Twelve life strategy tips that really work

This is the original manuscript for a two-part series that was featured in Casino Player magazine about 1994. I spend a lot of time teaching life strategy, and there are many similarities between using correct tactics everyday and making winning decisions gambling.

But, remember, in gambling you can’t beat many games, because the odds are fixed against you. So, you need to stick to the ones for which your skill is sufficient to win – such as poker, private wagers, gin rummy, and sometimes blackjack. Avoid roulette and craps. These are games with odds that are permanently on the casino’s side. There is no way you can overcome this disadvantage, so you shouldn’t play. But life’s different. You’re in that game, even if you sometimes wish you weren’t – and your decisions always matter.

The original two-part series has been merged below and appears a single article. – Mike Caro

Caro’s Most Powerful Gambling Advice Tackles Real-Life: Parts I & II
“America’s Mad Genius” Mike Caro

Suddenly you’re awake. But where are you? Everywhere you look there’s white. White walls hug and confine you, stretching deeper and deeper, marking the boundaries of a straight, narrow, featureless hallway. You’re bewildered, but who wouldn’t be? Finally you stand and look behind you. All white, everything, going back to where it all vanishes.

You push against the hard white floor, swaying and almost losing your balance because you’ve been asleep so long. Looking ahead, you realize the hallway is not exactly like it was behind you. Almost the same, but not quite. Way, way in the distance you can see some specks. And, reasoning that specks are better than nothing, you begin walking toward them.

It takes a long time, but then the specks grow and define themselves. They have become signs, gold in color and arrow-shaped. They hang at the end of the hallway, and you can see lettering on them. Closer and closer you walk, until you can see that there’s a second hallway perpendicular to the this one. One arrow points left and reads: “Casino.” The other points right and reads: “Life.”

It’s decisions like this that make you cry out for your mommy. Let me help. Turn right toward the real world, and I’ll give you some advice as you’re walking. In the future I’ll provide plenty of strategy for winning at formal gambling, including some tips that will help you fare better inside the casino.

But there’s something you have to understand today. Gambling games are merely formalized, simplified ways of experiencing exactly the same risks we experience in everyday life. If you’re alive–as most of my readers are–you gamble. Formally or informally, you gamble.

Not surprisingly, many of the same strategies I’ve lectured about and analyzed with computers apply just as powerfully to everyday life as they do to formalized gambling. Somewhere down the list of my next 20 books, which I’ve announced but failed to deliver so far, is one called Poker Without Cards.

By the way, I absolutely never use any manipulative tactics that I teach against people I respect. Why? Because, having heard me lecture about these strategies, people would feel uncomfortable dealing with me. So, I deal with all friendly associates in a completely straightforward manner. I have to. You don’t. Now here are some useful examples of gambling tips and philosophies I hope you’ll successfully be able to adapt to the world around you.

1. The cards probably won’t break even–not in gin rummy, not in poker, and not in real life. There’s a common misconception that if you play poker long enough the cards will break even. Fat chance! Maybe, if you could play forever, never stopping, never sleeping, eventually you’d break even on luck. But not in just one lifetime! Early on you’d probably break even on, say, the number of full houses you were dealt, but it would take much longer to break even on circumstances surrounding those full houses.

You might lose more hands than you should lose on average. On the other hand, sometimes opponents might have nothing to oppose you with, and you’ll win nothing. You might get many full houses when you’re sitting in big-limit games, or you may receive most in smaller games. You might be against weak opponents, you might not. On and on. And the more factors you consider, the broader the range of luck, and the longer it will take for you to break even.

Does this mean some people are luckier than others for their lifetimes? You bet! But there’s good news. You can still win, year after year, in gambling games requiring skill, even if you’re not lucky. How? Simply by making the best decisions again and again without fail. Then, instead of being a break-even big-money player who may win $100,000 one year and lose $100,000 the next, you might win $250,000 in a lucky year and win $50,000 in an unlucky year. In this over-simplified example, the $200,000 swing from lucky year to unlucky year isn’t enough to cause you to lose. At seminars, I teach that you should go to the poker table day after day on a simple mission. That mission is to make the best decisions always, and never worry about whether you’re lucky or unlucky. You can’t control your luck, but you can control your decisions.

