I used to be mentally retarded (Caro blog)

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Entry #8 (2010-05-09)

From my hermitage deep in the Ozarks, I share my life with you. Some of my friends think I’m crazy to make so much of my personal life public and to share my feelings so openly. They say it’s a dangerous world and the Internet is a cruel place.

But I see it quite differently. I see you as my family and Poker1 as my means of communicating my experiences to you — all my research, my lectures, my lessons. And, also, my secret spirit. So, here’s a piece I wrote for Poker Digest in 2001 that caused a brief controversy and was then quickly buried. Oddly, I also found it attached to a life-strategy entry here at Poker1. I want you to read this, because it may give insight into your life and the lives surrounding you — as well as giving you a better understanding of who I am and why I teach.

You see, I was retarded once. I know the word “retarded” is no longer supposed to be used, due to the dictates of political correctness. But it’s the way we spoke then; so that’s what I was — at least in the minds of those who evaluated me. Here’s the true story…

Sharing my story

Two days ago, I stopped at a red light in Long Beach, and I noticed a man crossing a street. I was startled. He looked exactly like George Hardie.

Now, Hardie is a very prominent person, politically active, founder of the Bicycle Casino near Los Angeles, 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 each day 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. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

Visit Mike on   → Twitter   ♠ OR ♠    → FaceBook

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.


24 thoughts on “I used to be mentally retarded (Caro blog)”

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  1. I relate in many ways to this article, I make poor decisions, but poor decisions in whose eyes? I regret things I do or say immediately everyday, but I stay up, figure it out and jump back in the fire. Sometimes I’m just brutally honest. I’m nobody’s bitch.

  2. Thank you Mike for sharing that very personal story.

    Interesting who people encounter on life’s journey.

  3. Thanks for sharing.. I feel like it took a lot of personal strength to share something so close to home ..it reminds me of times in my life where I might , without having realized it , fallen into a rut where I didn’t care , felt low about myself personally and stopped trying..or like you say got comfortable and sheltered in certain way of thinking or acting and then sometimes something happens to sort of like you say like a miracle river ace happens to shake you out of it.. it reminds me of some of my own school experiences

  4. Mike:

    Thank you so much for sharing this. I’ve been a teacher, off and on, for the last 35 years, and your memories brought back so many of my students.

    But especially Roy … an awkward, shy boy who could barely read in 3rd grade (it was a tiny school, and I had him for 3 years). In 6th grade, after a lot of work, he was still not a great reader, but at least he knew he wasn’t the “failure” that everyone had told him up to that point. Would you believe his parents introduced him to me the first time as “This is Roy, and he is retarded?”

    But that boy in 3rd grade could take apart a lawn mower, engine and all, and put it back together again better than it was when it was new.

    Later, I learned he joined the army and was running a motor pool.

    I wish you’d share this story with a few teachers.

  5. Mad Man-
    what can someone do if they just keep losing at life and poker and its never felt different – both in and out of school? Should I claim to be retarded so that I don’t have to keep trying?
    honestly. I’ve been trying to become a winning poker player since I started playing (2 years ago). At this point I feel like I am destined to be the player that feeds everyone else’s bankroll. Even when I come away with a win I still feel like I made so many wrong moves. mike, i’m still in the cocoon of the retarded. Is there something I can do or is it mere luck that finally throws you out of the cocoon? Anything I try seems to strengthen its stranglehold. quick! tell me why I should continue playing!

    and thank you very much for this post

    1. Play through it. 24/7 365

      Also, until the sword is sharp do not engage.

      Last and not least…make sure you’re playing appropriate to your bankroll size and …

  6. Regards from Brazil Mike!

    Your words are so wise, just like Doyle´s, Iam a big fan of you all. For you and most of “old school” players, poker its philosofy, not just a game!

    I started 2 years ago in poker, Iam a cop and studied Law, but my dream is to live as a poker player…

    I think the same way how poker decisions reflex the very life decisions, some months ago i posted in my blog in portuguese, I ´ll translate to english for you, if have a minute, please read =)

    Congrats you are inspiration and sorry for the bad english. Tks!

  7. good news..i got my bankroll up to 950 with your help… its down to 800 but hopefully it will change tonight, thanks to you i notice so many little things..with your tips i even can predict who’s going to fold and who’s going to raise. its AMAZING.. so for now im back to studying your works THANKS!

