I lost my marbles. And then I learned poker.


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2012) in Bluff magazine under the title “It’s not about losing your marbles.”


I’ve played poker for money, blackjack for money, even bet sports for money. But I’ve never played marbles for money.

Why is that important? It’s not, because I might as well have played for money. Come back in time with me. Way back. It’s the fifties and I’m nine. Look! There I am shooting marbles with a friend. Yes, there was a time in the ELBEE (Early Land Before Electronics Everywhere) when there were no video games. Girls played jacks; boys shot marbles.

And marbles — at least the way it was played in my neighborhood — was gambling, plain and simple. Not gambling for money. Gambling for the marbles themselves. There were two basic games. In one form, a circle was drawn in the dirt, marbles were placed in the middle, and you won them by using another marble to shoot them outside the ring. The second form was called “chasies,” and you wandered with your most-expensive marble all over the yard, trying to hit the opponent’s especially prized marble. Whoever collided first won the other’s marble.

Was I a compulsive gambler?

Fine. I was terrible and almost never won. I coaxed my parents into buying in bulk, by the bag, but marbles marched away rapidly. Marbles gambled. Marbles gone. Still, playing was important to me — perhaps a compulsion. One day Mom bought me a particularly expensive bag as a gesture of love. An hour later, they were all lost. And I walked home dismally, my mind malfunctioning. That’s probably the condition from which the expression “lost his marbles” arose.

Anyway, Mom didn’t know that kids played marbles for gambling purposes. And when I told her what had happened, she marched me down to the winning boy’s house to demand a refund. I resisted. I argued that he had won fair and square and that I didn’t want the marbles back. That’s vivid in my memory, but I can’t remember what happened next. Did I get them back or not? Mental block.

I know what you’re thinking. My early behavior with marbles is almost a danger sign of compulsive gambling on the horizon. Hold that thought…

Whenever I publicly share myself with others, speaking about controversial topics that haunt me, some people decide not to like me anymore. I still love them, though, so their resulting, unilaterally declared separation hurts me to the core of my conscience.

Today’s message is about playing poker profitably. But in order to make the message meaningful, I need to say something that will cause even more people not to like me anymore. They’ll assume that I lost my marbles.

Gamblers Anonymous

It’s about Gamblers Anonymous: They’re conceptually wrong about stuff. Yes, I know GA is sacred to many former problem gamblers who have gone to meetings, met new supportive friends, and been able to quit gambling. I’ve talked to people who have been helped by GA. So, I guess I should admire the organization. And in a way I do. But in another way, I don’t.

GA seems to teach that, once you quit gambling, you can never make another bet — even at penny ante poker. That may be the safest choice for some, but I think there’s an alternative. Stop making bad bets. Many of the best poker players fought the urge to gamble destructively. They actually became winners.

In fact, I know for a fact that some celebrated, winning poker players have been so-called compulsive gamblers earlier in their lives. Their natures are such that they craved the adventure of putting themselves deliberately in jeopardy and escaping. The problem was, they didn’t escape often enough to avoid ruin. Why? Bad bets.

Poker played for the wrong reasons, in the wrong way, can destroy lives and bankrolls. It can be psychologically addictive. And, yet, strangely, poker played correctly can be a cure for problem gambling. At least I think so. And I’ve seen it happen. That’s because serious poker forces a complete rethink of what gambling is about. You have to avoid playing hands for the adventure and focus on playing hands with advantages. Playing poker for profit makes the art of taking positive risk paramount and makes all other risks seem harmful.

Am I advocating poker as an alternative cure for compulsive gambling? I am. But I realize doing that wouldn’t be a remedy for everyone. Many with psychological problems that lead to gambling as a temporary escape might simply play poker poorly. Taking up poker could be terrible for them.

Still, poor poker players can reform. They can learn to play better. We’ve all seen it.

Poker can be recreation. It can be a source of income. It can be a disastrous compulsion. If you’re playing poker poorly for emotional reasons, there are two main things you can do: (1) Quit; and (2) Play better.

Half right

GA has half of it right — you can quit. But when they state that you can never gamble on anything again after that, I choose to quibble. True, even penny-ante poker can serve as a catalyst for relapse. They take that thought, I think, from Alcoholics Anonymous, which asserts that once you’ve given up drinking, you can never take another sip, lest you fall back into the same destructive behavior.

I don’t know for certain whether that’s true, but it makes sense to me. Alcohol apparently can be physically addictive. And, so, you should sip no more. I get it. That approach can work for losing via compulsive gambling, also. Just stop. Again, I get it. But there may be some who will never just stop. And they might be better served by continuing their risky adventures and switching to the winning side. Poker, at least, affords that opportunity. Alcoholics can’t really decide to drink better. But some gamblers can decide to gamble better. And playing poker correctly is one way to do it.

Although I’m not religious, I’ll close with the Serenity Prayer, penned by Reinhold Niebuhr, and used by both Alcoholics Anonymous and Gambler’s Anonymous…

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

I’m not certain that GA knows the difference. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.

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