Poker and Your Life

I recently came to the realization that I start all of my posts with “Hey Guys.”  I’m not really opposed to it, but it looks a little weird on the front page here that all posts start with that and a couple lines of empty space, right?

Hey Guys!

I’ve been getting a TON of questions emailed in, which I appreciate so much.  I really truly will try to answer as many as I can, but please forgive me if I don’t get to yours.

This post isn’t going to answer specific questions, but it’s inspired by quite a few.  The questions I received most of fell into a category of decisions pertaining to poker as a career:  “Should I finish school?”  “Should I put more of my $ into this and give it a real shot?”  “How much should I try to reduce swings at the cost of EV now that I have a family?”

Since this ended up kind of long, I’m going to try to organize it and chop it up for you.

Below I’ll cover:

  • Happiness
  • Goals and Values
  • The Decision Making Process
  • Long Term vs. Short Term
  • Non Financial Factors
  • The Future of Poker and You
  • My Own Experiences and Opinions

Many of the stories I got made so glad that I asked for questions because there are people who I feel are poised to make a poor decision that will have a major effect on their life.  I’m going to try to respond to as many as I can, most privately, but I wanted to make a more general post about my views on poker as a career.  I’m sure that for every person who emailed, there are 100 others in a similar situation.

While I’m not arrogant enough to assume that my 27 years of wisdom are enough to make major life decisions for people I don’t even know, I hope that I can help people methodically think through their own situations and make the best decisions they can.  Actually, I hope this post will be general enough that it doesn’t need to apply only to major poker related decisions.

 

“Right” and “Wrong” and Your Results

I think it’s important, when making big decisions, that you first realize that there is often no “right” answer (in my opinion).  Or there is one, but it may not end up turning out “right.”  What I mean is, all you can hope to do is to make the best decision you can given the information you have right now.  I say this for no reason other than to remind you that you can’t beat yourself up later on if you feel you made the “wrong” decision, and you can’t hesitate to make a decision out of fear of it being the “wrong” one.

We learn this through poker.  I make the best play I can every chance I get, but sometimes my reads are wrong, or they aren’t even wrong, but I run into a small part of my opponents range that I made the “wrong” play against.  There are SO many things that will happen in your life that you have no way to predict, and you can’t blame yourself for completely unforeseen consequences.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider the possibilities though (more on this later).

Next, it’s important to note that everyone’s situation will be different.  The right answer for me, or your friend, may not be the right answer for you.  There are so many factors… not only your poker skill, your alternative career options and financial situations, but your personality, your goals, wants, needs – what will make you happy.

 

Happiness

When making a big decision, I like to start here.  Ask yourself: What is important to me?  What do I value?  What are my goals?

I’ve personally done a lot of soul searching on this, and though many of you will have different goals and values (next section), I’m happy to share the conclusions I’ve come to for me so far.

I went through things I wanted, and kept digging deeper.  So, I want to succeed at poker?  Why? Competition, money.  Why?  etc.

It all seems to boil down to only two things I want in life-

1) I want to have a net positive effect on the world and the people around me.  To be kind, fair and respectful to everyone I interact with.  To be the best friend/loved one I can to those I care most about.

This is a personal goal of mine, and not one that helps me much with many major life decisions.  Maybe I just made sure to include it so you don’t judge the other thing that matters most to me:

2) I want to be happy.  All of the minor and major things I want, I want because they make me happy.  Not so profound, but an important thing to admit.

What’s great about realizing this is that I now know that I want to be successful in poker because it makes me happy.  I want to earn more money because I think it will make me happy to do so.  So, Why is this helpful?

Well, I often times in the past have weighed poker and life related decisions-

  • Should I go out with my friends or should I play these good games?
  • Should I move out of the country so I can continue to play online?
  • Should I drop down in stakes to lower my stress levels, or maximize EV and deal with the swings?

What I used to think I was doing was sacrificing happiness/contentment/peace of mind for EV (aka money).

