Poker meets real life 2

Note: Originally published (2001) in Poker Digest magazine.

Two days ago, I stopped at a red light in Long Beach, California. Strangely, I was thinking about the second part of this series when I noticed a man crossing a street. I was startled. He looked exactly George Hardie.

Now, Hardie is a very prominent person, politically active, founder of the Bicycle Casino near Los Angeles in 1984, former president of the California Card Club Association, and often credited with forging the path toward modern poker operations.

Fine. But the man crossing the street walked without particular confidence. He was holding a bag of groceries. He seemed sad and uncertain. Then the light changed, and I drove on, having determined that this wasn’t George Hardie. The closer I’d looked, the more differences I’d spotted in their appearances.

But that’s not the point. For a moment I’d thought it was Hardie. Then I started thinking about an important poker-to-real-life link that I teach. I’ll get to that in a minute. First, we need to acknowledge that maybe the man I’d seen had never been physically or mentally capable of great achievements. Who knows? But what if he had been? What if circumstances simply had not collided in the right ways, at the right moments, to spark his interest in achieving? Or what if his interests were sparked but, again, circumstances had not collided in the right ways at the right moments, to allow him to achieve?

How I was almost retarded

I’ll tell you how this relates to poker, but first let me share something that happened to me a long time ago. I almost didn’t end up being “the Mad Genius of Poker,” you see. There was really no reason for me to begin analyzing poker strategy, programming artificially intelligent players on computer, writing books, or speaking before large audiences. I could have just as easily ended up retarded.

Don’t be so shocked. Sure, I know that most retarded people have little choice. We cherish them for living their lives as fully as they can. We feel fortunate that we’ve been blessed with better brains. Most people are never faced with, in essence, having to make a decision about whether to be retarded or not – but I was. Someday, maybe I’ll tell you the whole story, but right now, here’s briefly what happened.

I flunked the sixth grade at William Smith Elementary School in Aurora, Colorado. And justice was served, because I deserved to flunk. I could do complicated math in my head, but I’d never learned to go up to the blackboard and follow the procedures. I liked astronomy and knew all the planets, but my grade school teachers had no idea about this. All they saw was a totally withdrawn kid who chewed pencil after pencil until the splinters could finally be swallowed. All they saw was a social outcast who hid alone in far corners of the schoolyard during recess. All they saw was a boy who daydreamed all through class, did no homework, and paid no attention to anything. To them, the boy seemed retarded.

A good hand for the young “Mad Genius”

And the boy did not want to escape from the cocoon of the retarded, because to him it was sheltering. There was no responsibility. You could escape deep within yourself and fantasize about many wondrous things that became the bigger reality. I was there; I was that boy; I did this escaping and sought this comfort. And it wasn’t as if you were feigning retardation for the comfort; you truly were becoming retarded; you didn’t think there was anything more to be. You didn’t know how the real world worked, because the real world wasn’t real. Everything conjured up inside you was real. And you didn’t share it. And so you faded. I was there. I faded.

And then the day came after flunking the sixth grade where I sat in a class for “backward” kids in a semi-hidden room with a door in the back of a regular classroom. It was a shameful place where everyday you were humiliated walking through the normal kids whenever you entered or exited.

One day, a young woman teacher passed out tests to everyone in our slow class. These, I later learned, were intended to further separate us, weeding out the merely deficient from the truly retarded. Normally, I would just stare at the tests. Sometimes, I would just randomly mark multiple choice answers without reading the questions. Tests were an unwelcome discipline that invaded my daydreams.

But then there was that spark – a circumstance colliding in the right way at the right moment. And I focused on the first question and it was easy. And all the questions were so very, very easy for me. And while all others in the class toiled and were baffled and struggled through their allotted 15 minutes of mental torture – with the teacher reading the questions to the majority who couldn’t do it for themselves, I filled out the correct answers in perhaps two minutes. I raced against myself to see how rapidly I could accomplish this.

Drawing out

And, in one strange and surrealistic moment that is indelible in my mind, I did not wait for the tests to be gathered, but sprang instead from my chair and marched to the teacher’s desk. She seemed stunned that I had risen to violate her space.

“I’m done,” is all I said.

She grudging looked at my paper. Then she seem perplexed, almost astonished. Perhaps an event she had long fantasized had been made real, and she played her part as she had imagined it. “You don’t belong here,” she said. “I’m going to get you out.” And she did – the next day.

You see, in that moment, I had chosen not to be retarded. Oh, sure, we can argue about whether it would have been true retardation – I know it wouldn’t have been. But I might have lapsed further into a world within myself, probably never to escape. But I drew out. Hearing my teacher say, “You don’t belong here,” opened up everything to me in a moment that might never have been. After that I craved praise and began to believe I could do things that others couldn’t. Believing it helped it grow real.

