“Good people are good because they’ve come to wisdom through failure. “
cards continue to treat me well this week, and the long cold spell of terrible
cards seems like a distant memory. However, looking back on the cold spell,
I couldn’t help but think of one of my all-time favorite movies– Groundhog
Day. And seeing how the last few weeks have been pretty heavy on the
analysis, it’s time for something a little more light-hearted. That’s right–
it’s time to extract the poker wisdom from Groundhog Day.
On the surface, the life of the protagonist in Groundhog Day is a lot like
the life of a pro poker player. Every day the poker pro takes his seat at the
table and although the faces/avatars sometimes change, the game is the same.
That’s why they call it the grind. In essence, Phil Connors (played by the
great Bill Murray) must learn to accept the the grind in order to learn how
to live his life. And like the characters in the movie, the cards have no memory.
The deck does not care if you’ve lost 10 times in a row with pocket Aces, or
if you’ve just won 4 hands in a row. All you can do is play the next hand the
best you can, and not worry about the past or the future. This is the wisdom
of Groundhog Day.
Phil: What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly
the same, and nothing that you did mattered?
Ralph: That about sums it up for me.
In one of my favorite scenes in the movie, Phil tries to get some sympathy
from blue-collar Ralph, whose small town life is the same, day-in and day-out.
As a wise poker blogger once said, good limit poker (at least the low-limit
variety) is somewhat boring on the surface. You find a game where there are
lots of bad players who make bets and calls when the odds are against them.
You calculate your pot odds and throw your chips in when your hand is going
to win more than its fair share. That’s it. Stone-cold bluffs, steal raises,
and other glorious plays aren’t a part of the grind. And when the river starts
flowing over you, and you lose to runner-runner yet again, it seems like there
is nothing you can do that matters. The truth is, if you can learn to be at
peace with yourself and confident in your play, you can accept the daily grind
and win at a steady rate.
Phil: There is no way this winter is *ever* going to end as long as that
groundhog keeps seeing his shadow. I don’t see any way out of it. He’s got
to be stopped. And I have to stop him.
Phil goes on tilt after he concludes there is nothing he can do to escape
his fate. He ends up driving off a cliff and crashing and burning with Punxsutawney
Phil on his lap. The most common type of crashing and burning for poker players
is going up in limits after either a really good run or a really bad run. The
player who hasn’t steeled his game with an understanding of variance and bankroll
will too often play in a game that is over his head financially or in skill
level. Emotion can be a dangerous thing in poker–a good run of cards can make
your head too big, and a bad run can crush your confidence. Avoid tilt– understand
variance, take the good with the bad, and you’ll save yourself from driving
off a cliff.
Phil: You wanna throw up here, or you wanna throw up in the car?
Ralph : I think… both.
This quote, from a drunken Ralph, captures the way I felt after I lost the
biggest pot of my life. I broke my own rule, and managed to lose all of my
chips with top pair in a wild pot-limit game at Hollywood Park. After limping
in on the button with AJo (and getting raised by the big blind up to $25),
I found myself looking at a flop of Js 6h 8h with $150 in the pot. Checked
around to me, I fired a huge pot-size bet out, only to find myself getting
reraised all in by the big blind. He had bluffed a lot early, and I was set
up perfectly to make a terrible play– getting 3:1, I sadly put in the rest
of my stack, hoping for an Ace or a Jack. He turned over Aces, and I wanted
to throw up on the table and in the car. Needless to say, it was a long drive
home and one of the worst plays I’ve made in recent months. However, this play
marked the end of a month of cold cards, and perhaps my terrible play somehow
allowed me to turn the corner and play better. But more likely it was simply
Phil Connors: This is pitiful. A thousand people freezing their butts
off waiting to worship a rat. What a hype. Well, it used to mean something
in this town. They used to pull the hog out, and they used to *eat* it. You’re
hypocrites, all of you!
This quote goes out to the current crop of online players, who don’t seem
to know just how good we have it. These days, a good game is delivered to you
at 100 Megabits per second. Back in the days before internet poker, you needed
more than just the best hand to win. The road gamblers– TJ and Doyle– had
to drive across states just to find a game, and then occasionally had to stare
down both barrels of a shotgun if they wanted to escape with their winnings.
The new breed of poker player complains when their wireless connection goes
down or a site crashes in the middle of a big multi-table tournament. I’m glad
that poker has gone mainstream, but you can’t help miss the adventure of the "old
Larry: Did he actually refer to himself as "the talent"?
Chris Elliot’s mocking of Murray’s character goes out to all of the table coaches,
aquarium tappers, and of course, Phil Hellmuth. You want players to make mistakes,
so don’t berate them when they do. Without their mistakes, the only winner
in poker would be the house.
Ned: Phil? Phil Connors? Phil Connors, I thought that was you. Now don’t
you tell me you don’t remember me ’cause I sure as heckfire remember you.
Phil: Not a chance.
Ned: Ned… Ryerson. "Needlenose Ned"? "Ned the Head"?
C’mon, buddy. Case Western High. I did the whistling belly-button trick at
the high school talent show? Bing. Ned Ryerson, got the shingles real bad senior
year, almost didn’t graduate? Bing, again. Ned Ryerson, I dated your sister
Mary Pat a couple of times until you told me not to anymore? Well?
Phil: Ned Ryerson?
Ok, it’s a bit of a stretch to include this quote as poker wisdom, but I couldn’t
leave out my favorite exchange in the movie. This one goes out to all the railbirds
begging for chips, both online and in the casino. The Ned Ryersons of the online
world pop up in your chatbox, asking for $50 dollars they can "hold" for
a while, and of course they’ll pay you back tomorrow. It doesn’t matter that
you have no idea who they are, they’re happy to borrow your money. I once had
the horror of watching a terrible player (who I’d seen play 90% of her hands
in a $6-12 game) drop $1000 in the $20-40 game in about an hour. Shortly after,
I felt a tap on my shoulder and a request to borrow $50.
Me: "What good is $50 going to do you? That’s a big blind in the $20-40
Ned: "Gas money?"
Phil: I’ve been stabbed, shocked, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted,
Rita: Oh, really?
Phil: Every day I wake up without a scratch on me, not a dent in the fender…
I am an immortal.
The great poker players all have the same immortality as Phil. Almost anybody
can win– it’s not too hard to rake in pots all night when the deck is hitting
you in the face. The way a player loses, however, is the real test of character.
Most of us are taught our entire life that "results are the only thing
that counts," especially in America, where the means are far less important
than the end. For the majority of our endeavors, bad results usually indicate
bad performance. In poker, however, the results are not always related to performance–
often perfect play can result in greater losses than imperfect play. The zen
of poker is learning to separate results from performance and to strive for
immortality– no matter how many times you die on the river, you wake up without
a scratch on you.
Phil Connors successfully breaks through to his true self by learning how
to accept the grind. Good luck on making the break, in poker and life.