Reflections on the faces of poker

“The darkest moments are when you have the most to gain
moments worth the repetition of any pain”

–Monk Eastman
A while ago my best friend looked upon my headlong dive into poker as something temporary and trivial, a curious waste of time. But it’s been about a year now, and I’m still putting in the hours. Every once in a while, while grinding away at the tables, I wonder if he’s right– is all this time spent sitting in front of the computer, pushing “raise” or “fold” really worth it? Surely there must be some nobler deed that needs being done by a young, semi-intelligent writer-type who wants to make the world a better place.
At its worst, poker is a crude hobby in which mercenaries prey on the unknowledgable and impatient to make a small profit. These grinders play the percentages, minimizing their risk and exploiting the mistakes of their opponents in order to win their measly two big bets per hour.
In this view of poker, we see the winning poker player as a leech. His advantage comes from experience and knowledge, and not from brilliance, courage, or creativity. In many poker games, creativity is a trait that is punished rather than rewarded. Deviating from the time-tested “rules of thumb” that generate profit may work in the short run, but creativity is lost on players who refuse to lay down their hand no matter what.
To make matters worse, poker is a dynamic game of incomplete information. This means that for every decision point in the game, there is no definite “right” answer. Throw in a dash of bad luck, and the optimal play becomes more costly than a bad decision. Although good decisions are rewarded in the long run, bad luck can turn the best hand into a big loser.
Ahh, but it’s easy to see poker at its worst. Gambling is bad! Poker is a game, and no way to earn money. Produce! Consume! Feed the machine!
At its best, poker is much more than a game. Money acts as the scorekeeper for a contest of wits, where brilliant champions use their knowledge and experience to outsmart their opponents. Not only must the expert player use all his skill and knowledge, his resolution must be unshakable if he is to survive the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.
Poker is a mirror of life. Superb knowledge and skill is not enough– the successful player must be able to ride the waves of luck, and separate bad luck from bad play. Self-awareness and “knowing thyself” is the only weapon the poker player has against the temptation to tilt away hours of hard-earned profit.
The great poker player does not simply prey on the mistakes of others. He’s the lion in the jungle, fighting for domination of the table through cunning, courage, and perserverance. After paying his dues at the lowest limits, he no longer makes a living from the donations of the fish. He pits his skill against proven winners, and goes home many days having lost money for a full day of work.
Unlike the typical 9 to 5 job, poker is a place where intelligence and courage are immediately rewarded. Performance-based pay is rare in the corporate world, and no matter how well you do your job, you’re more likely to get a pat on the back rather than a stack of chips. Likewise, bad decisions on the job won’t usually lose you money, but too many mistakes on the poker table will cost you a lot of hours of steady grinding.
Poker is a beautiful game. It’s not pretty like chess, or graceful like football, but it’s a lot like life. Sometimes ugly, sometimes beautiful, and never beyond the grasp of luck. It’s got plenty of bad in it, but if you pay attention, you’ll learn a lot about yourself playing this game.

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