Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2013) in Poker Player newspaper.
The process of poker requires extracting profit from pain. Your pain and theirs. Life itself is that way, too. And once you truly understand this, winning gets easy.
So, today I’ll tell you about the pain of poker. But don’t get scared. Poker pain is your friend.
Huh? Well, let’s start with some simple truth. Mental anguish and anxiety is unavoidable in life, and it’s magnified in poker. Why? Because you’re choosing to place yourself in an arena that simulates the ups and downs of a lifetime in a single session of poker. In fact, that’s the thrill of the game for many. You get to experience the unexpected treats and tragedies, highs and humiliations, all in a few hours.
Now I’m going to warn you about some things. If you just play poker for pennies, or whatever amount you can totally afford, there isn’t going to be pain involved in poker. But few people do that, because it would be like sleeping through a roller coaster ride. What would be the point?
A disagreement with Doyle
It turns out that one of the few disagreements I’ve had with the legendary Hall of Fame poker champion Doyle Brunson centered on his encounter with Microsoft founder Bill Gates years ago. Doyle related the story to many, not just to me, so you might have heard it before.
Essentially, Gates, then the world’s richest man with a fortune over $50 billion, likes poker. And he took a seat in a small limit game at the Mirage in Las Vegas — or maybe it was the Bellagio. I think the stakes were $3 on early betting rounds, $6 on later rounds, although I’m not positive. Doesn’t matter. It was a special moment for poker.
Well, Gates had Doyle’s poker bible, Super/System — A course in Power Poker with him at the time, so he sent an assistant with the book to Doyle’s big-money table, where some pots grew to $50,000 and more. Doyle’s sent back the message that he wouldn’t sign the book for anyone with that much money who was too timid to play the biggest game — or something like that.
I later argued with Doyle that whether Gates played for $3 bets or $10,000 bets made no difference at all to him. He was just playing social poker, either way. And I still maintain that Doyle had missed an opportunity to strike a key friendship for the poker world. Doyle is usually very good at doing that.
A $10,000 bet that isn’t
In this case, though, any $10,000 bet would account for 1/5,000,000th of Gate’s wealth. From another perspective, he could bet $10,000 five million times and never win once before he ran out of money!
If it were my decision, I would have signed the book graciously and relayed a message like, “You’re welcome to sit in our game, if you promise not to roll over us.” Maybe Bill Gates would have played, and if he lost it would have been meaningful to his opponents, but painless to him. See? No pain. And we might have had him fighting for a brighter poker future.
I’m sure Doyle’s intent was to goad Gates into the game by not autographing the book. Doyle has done miracles in popularizing poker as an informal ambassador, but — as he knows — I would have handled that episode differently. I’m flattered that Gates cared enough about poker to have the book, since I had contributed two chapters to it.
Gates would essentially be playing poker for matchsticks, whether he stayed in the $3 game or moved to the big table. And that brings us to another powerful point.
You should generally play poker at stakes that are big enough to motivate you, so there’s a possibility of pain, but not at stakes that are big enough to terrify you. You can quickly know if you’re playing for appropriate stakes, because if it doesn’t seem to matter, you’re playing too small, and if you often feel genuine fear, you’re playing too large. Gates can’t really play poker for its intended purpose, which is pain management, unless he sits down against other multi-billionaires.
This brings us to Caro’s Threshold of Misery — one of my favorite concepts. It goes like this. Suppose you begin a poker session hoping to win at medium stakes, but feel you can only handle about a $1,500 loss without financial and emotional damage.
Fine. Things go badly and you find yourself crossing that threshold at minus $1,722. It gets worse and you realize you’re down $3,150. I submit that at this point, you’re numb to the agony — you’ve maxed out the pain. From here on, it all feels the same. If you go on to lose another $600 it won’t hurt any more than it already does.
Crossing the threshold
That’s a dangerous time. And the secret is to always make the same quality poker decisions. That’s because, even though it might not seem to matter now, there will come a time when it will matter. Even if you only trim that loss from $3,150 to $3,050, that’s a $100 win, even though it doesn’t feel like winning at the moment.
Compared to losing another $600 by not caring and straying from your best decisions in a desperate hope to recover, that’s $700 earned that you’ll be able to spend in the future. This concept applies to real life, too. When businesses fail or romances fizzle, you stop caring. You’ve maximized pain and crossed Caro’s Threshold of Misery. That’s when you need to force yourself to believe that decisions still matter.
In poker, you’re always in the path of pain. It’s either yours or your opponents. Managing this reality and sticking to your strategy, even when you don’t feel it matters, is the secret to preserving your bankroll.
So, always ask yourself whether you believe decisions matter as much right now as they did when you first sat down. If the answer is no, beware. Either force yourself to care or quit. Care or quit. That’s the secret. — MC