Poker's Life Lessons: Handling good luck

In the first of a new series Barry Carter looks at what poker teaches you about life beyond the felt.

powerball brothers
Variance

I don’t play poker as much as I used to but the lessons the game has taught me I use every day. It’s unfortunate that many employers consider life as a professional player a CV gap because there are so many transferrable skills poker teaches us, most notably about dealing with adversity.

Last week I used my understanding of pot odds when negotiating a deal for a new car. The very same day I used my understanding of playing the short stack in SNGs to try and convince a friend that using a vape was a better choice than smoking regular cigarettes. I’ll probably write about both those instances in the future but it made me realise that I play poker every day with my life decisions, from the very mundane to the most important ones of all.

So I thought it would be interesting and prompt a few good debates to write a few pieces on some of the biggest life lessons poker has taught me that have improved other aspects of my life.

We've all run like god and like hell

Jamie Gold cash
Don't be jealous of those who run well

Most of these lessons will unsurprisingly revolve around the nature of luck and how you can do everything right and still lose. The bad luck is always the hardest part of the game and one beneficial side effect of that is it can create great resilience. But I wanted to start with the flip side of that and how we deal with good luck, both our own good fortune and when it smiles upon people we know.

We live in quite an envious time where some people are actually quite shy about talking about the things in life that are going well. Most of us are embarrassed about the lucky moments we have in life because we are aware of how others may not have it so good. It’s a good thing that we can be empathetic towards others and humble about ourselves, but not when it gets to the point that we actually beat ourselves up about things we have no control over.

Once you get to a certain point in life you will likely have experienced at least one thing that would make your peers jealous and another you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. The difference with poker is that these instances happen every single time you sit at the table. We’ve all experienced running like god and we’ve all found ourselves telling bad beat stories, very often in the same session.

I’m really lucky in most of the conventional ways: I have a great wife, an interesting job, money in the bank and it’s looking like I will have a full head of hair well into my 70s. I’m probably most lucky of all to be born in the West, in the digital age, in an English speaking country with a clean bill of health. I’ve also had plenty of misfortune: I lost my Father quite early in life, I’ve been scammed several times by shady people in poker and I worked on a poker book for two years only to release it on Black Friday.

Don't fixate on good or bad luck

Dan Bilzerian race car
Some people are just born into good fortune

We all have a natural sense of justice deeply ingrained in us which makes the good fortune and the big adversity harder to deal with. That sense of justice gets somewhat dismantled when you play poker for a long time. Most poker players I know refer to major incidents in their life as being good variance or bad beats, which I think is very helpful for understanding and coping with the natural variance in life.

It is absolutely true that some people are born into circumstances where they practically cannot lose at life and other people are effectively drawing dead from the start. I think poker helps you recognise this too, but from a purely practical perspective fixating on luck on either end of the pendulum doesn’t help at all. Doing either will essentially paralyse you from taking action. You can only play the hand you are dealt, as the classic poker maxim goes.

I think this attitude also makes it much easier to avoid developing petty jealousies with the people in your life. In this industry I have known a lot of close friends win single prizes that would pay my house off in and leave me with enough change for a two week holiday. Whenever I tell my (non-poker playing) wife that our friend has just won six-figures she admits she is a little jealous, but I rarely feel anything close to that because I know that I didn’t buy a ticket for the event and I certainly didn’t incur the losses those players had prior to their big score.

The most important lesson of all about how to approach good or bad luck is not to be a passive participant in it. Just because I think it’s an important trait to recognise good and bad luck that doesn’t mean we should assume everything is random. Recognising when something was lucky or unlucky should also give you a glimpse into what you do have control of and what you don’t, prompting you to work on the former and not worry about the latter.

Has poker changed the way you think of luck in other aspects of life? Share your experiences in the comments.

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Comments (4)

newest first
  • dilm666

    #1

    yea
  • khmgw

    #2

    Barry, I loved this article, especially this part and the wonderful metaphor: (...) where they practically cannot lose at life and other people are effectively drawing dead from the start (...)

    Poker teaches us to totally ignore the outcome of things, especially concerning the feelings. On one side, it makes you tougher and unlucky moments wont get too close to you. But unless you win a really, really big price, winning wont be as exciting, as it was before when you still were a fish. Poker disconnects us from our emotions, leaving us cold. It has both advantages and its downsides. It's kind of a mixture of love and hate.
  • SPeedFANat1c

    #3

    I also started thinking this way and my parents have farm, and this farm also has variance. And I say them - their farm is like playing poker - but with much bigger sums of money then I play. And they have to accept that sometimes they might lose. And also I remember once they lost big sum of money (or did not win, like their AA did not get paid), mother at least said - yea, its not that bad, we are healthy and so on and we have food to eat.
  • Mooharius

    #4

    Some years ago I always wanted to play poker because I wanted to win big, but life taught me that there are more important things than money. Now I just play because I like the game. If I will earn some money with it I will be happy, if not I will be happy too because I have a decent life.