Same in life. Some people spend half their lives in hospitals. Others are healthy. All your belongings might be swept up in a tornado. You might discover a million dollar painting in you attic. Stop expecting life to be equal for everyone. It won’t be. Your mission is simply to make the best decisions with the “hands” you’re dealt.

2. If you’re a winner–in formal gambling or in life–you should never try to get even “for the night.” By doing this, you’re perverting your practice of making meaningful decisions while pursuing a meaningless goal. The mistake is in looking at each gambling session, or each financial venture, as a game to be won or lost. Don’t! In poker, it’s better to win $10,000, lose $2000, and lose $500 than to win $4,000, win $998 and win $2. In the first case, you won $7,500, but you only had one win and two losses. In the second case, you won only $5,000, but you won all three times. Oddly, most gamblers and most people in real life unconsciously feel better about the second scenario than the first. Such feelings are natural, but they’re also dangerous.

If you agree with me that $7,500 is better than $5,000, then you should clearly see that it doesn’t matter where the profits come from. The next two points are closely related, and they demonstrate how most people diminish their overall success.

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 blackjack 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 blackjack) 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 $50,000. One morning you wake up and it’s only worth $25,000. That same day, someone offers you $40,000. You should accept this offer, because you’re not losing $10,000, you’re gaining $15,000. 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 winning 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 $25,000 now. You can get $40,000 by selling. Selling is the right decision, and it has value–in this case, $15,000.

5. Never seek sympathy. I teach gamblers never to complain about bad luck. First of all, nobody really cares. Their own exaggerated memories of personal bad luck dwarf whatever you’re complaining about. And if you complain to opponents–such as in a poker game–they’re inspired because you’re unlucky. They’ll think you’re not a force to be reckoned with, they’ll play better, and they’ll cost you money.

It’s the same in life. There’s absolutely no reason to tell tales of misfortune. You’ll inspire life’s opponents, and you’ll lose esteem among life’s allies. So, if your luck is bad, keep it to yourself.

6. Keep your hand secret. If you habitually exposed your poker hand before the showdown, opponents would know what you had, and they’d know for certain whether to play against you, whether to raise you, whether to pass. It would be stupid to play poker that way, but people do that everyday in real life. How? They don’t keep secrets. Listen: Never volunteer personal information to anyone who isn’t a friend, unless you know specifically that you have something to gain by volunteering the information. Sound heartless? Well, OK, it’s all right to volunteer useful information if it can’t harm you. It’s also all right to give information sometimes if you’re getting information in return.

But think back. I’ll bet for every time you regretted keeping secrets, there are many more times you regretted telling secrets. People simply give away too much information, and it eventually haunts them. Secrets can seem insignificant at the time they’re shared, but later the sharing turns out to be an important mistake.

Like it or not, successful people keep secrets much better than unsuccessful people, just as successful poker players conceal their hands better than unsuccessful players. Repeating: It’s a fact that people who succeed keep secrets. Never reveal important information about yourself unless you have a specific reason for doing so. Starting now, practice telling yourself mentally why you’re giving information before you give information.

People talk about their lives and their opinions, giving information that may later be damaging. They do this because they want to seem friendly. But, there’s a special way you can be just as friendly and, instead of putting yourself in jeopardy, gain an advantage. How? Instead of giving information about yourself, use the same time to ask other people about themselves. If you’re talking to a potential competitor, don’t volunteer information; ask for opinions. I do this at the poker table. After a hand, I ask an opponent how he would have played. Usually, the player is flattered and offers a sincere answer, such as he would have bluffed. I remember that answer, and weeks later–long after the opponent has forgotten our conversation–I call and win the pot. It’s the same in real life. You remember the information, and you use it later.

By the way, when I consult with businesses, there seems to be one recurring problem that comes up again and again. How can supervisors best smooth up relationships between themselves and employees who don’t like them. The answer is simple. Ask the employees for their opinions. In life, you can patch up most relationships simply by softly asking a person: “What do you think?”, “What would you do in this situation?”, “How would you handle this?” People are universally flattered when you ask for opinions. It works with enemies, it works with employees, it works with children. Trust me, and try it. And it’s consistent with the powerful poker technique of concealing your own hand while learning as much as you can about your opponents.

One of life’s most important goals is to gain as much useful information from others as possible, while guarding your own secrets wisely.

7. Don’t humiliate your opponents. Always allow opponents to save face, no matter how tempting it is to gloat. When you make it painful for opponents to lose, they play better, but you want opponents to play worse. Additionally, life is complicated enough without motivating people to get even with you. So, always give those you conquer a chance to save face–unless you’ll never have to confront them again.

