Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2012) in Poker Player newspaper.
Many things about poker are temporary. Not everything. But transition governs the biggest aspects of poker that affect us emotionally. This self-interview is about dealing with transition, with change, and with the word “temporary.”
You see, all poker games are temporary. All streaks, good ones and bad ones, are temporary. Life is temporary. That’s important to understand. It’s important for reasons that beckon beyond philosophical or theoretical. It’s important because your bankroll depends on your grasp of temporary.
Question 1: You just said that not everything in poker is temporary. What could possibly be permanent?
Poker odds are permanent, assuming they’re calculated correctly. Basic concepts governing winning poker strategy never change, so put them in the permanent category. Although customs and culture change, human nature itself is pretty permanent. That means some poker tells are always dependable.
When I first started thinking in terms of what’s permanent and what isn’t, my poker and my life were suddenly more finely focused. It might be the biggest divide in human existence – temporary on one side, permanent on the other.
In the broadest sense, very little is permanent. A stone? No, a stone is long-lasting, with a future of millions or even billions of years, but not permanent. Our universe? That’s probably not permanent, either, although whether it is and whether it will end in absolute cold or extreme heat is a topic of scientific exploration. Poker itself. Not permanent – just a 150-year fad among some cultures that might last centuries more or might not.
But poker’s core elements – including secrecy of cards, antes or blinds to start the betting war, and the possibility of winning with horrible hands by bluffing – will probably survive in related games involving skill and chance. They might not call it poker, but it will be poker, nonetheless. Notice that poker, as I’ve defined its soul, doesn’t need to be played with cards. As I’ve explained in books, it could be played by betting on the size of cow chips concealed in paper bags. As long as there were blinds or antes to incite the first voluntary wagers and the possibility of bluffing with an empty bag and winning, it would still be poker.
Question 2: From what you’re saying, not much about poker is permanent, right?
Not so. And failure to understand what is and what isn’t permanent, what is and what isn’t temporary, is the primary reason why otherwise skillful poker players lose.
Question 3: What do you mean? How does that make poker players lose?
I mean that most players destroy their chances of long-term winning by an almost black-magical mental meltdown. They perceive that luck should be more stable than it actually is. And, when it isn’t, they focus on the negative things that have happened to them, like losing pots they had expected to win, containing money they had planned to spend. When this happens more than once in a short time, a “bad streak” becomes visible to the brain.
So, you must make it your habit to think about streaks in poker, good and bad, as temporary. They will end.
Poker players, like non-players in the real world beyond the tables, are trapped in moments. A decimated bankroll seems like a tragedy that makes life impossible to face tomorrow. But it’s the power of that moment. It sucks you in and makes you forget to look back. Look back to the grimmest struggles in your life. Same feelings. Hopeless. But days, months, years later, you moved on. The memory didn’t hurt as much. It just happened and now it isn’t happening anymore.
But wait! That’s precisely what you need to understand! Memories are about things that are permanent. I’m not saying memory is permanent, but the events remembered are.
So, here’s the deal. The past is always permanent. The present is always temporary. And the future is always uncertain. That’s true in poker and beyond.
Question 4: And how does this realization help you win at poker?
Once you realize the difference between permanent and temporary, you can guide your own destiny. Absolute answers that have been calculated are permanent. There are 2,598,960 combinations of five-card poker hands in a 52-card deck. There can never be one more and there can never be one fewer combination. It’s a permanent reality.
But losing money to weaker poker opponents is a temporary condition beyond your control. You should treat it as such. Why waste mental energy worrying about stuff that isn’t your fault?
Question 5: In the past, you’ve said that poker streaks aren’t real. Why do they seem real to me?
I never said streaks aren’t real. They happen because they’re supposed to happen. Poker isn’t a good-bad-good-bad-good-bad chain of events very often. It’s like flipping coins. Heads is good, tails is bad. There’s no mysterious force dictating that heads-tails-heads-tails-heads-tails is normal, although it may seem fair. So, poker can run bad-bad-good-good-good-bad and you shouldn’t think that’s abnormal. It’s just fine and fitting. Live with it.
If you simply scoff, because what I’m saying seems silly, that’s understandable, but unfortunate. I’m trying to share a secret attitude that really works if you give it a try.
So, repeating: The past is permanent, the present is temporary, and the future is uncertain. It’s how you deal with the temporary that matters. So, starting with the next hand you’re dealt, simply be your best self, make the best decisions you can, and – permanent or temporary – let everything else be what it’s supposed to be. — MC