The Cardinal Blockers

In the late spring of 1981, I was close to finalizing a summer internship in Washington, DC, where I had spent a most enjoyable previous summer. Then as abruptly as most poker tournaments end, my internship fell through.

My father was in New Orleans for the first half of the summer (for reasons beyond the scope of this blog) and offered a place to stay if I wanted to come down there. A couple days later, my sister dropped my duffle bag and me off at a truck stop on I-20 westbound in our hometown of Columbia, SC and I began bumming for a ride. After five rides in 18-wheelers plus one pickup truck – a burly guy who wanted to take my male-to-male virginity – over 700 miles and 33 hours, I met Dad at Felix’s Oyster Bar in the French Quarter. I started the trip with $150 in my pocket.

Maybe someday I’ll write up the longer story of this memorable summer.

I had a lot of free time in New Orleans. As a philosophy major, I thought (see what I did there?) I should read more philosophy and chose to focus on the most famous of the classic Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Seriously, why not? In another year I’d be graduating and trying to figure out how to make a living; this might be my last best chance to sit and read and think about the great ideas from the cradle of western civilization.

That summer I read 16 of Plato’s works, plus several more of Aristotle’s, often sitting on a bench gazing across the Mississippi River. The same Mississippi River on which steamboat gamblers birthed America’s poker craze and named the final card “the river.” In The Republic and elsewhere, Plato waxes extensively about the four Cardinal Virtues of wisdom, temperance, courage and justice. These qualities reflect the nature of the soul. The highest combination of happiness and well-being comes from the perfect balance of Cardinal Virtues. Yet Plato cautions that too much of a good thing isn’t always better. Too much courage, for example, leads to foolhardiness, the taking of unnecessary or excessive risks.

Wisdom is primarily the domain of rulers; courage is essential for soldiers; temperance implies moderation, whether in consumption of food or alcohol, sex or lawmaking. Justice is for everybody, holding society together.

At the poker table, the Cardinal Virtues are sources of profit. Wisdom comes from studying the game and the players, pattern recognition, knowing the odds. Temperance is balance; when our own ranges become too narrow or too wide, we make ourselves exploitable. Too much courage makes one a spewy maniac; not enough courage gets one run over by relentless pressure and uncertainty, unable to pull the trigger or trust difficult reads. Justice occurs over the long run.

In recent months, my thoughts have been on a different side of the table, reflecting on negative emotions that work in opposition to the Cardinal Virtues and block poker success. The tilting emotions. Can I train myself, through meditation or other techniques, to recognize and let go of the negative emotions? Can I train myself to identify and acknowledge  them in real time?

I’ve identified four negative emotions that – for me – are the most harmful to my poker game and surely hurting other aspects of my life too. Since there are four, the same as the number of Cardinal Virtues, I’m going to start calling them the Cardinal Blockers. Here they are:

  • Fear (of failure)
  • Anger
  • Impatience
  • Regret

Note the handy acronym… FAIR. Paradoxically, this means the goal of each day, each poker session, is “Not FAIR.” I must NOT allow Fear, Anger, Impatience or Regret to so cloud my emotional space as to lead to -EV actions. Instead, I must learn and practice identifying when a Cardinal Blocker is taking over and learn and practice techniques to let go quickly or temporarily retreat to a safe space before giving away chunks of my bankroll.

Fear (of failure). I might also fear darkness, tight spaces or spiders, but that’s not the issue. The first step to combating this Blocker is bankroll management. Running out of bankroll is failure. Another step is asking for a seat or table change when the setup is unfavorable. Very good players on my left sitting behind deep stacks… terrifying! In cash games, I’m not obligated to tolerate this. There is a related Fear (of missing out — FOMO) that leads to bad hero calls. When FOMO is present, we choose to lose as a preferable outcome to the uncertainty of folding and not having closure, often leading to regret. Gaaaah!

Anger. Fortunately, I don’t go off with road rage style episodes. But I do get pissed, mightily so. Often the anger is tied to some sort of injustice tilt. I did everything right, the villain did everything wrong, and somehow the whole pile of chips flowed his way. #$*&$%! The most important thing here is recognition… “I am feeling anger.” With recognition, I can partition the anger. The next decision I have to make, would I take the same action if I wasn’t feeling so angry right now?

Impatience. A lot of poker sessions are long and boring. It’s tempting to think of the opposite here, the pursuit of Patience. “I just have to remain patient.” The real challenge isn’t finding patience, which I believe is a natural state. It’s letting go of the impatience when it arises. The best way to do that is to take a break, go for a walk, stretch, read, phone a friend or meditate. 10-20 minutes away from the table does wonders to dissipate impatience.

Regret. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. We don’t get do-overs, but it’s easy to spend an awful lot of time dwelling on mistakes or misfortunes from the past. Heck, that’s how this whole poker blog got started! I’m still searching for better tactics to let go of regret… any suggestions?

It is naive to think that I can somehow purge the Cardinal Blockers out of my existence. Like the Cardinal Virtues, the Blockers also are the nature of the soul. How well or poorly I manage them, however, will go a long way towards determining my poker win rate and general well-being.


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1 Comment

  1. “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

    ― Frank Herbert, Dune


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