Having been in Las Vegas for the week on business, my mind has been swirling around gambling. Something occurred to me as I was watching some folks play cards in the MGM Grand. Actually, as my main objective was to get a bit loose, I was trying to do the math on which was the better financial move – dropping $10 a drink every half hour or losing money gambling while getting free drinks. This kind of absurd contemplation is not abnormal for me – I often don’t realize it’s happening until something shakes me from it. This time, it happened when I realized that there are insights to be found in thinking about life as a hand of Texas Hold Em poker (hereafter simply referred to as “poker”).
I’ll admit up front that this analogy is limited in its reach, however, the similarities are actually pretty interesting. In “poker,” players are dealt two cards face down. Think of those as genes. Then, the dealer proceeds to reveal three cards, known as the flop. Then another card, the turn, and then a final card, the river, are revealed. The flop, the turn, and the river are communal cards, so players combine any three of them with their two cards to make a hand of poker. In between each of these revelations, players have the opportunity to bet on their hand, even though they don’t know the outcome until they see the river card. Think of communal cards as the environment. So, essentially, the object of the game is for players to play their two cards in conjunction with the right combination of communal cards to win the hand. Here we see stark parallels between “poker” and life.
The first and most dramatic similarity is this – even if you start out with the best two cards available (two aces, for example), it’s still possible to lose. On the other hand (forgive the pun), you can start out with what appears to be nothing (say, a two of hearts and a four of clubs) and end up winning. Such is life. But before we get too far, maybe it’s worth considering what it means to win.
In poker, there’s no confusion about this. In life, however, not so. To some people, a lot of people, winning means getting rich or becoming powerful. To others, winning is being well liked. To still others, winning means nothing more than not losing. To me, winning means spending as much time as possible living the good life, which is living a life inspired by love, guided by knowledge, and free from unnecessary constraints. The love and knowledge part, which is the most uncommon of common sense, comes from Bertrand Russell (“What I Believe,” essay from 1925. Now found in Why I Am Not A Christian, Touchstone, 1957). The freedom from unnecessary constraint part comes from me.
I believe people erect all sorts of mental barriers to their enjoyment of life. They buy into social pressures and unreasonable traditions without fully examining them, which dramatically reduces their assessment of the options available to them. Take, for example, the notion that you must have a 9-5 job to be responsible. It is a rare case indeed for someone who chooses an “unorthodox” career to not be inundated with warnings and disapproving advice from people who supposedly have their best interests at heart. And these are the few who make it over the barrier. We’ll never know how many aspire to, but do not. But this is about “poker.”
Suppose you’re dealt two aces right from the start. This would be the equivalent of being born with natural talent and/or good looks. But in life, just as in poker, the environment ultimately tells the tale. You can be very smart and/or good looking and it will amount to nothing if you’re born into poverty in a place where upward mobility is all but impossible. In poker, two aces will end up yielding a measly pair if the communal cards don’t work with them. (It’s such a letdown to see 3,5,7,9,10 when you start out with such a bang.) But sometimes, you can start with nada and come out on top.
Say you’re dealt a two of clubs and five of hearts. This isn’t encouraging. Many people will fold, which is not at all insignificant. In life, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that winners are winners because they’ve had it good from the start. Sure, this is the case sometimes. But, especially in America, how you start out has a lot less influence than what you do with what you’ve got.
In “poker,” with a two and a five, if the flop shows three fives, you’ve got yourself four of a kind, regardless of what happens with the turn and the river. It’s very likely that you’re going to win, even though you started with pretty much nothing. Oh, if life could be so easy. Don’t get me wrong – sometimes it is, sometimes, for some people. But, usually, life comes with the following sinister complication: you may indeed have a winning hand (that is, your genes and the environment in which they find themselves), yet you may never enjoy the fruits of it. This is where the limitations of this analogy begin to reveal themselves. Luckily, however, other poker games offer the opportunity to further mix some already slightly pureed metaphors.
In Texas Hold Em, at least from what I’ve seen, after the river card is shown, you reveal your cards and it’s obvious who has won. If it isn’t, the dealer makes the call. But there are some poker games, like seven card stud, where you have to proclaim what you have in your hand. If you mistake what you have, you can lose, even if your cards are better than anyone else’s. As a silly example, if you claim three of a kind when you have a full house, you’ll get beat if someone has something better than your three of a kind, even if it won’t beat a full house. This is a lot like life.
I’ve known so many people with wonderful talents and attributes who didn’t recognize them because they were focused on the talents and attributes they didn’t have. Far from making the best of the cards in their hand, they spent their time lamenting that they did not have the cards they wanted. And in those occasional moments of truth, they looked down at their cards and saw a pair when they had a straight. They acted accordingly…and lost, which means they failed to realize their aspirations (which were misplaced to begin with). It needn’t have been this way.
The value of the poker analogy (strained as it is in places) is that we can infer two very practical rules about winning at life. The first is simple – it aint over till the last card is overturned. Things may not start out pretty, but that doesn’t mean we’re destined to lose. From this, we derive determination and hope. Conversely, if we start out with all the cards, we should take care not to assume that we will still have all the cards when the chips are pulled from the middle of the table. From this, we learn humility and an appreciation for accomplishment. The second big takeaway is a mandate of sorts.
In the card game of life, we must play the cards in our hand, not anyone else’s. We must play them; we cannot allow them to play us. Our environment will, in many cases, be beyond our control. Our best chances for winning come from working with it, not against it. Therefore, we must make the most of our cards, which, more than anything else, requires us to see them for what they are. If we start with a five and a two off-suit (or bushy eyebrows, crazy hair, and an ostensible inability to mentally focus on anything for long), we can’t be shooting for a royal flush (or a life on the red carpet). It will never happen, so any communal cards that offer false hope to that end must be ignored – better to see our cards for what they are and be on the lookout for communal cards that compliment them. Einstein produced some of his most remarkable work as a patent clerk in Switzerland. Had he lamented that a teaching position was not in his cards, he may not have had the motivation or energy to dwell on the toughest questions that have ever faced mankind. Instead, he exploited his environment to make the most of his extraordinary genes, and we are all the better for it.
As for me, I took a seat at the bar. The cards in my hand were shaped like dollar bills and I didn’t have enough of them to risk my buzz on bad luck. Such is life in pursuit of the option…