Lessons Learned at the Poker Table

By: Joe Pettit

Poker and ethics are not two words that many people would quickly put together.  For reasons that I do not entirely understand, poker is still understood by more than a few as an unscrupulous, or at least unsavory activity.  If I had to guess, this comes from the fact that money – betting money, losing money, winning (other people’s) money – is the primary metric of success and failure.  I will have some thoughts on money and poker at the end of this essay, but for now, I want to argue that poker is one of the most ethical games I have ever played, and, what follows are some insights I have had as I have sat at many poker tables.

  • We are much more exclusive in our non-poker lives than we think

Unlike just about every other institution and social network in the world, poker, at least at casinos, is a an entirely open activity.  The only thing you need to participate is chips.  The more I play at casinos, the more I notice that I am interacting with people I would never meet in my daily life.  I am an affluent, highly educated, white male.  Many doors in society open almost automatically for me.  This is not the case for many of the people I meet at the poker table, and I now think it is not an accident that many of them find genuine community around a table that always has a dealer who will greet them and wish them good luck.

Noticing the openness of poker tables has led me to notice how closed much of my life is.  My social circles are narrowly defined by work and family.  Church is an obvious exception to this, but even there I engage only with those I know well in my congregation.  Poker has led to a sense of just how tragic, even if understandable, it is that we never meet so many of our fellow human beings.  I cannot overemphasize how much I enjoy meeting new poker players and seeing those with whom I have played before yet would have never met but for the poker table.  Every game of poker I play involves both a sense of community and a chance for new acquaintances (even if I want to take every last dime they have).

  • Probability, like the world, does not care about you

Poker requires an appreciation of how likely certain outcomes are.  Sometimes, the chances of your hand holding up are incredibly high, and yet, still, it falls to another hand that benefited from an incredibly unlikely turn of the cards.  Players are known to go on “tilt” when this happens, but the more I play poker, the less I go on tilt.  I think this is because I have learned not to take it personally when the cards do not fall my way.  The cards are just playing out as they must after having been randomly shuffled.  They are not out to get me, nor do they owe me anything.

This is a valuable lesson for life.  While we navigate the world with varying degrees of confidence in the outcomes we expect, sometimes things just happen to us.  We get an illness, our car breaks down, something happens to someone we love.  Sixty-five million years ago, dinosaurs suffered the consequences of an asteroid impact.  Had that asteroid just missed our planet, we would not even be here to get upset about “bad beats” in poker or in life.

Too often, we see ourselves, our family, our species, as the central act, or at least as central characters, in the drama of life.  We take it personally when bad things happen to us, even when those bad things were the result of random forces – like shuffled cards.  This is a mistake. 

To play poker is to accept that there is a non-zero chance of losing even very strong hands.  To live is to accept that there is a non-zero chance that bad things will happen to us.  Playing poker well and living well both require learning the odds, adjusting to them, and moving on when the outcomes fall, as the odds say they sometimes must, against us.

  • Most opportunities in life are mediocre at best

In Texas Hold’em, the poker game I play the most, each player is dealt two “hole” cards face down at the beginning of each hand.  Mathematically speaking, a very large percentage of the possible hands one might get are not very strong.  This can be very frustrating, especially as one watches others at the table play very strong hands.  It is hard not to get jealous of their good fortune.

However, it helps to recognize that experiencing mediocre opportunities during any given hand is normal.  Once again, the cards are not out to get me.  So too in life, the opportunities that come to us on a given day may not be very exciting.  That is not a bad thing, not some judgment by the cosmos that we are unworthy of better possibilities, but rather a normal playing out of what the world has to offer.

  • Rules require equality

One of the more refreshing elements of poker is that there is never a question about who wins a given hand.  Occasionally, there might be controversy about the behavior of a player and how that influences play at the table, but the status of the cards themselves is never in question.  There is no way for bias to creep into how the strength of hands is evaluated, no way for an insider to manipulate an interpretation of the cards.  At the end of the hand, the cards are either face up for all to see or thrown into the muck in capitulation.

The clarity of the rules in poker left me wondering why it is so difficult to duplicate the ease of adjudication in other aspects of life.  It quickly became obvious to me that what prevents rules from working is power imbalances.  If one can break or circumvent a rule without consequence, then the rule is meaningless.  If one can exclude others by rule without any good reason other than one has the power to do so, then rules become the means of furthering power imbalances.

What differentiates poker from real life is that every player at the table is in a position of fundamental equality.  Each gets the same number of cards.  The chances of getting any two cards are the same for each player.  Each player is given a chance to bet, call, raise, or fold.  Rather than being a game for cheaters, poker demonstrates rather clearly how much our social and political life enables cheating either by breaking or ignoring rules.

  • Life is a bet

I suspect that the one aspect of poker that most concerns those who do not play it is that, at least in cash games, the means of competition is money.  Claims to find community and friendships in poker can seem undermined by the fact that one is trying win money from every other player at the table.

I have never entirely understood this objection.  The mere spending of money cannot be the issue.  I would never receive the same kind of judgment I get from some if I were to go on a grand vacation or buy a fancy car, even though both would cost far more than I ever spend playing poker.

Perhaps the objection is the appearance of trying to take money from others.  But whether I am on the winning or losing side in a hand of poker, what I have done before the money changes hands is engage in an exchange of opportunity with one or more individuals.  I exchange the value of my chips for the opportunity to secure the value of more chips at the end of the pot.  In other words, I risk something to gain something.  No doubt, when I lose the pot, I come away with nothing, and so poker may seem different than exchanging money for some good or service.  However, even though money is involved, the risk taking in poker is more akin to the risk taking that goes on in the major decisions we make in life: what to study in school, whether or not to get in a relationship, to take this job rather than that job.

Betting in poker provides ample practice for making choices where we might lose what we invest, choices where the outcome is much less certain than a simple economic transaction.  Betting in poker teaches that some bets are better than others.  Above all, poker teaches that some bets will not succeed.  Thus, my poker mates have not just tried to take my money, they have helped to school me in the realities of life, and for that I am grateful.

One thought on “Lessons Learned at the Poker Table

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.