Life Lessons From Poker

Since I received positive feedback on Life Lessons From Blackjack last week, I thought I’d share some lessons I learned from poker as well.


Again, feel free to skip the background story if you just want to read the lessons part. I only include this for the curious.

I first learned to play poker when I was 18, just playing nickel-dime-quarter games with friends from school. I was a fairly weak player back then, mostly using a loose-aggressive style and bluffing way too much. But I enjoyed the game and would usually play at least once a week. Of course, this was only in home games where I mostly played those deviant forms of poker not found in casinos. My favorite game was called 3-5-7. I only played for fun at this time and for many years thereafter, I never took the game seriously.

When I was 21 and living in L.A., some friends and I made a few trips to Commerce Casino. I played mostly 7-stud at the time and a little bit of hold’em. I didn’t keep records back then, but overall I probably broke even. I played at Commerce perhaps 5 times total. It was an hour’s drive from my home, so it wasn’t convenient enough to bother with, since I was only playing for fun anyway.

From the age of 24 to 33, I hardly played poker at all, maybe once a year on average. It just wasn’t a big part of my life.

In January 2004, my family and I moved to Vegas. The availability of poker games in Vegas (and the recent surge in popularity) means that you can always find a game. The Las Vegas Strip is only a 20-minute drive from my home, and Downtown Vegas is 15 minutes away. Plus the closest casino to my house (Santa Fe Station) recently added a poker room, so now a game is only 10 minutes away.

When I first moved here, I thought it would be fun to play poker more often, since I always enjoyed a good game. I had no intention of making it into a career, but nor did I have any interest in losing money at it. I figured that if I could learn how to count cards at blackjack, surely I could become decent enough at poker to consistently beat the low-limit games. That way I could have fun and win a little money at the same time.

Turns out I was right.

Based on recommendations from others, I picked up a few books on the subject. My favorite was Winning Low-Limit Hold’em by Lee Jones. I followed Jones’ recommendations fairly closely, and they worked well.

I only play the cheapest limits, like $1-3 and $2-6 spread games or the $2-4 structured games. I play in smoke-free poker rooms, which fortunately are becoming more common. Personally I like the campy/friendly (and smoke-free) atmosphere of the Excalibur poker room, so that’s where I usually play. It’s a very winnable, low-pressure game if you’re halfway decent, especially on a Friday or Saturday night when the place is filled with tourists who are mostly there for fun and free drinks. I know most of the dealers there by name, and all are very friendly.

I’m not out to make a career out of this, and I certainly don’t consider myself a shark. I just love the fun and the challenge of the game. I’ve always enjoyed competition.

On average I play a couple times a month, usually on weekends. I record every session I play in a spreadsheet, so I can see how I did — I want to know if I’m winning or losing. Last year I came out positive, with a per session win rate of about 70% and a positive hourly rate of $2.27 (net of tips). Obviously I’m not going to get rich playing such low limits, but to me this is only an entertaining hobby, not a serious entrepreneurial venture. I only play in person, not online, because I like chatting with other players and meeting interesting people from around the world.

Poker is by far a much tougher game to master than blackjack because your decisions depend on the actions of other players, not merely on pre-determined rules of play and probabilities. Playing poker also takes a lot more patience than blackjack in my opinion. Between poker and blackjack, I enjoy poker a lot more because of the human factor.

Poker Observations

Whereas in blackjack most of my observations came from watching other players play their hands, in poker I’ve learned the most by observing myself, partly due to the nature of the game (I can’t see every decision other people make as I can in blackjack).

Here are some observations I’ve make from playing poker over the years:

1. You can learn a lot about other people by studying yourself.

Simply by observing myself and watching my own tells, like seeing my hands shake when I looked down and saw pocket aces on the button, I learned to look for those same tells in other players. In low-limit games, virtually anytime you see a player’s hands shaking as they try to place their bet, it means they have a monster hand. I’ve thrown away many solid hands after reading this tell, and so far every single time it was the right decision. By observing my own behavior, I could watch for it in other people.

How does this apply to life itself? If you know how you behave when experiencing certain emotional states, you can watch for that behavior in others to gain information (which can be extremely helpful in certain situations).

For example, if I’m watching someone give a speech, I can observe how I behave when I’m really bored or really interested. Then when I’m the one giving the speech, I can watch for those reactions in the audience. If I see people leaning forward, smiling, and nodding, I know I have a captive audience because that’s what I do when I’m captivated.

