part of learning. People who fear failure avoid striving for success, but the fear of being left behind by their more ambitious peers sometimes motivates the fearful ones to discourage those others from taking necessary risks. Children and adolescents are most sensitive of all: if learning to play the flute or joining the Chess Club will earn you the label of “nerd” and prevent you from getting dates, you are more likely to join the herd and coalesce to the acceptable mainstream. The best teachers understand the challenge that fear and risk pose, and foster safe pedagogical environments where intelligent risk-taking is encouraged.

Poker Teaches You How To Handle Deceptive People

Bluffing is part of poker, so learning to detect deception is an important skill. Sometimes the story your opponent is telling with her betting patterns doesn't add up. Or maybe that guy across the table gives you an aggressive stare when he makes a big river bet. Seasoned poker players learn to interpret these signals, and come to recognize the indicators of strength and weakness.

People try to deceive us all the time, whether it be a credit card scam or an election. Since Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton haven't been written about enough yet, allow me point to out a few things about the way they speak. “We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning” is a textbook example of a meaningless statement, yet there are millions of people who either take him seriously or don't mind that he's gaming them. And when Hillary uses phrases like “American leadership in the world,” people who are plugged-in to international politics recognize that as a euphemism for a hawkish foreign policy agenda of hegemony and possibly unilateralism. Our society would benefit if it became more difficult to deceive people, and playing poker can help to develop that skill.

Poker Teaches You Self-Reliance and Determination

This final point is an appropriate bookend because it encapsulates a major theme: when you sit down at the poker table, you're on an information island – you must make all your decisions by yourself, without advice from others. You are either the sole beneficiary or the sole victim of the decisions you make.

What do people who take their Horoscope seriously, or who truly believe in the power of prayer, or who would be just thrilled to take a selfie with Drake, or who lament a purportedly lost “golden age” but believe that Trump (or any president) can “Make America Great Again” have in common? They all fixate on some kind of saviour who they place on a pedestal and worship, because they are frightened to acknowledge that we are all “condemned to freedom,” as Jean-Paul Sartre said. They would rather be guided by the hand, as if their lives, along with their society's trajectory, were a menu with limited choices. Instead, we all ought not be afraid to imagine new options, question why the menu doesn't already include those as well, and challenge the very authority of the menu-makers.

Looking to the Future

An entire citizenry capable of scientific thinking and critical questioning holds the potential to avoid Marx's gloomy prognosis. Such people would be skeptical of ambiguous promises, unimpressed with poor reasoning, and immune to demagoguery. They would demand concrete evidence or sound logic to justify pivotal decisions, and would be forward-thinking in identifying their society's priorities. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they would feel a responsibility to retain a realistic and tempered perspective on their place in the world and in history, in order to remain empathic, avoid succumbing to grand illusions, and learn from the errors of their predecessors.

A world like that certainly sounds like a utopia to us today. There may well be certain human flaws that our best efforts will find unassailable, correctable only by millenia of evolution. But we can find a suggestion of hope in the fact that human advancement – morally as well as technologically – is not just progressing, but accelerating. After all, the modern version of our species emerged around 70 000 years ago, and the Great Pyramid of Giza was constructed 4500 years ago, but you would still only have to travel 400 years back in time to demonstrate the powers of your Oculus Rift to the pilgrims arriving on the Mayflower, at which point they would burn you at the stake just as soon as they could determine how you had managed to establish a doorway to the Underworld. At that pace, there is no reason to doubt that the world in a century or two from now will look equally strange to us. It can also be equally improved if we consciously make it so.