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Murder, She Wrote (Or: Editing Your Poker Game)

by Brian Mulholland |  Published: Dec 31, 2004


Lillian Hellman was once asked what she thought was the most difficult thing about writing. The famous playwright replied: "Killing your little darlings." Writers know all too well about the little darlings she was referring to, for there isn't a writer alive who hasn't found himself bursting with satisfaction at some pet creation. Perhaps it's a complex idea that we've managed to distill into a more accessible form, and felt ourselves beaming at the prospect that many will now understand who did not understand before. Or, we've taken a common observation and expressed it in a new and unique way. It might be just one particularly graceful paragraph that fills us with pride, or nothing more than a cleverly turned phrase. Whatever the case, there we sit, admiring our creation, and fantasizing about the day when our eloquence will be given birth in published form, so that others might admire it as well.

But then … something happens.

As our project takes shape, whether it's a two-page article for a magazine or a major, full-length work, it evolves in such a way that this particular collection of words we're so fond of – our little darling – doesn't really fit. It may be brilliant writing, but it doesn't belong anymore, not in this script, and the piece as a whole would be better served by killing it.

But human nature being what it is, we resist – mightily. Perhaps our darling can be saved somehow. Deep down, we know it won't work, but we'll make it work. We start twisting ourselves into pretzels, contriving artificial reasons for keeping it, attempting to make the whole serve the part, instead of the part(s) serving the whole. Of course, we don't realize this is what we're doing. We're too blinded by our attachment to our baby. Unfortunately, at this point, our baby has become Rosemary's baby – an agent of destruction that threatens to destroy that which is healthy and vital.

Knowing when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em is just as important to the writer as it is to the gambler; conversely, the painful task of self-editing is no less essential to the latter than to the former. It's only natural to form pet habits when we first take up the game, but if our poker "little darlings" go unedited, we're in trouble. With January right around the corner, the time seems ripe to touch on the subject of poker resolutions for the New Year. With that in mind, I asked three winning poker players the following question: "If you were to think of your poker game as a work in progress – a rough draft, if you will – what edits would you make to streamline it?" Here are some of their thoughts (edited, of course, for length and content):

1. Trim the criticism of others.

This doesn't refer to criticizing opponents out loud; any seasoned winner knows that such criticism serves only to educate the bad players or drive them away, neither of which is conducive to profit. (Besides, it's rude.) No, what my first respondent had in mind was the criticism that plays in the privacy of one's head. This can actually be healthy – to a degree – for an occasional self-reminder of superiority over the competition is a legitimate way to pump yourself up psychologically (assuming it's an accurate assessment). It can also fortify your commitment to a truly superior game plan in the face of short-term bad luck that may be tempting you to abandon it. But beware – there's a fine line between healthy and unhealthy levels of ego, and this exercise can mutate into a pervasive contempt for one's opponents, a silent running commentary of bitter denigration. At this point, one's inner editor needs to make massive cuts, for all of this criticism is just so much dead weight, and a huge distraction from your main "theme." Before you know it, you're so fixated on the idiocy of your opponents that you're not focused fully on the game. So, who's the idiot now?

2. Edit the memory of residual fears – the "here we go again" mentality.

In poker, a long memory is a tremendous asset, but it can also be a liability. The capacity for recalling opponents' tendencies in a broad range of situations carries incalculable benefits; unfortunately, when the scope of memory extends equally far to bad beats, look out. The retention of negatives can result in a skewed perspective in which replays of past situations appear overly ominous, and each bad beat seems to foreshadow an entire cycle of doom. Such self-defeating memory creates an inner static that interferes with operating successfully in the present. The cards have no memory at all, and when it comes to past setbacks, neither should you. Hit "Save" to retain the causes of past failures; for the rest of it, punch that Delete button.

3. Lose the chair glue.

The fellow who raised this point described a colorful character who used to show up at the cardroom at 3:30 every morning. Surveying his surroundings (à la Robert Duval in Apocalypse Now), he would inhale deeply and proclaim: "I love the smell of chair glue in the morning." He would then find a game filled with players who had overstayed their good judgment. Some of these folks were actually decent players – at least they were for the first eight or nine hours of their sessions. But they could never manage to pick themselves up and locate the exit, and as their "Long Day's Journey Into Night" wore on, the quality of their decisions deteriorated badly.

While it's true that poker is a volume business, it's also true that every session, like every well-edited paragraph or chapter, has an appropriate length. Determining when to call it a day is no exact science, but even good players can let things drag on too long. Many factors come into play here, but don't let simple inertia turn your session into the poker equivalent of a run-on sentence.

4. Give yourself a deadline.

If I didn't have a deadline to meet, I'm not sure I'd ever finish a column. And procrastination is as big a problem in poker as it is in other areas of life. You know that situation that came up at the table the other night, the one that took you by surprise? Remember how your hesitation betrayed you? You know the situation I mean, because it came up a couple of weeks earlier, too – and you vowed at the time to do some serious thinking about it, so you'd be better prepared the next time. But you didn't, so you weren't. Oh – and remember that poker book you were going to read? Guess what, that was eight months ago. What can be done to counter all this avoidance? Well, when it comes to your poker goals, try giving yourself an actual deadline – and then make a reasonable effort to meet it.

On that note, I need to excuse myself, so I can get this column in. If I hurry, I can just make my deadline. spades