Tournament Poker Therapy, part 2: Identifying poker pain

Tournament Poker Therapy, part 2: Identifying poker pain

Thursday, 6 January 2011

By Alex Rousso.

Last month, I discussed the concept of using psychoanalysis to deal with the psychic pain that tournament poker can bring. I ended by listing what are termed in Cognitive Analytical Therapy as “Core Pain Statements”. These statements are supposed to be a candid appraisal of exactly how you feel at points of heightened psychic pain – the most obvious in tournament poker being on busting out.

Often we are attracted to poker because, subconsciously, we feel that it will redress problems which pre-exist from elsewhere in our lives. I believe that by looking at psychic pain in poker using certain tools from psychoanalytical therapy, not only can we get better at dealing with it, but also get better at dealing with our problems in our lives in general. Poker as therapy, if you will.

This month I want to consider stage two of the process. So, we’ve written some core pain statements and read them out loud (to friends, to a therapist) in order to revisit the pain and analyse how we feel, and it’s now time to understand some processes in poker which might give rise to the pain. I’ve written five examples below which I think might be common processes in poker. Some of them might overlap; some of them might apply to you. Understanding why the psychic pain might be there in general is the next part of the process. Ultimately, you want to find out how these processes apply to you.

Remember that we often exhibit behaviour because it is the way – and in some cases the only way – that we learned to survive in difficult emotional times. The extreme stress of tournament poker situations can be enough to bring out those survival techniques. We need to understand these internal processes (stage 2) and then redefine our behaviour so that we cope with the stress and pain in a more sophisticated and adult way (stage 3).

Categorising poker pain

Type: No Justice/I’m unlucky

Statement: “Why is it whenever I'm the fish, I never get lucky?”
“He makes a play that deserves punishment and instead he gets the miracle flop and busts me.”
“Every fucking time I go against the lagtard he has A-A.”

Despite all the exhortations in poker literature, the unfortunate truth is that – at least in live tournament poker – the luck factor is big enough that luck does not actually even out in the long run. As I demonstrated in a previous article “I’d rather be Lucky than Good”, you will probably not reach enough final tables in major tournaments in your lifetime to reach the long run.

What does that mean? It means that tournament poker is a bit of a gamble. And with the gamble comes volatility of results. In some lifetimes you are Jonathan Duhamel, in some lifetimes you are Matt Affleck. It won’t even out.

To put it another way, there isn’t much justice in the poker world. And yet, curiously, we are attracted to poker as though it will mete out justice to inferior players. The first question is: why do we come to poker looking for justice? I guess the simple answer is because we haven’t found it elsewhere. Maybe the good-looking nasty guy and not you (the ugly nice guy) gets the girl. And that’s unfair. Maybe the idiot toeing the right line and not you (the maverick with great ideas) gets the promotion.
In psychoanalytical terms, this may be a case of sublimation. Because we do not feel empowered to confront these situations in real life (the girl – because she might openly reject me; the boss – because I’m questioning their authority), we instead transfer the pain to poker, where, when we get screwed by the cards, we can actually howl out loud. In that moment all the other psychic pain comes out too.

In terms of rationality, this is not a great strategy. Even in a match up where one hand (say A-K) really “deserves” to beat another (say A-2), the outcome is not that secure for the deserver (only a 73% chance of victory). Without having the real statistics at my disposal, I’d say that the line-toeing idiot doesn’t get the job anywhere near 27% of the time, so perhaps poker isn’t a great leveller in that respect. Conclusion: don’t come to poker looking for justice.

Type: The Myth of Sisyphus

Statement: “Every time I build up a roll, I lose it.”
“Why do I not get that critical bit of luck?”

The first time I saw a long term bankroll graph of a great poker player I was really shocked. These players – all players – go through exactly the same swings as I do. There is no Valhalla. Everyone in the poker world is mired in this everlasting battle, and no one is immune to the downswings. Not unlike real life then . . .

In my opinion, the more one studies poker, the more one comes to the conclusion that the philosophy of poker is much like the philosophy of life. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was bound eternally and repeatedly to roll a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down again.

The first skill here is to learn to cope. At the GUKPT Grand Final this year, I had a conversation with Praz Bansi and Ben Roberts about success in poker. We all agreed that however much success you had in the game, there is always something more to achieve: another level up to conquer, another goal to fulfil. Are Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu content at the top of the All Time Money list? No, having achieved more than anyone else in poker, they are still clamouring for more. So steel yourself now: in poker, you will never reach your destination; you will always crave for more success, better opponents and higher levels of play.

This conclusion leads to the second skill: learn to enjoy the journey. In this respect, you could do no better than ask Ben Roberts for advice. He really is the Zen master of poker, and has definitely earned his nickname “Gentleman”. Achieving Zen (or any other type of contentment) is a lifelong pursuit, and there is no space to start that agenda here. In stage 3 I will give some poker-related advice on this subject, but please note that there are hundreds of books out there which can help (I’d start with The Tao of Poker by Larry Phillips). Any attempt to start enjoying poker for what it is, to treat each success as an end in itself and not another step in an ongoing process, and genuinely to celebrate the success of others (thanks to Ben Roberts for this) would be a step in the right direction.

