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Ninja Poker

by John Vorhaus |  Published: Mar 05, 2014


John VorhausHere are three things you didn’t know about ninjas. First, Japanese ninjas don’t call themselves ninjas — they call themselves shinobi. Second, ninjas historically carried out the spy work, subterfuge, and assassinations that were forbidden to samurai by the Bushido code, which makes them, if you will, the “bad boys” of Japanese combat. Third, as I’m sure will come as no surprise to you, there is much we can learn about poker from our friends in the ninja community, if only we delve. Shall we? Oh, I certainly believe we shall. Before we do, though, a disclaimer: There’s a poker site called Poker Ninja, but that has nothing to do with this. The view and misstatements you see here are exclusively my own.

Ninjutsu. Ninjutsu is the practice of ninja. For the poker ninja, it means playing poker with the goal of understanding the game to its depths and always playing to the best of his availability — or hers — a female ninja is called a kunoichi.

Espionage. This was the chief role of the ninjas. Masters of disguise, they could infiltrate enemy castles dressed as defenders, acquiring intelligence. This is you at the table, disguised as the last float on the clueless parade but actually paying close attention to everyone’s actions and intents. You take everything in and give nothing away as you seek to be invisible.

Secrecy. No one knows you’re a poker ninja. They have no idea how much time you spend thinking about the hands you’ve played, studying in private, growing your game. Share this information only with other ninjas, your allies who are themselves growing their games. To everyone else, be a shapeshifter: always misperceived; never clearly known.

Espionage. Ninjas used arson to bring their enemies’ strongholds low. You use raises and reraises; hand reading; ranging and leveling. You investigate your enemies, learning how to exploit their weaknesses and how to evade their strengths. You lay traps, and thanks to your deception and guile, your traps pay off.

Philosophy. A ninja is not just a force, he is a guided force. He has peered into the mysteries of the universe and extracted a philosophy and creed to inform his behavior. So have you, poker ninja. Do you favor small ball? Follow the mantra of tight is right? Do you kneel at the shrine of position? Each of these has its merit, so long as it’s known to you and consciously derived from your overall understanding of the game. Know your controlling idea — your philosophy of poker — and you are on your way to becoming a poker ninja.

Persuasion. A ninja has a way with words and understands his enemies on a deep level, almost as if he reads minds. As a result, he can use his enemies’ desires, hopes and fears against him to bend them to his will. Do you have the power of persuasion? Can you talk your foe into laying down a winner or calling into your nuts? Jamie Gold in 2006 was a master of this ninja art. You must become one, too.

Self-control. Just as a ninja masters others, he must also master himself. No true ninja acts rashly or with emotion guiding his decisions. He thinks objectively and strategically about every situation and plans the course of action most likely to bring him to his goal. A poker ninja takes bad beats and adverse outcomes all night long and still does not stray from his clear mind. Put simply, a ninja never tilts.

Maintenance. A ninja maintains his body as well as his mind, for he knows that the best-conceived plan is only as good as its physical execution. You may never need to climb a drainpipe to assassinate an enemy warlord, but you must be fit for the marathon of focus and concentration that is a poker game or, especially, tournament. Exercise and proper diet are part of a poker ninja’s arsenal.

Knowledge. A ninja never stops learning. A ninja knows that today’s cutting-edge tactics are tomorrow’s yesterday’s news. Naturally adaptive, the poker ninja uses the latest poker information to design both his game plans and his countermeasures. A true ninja’s thirst for knowledge can never be quenched.

Active meditation. A ninja in action is a man in meditation. He is one with the world, not observing it but absorbing it, assimilating into it. In a similar vein, a poker ninja doesn’t play poker so much as he inhales and exhales the game. He is in tune with its rhythms and completely conscious of everything within him and around him. When your focus strays to the television or your iDevice, you are no longer in active meditation, and are not a poker ninja.

Weapons. A ninja has many weapons, and has mastered them all. He can fight with sword, stick, staff, spear, throwing blades, knives, and explosives. What weapons does the poker ninja have? Bluff, raise, reraise, bluff-reraise, float, squeeze, blocking bet, bet sizing, and let’s not forget the formidable weapon of the simple fold. The best thing a poker ninja does is not contend when it’s not correct to do so.

Patience. Ninjutsu is a lifelong pursuit. The patient poker ninja takes the long view. He knows that what won’t matter in twenty years doesn’t matter now. He never mistakes positive outcomes for proper play. He knows that practice makes progress, and that the only thing that matters — really matters — is proper play, day after day, after week, after month, after year.

Humility. Apart from simply never wanting his true nature to be known, a ninja lives in humility, with no desire for fame, acclaim, or notoriety. This is perhaps the hardest aspect of poker ninjutsu to master, for it’s natural to want to appear worthy in the eyes of one’s peers, and it’s natural to want to compete well and win. If you set your sights on perfect play, fame and glory may yet come; however, if you set your sights on fame and glory, true ninjutsu will never be yours.

Responsibility. A poker ninja accepts the consequences of his actions. He doesn’t blame fate, luck, dealers, or gods. If he plays a hand badly, he admits his mistake, analyzes his choices, and plans better for next time. Failure to do this results in wallowing, self-pity, and an end to personal growth. A poker ninja is absolute master of his affairs.

Historical note. Most shinobi were no more or less than working men, masters of a particular craft who used their talent, skill and will to support their families. Be this way as well — be humble in service of your need to defeat all enemies and survive — then you’ll be a poker ninja, too.

John Vorhaus is author of the Killer Poker series and co-author of Decide to Play Great Poker, plus many mystery novels including World Series of Murder, available exclusively on Kindle. He tweets for no apparent reason @TrueFactBarFact and secretly controls the world from