In poker, it’s the same–unless your opponent is permanently broke after losing this pot, don’t humiliate him. Angry players often return to harm you. Don’t gloat; win graciously.

8. Don’t even the score. This one’s hard on your ego, but listen anyway. In life you don’t need to get even with the person who did you wrong. Similarly, you don’t need to get even with the person who bluffed you in poker. You shouldn’t care where your next opportunity to gain comes from. You don’t have to get even or break even with anyone. Play the opportunities as they arise. Success stacks up the same, no matter where it comes from. Some people are so busy getting even, they never have time to get ahead.

In gambling and in life, a few people are going to get the better of you. So what? If you won a bet on a basketball game, would you be upset that the other team’s center scored more points than your team’s center? Of course not! You won the bet, so what do you care? Same in life. If you win overall, don’t fret over a few lost skirmishes, and never waste energy trying to get even with those who beat you.

9. Act last. Almost no one realizes the importance of acting last. At my poker seminars, I teach how important it is to understand your position at the table. Players must act in turn, and those who act after you have an advantage because they get to see what you do before they make their decisions. So, I teach that you should use psychology and make friends with players who act after you. They’ll then be less motivated to exploit their advantages. This works in life, too. Befriend those who have an advantage, so they will be less motivated to make it difficult on you. That’s important, and I’ll repeat it: In life, make friends with those who could do you the most damage.

And there’s more. You should usually strive to gain advantage by acting last. If you’re sure that everyone will have an equal chance to act, it’s better–with few exceptions–to wait to see what your opponents do, then adapt your strategy accordingly. In poker, we call it a positional advantage. Let’s call it the same thing in real life.

10. Save your fancy moves for when you’re running good. In skillful gambling, when your luck is running bad, opponents often become inspired and play better. You’re no longer a force to be reckoned with in their minds. Most of your fancy plays won’t work because you’ve lost the intimidation factor, which is fundamental to many aggressive strategies. At these times, you should become a more timid player. In life, do the same thing. Sometimes in conversations or in business, things aren’t really clicking and you’re losing ground. You can feel it happening. Play defensively. Your image is wrong for asserting yourself, so–if possible–just lurk and don’t take a stand yet. Many people desperately try to prove themselves when they are at a disadvantage, but they ought to just sit silently. As a bonus, this silence often seems like strength to others. Repeating: When you’re at a disadvantage, or you’re just not in sync, don’t try to prove yourself immediately. Wait it out. Sooner or later an opportunity will come, and then you can be profound or assertive.

11. Cheer for your friends. I want to warn you about envy. Many people don’t want their friends to succeed. In gambling, I never feel envious of friends who are winning more than I am. I want my friends to succeed so they can share their secrets, so they can tip me off to better games in the future, so they introduce me to rich novices looking for a game–all sorts of benefits. If your enemies win, you don’t get any of these advantages. It’s the same in life. You should want your friends to succeed always. The more friends you have succeeding, the more opportunities you’ll have. It’s just plain crazy, but common, to be jealous of your friends’ successes.

12. Don’t fret over each injustice. In gambling and in life, there’s always injustice. Bet on it! Poker’s worst starting hands often win. And bad players sometimes get lucky. In life, the same. In fact, there’s so much injustice that we couldn’t possibly devote ourselves to setting things right.

Next year there will probably be 246 unbelievably unjust things that will happen to you personally. Cashiers will hand you too little change. People will spread falsehoods about you. Someone will misunderstand what you say. Crooks will scam you. On and on. And we’re guessing that this will happen 246 times next year. If it only happens 230 times, you’re having a good year! So, you can either just going on to the next thing, or you can damage you chances of success by dwelling on each injustice, talking about it, fuming over it. All that fusing, all that fuming, all that waste of mental energy really doesn’t make sense. Why should you get aggravated, especially if you’re having a good year? So, simply, learn to overlook injustices unless you’re prepared to act on them. Yes, It’s noble to act against injustice, but it’s wasteful to dwell on personal injustices you’re not willing to act on.

I’d be honored if you tried out some of the strategies we’ve talked about the last two months. Let me know if they work for you. — MC

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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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  1. Hi Mike,

    Your twelve life strategy tips that really work are real / true!

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