Keeping Your Eye On The Ball

Keeping Your Eye On The Ball

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

By Nick Wealthall

It’s always fascinated me how a game with cards and chips and only a few decisions can reveal so many emotions. As Anthony Holden once wrote in Big Deal, ‘a man’s character is revealed at the poker table’.

So with that in mind, let me ask you; when did you last behave badly at the poker table? Now I don’t just mean berating your opponents, throwing stuff across the room or smashing a mouse or two. I also mean feeling bad emotionally and acting like someone you don’t want to be – this could be anger, pain, temper or sulking (basically, all the dwarves in the wildly unsuccessful Snow White 2). For me it’s always sulking, I’m much more likely to go in on myself than be outwardly angry; tragically it wasn’t that long ago. All these years and poker can still push my buttons now and again!

I know you know what I’m talking about. Don’t be reading this and be all ‘Pfft! As if I would!’ You know how that entitled, self-obsessed demon inside you gets mad or down when things don’t work out, or when your good hands get cracked by someone who ‘shouldn’t have even been in the hand’. You know how it feels and how easily the red mist or dark cloud (pick your poison) can descend.

We call it tilt. All of it. From mild irritation that causes you to play the next hand slightly worse through to fall blown tilt which causes you to commit violence that lowers the property value of your house.

The question is ‘Why?’ (that’s always a great question by the way – it isn’t asked enough). Why does this simple game with playing cards cause this much tilt? I don’t see people losing it over Happy Families. ‘What do you mean you don’t have Mr Bun The Baker, you total fish!?!’ … just doesn’t happen a whole lot.

Poker is unique in the emotion it creates and the frustration it delivers.
I saw this recently, when I hosted a show where Rafa Nadal (the one off the tennis) plays poker against random strangers on the interweb. There are a couple of things I can confirm for you. First of all he’s a ‘great guy’ – that’s not the showbiz great guy - he’s a legitimately generous person, great to work with, tirelessly polite and kind to anyone he meets; he’s everything you hoped he’d be. Secondly, and you may have picked this up from reading between the lines of his ridiculously successful career, he’s just a tiny, weeny bit competitive.

And here’s the good news – poker pushes his buttons. It gets under his skin, just like it gets under yours or mine. During our second show, he lost several pots in a row with three or four 'bad beats’ against ridiculous hands (people with their chance to play against Rafa weren’t turning up to fold). For a few minutes, poker made him a tilt-monkey like the rest of us. He went through the full ‘Look at these hands’, ‘How can they play with this?’ and ‘I don’t believe it!’ repertoire that exists in all of our playbooks when things don’t go our way.

The thing is, he hated losing as much as you’d expect. And as you know, losing is a big part of poker. This is not a fella who likes or is used to losing; In the French Open over the last decade, Rafa has a 66-1 record... that’s winning 98.5% of the time! In poker, you’re doing well if that number is at 55%. Now, I’m not suggesting he was close to throwing things round the room, but you could see and feel that his frustration at getting unlucky and not winning was real. Of course, the game was just a bit of fun and, despite losing on that show, he has a winning record whilst taking on the world overall. Of course he does. As an aside, the show had a funky scoring system and after a few minutes it was obvious that he’d thought about how best to exploit that and was playing accordingly. That’s the thing about competitive people; they look at situations and ask ‘what’s my best way to win’?.

So if poker can affect the emotions of one of the great sporting competitors of all time what hope is there for us mortals?

Poker is unique because of the blend between luck and skill but it is so much more than that. You know it’s a skill game and over time the best players will win, but that gap is small. Like I said, a 5-10% edge can be huge, but that size of edge involves a lot of losing. When you lose at somethign in life you know you’re winning at overall, your brain tells you that’s wrong – that you’re being cheated. It triggers your sense of entitlement like almost no other game, because almost no other game or activity you can take part in has that fatal combination of expectation to win coupled with a ton of losing.

The key to dealing with this is accepting it from the start. Once you understand the way the game is set up you can start to beat it... and enjoy it. If you truly accept that winning poker comes with a lot of losing, then when you do lose it will bother you way, way less; it’s all part of the process. And that’s the key word – process. Stop worrying about the results of hands or board run outs, start worrying about being a better player and making better decisions.

I asked Rafa how he’d managed so many great comebacks in his career and his reply was simple but brilliant. 'When things aren’t going well I stay calm and try and find a solution’. That seems like a good template for a poker session to me. The bit you need to add on is that when it doesn’t turn round, make sure that you’ve enjoyed the game.

Win or lose, remember, it’s all one long session..

Tags: Nick Wealthall, columnists