My high school years were bizarre. I still never developed discipline to do much homework, but I became so advanced in some areas that a few teachers thought I was a prodigy and even devoted their classes to discussions about my actions and my writings. Another story for another time. But, clearly, I could have been struggling to cross the street in Long Beach, bewildered, unknown, unliked, unapproachable. It just wasn’t the card I was dealt on the river – the card that changed everything.

Poker, too

It’s the same way, you know, in poker. Think about this. Every year thousands of players come to the casinos to take poker seriously. They’re experimenting. Maybe they’ve heard the truth that some people make their livings playing poker. I’m betting they don’t completely believe it, but they’re going to give it a try.

Most of them fail and lose interest. It’s not that they’re not smart enough to win, they just don’t know enough. And maybe they get unlucky, just to make it worse. So, they become occasional players or stop playing altogether. A few, though – not necessarily even players with the best strategy in the beginning – get lucky. Their confidence soars. They hang around. Their lives are changed forever, because they happened to find the right games in the beginning, be dealt the right cards in the beginning, or make a borderline decision to persevere rather than go off in quest of other challenges or to sink lower into lives more miserable.

That’s poker, my friends. It’s the man crossing the street in Long Beach who wasn’t George Hardie and it’s you and it’s I. It’s all around us, poker, life – everywhere. Everything. Today, I’ve shared a little about myself and my bout with “retardation” in the sixth grade. I hope you’ll keep it confidential, because others might not understand. They’ll make fun of me – and I’m pretty sensitive about that, because I’ve always tried to shy away from the spotlight. Thanks for understanding.

Today’s poker and real-life lesson

Last time, as I began to rewrite and re-examine the concepts behind Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy as explained in a two-part feature in Casino Player many years ago, we dealt with two important life-strategy elements. We learned that (1) “the cards” probably won’t break even in your lifetime; and that (2) you should never try to get even for a particular poker session or a life experience.

That meant that you need to understand that there’s nothing you can do about the luck you have in poker or in life. It’s not your job to make sure the odds even out or to whine about it if they don’t. Just keep making the best quality decisions you can, over and over, no matter what, and you’ll have the best shot of getting as far as you can in life or in poker.

And, by not trying to get even for a particular poker session or a setback in real-life, you’re able to plow ahead seeking gains wherever and whenever they happen – today, tomorrow, next year. Just make the right decisions, be willing to accept losses and setbacks, and keep moving ahead. Moving ahead and getting even are two entirely different concepts. You are always where you are, and every step forward from that point is simply a step forward. Period.

So, let’s move ahead…

3. Never make anything worse. Sure, it sounds obvious? But guess what? I’ve never met anyone who didn’t make things worse sometimes, including myself. People get angry, and they make things worse. They lose at business or at romance, and they make things worse. It’s because they’re feeling so miserable that those extra losses don’t seem to register. In gambling, I call this dangerous practice crossing the threshold of misery. Here’s how it works.

A player sits down at the poker table thinking that the worst that can happen is he’ll lose $500. Everything goes wrong and suddenly he’s losing $1,000. He has now crossed the threshold of misery and maximized his ability to register pain. Losing $1,114 doesn’t feel any worse than losing $1,000. That extra $114 doesn’t matter, and so he concentrates less and plays worse. It happens all the time in life. Romance does this to you. Unexpected misfortune does this to you. Decisions that would normally matter (like that extra $114 in poker) don’t seem to matter by comparison. But these decisions all add up. In life people who are heartbroken sometimes make the worst business decisions imaginable. Those decisions don’t seem to matter much compared to the heartbreak. And those decisions all add up, and eventually they will matter.

In poker, many lifelong losing players would actually be lifelong winners if they simply never made things worse. Worse out of anger, worse out of exasperation, worse out of apathy, worse out of self-pity, worse out of temper. If it doesn’t matter now, it will matter tomorrow. So from now on, promise yourself you will never make things worse. You will never make things worse.

4. What you’ve already invested doesn’t matter. Too many poker players damage their bankrolls by calculating how much they personally "invested" in the pot before making their decision about whether to bet or fold. Don’t do that. The pot, all that money you’re competing for, is simply there. It doesn’t matter where it came from or how much of it you invested. It wouldn’t matter whether it had originally been all yours or whether the players just happened to find it forgotten on the table. The pot belongs to no one right now.

Same in life. It doesn’t matter how much money, how much time, how much effort you have invested in a project. Say you purchased land for $200,000. One morning you wake up and it’s only worth $100,000. That same day, someone offers you $160,000. You should accept this offer, because you’re not losing $40,000, you’re gaining $60,000. That’s because what the land used to be worth doesn’t matter, and what you’ve invested doesn’t matter. You don’t need to win on this investment. The trick is to make profitable decisions again and again and let lifelong success take care of itself. Ignoring taxes, write-offs or anything else that will complicate this example, the land is worth $100,000 now. You can get $160,000 by selling. Selling is the right decision, and it has value–in this case, $60,000.

Next time, we’ll continue our exploration of powerful concepts and strategies that you can take straight from the poker tables and conquer real-life opponents and obstacles. – 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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