Analysis (Services and Self)

Koan Bremner's view on life as a database and data warehouse professional / addict and non-genetic woman

Saturday, April 16, 2005

The fool in the game

Poker... I used to play quite a lot. And enjoyed playing the game immensely, although I haven't played for a few years now. It's a great forum in which to study people (always a topic of fascination for me), and is also rich in literature and beloved of writers and students of the human condition. You can learn a lot about life at the poker table.

I started thinking about poker again earlier this week, when I was invited to a social game next week. I'm inclined to play, just for the fun of it, but I don't plan on taking up the game again. However, the invitation prompted me to dredge up those snippets of wisdom I learned (sometimes the hard way) around the green baize; and two of them seem strangely poignant this week, both for me and for others of my acquaintance.

The first is the notion that "there's a fool in every game; if you look around the table and can't spot the fool in *your* game, then the fool is probably *you*!" Oh, how true that one is... and like many of the best lessons I've learned in life, it's one I'm most inclined to forget when I'm most in need of its guidance. Just at the moment, I'm carrying that one very close to my heart.

The other lesson is "never chase the pot". When you're playing a hand and have already bet on it, it's tempting to look at the pot (the money staked by you and all the other players who've bet on the hand) and say to yourself "I can't quit yet; X of that pot is *my* money, and I want it back; it'll only cost me Y to stay in, and I could win it all back, and more!" Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong... Once the money has been laid on the table, it is no longer *your* money. It is gone; it's a sunk cost. All that's yours is the stake you still own, and the cards that you hold. When the time comes for you to decide whether to bet again, you have to ignore the money you've already bet on the hand; the real questions are, how much will it cost you to bet *now*; how does that compare with the potential reward (i.e. the pot, of which *none* is *yours*); and what is the probability of you winning it (based on the hand you hold, the probability of getting the cards you need to make a "winning" hand, the cards your opponents hold, and everything they've revealed about themselves, their habits and giveaways (or "tells") in this hand and all the other you've seen them play before). Then, and only then, you make the decision to bet, check, raise, fold or see; and once you've made your decision, any new money you've bet is now gone, until the next round of betting. Until you can separate your thought process from the money you've already bet (or "invested", as some players will put it), guess who's the fool in your game?

What a fantastic analogy for life. How many times do we persist in a situation where we feel we have to stay in, because of all the time, effort or money we've invested up to that point? Emotion can sway the rational thought process; I've nothing against emotion (I think I'm one of the most emotional people I know, maybe to a fault) but sometimes it has no place, and at the poker table *your* emotion definitely has no place, in my opinion (whereas your ability to read the emotions of others is invaluable). And at the great poker table of life, knowing when to fold is crucial. You can win on a losing hand, if your opponents are convinced that your hand beats theirs; but adopting that as your habitual strategy could introduce you to the gutter sooner than you wish. You can only capitalise on a winning hand if you're still at the table, and still have a large enough stake to bet, raise or see. Fold when appropriate, nurse your stake, and be there to capitalise on a winning hand.

Great game, poker; great game, life. In neither do I intend to be the fool.

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