If you’re a salesperson, how do you behave when you watch someone else give a good/bad presentation? If you’re a manager, how do you behave when someone tries to delegate something to you and you don’t intend to do it? If you’re married, how do you behave when you aren’t really listening to your spouse?

Observe how your own behaviors reflect various internal states, and then watch for those behaviors in others to gain information. You may be surprised to find that emotional states produce a physiological response that is extremely similar from person to person.

2. You can learn a lot about yourself by studying other people.

This is the reverse of #1. By observing how others behave in poker, and then seeing what kind of hand they have, I can connect their behaviors to information. Then when I see these physiological tells again, I can more easily put that player on a hand.

Many poker players do this. No big whoop.

But how many poker players take what they learn about other players and then apply it to themselves? This means watching for the tells you pick up from other players in yourself, especially when you’re heads-up against the player you saw express those tells. So if you see someone looking away from the table when they have a monster hand, make sure you don’t look away when you’ve got a monster.

You can also take this concept a step further and use it even more proactively. If you see other people behave a certain way when they have a great hand, you may find it beneficial to exert that same behavior on purpose when you’re heads-up against that player and want to bluff him/her out. It’s a sneaky way of using that person’s own physiological response to feed them false information. Just make sure you aren’t too obvious about it, or the other player will catch you. I find it works best as a subconscious signal that alters their intuitive feeling about the hand.

So what’s the life lesson here? The lesson is that this kind of manipulation also works outside the game of poker. By learning someone’s tells, you can consciously exhibit a certain behavior to activate the response you want. Certainly this sounds manipulative, and it is. But by being aware of this tactic, you can reduce your susceptibility to it.

TV commercials use this kind of manipulation all the time. They know all the tells for various emotional states, and they use them to attempt to manipulate your emotional response. This is one reason so many commercials appear logically stupid, but they can still be effective if they include the proper signals that bypass your mind and drive their message into your subconscious.

Think of those drug commercials where they read the side effects (which often sound worse than the symptoms the drug is supposed to treat), but the visual imagery suggests the exact opposite. The characters exhibit the tells of the emotional states the advertiser wants you to associate to their product or service. But those signals often have nothing to do with the product itself. In other words, you aren’t being shown the real emotional states the product will induce in you, but far more pleasurable states that probably won’t occur by using the product at all.

How many beer commercials show drunk people behaving stupidly?

3. Both intellect and intuition can provide input for making correct decisions.

In poker sometimes logic is correct, and other times intuition is correct. Sometimes they agree; sometimes they don’t.

In life, however, you generally have more options than check, bet, call, raise, or fold. Life is more open-ended, and when logic and intuition disagree, sometimes it’s best not to choose sides but to listen to both and seek out a third alternative.

When my logic and intuition seem to disagree, I try to step back and see the situation from other perspectives. In the past I’d usually favor my logic, only to find that my intuition was right. Then I’d slide too far the other way, and pay the price of ignoring my intellect. Now I know that both inputs provide information, but they do so by acting upon imperfect data.

In poker you’re limited in how much data you can gather. But life offers other extra opportunities for peaking at the cards. You can ask for expert advice while you play. You can take in new information to augment the data your logic and intuition are processing. You can wait for clarity before acting. You can even dive in with your best decision, see what the next card looks like, and adjust course afterwards.

4. Don’t be a fish.

“Fish” are bad poker players who are essentially there to give away their money. They don’t bother to develop much skill at the game, so they just play badly. And the longer they play, the more they lose.

Isn’t life the same? If you play badly long enough, eventually you lose. Abuse your health, your relationships, or your finances, and you can kiss them goodbye.

Good players learn the rules of the game and build their skills. They eliminate negative habits that would otherwise bring them down.

5. You can make no mistakes and still lose.

In poker you can expect to take bad beats again and again. Eventually you’ll take one in a heartbreaking situation when someone draws highly improbable runner-runner cards to beat your made hand.

Life is the same. You can play perfectly and still lose.

There’s no security in the cards. The only true security lies in knowing you did your best. Focus on making correct decisions, and let the cards fall as they may.

6. No single hand will kick you out of the game for life.

When you take a bad beat, just take a deep breath and brush it off. It’s in the past, and there’s nothing you can do about it now.

Stay focused on the present. There’s another hand to be played.

7. Do not play J8s UTG no matter how seductive it looks and how certain you are of achieving a multiway pot.

The life lesson here is left as an exercise for the reader. 🙂

If you’re a poker player yourself, I invite you to share your own life lessons from the game by posting a comment.