What I now realize is that I’m sacrificing happiness for… happiness!  Once I made this realization (recently), I started seeing how much happier I could be in my day to day life by sacrificing some EV.  I used to feel like I HAD to work hard, and I was doing the “right” thing by maximizing my earn rate rather than being my happiest.  It almost felt like a duty… like it was honorable.  But now when faced with a decision of making a sacrifice in happiness for more $EV in poker, I’m no longer comparing apples to oranges.  I’m choosing apples (happiness) or apples (happiness).  So really, all I need to do is decide what (which apple) will make me more happy (apple).

Recently, I’ve realized that a lot of stress is the worst thing for my happiness, so I’m making efforts to minimize stress, even at the cost of $EV.  (Playing while in better moods will probably gain me some EV back anyways)

 

Goals and Values

Happiness is pretty general goal.  I think that all of us want to be happy (if you’re someone who doesn’t, I mean, that’s pretty weird, man). It’s important to decide for yourself what major factors lead to your personal happiness and contentment.  This is what you can use to help make decisions.

For me:

1) Personal relationships –  All of the people closest to me matter much more than anything else, especially in terms of my happiness.  I derive the majority of my happiness from my closest friends and family.

2) Competition, Success – Not just financial, but I like to be working towards something and doing well at it.  Poker has been great for me because I dedicated myself to becoming good at it, and it’s gone extremely well.

3) Stability, Routine, Security – I like things planned out, and I like to have backup plans.  I’m not a fly by the seat of my pants kind of guy (nor do I completely understand why that saying means what it means).

4) Freedom – Again, not only financial, though financial freedom is awesome.  I like not being buried in obligations and commitments.  I like to be able to take a few days off when I’m not feeling focused.  I like to be able to spend an entire day alone if I’d like.

This list was off the top of my head, and I’m sure there’s more, but my list isn’t really important.  It’s just an example.  You need to come up with yours to help you make decisions.

So, for me, playing poker works pretty well.  I nail #2 and #4.  I have the ability to setup #3, and I have been lucky enough to have the freedom (financial and time) to spend time and travel to many of the people who matter most to me.

4 is something I didn’t have much of in the past, when I was a complete slave to the games.  Whenever a great game ran, I was there, and I dropped whatever else was going on (sleep included). I made a lot of money during this time, but if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t.

1 is something that I haven’t worked as hard as I’d like on.  Black Friday threw a huge wrench in my plans (a saying I understand a bit better) and I’m not positive I’ve handled it the best way I could’ve, or how I’m going to handle it going forward.

Obviously, the fact that I’ve been financially successful has helped with many of my goals, so that is certainly part of any career decision you make.

Another good thing to do would be to make a list of things that make you UNhappy, unless they’re covered by the above list (meaning they’re just the opposites of them).  I’d add- Stress, bad sleep, lack of personal space/time, and maybe a few more.  Again, just examples… You need to list yours.

Now, there are a tonnnn of smaller things that lead to happiness (reading, exercise, tv, ice cream, cat videos, etc).  These are very important too, in that you should:

a) Strive to do these things as much as possible on a day to day basis.

b) Consider if any major decision will impact your ability to do so.

 

The Standard Part

Of course, when making any decision, you need a list of your options.  Whether this list is on paper or in your head isn’t important (unless you have a horrible memory).

Then you can go through the obvious process- pros and cons.  Which option will satisfy more of your personal goals or happiness triggers?

I don’t have much to say on this topic because we all know how decisions are made.  The only advice I have, other than everything in the other sections, is to not just choose a path because you “want to” or especially because you “think you should.”  Those aren’t good reasons alone for doing anything.  Why do you want to?  Why do you think you should?  Add those in to your pros and cons lists.

 

Long Term vs. Short Term

 

It’s important to think long term, but it’s also very important to think short term.  A lot of people sacrifice their short term happiness in hopes that it pays off later.  The problem is, as I’ve said, we can’t predict what will happen later in life, or what we’ll want in the future.

ESPECIALLY if you’re under 25, not only are there are so many things that could pop into your life and change it’s path, but you are still very much growing and maturing as a person (I’d probably say this is true past 30 too, but I’m not there yet).  Your values will change, and you’ll learn so much more about yourself and about life.

You know how when you’re a teenager, grown-ups tell you that you don’t really know what you want in life yet, and that you just don’t know nearly as much in general as you think you do?  Know how you get extremely annoyed because you’re smart and you know what you want and what you value and believe in, and you obviously aren’t going to listen to them?