    1. Great to hear, Frankie.

      Remember not to get too psyched up by the win streaks or two depressed by the losing streaks. Poker fate can turn quickly, but if you continue to play your best game with an advantage, eventually you’ll succeed in a big way.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  8. Mike, I read “I used to be mentally retarded” with a little bewilderment.

    I was taken back as to how accurately you described me in school. Never did homework, I played pattern games with the answers on the “Iowa Basic Skills” exams, I could answer the questions if I desired, but I didn’t desire to. I now joke that they must have thought that I was “train-ably retarded”, with a high probability of working as a “ditch digger” as we used to say.

    I even waited until the age of 40 before going to college. It took that long for me to want to go through the school ordeal again.

    No one knew that I was somewhat of a mechanical genius, as there was little opportunity to display those skills to others. Still at 56 years old, I find myself a little withdrawn and am very comfortable with myself, and do not require a group of friends for personal fulfillment.

    How does this relate to poker? For me I don’t struggle with figuring out the probabilities of a hand developing, and my observation, analytical, and information retention skills are much stronger than some of the people I play against. It might give me a slight edge against pure luck, and I’ll take it.

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi, Ed —

      You wrote, in part: “Thanks for sharing.”

      Let me say the same thing right back at you. Thanks for adding this comment to the new Poker1.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  9. Although im 23 I feel im at that very same point of my life, a fork in the road where i have to choose to be slow and complacent to the boring work life or become someone more than that..i dont want to be subject to an alarm clock my whole life..i dont want to get paid based purely from my neck down, i dont belong there, but rather from my neck up and i feel poker is the way to do it..My bankroll is low (200) but i think with your help i can be more than a slow individual ..Thanks Mike for sharing that inspiring story..This gives me an idea…how about you take one person a year and guide this person from 0 bankroll to lets say 10,000 and be a show or blog.. and very helpful to other poker players.. if you find this idea to be good please pick me LOL

    1. Hi, Frankie —

      I like your idea a lot, although I probably won’t have the time to guide anyone through the bankroll-building process. It would be fun and instructive to include that at Poker1, though.

      You need to be aware that most small bankrolls will be lost, no matter how skillful you are at poker. Building a bankroll can be frustrating and there are often many setbacks along the way.

      Eventually, if you’re good enough, you’ll get jump started and your bankroll will grow to the point where it’s very difficult to replace if lost. At that point, you should be very vigilant in protecting it. Meanwhile, you can take a few chances, as long as the odds are in your favor.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  10. I´ve just read your “article” “I used to be mentally retarded”, it´s great, I find it so stimulating and true. The son of a friend used to be classified as “slow”… And he´s a great poker player, I feel so proud of him. And Poker is a game for very intelligent people, like you … Thank you for sharing !!!

  11. Hi Mike,

    Nice, post, I really enjoy your reading, thank you for sharing this history.

    Best regards,
    Juan Ochoa

  12. Hi Mike! After starting reading your writings I’ve finished 3 times out of five in top 25 (3rd as best) in tournaments with over 3k players. Ok, they were freerolls, but still. Coincidence? I think not. I’ve changed so little about my play, but your tips seem to make all the difference. Thank you so much, and straight flushes to you as well!

    P.S. A certain Mr. Einstein had a hard time in school as well, as did a certain Mr. Stephen Hawking… See the trend?

    1. Hi, Mika —

      Thanks for joining our Poker1 family.

      Great to hear about your recent tournament success, and thanks for the kind words. Remember, though, no matter how well you play tournaments, luck plays a big part and you will go many tournaments consecutively without making it to the money.

      Droughts are natural. So don’t base your expectations on recent results, as much I’m flattered by your attributing that to me.

      About Einstein and Hawking — yes, I see the trend. LOL.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  13. M. Caro;
    I have read your blog,”I used to be mentally retarded”. Thank
    You for sharing your real life experience.
    I could see myself as I read.
    I think I used my fantasys & dreams as my escape to a happier & successful life.
    I must admit(very happy to do so)that my introduction to Texas Hold’em Poker was my ace in the hole. My husband is a full-blooded Texas man who taught me how to play. I jumped in with both feet & totally immersed myself in the game. I have not ever regretted one moment.
    Thank G-d for people like you. You & my husband gave me a spark for life can be great. It has been so far. THANK YOU & G-D BLESS

    1. Hi, Barbara —

      I appreciate your kind words and I’m glad you were able to equate my experience with your own. Welcome to Poker1.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  14. Your courage to share this story is admirable. It brought back memories of my own personal setbacks and triumphs. You are always so inspiring.

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