McHaffie: MCU lesson 021 / “Threshold of Misery”


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Poker Player newspaper in 2004.

This is part of a series by Diane McHaffie. She wasn’t a poker player when she began writing this series. These entries chronicle the lessons given to her personally by Mike Caro. Included in her remarkable  poker-learning odyssey are additional comments, tips, and observations from Mike Caro.

Diane McHaffie index.

Diane McHaffie is Director of Operations at Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy. She has traveled the world coordinating events and seminars in the interest of honest poker. You can write her online at diane@caro.com.


Diane McHaffie

Lessons from MCU

— With bonus content by Mike Caro (pending) —

Lesson 22: Dealing with the “Threshold of Misery”

I was recently with Mike and Doyle Brunson. They were discussing the fact that life and poker are quite similar. They agreed that rarely does life break even. Life is just too short a game, with too few crucial hands.

Mike says that while some people will have a few shots at success in life that only seem to sputter, there will also be those whose shots just seem to explode with good luck. Someone may lose their home through an act of nature, while someone else will win the lottery. Regardless of how you consider life is going for you, you should always play it to win. You’ll come out much better with the “cards” that are dealt you than someone else would who is playing the same cards poorly.

A large book on life and poker

I asked Mike to explain the similarities between poker and life. He said there is enough there to fill a large book and then went on to explain one key concept. He said, there is only so much disappointment and pain that any human is able to feel before it gets totally unbearable and additional injury cannot be felt. There is a point, in life and poker, where you go beyond these limits, where no matter how much worse it gets, it doesn’t make you feel any worse than how you already do. This is what Mike calls the “Threshold of Misery.” In fact, life strategy is one of the courses taught at MCU. The full name is Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy, with heavy emphasis on Life Strategies. I believe I’ve briefly touched on this subject before. Now let’s examine it further.

Once you cross this threshold, making good decisions doesn’t seem to matter any longer. You don’t care. No matter how far you fall into the chasm of misery, it doesn’t feel any different than staying at your current maximum level of pain.

In poker, Mike defines this occurrence by giving an example – You are playing in a medium-limit game, where you can comfortably afford to loose $1,000, but you’d probably reluctantly be willing to lose as much as $2,000, but no more than that. That should be your cut off point, but life being such as it is, you find yourself beyond it. After a really bad run of the cards, you are horrified to realize that you are losing $3,000. But wait, it gets worse. Now you are down even more. Yes, now you’re down $4,200. You’re now facing more than twice the disaster you ever imagined enduring.

According to Mike’s theory, it really doesn’t matter to you emotionally at this point whether you recover $150 and cash out losing $4,050 or go another $150 deeper into the dark chasm, loosing $4,350. Either way it’s going to feel the same to you. Your pain is now at it’s maximum. You’ve crossed the Threshold of Misery and you’re in serious danger of not caring about making quality decisions.

It should matter

Again, whether you go up $150 or go down $150 doesn’t even matter to you at this point psychologically. But it should matter! Furthermore, whether you won $150 or lost $150 (a $300 difference) did matter to you before you started the game.

In life, Mike says, it’s the same. When things go bad, whether in business, romance, or health, the agony of the moment can be so intense that you no longer care about making good decisions.  Since you no longer care, you are inclined to make more bad decisions that you later regret – or at least not care about putting the effort into making good decisions. You can’t let it get to this point. Quality decisions now are important to your future, even if you don’t think so right now.

The secret in poker, as well as in real life, is to always treat each decision independent of how your luck is running. If you continue making quality decisions, it will all add up in the long run. You must make those quality decisions even when you are at the Threshold of Misery and don’t feel like it’s worth the effort. It does still matter, even when you think it doesn’t. If you heed this warning today, tomorrow you’ll be glad that you made the right choices.

So, you see, quality decisions, no matter the pain, really do matter. — DM

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