An important lesson about life I learned by playing Texas Hold ‘em Poker

Ok everyone, you may find this blog post sort of strange, but I wanted to write about it.

For about the last 3 months, I have been playing a lot of online Texas Hold ‘em poker. I must admit, it has been rather addictive. I can now see, why gambling can be such a bad thing. Like cigarettes, like drinking, like sex, and many other things, it “sucks” you in…it can “trap” many people…now I see how this can happen.

People play poker to win…the same as people have sex to orgasm or drink to feel a “buzz”. They are willing to risk so much for that small moment of pleasure. How often do people win at poker? Well for someone who doesn’t play a lot and doesn’t know strategy, winning almost entirely depends on “luck”…and yes, these people do get lucky a lot. However, no matter how much they play, even if they do manage to win a few tournaments every now and then, win some decent prizes every now and then, and have moments of success, they usually end up losing more than they gain in the long-run. You see, this combination is what makes the game of poker “deadly” for them. They win just enough to want to keep playing. It’s like achieving an orgasm during sex…they “feel” it…they want more…however, while trying to achieve that poker “orgasm” again (winning more), they end up losing much in the process. Each time they win they also usually start playing the “higher buy-in” tables…the higher the buy-in, the more the prize money but also the greater the cost if you lose. This is, I imagine, how many people end up losing their house or even getting killed from gambling.

So what lesson did I learn by playing poker you may ask…what possible good can come out of all this?

Well the answer is simple…I learned the secret to life

The secret to poker…the secret to everything

So whats the secret?

Well in order to tell you the secret, I must first tell you how I learned it

The Beginning

The first time I really played Texas Hold ‘em was with my friend, Vinnie. I was living with him for a few months while living in Texas just before moving back home to California. When two people play each other in poker, it’s referred to as “heads up”. While living at his house, we played a lot of “heads up”. For the longest time, even before moving in, Vinnie had seriously been obsessed with playing online hold ‘em. Just as I am doing today. He would spend more of his day playing than anything else and would play just about every day.

Vinnie spent plenty of time reading books and reading articles online written by pros, and learning the game. For those of you who don’t know, yes, there is a strategy to playing poker. It’s not just luck. Do you notice when you watch the World Series of Poker on Television, that it’s usually always the same people making it to the top ten. If you’ve ever watched poker on television, you’ve almost certainly heard names like Phil Hellmuth, Barbara Enright, and Dan Herrington. Why? Because these people win so much. That’s why. How can you win over and over again if the game was just based on luck? You couldn’t.

So what’s the main strategy to Texas Hold ‘em poker?

Well for starters, there’s a lot of strategy to poker. If you want to learn the strategies that these “superstar” poker players use to constantly win, then read their books or articles online. I’m not going to mention all the strategy here but there are tons…things like knowing the odds of winning for each hand and raising when you need to raise. There’s are also more advanced strategies focused around “positioning” and table “placement”. There is far more strategy then I can ever write here, nor do I know even remotely as much as some of the big names know, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this..

There is one strategy though that pretty much sums up how to win. Once you know the basics and learn advanced techniques from reading books or maybe just playing enough, there is still one more piece of the puzzle I would have never guessed would be involved at winning in Poker…

The answer…Overcoming Temptation

Huh? Are you serious you may be thinking…how does something like “overcoming temptation” or humility “play” in to Poker…well much more than you think.

A very Interesting fact

In the course of playing poker, I found something very interesting…

The first thing I noticed is that most people are generally “overly-aggressive”…what do I mean. Well playing many tournaments in the beginning, I was shocked to see how many players go “all-in” (Betting all the chips they have) before the “flop” even hits with a low starting hand or mediocre starting hand, even early in the game. If you don’t understand Hold ‘em, all players start off with two cards…after each player receives their “starting hand”, each player can either “fold” (decide not to “play” that hand), bet, or “call” someone else’s bet. Usually in poker tournaments, you’re always playing at a table of nine players or so, with sometimes over 1,000 total players in the tournament on hundreds of tables starting out. After the initial round of betting, the dealer deals 3 more cards. These cards are “community cards” that anyone can use to “make” a hand. This set of three cards is known as the “flop”. Again all players in “play” have the option to again fold, bet, or call a bet…after this round of betting, the dealer draws another card called the “turn”. Again another round of betting ensues. Finally the dealer deals one more card known as the “river”. This is the last “community” card and the final round of betting ensues. After this round of betting, the player that is holding the highest hand of five cards wins. For instance, a “three-of-a-kind” beats a “two-pair” and a “flush” beats a “three-of-a-kind”. I’m not going to go over all the hands in poker in order of value, but you get the point. The player with the highest hand wins.

