My parents met across a card table, over a game of bridge when my mother’s bridge game needed a fourth. I guess, given the inception of my parents’ romance, competitiveness and a love of cards would be bred into my brother and me. From the moment we entered the world, we entered with a desire to win and our parents encouraged that desire. Nature and nurture worked in perfect synergy to create children who wanted nothing more than to win at our family’s nightly card games.
My father was a ranked, regional amateur tennis player. If anyone needs an insight into the crazy competitiveness of the household my brother, Howard, and I were brought up in they need look no further than a father who wanted to win at all costs, even his health. During the humid New Hampshire summers he would go out to the finals of his regional tennis matches and become dehydrated, his electrolytes totally out of balance. My father cramping and barely able to move without extreme pain, I would watch him finish every match, grimacing as he ran for every ball, fighting through the pain to win no matter what. As soon as he finished, we would rush him to the hospital to get poked with iv’s until his body came back.
I was born with a desire to win but I learned that winning meant everything. It became part of my being, perhaps my defining characteristic, for much of my young adulthood….until I started playing poker.
Until I started playing poker the desire to win bled into everything I did. When I played games with my family—cards, Scrabble and the like—I would generally lose. My sister was too young to play so I was always the youngest. I never seemed to outsmart my much older brother or my father and the evenings would invariably end with me throwing a tantrum, whipping the cards against the wall or over turning a game board in tears.
When it came to relationships I was the same way. I had to win at everything, win every argument no matter how insignificant. I had to always be right. I had to have the best grades among all my peers. As you can imagine, this attitude did not make me too popular. A desire to win that strong is not a recipe for healthy and long lasting friendships or relationships. If the goal is to always win, it is difficult to sustain a healthy friendship which requires give and take.
I think most people would assume that being a professional poker player would increase one’s competitive desire. Poker, after all, is competition in its purest form. There is no team, no cooperative play. It is every man for him/herself and crushing your opponents is not only part of the game, it is the very goal. But poker teaches you that winning isn’t everything, at least in the short run. Poker teaches you that what matters is making good decisions and, if you do that, everything will work itself out in the end.
When I first starting playing in Billings, Montana I would become so emotionally upset by losses that I would drive home in tears and immediately call my brother when I got home to moan to him about my bad luck, how nothing went right, unable to get myself calmed down about the loss. My brother pounded it into my head that I had to stop this, that that kind of reaction to losing was counterproductive to winning at poker. He worked with me for hours to calm my competitiveness, the desire to win every hand, every session, the tendency to become veritably unhinged by losing.
Poker is a game of making good decisions. Every hand we play has several decision points and the players who are better at making decisions about raising, calling, checking or folding are the ones who will win in the long run. We all know humans make the best decisions when they are unemotional. Becoming unhinged by losing a hand puts you in an emotional state and if you carry that into the next hand or, worse, the rest of the session, or even worse than that, the next session you play, you will be playing a lot of hours under circumstances where you are not your best decision maker.
Being so competitive is what made me become unhinged by losing. I had to learn that making good decisions, getting my money in pots with the best hand, that was my goal as a player. I had to learn a long run view, an understanding that winning at a particular moment, winning a particular hand is not the goal. The goal is to win in the long run by playing well and understanding that part of the game is that you will lose sometimes. At limit poker you will lose somewhere between 40 to 45% of the time if you are a very good player. That is enough to get all the money. It is also enough losing to mentally unhinge someone who could not emotionally stand to lose…ever.
So I learned to lose at poker. I learned to let it all go. I learned to always look toward the long run and only get upset when I played bad, win or lose, and not get upset merely because I booked a loss. That made me a much better poker. Learning to be less competitive is what allowed me to be a successful poker player, allowed me to maximize the number of hours I played while emotionally steady, under the best circumstances for good decision making.
And I learned to lose in life. I learned that these principles did not just apply to poker, that allowing people you have relationships with to win is a good thing in the long term. I learned that I don’t need to win every argument, I just need to win the ones that are really important to me. It is okay to let my partner or my friend win an argument about something that they are passionate about, even if I think I am right, if it is for the best health of our long term relationship. I could never have done that without the lessons I learned through poker. And I am so thankful for that because my life is so much more complete and happy because of the wonderful friends I have.
Being less competitive is poker’s gift to me!