Friday, January 16, 2009

The game of life is poker

Recently two of my favorite poker bloggers, The Poker Shrink (Tim Lavalli) and Shamus, expressed their dislike for the whole genre of "poker is life" books and articles.

Well, I'm here to disagree. In fact, the first three poker books I read after moving to Vegas were all in that vein: The Tao of Poker and Zen and the Art of Poker, both by Larry W. Phillips, and, most explicitly, Poker as Life: 101 Lessons from the World's Greatest Game, by Lee Robert Schreiber. I enjoyed and learned from all three. Maybe it's because I'm fond of thinking shallowly and over-generally, but I just can't help seeing poker parallels everywhere I look.

Take, for a random example, a jet airliner making an emergency landing in a river. (Everybody seems to be using that word "landing" today without commenting on the oddness of its application to the situation, so I will do the same.*)

We're told that about 1 in 10,000 flights experiences a bird strike, but it is apparently vanishingly rare that a two-engine jet gets both engines taken out simultaneously by a flock, as appears to have been the case yesterday. Convergence of rare, unhappy events? Hmmm. Sounds a bit like poker to me. That plane definitely got bad-beat by a runner-runner, or maybe even a perfect-perfect.

The pilot presumably had a minute or less to evaluate his options--go back to LaGuardia, head for the little airstrip in New Jersey, or ditch in the river. I can only guess at the number of variables that have to go into that kind of calculation. Perhaps the answer could be arrived at by a specifically programmed supercomputer, once you finished entering the hundreds of pieces of relevant data. But, of course, in real life there is no time to resort to such means.

This reminds me of my impressions after reading Tony Guerrera's Poker by the Numbers:

All such exercises have some value in just being able to do them in detail
away from the table, with no time pressures. The practical problem comes in
being able to translate the kind of theoretical exercise that might take an hour
or two to work through into a useful shortcut that you might actually be able to
employ in the 30 seconds or so that you typically have to make a poker decision
in the real world. That is the gap that I had hoped this book would bridge, an
impression that was bolstered by the descriptions of it I read on
But it was not to be. I didn't finish the book feeling any better able to apply
the math at the table than I was before starting it....

When I read through the scenarios, I was able to pretty
quickly come up with a list of possible lines of action to take and a gut sense
of which ones I thought were most profitable. After Guerrera spends pages and
pages slogging through the numbers, his conclusions tended to mirror what I had
already decided would be the best approaches to the hand.

In short, for an experienced player who has played enough that pattern
recognition is already acting as a shortcut substitute for an explicit,
step-by-step, deductive process as to what an opponent has and is likely to do,
KPBTN shouldn't be a step backward, but I also think it's unlikely to be much of
a step forward. If you've never worked through the hard math of a poker problem
decision tree, I think it's probably worth reading this book and forcing
yourself through the calculations, because it makes you think explicitly about
all of the possible outcomes and their relative likelihoods. That is undoubtedly
good brain exercise. I'm just dubious that it will actually improve your
decision-making process the next time you have a tough situation to analyze in
the heat of battle over the green felt.

Maybe it just comes down to me being more of a "feel" player than a "math"
player (which may also relate to why I do so much better live than online). I'm
not intimidated by probability calculations (as I hope I've adequately
demonstrated in previous posts). It's just that I'm not convinced that anything
beyond fairly rudimentary pot-odds math is going to be of much practical help in
most poker situations.

I think "experienced" is the key word there. This pilot apparently was about as well-prepared as one could possibly be, with a background flying fighter jets, 19,000 hours in the cockpit, who-knows-how-much time in simulators handling various emergencies, time spent working with the NTSB on airline safety, and investment in his own company consulting with other industries about how to apply the lessons of commercial airline safety. The guy is apparently a true expert in what happens in terms of psychology and team communications when there is a crisis afoot.