So going back to what I was saying earlier about players generally being “over-aggressive” is this: To me, risking all of your chips early in the game regardless of what you’re holding as a starting hand is like playing “Russian roulette”. I don’t care if you’re holding the highest possible “pocket pair” (starting hand), chances of you getting beat are very possible, it happens all the time. So players that push “all-in” early in the game tells me that their whole strategy to poker is to hope to get lucky…this is not a good strategy if you want to win consistently.

The other interesting fact I noticed is that most players tend to “over-value” their cards and “under-value” their chip stack. What do I mean? Well professional players know odds of winning a hand based on what they are holding. When I see people betting high on things like “pocket twos” or “pocket fives” before the flop, the first thing I think is that they “over-value” their cards. Think of it this way, unless they hit “three-of-a-kind” on the “community cards” or a “full house” or something high like that, there are twelve “two-of-a-kind” card combinations alone out there that can beat someone if they’re holding “pocket twos”. This doesn’t even include all the higher card combinations that can beat them too. What’s crazy though is I see players betting “huge” amounts of chips, sometimes all of their chip stacks, while holding “pocket pairs” like this…sometimes even if multiple players are playing that hand and there are much higher possible hands an opponent can be holding based on the “flop” or “turn”. This is what I mean by “over-valuing” their cards.

So what do I mean by “under-valuing” their chip stack. I’d hate to use this as an example, but my friend Vinnie often tells me that in a tournament, if my chip stack gets to a point where I only have six or less “big blinds” left, to play “looser” and start going “all-in” pre-flop with any decent “pocket pair” or any high “face” cards. So for example, if the big blind (community ante which constantly increases as the time the tournament has been going on increases) is say 1000 and I’m at 6000 chips, that means I have six or less big blinds left, so any decent starting hand I get, I should play “Russian roulette”? Although yes, at this point in the game, with a low chip stack like this, it’s going to be harder to win, especially if other players have accumulated much more chips, here’s why I think this theory is wrong: I have played many tournaments and “came back” and won 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place, while holding very small chips stacks at certain points in the game. I have proven this and have seen other players prove it over and over again. The key to winning poker sometimes is simply staying in the game…and…as long as you have a single chip, you’re still in the game. In the past, I have placed top 30 or top 50 in a tournament of six hundred or more starting players by simply folding every hand (or at least 99% of them). Basically, I just let other players beat each other out and sat back and watched the whole game. I call it “playing without playing”, and I was able to place top 30 or top 50 just by doing this? That’s correct. Once I even achieved 16th place in a tournament of more than 500 just by playing 3 or 4 hands the entire game. So I’m not going to play “Russian roullete” or risk “poker suicide” just because I possibly only have around six big blinds left. Do you know how many players can get beaten out of the tournament in six big blinds? This is what I mean by many players “under-valuing” their chip stacks.

Okay so where does “humility” come in?

So say you’ve learned many strategies of playing poker and you’ve been playing a lot and have gained plenty of experience. There is still one final piece of the puzzle that still separates you from the “greats” (well besides their “computer-like” minds that can probably factor odds really well). That thing is being humble enough to “fold” what many people consider a “treasure”. Let me give you an example. If you get dealt pocket Aces and the “flop” hits and there’s a possible “flush” on the board and you’re not holding any of those “flush” cards…and say there’s 4 other players playing that hand…and other players start betting big, the best thing you can probably do in my opinion is fold. Why? Because it is highly likely that one of those players are potentially holding cards that can beat you. What started out as you having the highest possible “pocket pair” treasure you can get, has now turned into a “death trap”. It is not easy for many people to fold something that valuable, but if you want to win at poker, you must learn how to resist temptation.

If you don’t play poker much, “folding” a starting hand of “pocket aces” is like having a supermodel ask you out and turning them down because there’s a risk that maybe your personalities wouldn’t be compatible based on the initial date. How many people can actually do this? Not many in my opinion, but sometimes it’s better that you do.

A lesson about life learned from playing poker

From what I mentioned above, the “key” determining factor at winning more times than not at poker is “humility” or “overcoming temptation”. Isn’t this God’s teaching as well?…”Don’t give into sin…resist temptation”.

The more humble I can be in poker, the more I seem to win. I think the same principle applies in life. It is still hard for me to fold things like a “three-of-a-kind” or a “flush” in poker, knowing that I may get beat by a higher “flush”, especially when the “pot” (total amount of chips I can win if I win that hand) is big or I am “well-invested” in that hand, but I am learning.

Apply the same principles to life

I have a hard time learning to let go of my greed and to simply be happy with what God gives me. Like most people, I desire the “finer” things in life. If I play life, like I play poker, maybe I can be more successful! ;)