Type: Martyrdom

Statement: “I don’t win flips”.
“Why does the f***ing donk have to have his moment of luck against me?!!”
“Why me?”

At the 2007 World Series I had one of my worst runs of luck ever. Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. The final nail in the coffin was my all in pre-flop A-A losing to K-K. As my opponent raked in the chips, I said, “Why is this happening to me?” Another opponent quickly retorted: “Yeah, it’s never happened to me!”

In a way, this malaise is related to the first two we have discussed. We’ve all been there, and we’ll all probably end up there again sometime; the best thing we can do is learn to cope, or moreover, to enjoy the process.

The normal poker advice is that we are not special and the same thing happens to everyone. But why do we want to frame the situation in this way in the first place? Why do we believe that we are martyrs; that this happens only to us? Developmental psychologists claim that children start off in life with an “ego-centric” model of the world. When we have young, unsophisticated minds, we only perceive of the world and objects in it in terms of their relation to us. This may well be reinforced by the everyday processes of our lives at the time: we scream, we get a nipple to feed on; we fall over, someone comes to pick us up, etc. The cognition of the child does not yet need to be complex. It is the same phenomenon when you try to point a dog towards something with your finger. The hapless hound merely focuses on your finger rather than what it’s pointing at. The dog has little or no capacity to understand that there is a relationship between two other things in the universe.

We are born with this cognition and it is a hard habit to break. Inside your mind, the narrative of the universe is the story as it happens to you. Outside of your mind, nothing of the sort is true. Therefore, we must learn to accept that we are not martyrs. No one – especially not at the poker table – considers you to be a special case. Learning to accept that your pain is no different to that of others is a sure step on the path to poker enlightenment.

Type: Other problem avoidance

Statement: “Why can I never bink a big one? (then I’d be happy/satisfied)”

Many people in poker are like the character “Norm” from Cheers. In fact, I often feel when I’m in the Vic that it’s the real life versions of the bar in Cheers. Everybody knows your name, and no one judges why you are there. The sobering advice is that whatever your problems are, they will stay problems unless you solve them.

Fame doesn’t help. A girlfriend doesn’t help. Money doesn’t help – in many cases, even achievement doesn’t help. Granted, sometimes these things help by accident. For example, earning money dissolves reliance on parents, and if reliance on parents for money was the problem, then that problem will abate. Likewise, if getting a girlfriend dissolves reliance on friends for emotional support, and if your relationship with the friend was the problem, then the girlfriend might be the solution.

Usually, life isn’t so generous that it provides you with accidental solutions. Poker is a particularly bad tonic because its brand of solutions is – rather like drugs (including alcohol) – to delay dealing with the problem until the hangover. Norm is happy in Cheers, but we never see his face when he leaves to go back to Vera.

Problems get solved when you actively try to solve them, and rarely before. Poker may be a palliative but it’s not the cure, and when you consider how often one’s problems in life can be reinvented in poker, it’s clear that sometimes poker can make the symptoms worse. The conclusion is the same as before. Poker is neither the problem nor the solution. It’s either a way of making you a living, or a game you play to have some fun.

Type: Accepting defeat/giving up

Statement: “Take my last $$$ - I don’t care any more”(Isildur1)
“I had the equity for that call/fold equity for that bluff”

One of the strongest forces in poker is denial. How many times have you left a tournament utterly convinced that the semi-bluff you ran had loads of fold equity, only to review it in the cold light of day and realise that the guy was never folding? How many times have you lost two-thirds of your chips, only to donk off the rest in “standard” situations, only later to realise that you had enough chips to play some proper poker if only you calmed down?

Many people come into poker with a propensity for refusing to believe they are wrong. Poker is a dubious friend to those people, because it provides them with a soap box from which to judge others (“How can you make that call?”; “Against my range, you should fold there!”).

My opinion is that poker is a fantastic psychoanalytical tool for this same reason. Our instincts are to believe that we were right, and with all the emotional charge involved in tournaments we can be quite trenchant about it. What’s good about poker is that, after the fact, we can often pick apart the situation with maths and logic. By comparison, arguments with loved ones are rarely so simple to analyse. In short, it’s a lot easier in poker to realise that you are wrong.

Admitting defeat – that you are beatable, that your beliefs can be wrong, that you are fallible – is a great life skill. Ivey, Dwan, Antonius are all exemplars of this. It’s a process of attrition; you need to wear down your ego and learn to be guided by correct decision making. Too many people defend their actions and beliefs because they are theirs, and not because they are correct. This denial is a great source of income for their opponents.

What to do about it

Next month we will move on to stage 3. Having understood some survival mechanisms and got a handle on why we exhibit them, the next stage will be to get you to talk specifically about your own past, your own problems, and come up with ideas on how to redefine your own survival mechanisms so that you are better able to cope with psychic pain.

This will not be easy since you are not actually in therapy and all I have is a couple of thousand words of text! The point I need to get across, though, is that knowing about the problem isn’t enough. You have to be active in changing your views and behaviours.

Tags: Pickleman, Alex Rousso, Strategy