Well, what sucks is, the grown-ups are right.  Hopefully you’re more likely to believe me because I’m only like, a half grown-up.  The truth is, people grow and change for a very long time.  I learn a lot every single year, and I look back at things I thought/did two years ago and feel stupid

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do what you want and follow your passions, because you should (for the most part).  It’ll make you happy, and that’s how you’ll learn more about what you really do want and value.  BUT, you should be very careful making a big decision that will be life altering (like dropping out of school to play poker full time).

One of the embarrassingly few books I’ve read was called “Stumbling On Happiness.”

The author, as one of his main few points, argued that we are terrible at predicting what will make our future selves happy.  He gave a whole bunch of good explanations for this, which I wouldn’t care to recycle even if I remembered them all.  He said that people older than us, even if they aren’t all that much like us, are better predictors of what will make us happy than we are.  I believe him (due to the many compelling arguments that I’ve now forgotten), and I think this is especially true the younger we are.

The moral of this is two-fold (I feel smart and cool saying “two-fold”):

1) Don’t trust your own judgements of what will make you happy 20 years from now.

2) Ask and put more weight into the advice of your elders. They know more than you think.

 

More Than Money

For many people, they look at poker vs. their job or poker vs. college as purely a financial decision.  They think, “Which path will make me more money?”

Is this an important part of the decision?  Of course.  Do I think it’s an overvalued part of the decision?  ABSOLUTELY!

Any career is about much more than the money.  Do you love what you do, or can you tolerate what you do?  Do you like your work environment?  How do the demands of your job impact the other important aspects of your life?

Playing poker professionally is a pretty big lifestyle change compared to most jobs.  You will almost certainly be under more day to day stress.  Your hours aren’t structured (pros and cons to this, of course).  You have no guaranteed income (ignore the $EV of this, and consider the month to month happiness ramifications for you, your family, and anyone else around you).

There’s not much job security in poker (though there’s not much anywhere right now, I understand).  In addition though, no health care, no retirement plan… those are additional expenses.

Then many things will depend on your particular situation within poker.

For me, I often have to make a hard decision to cancel or not make plans with friends in the first place, since there are occasionally “unmissable” games I “need” to play in. Poker also “forces” me to spend at least two months a year in Las Vegas, and currently is “forcing” me to spend a lot of time outside of the US.  I use quotes because those are technically my decisions to make (some of which I still struggle with), but they are important parts of allowing me to compete at the level I’d like to.

Online poker lends itself to a more solitary day to day life than most jobs.  I have friends in poker who are clearly extroverts, and I can see that sitting alone at their computer all day drains them.  I love my alone time, so it’s usually not a problem for me.

Another thing to consider is what people think-

I don’t worry about people judging me because I don’t have a real job, but if that’s something that will bother you, keep it in mind.  Something that’s more important is how poker affects those in your life.  Specifically, if you are or would like to be married, even if your wife doesn’t judge poker, she may feel very uneasy about the uncertainty of it.  Also, even if you don’t mind people judging you, she may mind, especially if it’s her family.  Just remember that you’re not only accepting the risks and stress for yourself, but for those who depend on you (or will in the future).

 

The Future of Poker and You

One major thing that many people may not think about-  When you have a regular job, you get better with experience, and your resume grows over the years, making you MORE employable and more secure within your company.  Poker isn’t like that.

You’d think “I’ll just get better each year,” and you’d be right, but your opposition gets better at an extremely fast rate.  Think of how many pros used to crush poker and can’t even win nowadays.  I even know people who used to destroy the highest stakes online five years ago that can barely beat 1/2nl now.

To stay competitive, you need to actively work very hard on your game, even after 10-20 years.  Young kids with new software will be analyzing things that you didn’t even think of (this already happens to me).  So, unless you make a TON of money, you won’t ever be able to sit back and just casually grind and earn your salary.  It never gets easier… our brains don’t get bigger and faster.

The more obvious thing to worry about is the future of poker.  Will it be as popular as it is now?  As beatable?  Will bots take over online poker within five years?  Will multiple countries ban internet poker?