So when the chips were down (so to speak), those decades of experience and thought and preparation all converged in some weird, organic way in his brain, in a manner that no computer could replicate. He was able almost instantly to weigh the myriad pieces of information (speed, altitude, direction, visibility, distances, obstacles, risks to the passengers and people on the ground, etc.), and process them to a conclusion.

Sometimes I watch great poker moves on TV and wonder how the players could arrive at the right decision. It all boils down to experience. Sometimes they are able to dissect and explain the factors that pushed them one way or another (e.g., Gus Hansen's recent book), but other times when they're asked, it just comes down to feel: "I just didn't think he had it." The more poker you play, the better you get at both sides of this kind of thing--explicit, step-by-step analysis, and the gut-level feel for what you need to do, a process that sometimes is greater than the sum of the parts we can neatly identify.

Of course, even after reaching the right conclusion, one has to have the guts to execute it. It would not have done for the pilot to make his snap judgment that he needed to put the bird down in the Hudson, then curl up into a fetal position and start crying. In poker we often talk about the weird sensation of having a strong sense of what the right thing to do is, but then doing something different. Sometimes we lack the courage to "pull the trigger" when we should. Other times we know that folding is the best move, but something else--ego, a craving for action, curiosity, or whatever--interferes, and we get a Matusow-like blow-up as a result. (I love James McManus's description in Positively Fifth Street about how "Good Jim" knew he should fold mediocre starting hands, but the right hand of "Bad Jim" kept pushing chips forward. Been there, done that.)

Sometimes life gives us no genuinely good options, just a bunch of bad ones. In those situations, it does no good to whine and wish for an option that isn't available--you have to accept the reality of the circumstances and go with whatever is least bad. Ya might say that the pilot yesterday had something along those lines: no really good options, just a bunch of bad ones, worse ones, and truly awful ones. It would have done no good for him to waste time lamenting his situation, wishing that he had called in sick that day, or complaining that it was no fair for the damn geese to hit both engines at once.

Poker is like that, too. You're short-stacked in a tournament, the blinds are about to hit you again, you know that mathematically you have to go with any two cards when it is folded to you, and you look down at the 7-2. Ick. No point in wishing it were otherwise; it isn't. You have nothing but bad choices here, and have to pick the one that is least horrible. Sometimes you die anyway, and are left with nothing but the comfort of knowing that you did what you had to do. Sometimes you run into a cold deck, and the best outcome is one of those where all you can do is commend yourself for "losing the least possible." But once in a while a miracle occurs, and you survive, even coming out of it a winner.

I used to be into competitve shooting nearly as intensely as I am now into poker (though without making money from it). Love it though I did, I was not constantly seeing parallels with life. Sure, like any sport, you could draw lessons about focus and preparedness and competitiveness and sportsmanship and stuff like that, but I never found the number or richness of analogies between the game and life that poker provides. I won't bother trying to wax philosophic about why that is, but I will submit that poker is unlike any other game that I know of in its capacity for life analogies both great and small.

Maybe it's superficial of me, but I happen to like that.

*Long ago I saw a very funny routine by a stand-up comic--I saw it just randomly channel-surfing and never caught her name--about this subject. She made it more realistic by repeating the relevant part of the famous flight attendant safety briefing while exaggerating the words water landing and surrounding them with wink-and-a-nod air quotes--basically making the point that it's all nonsense, because we all know that in the event of a "water landing," we're all gonna die. She said something like, "They tell you that in the event of a 'water landing' your seat cushion can be used as a flotation device. Screw that. In the event of a 'water landing,' I'm using mine as a toilet."


PokerShrink said...

One man's poison is another man's bread.

steeser said...

That was George Carlin's "airline announcements" bit.

Rakewell said...

Hmm. It's possible I'm erroneously conflating two different things. In fact, I had a vague notion that I was doing so when I wrote that paragraph. You may be right that the "toilet" line is from Carlin, but the rest of what I'm remembering was definitely not.

NewinNov said...

I remember her too but don't remember her name. She was in a 60 minutes episode once. Believe she performed in Las Vegas was tall and slender, middle aged and married.