Indifferent (and Broke)

Epictetus quote applies to poker players

On a trip to Las Vegas last week, one of my traveling friends went through several consecutive days filled with coolers and bad beats at the poker tables.  For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Dylan.”  Dylan’s sets, straights, flushes and full houses kept losing to bigger sets, straights, flushes and full houses.  It was one of the worst concentrated running bad streaks I’ve seen.

He kept texting me highlights (or lowlights?):

  • All-in pre-flop with AA v. KK v. JJ and flop was KJ3… big pot
  • Flopped set v. other guy turned higher set
  • I’ve busted twice in less than an hour, max buy-in both times
  • Lost 440 big blinds pot – aces full vs. aces fuller
  • Limp/shoved 50 BBs with AT v. straddler, he snap called with A5o and flop was 558
  • Flopped the nut flush and someone turned a boat, all-in by the river
  • Nut straight vs. flush
  • Top 2-pair vs. flush, in case you were wondering how I’m doing
  • Lost with nut straight with flush redraw (on turn) vs. rivered boat
  • …aaaaand just ran an all-in semi-bluff into the stone cold nuts
  • Boat vs. boat 4-handed  [Editors note:  I later learned that when Dylan showed his full house, the other player thought he was beaten, flashed his cards to a third player who wasn’t part of the action, then threw them into the muck.  The third player pointed out that the villain has misread his hand and actually had a bigger full house, and the dealer retrieved his cards from the top of the muck pile, declared the hand live, and awarded him the pot.]
  • Some fucker just called me all the way down w/AJ high and rivered the ace.  I 3-bet pre-flop and bet every street with TT
  • Idiot guy just overbet bluffed the flop and turn and I called him twice knowing I was ahead and I rivered 2-pair when he rivered a 1-liner straight.  Then he proceeded to apologize

Poor Dylan (pun intended!).  Less than 140 characters at a time, we can see the tone deteriorate to the point of insulting the other players, a sure sign of an emotional state that is likely to lead to bad decisions on top of bad beats.

At times like these, I find it hard to put empathy into words that land just right.  What do you say to someone whose best hands (including aces full!) keep losing?  I reminded Dylan that he’s a very good poker player, and talked some about the Stoic concept of indifference.  Regular readers of this poker blog know I’m a fan of Stoicism, an ancient school of philosophy that flourished during the early Roman empire.

One of the core tenets of Stoic philosophy is indifference, but not with the same connotation we attach to that word today.  Stoic philosophers including Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca all used this provocative term to encourage us to strive to become indifferent to external things – pain, wealth, winning, hopes and dreams, influence and so on.

Their point wasn’t that we shouldn’t care about anything; it was that we should be good either way.  About things we cannot control, we should not waste emotional energy.  We can still live a good life even when the fickleness of fate is unkind.  Dylan and I spent a few minutes discussing the hand where the villain’s cards were retrieved from the muck pile by the dealer.  Dylan had 33, the villain had AK and the board ran out K88-3-K.  Because the villain was short-stacked, Dylan had 4-bet all-in pre-flop.  I pointed out how the hand would have gone had they both been deep-stacked.  Dylan might call the 3-bet pre-flop to go set-mining, villain would make a continuation bet on that flop and Dylan would fold.  End of story.

Dylan would still lose (but less), and the events that were beyond his control – including turning a full house, being counterfeited on the river, thinking he had won when the villain mucked his cards, and the reversal based on the dealer ruling that hand to be live – wouldn’t have happened.  When all that happened, Dylan suffered emotionally while somehow maintaining enough poise to ‘let the cards speak’ without pitching a fit.

The Stoics recognized that indifference to things that make no difference is, for most people, an unachievable ideal.  We can strive for indifference, we can train, practice and remind ourselves of this ideal through daily rituals, but must not forget that as humans we are fundamentally flawed.  Striving for indifference is better than not striving, and paradoxically one of the things we will struggle with is becoming indifferent to our failure to achieve ubiquitous indifference.

The concept of indifference is extremely useful for poker players.  To play the best poker, we should tune out the money, tune out whether we win or lose each hand, avoid results-oriented thinking, and focus on the quality of our decisions.  By making good reads and good decisions over the long run, winning will take care of itself.

This is one of the reasons I use multiples of the big blind in poker hand analyses in this blog.  Whether the blinds are small or large, we should be indifferent to the absolute size of the bet (in dollars) and evaluate the context instead (as multiple of the big blind or as a percentage of the existing pot size).  It is a fallacy to say you the correct decision in a given situation is difference at low stakes than at high stakes.

All this philosophy mumbo-jumbo comes from a poker blogger who failed miserably at being a good Stoic on the first day of our trip.

One key to Stoic-style indifference in poker is good bankroll management.  We must maintain enough working capital to avoid going completely broke.  We must play at stakes that allow us to buy-in at an amount that keeps our buy-in-to-bankroll ratio sufficiently low.

Near the end of our Vegas trip I read an article about NFL star quarterback Kirk Cousins.  Cousins pursues becoming the best that he can be while maintaining a disdain for money.  He and his wife move into a relative’s basement every winter to save money.  He tapes photos of sports journalists inside his locker to help remember their names.  He reads relentlessly.  He surrounds himself with experts – on nutrition, brain function, leadership skills, fitness, biochemistry…  Cousins is described as obsessively nerdy and frugal, committed to a never-ending process of becoming better.  Oh yes, he just signed an $84 million guaranteed contract with the Minnesota Vikings.  Not bad for a player originally drafted to be groomed into a backup quarterback.  Not bad for someone who is indifferent about the money.

The same applies in the business world.  One of Kirk Cousins’ mentors is Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric.  A few years back, many business pundits, consultants and self-proclaimed experts declared that management’s #1 priority is to create shareholder value.  Welch pushed back, calling the obsession with shareholder value the “dumbest idea in the world.  Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy… your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products.” He’s right.  Executives can’t control shareholder value; indifference coupled with obsessing over product quality and customer service and workforce development would be a wiser attitude.  Hiring and keeping talented employees and acquiring and retaining happy customers is what creates the most shareholder value.

Poker players who mimic Kirk Cousins and Jack Welch will be long-term winners.  This requires a commitment to process and improvement – hand reading, frequencies, player-specific tendencies, emotional control [note to self:  this!], poker math, bankroll management, game and seat selection, quitting.  We’ll be dealt a few good hands and many bad ones.  Some of the “good” ones will turn into disasters, a fate Dylan knows all too well.  Nevertheless, our only choices are to play the hands we are dealt or not play at all.

All you can control is making good decisions (said the poker blogger two days after going on “breakfast tilt”).

At one point, Dylan gave me an icy stare.  “I’m going to be indifferent and broke!”  Like so many other poker discussions, it depends…


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