These all fall into the category of things that you can’t predict, but you can consider as outcomes, along with things like:

  • What if you start a family and the expenses drain your bankroll (and ability to make money)
  • If you’re currently staked, what if you won’t be able to find a deal in the future?
  • What if everyone stops playing your game of choice, and you end up being terrible at the new popular game?

There are so many things to consider, and you should prepare yourself for their possibilities, depending on how likely you think each of them are.  For instance, learn other games, have backup plans, have money set aside, etc.

 

My Opinions and Experience:

So far, I’ve just given you a ton of things to think about.  I haven’t weighed in too much on my own experience or opinions and advice.

In my last blog, I told my own story of my early years in poker.  I’d recommend you check it out.  I wrote it.

I want to touch on some other experiences and opinions I’ve formed over the last handful of years.

Poker Skill:  Predicting Greatness

Do you think you have what it takes to be a very good poker player?

Great! That means you’re a person.

Nearly everyone thinks that they are already good at poker, or that with just a little bit of work, they can become great… either because they are good at math, or they watch poker avidly, or they played a sick hand one time.

There’s a catch-22 with predicting one’s own poker ability.  Some of the best traits a good pro poker player can have are self-awareness and humility. They let the player know when they’re on and off their game, what they need to improve on (and that they need to improve), when someone is better than them, when someone has something to teach them.  They allow a player to make responsible and prudent decisions about poker in their lives. The self aware, humble people who will often be great at poker aren’t sure they can cut it, and are often the last to make the jump and play full time or move up in stakes.

Then there are people with no self-awareness.  They think they are great and that they will definitely succeed.  Those with no humility think that books, training videos, and other players all have very little to teach them.  These are the people that will often fail, and the people who don’t know that they lack these qualities, even as they read this paragraph.

So, how can you trust yourself to predict your own ability?

You can’t.

The only way you can be confident you have what it takes is with over a million hands of poker experience and data, showing your progress and your win-rate with a somewhat reasonably high degree of certainty.  Some people seem to be under the impression that poker skill is a standalone ability that you can be born with, like singing or sprinting (which can both be improved, but some people are just born with a much higher ceiling than others).  Poker is a culmination of skills.  There aren’t just dumb people who are bad at everything but great at poker.

So what are these other skills that add up to one, powerful, poker-playing mind?

Important Skill Sets

I’ve had many friends get into poker- friends who have had seemingly the same skill set I have, but couldn’t cut it for some reason or another.  I’ve seen so many legit geniuses try their hardest and fail.  I’ve also seen people with only above average intelligence be wildly successful (over long, sustained periods of time).

There’s no doubt that there is a strong correlation between IQ and poker success, but it’s far from the only thing that matters.  There are plenty of players with IQs that dwarf mine who are forever stuck at smaller stakes.  Still, if you have a very high IQ (or any common standardized test score), that’s an unbiased source that can make you a little bit more confident that you will have what it takes, and unbiased sources are hard to come by.

I’ve narrowed predictors of poker skill down to three major categories:

  • Deductive Logic
  • Psychology, social adeptness, understanding how people think and how they are affected by things (considerate people)
  • Math / Statistics

Those are in order of importance, in my opinion.  Yes, math is last (a distant last actually, though still clearly makes the list).

I suppose that’s a little bit misleading because Deductive Logic falls under the wide umbrella of Math, but there are people who are very logical who just could never do well in other math classes.  Those people are usually better off than the number crunching, stat/calc wizards who don’t meet the other criteria.

There are also three minor categories, which are less about predicting poker aptitude and potential, and more about predicting how likely you are to reach and use that potential:

  • Competitive Drive (especially with oneself)
  • Humility and Self-Awareness
  • Self Control

These are also in order (again, my opinion). This is the closest I’ve been able to get to explaining what makes a great poker player.  It’s far from conclusive, and I’ve seen many people who seem to fit most of the mold just not be able to do it.  I’m posting it as a place to get started- Something to help you estimate if you are more or less likely to be successful.  Also, it’s just a question I’ve been asked so many times… I thought I’d share my thoughts to everyone.

