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Let’s Improve Poker’s Image Part II

by Alan Schoonmaker |  Published: Jul 23, 2014


Alan SchoonmakerMy last two columns said poker’s poor image damages relationships with our families and friends and helps our enemies to commit outrages like UIGEA and Black Friday. Preston Oade, a poker player and distinguished attorney, is collaborating on this series. We believe that serious players can improve poker’s image by publicizing poker’s benefits and educational value.

Poker Is A Great Teacher

Because it’s so similar to life, poker is as good or even better a teacher than sports, chess, and other games. Dozens of self-help books use them, but hardly any books use poker. Poker has been neglected for many reasons, primarily its negative image. So many people won’t learn its lessons.

At a Harvard Law School poker seminar, Professor Charles Nesson made a critical point: Sports have been emphasized for thousands of years because they develop skills and personal characteristics that were essential for survival such as running, jumping, throwing spears, boxing, wrestling, sword-fighting, endurance, and pain-tolerance.

But we aren’t hunters today, nor is most combat hand-to-hand. Today’s competitions are primarily mental, and most battles rely heavily on technology. We need very different skills to succeed — or even survive — today, and poker develops them immeasurably better than sports. Previous articles listed many useful skills and personal qualities that poker develops. Now we’ll discuss a few that poker develops exceptionally well.

Poker Develops Intellectually Competitive Attitudes

Even though today’s and tomorrow’s most important competitions require brains, not brawn, young Americans are often discouraged from competing intellectually. People try hardest in the most rewarding competitions.

Among young people, good athletes and musicians have high status, while top students may be rejected. They’re often called “nerds,” “geeks,” and “grinders,” and attractive boys and girls would much rather date or hang out with a good athlete or musician than a nerd. That difference continues indefinitely. Top athletes and musicians earn immensely more and have much higher status than scientists and scholars.

So most young Americans naturally try harder to excel at sports or music than as students. American students aren’t stupid, but far too many of them aren’t motivated to excel academically. On numerous tests of academic skills such as math, reading, and writing, Americans perform much worse than students from many other countries.

Academic excellence is much more highly valued in other industrialized countries. Students compete intensely for grades and academic honors, and their parents, teachers, and peers encourage them to excel. Top students receive the respect that Americans give to excellent athletes and musicians.

Poker is an intensely competitive game, and the results depend heavily upon the players’ brains. The competitive attitudes developed by playing well can be applied to many other, far more important competitions such as business, investing, and careers.

Poker Develops Math Skills

As noted earlier, Americans students perform much worse than students in other industrialized countries, and hardly any of us study math after leaving school. Poker is based on math, and playing it well develops many math skills.

These skills greatly improve important decisions. Preston uses expected value (EV) calculations to help clients to decide whether to settle or take a case to trial. It is very illuminating; it helps them to make a much more rational decision. The same math used in poker helps to decide whether to buy or lease a car, evaluate different insurance plans, and even how much to save for retirement.

Poker Is Exceptionally Good At Teaching Risk-Reward Analyses

This mathematically-based skill is almost impossible to learn in classrooms. You can’t learn any skill without practice and feedback, and poker provides both. Hundreds of times each night you must quickly analyze a situation and decide:

How much am I risking?
What can I win?
What is the probability of winning?
What should I do to maximize my EV?
Then you must risk real money, and you quickly learn whether you made a good or bad decision.

Where else can you get so much practice and feedback? You can’t risk significant money in a classroom exercise, and most real-life risky situations don’t give you repeated opportunities for practice and feedback. If you invest in a stock or real estate, you must wait months or years before learning whether you made a good or bad decision.
We believe that’s one reason that Peter Lynch, former manager of the spectacularly successful Magellan Fund, recommended that, to develop investment skills, people should “learn how to play poker.”

Poker Develops Patience

Patience is, of course, essential to winning poker Patient players carefully pick their spots, which is an important reason why they generally win. Patience in poker is usually rewarded and impatience is typically punished. And this lesson often carries over to everyday life.

Why Is Poker Such A Great Teacher?

This short column can discuss only a few points. First, poker’s rewards and punishments are very powerful. If you consistently play well, you win money. If you play badly, you lose money. Of course, bad players can get lucky, but — over the long term — the better players will win, and winning and losing money have much more impact than most other rewards and punishments.

Second, winning poker demands concentration, emotional control, patience, math skills, risk-reward analysis, discipline, and good decision-making skills. You can’t win without them. Since winning and losing have so much impact, serious players naturally develop these exceptionally important qualities and can apply them in everyday life.

Third, any reasonably intelligent adult can play poker. Many self-help books use sports, but athletic success depends primarily upon size, strength, and speed which are irrelevant for nearly all adult competitions. Over thirty million ordinary American adults play poker, and it’s mostly a mental game. Good players rely primarily upon their brains and bankroll management.

Fourth, poker forces you to focus on making the most important decisions. What’s the most important competitive decision you ever make? It’s unquestionably: Where and when do you compete? Do you play cash games or tournaments? For high, medium, or low stakes? Against which types of players? If you make a large mistake here, nothing else matters. You can play your best, but — over the long term — you will certainly lose.

The play-or-quit decision must be made in every betting round. As Kenny Rogers tells us, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” A poker player, corporate executive, or investor who can’t pick his spots and get out when he is beaten or the game is too tough will probably go broke.

In short, poker teaches many important life lessons, and we should let everyone know it. ♠

Do you often wonder, “Why are my results so disappointing?” Ask Dr. Al, He has published five books about poker psychology, five on other psychological subjects, and is David Sklansky’s co-author for DUCY?