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Archive for August, 2008

Last week a friend of mine made a comment about tournament poker being a good metaphor for life. I assumed he was just being cynical, but when I thought about it, I realized that the current Texas Hold ‘Em craze does, indeed, have some valuable life lessons for the budding Romantic.

I won’t belabor the metaphor, because I’m at best a casual hobbyist at poker. There are just two things that really stand out for me:

First, you play many fewer hands than you are dealt, and even the ones you play, you don’t always see all the way through. Even a relative novice should know enough at the table to look at a hand, recognize that it’s crap, and junk it. And there’s going to be a lot of crap hands.

Second, in order to win, you need to know when it’s worth it to put your whole bank on it.

In the first case, the thing to take away from it is that you need to get in the game, but you don’t have to play every hand. Life demands engagement. The bare minimum is for you to sit at the table and ante up. Most of us approach life as though we are only willing to put up the ante if we can guarantee we’ll get a hand worth playing. We cling to our chips, unwilling to suffer a bad hand, and so by default we become non-players in the game of life. Actually playing means we get out there and try things out, invest some time or money or effort into taking a small chance on something new and interesting on a regular basis.

And a lot of the time, you might drop it. You take a semester of French and hate it. You buy a tennis racket that becomes your prize dust collector. You start dating someone and then decide you’re just not that into them after all.

We tend to, unkindly, refer to people who habitually do these things as “dilettantes” or “wannabes” or “flakes”. What happened to good old fashioned stick-to-it-iveness? Commitment? Perseverance?

Those things are great, but they should be reserved for the worthwhile investments. A smart player learns how to quickly assess what’s worth her time and what isn’t. She’ll give the hand a try, give it the benefit of assessment, maybe even follow it for a little while if there’s a glimmer of promise, but she doesn’t force herself to stick with a bad hand to the bitter end just because it’s the one she was dealt, nor would any sane aficionado expect her to. She saves her resources for the hands she thinks she can win, so she has something substantial to put into that calculated risk.

The value of those folded hands, then, is that it keeps us in the game so we’re already playing when that killer hand is dealt. Sure, so we tried out sixteen things that we didn’t stick with. We had fun along the way, right? Learned something new about ourselves? Got a bit of knowledge to apply to future situations? And, on top of that, we were there and open to it when a great new passion grew from one of those relatively low-risk attempts. *That* was the hand we followed to the river. That hand didn’t get dealt to the guy next to us instead while we were too chicken to play.

Which brings me to the second big lesson offered by Texas Hold ‘Em– when the situation warrants it, don’t be afraid to go all in. Put your whole heart and soul into the thing you truly believe will pay off in your life (and I HOPE you know that I don’t mean “pay off” in purely monetary/competitive terms!) Holding back, wussing out in the face of a big raise or a bluff, is bad strategy. You’ll never win, and losing is a bitter pill washed down with the salt water of “what might have been”.

Yes, maybe you’ll lose if you go all in. But you know you played your best, and it brings up one more piece of poker wisdom to play us off: There’s always another game.

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