Good luck to all the non self-aware people who are congratulating themselves for their excellent logic, math, and people skills.  I tried 🙁

 

Drop Out of School?  Quit my Job?  (Answer: Not Yet)

As I’ve been saying, every person’s situation is different, and every person’s potential is different.  However, I feel that my answer to most individual people is to wait a long time before making the jump. What sucks about this plan, for many college students today, is that Black Friday destroyed their ability to stay at their school in the US and play online poker on the side.  I feel strongly that it’s the best way to go if it’s an option (even though it wasn’t the route I took when I was that age).

Look no further than Brian Hastings or Z and Hac Dang for proof that you can be a world class player and literally make millions while going to and finishing college.

Building your resume (with college or your job) is an extremely valuable Plan B to have (or Plan A!), and poker abilities are extremely hard to predict without years of actual playing. I would almost always recommend that someone plays poker on the side of their main job/education until they can be certain that they are very successful at it, and that they still love to play.

If you’re in the US, honestly, I don’t know.  If transferring to a school in another country is an option, I think you should seriously consider it.  If there’s a casino with good live games nearby, you can build your roll and experience there, I guess.  I don’t have a great solution anymore, given the current obstacles.  Hopefully they won’t be in place for too much longer.

My General Philosophy

I was talking to a friend of mine about some problems she was having.  Just kind of general aimlessness and uncertainty about what she wanted or where she was heading. (something that almost everyone struggles with at some point or another, and then another)

I said to her, “I’ll tell you the secret to life,” at which point I realized that I had never verbalized or even thought out my own philosophy for how to lead my life, and that I now had to make it up on the spot.  Opening with “secret to life” was probably a little bit reckless of me.

I don’t think I have the secret to life here, or anything close to it, but these guidelines have worked well for me.

“Day to day, focus on three things,”  I said.  During our conversation I amended it to four, or three and a half, really:

1) Do things that you enjoy

Simple, yet something that people don’t focus on nearly enough.  Stop focusing so hard on working and planning to improve your life.  Today is your life.  Every day is. Do something that you enjoy right now.

2) Work Towards Short Term Goals

It’s easier to stay motivated when you can see the finish line, or you enjoy the ride.  Don’t write a book because you want a big payday two years from now… Write it because you enjoy writing it.  Or, if it has to be a long term goal, set up checkpoints.  Write ten pages by next Friday and you should feel rewarded and accomplished when you do.

The things that you care about, whether it’s a project of some kind, physical fitness, relationships- Ask yourself at the end of each week, “Am I closer or further away from where I want to be than I was last week?”

Great things don’t usually happen overnight, but as long as you’re moving towards them and not away from them, you’re doing it right and you should be proud of that.

3) Invest in Personal Relationships

Spend time with people you enjoy, people you love. Be good to everyone, but especially the people most important to you.  That is where your happiness will come from in the long run.

3b) Choose Your Friends Carefully, And Continually

Don’t waste your time, effort, and emotion on friendships/relationships that don’t have a net positive effect on your life.  People tend to feel stuck with friends, even it’s clear that nothing comes from that relationship but negativity.

If your friend makes your life harder, rather than easier and more pleasant, that’s not what a friendship should be, and that’s often their own fault.  You don’t owe them anything just because you have been their friend.

You owe it to yourself to cut ties with net negatives in your life (you don’t have to do it in a mean way). More importantly, you owe it to the relationships with people who are truly good to you, who deserve your attention and effort.

 

Bringing It Together

So, that was a bit all over the place (in case you didn’t notice).  If you got this far, I hope you were able to grab a couple of bits and pieces that spoke to you.  I hope that those of you who are at a crossroads, whether it be poker related or not, think carefully about the options in front of you, while at the same time not fearing the possibility of choosing the “wrong” path.

Writing things like this out helps me as well.  I’m very far from having my life and my path figured out.  As I’ve alluded to, I’m not even sure I’ve been making the best possible decisions for my life and career over the past year.  I’m not sure that I know what’s best for my life and career in this next year either.

What’s important is, I’m okay with not knowing, and with making educated guesses to the best of my ability and not looking back.  Whether I choose the best path, if there even is a best path, I’m confident that as long as I focus on what’s important to me, especially day to day, I’ll be getting most of it “right.”

Not sure if that last “right” needed quotes.

Take care.

-Phil