TOS Blog: Daily Commentary from an Objectivist Perspective

Life Lessons of Poker

I approach recreational poker as entertainment, not gambling. I enjoy playing, even though I’m a novice and often lose. As a game, poker offers some meaningful lessons.

1. Act on reason, not emotions. Praying, hoping really hard, or performing some superstitious ritual will not change the sequence of cards. The cards are what they are, and they are in a particular sequence for a given hand, regardless of how much you may wish otherwise. Poker reinforces this reality-based perspective by punishing those who act on emotions without the guidance of reason.

2. Don’t obsess about “sunk costs,” or money you’ve already spent. Something is not more valuable simply because you’ve already spent a great deal of money on it. For example, if you spend a lot of money on a lemon vehicle, then spend a lot more money fixing it up, your future decisions about the vehicle should not be influenced by the money you’ve already spent. If the value of the car does not justify the next expense, you should not incur it.

The same is true in poker. As David Sklansky writes in his classic The Theory of Poker, “It is a common fallacy for players to think in terms of the money they have already put in the pot. They make a bad call because they called one or two bets on earlier rounds.”

3. Savor the right decision, even if it doesn’t pay off. Starting a new business is risky. So is getting married, or doing any number of other things. We never have perfect information about the future, so we should make the best decision we can based on the available evidence, then be satisfied with that decision, even if not the outcome.

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Sklansky writes that making a good decision “gives you a sense of equanimity toward winning or losing a bet.” He adds, “I actually derive pleasure from making a good fold though I have lost the pot.”

4. Keep perspective. Poker can be a lot of fun. It can also be dangerous to those who get obsessed with it and risk more money than they can reasonably afford to lose. Poker offers a good reminder that each individual rightly makes his own decisions—and pays a price for making irresponsible ones. (Members of congress appear to be unaware of this principle, but, then, they’re spending our money, not their own.)

I lose at poker more often than I’d like, but it’s fun and it offers some valuable lessons. When played with the right perspective, it’s true that “every hand’s a winner.”

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Image: iStockPhoto

Posted in: Productivity

Comments are welcome so long as they are civil.
  • Walter Hudson

    Great insights from a game I love. Another thing poker teaches you is to deal rationally with the irrationality of others. Given the ban on online poker in the U.S., whenever I do play it is typically for play money. Because players in play money games are not risking anything of value, they often play highly irrationally. It can be frustrating to watch people double or triple their stack on a crazy sequence of unjustified action. But that does not make it okay for you to emulate their irrational behavior. In tournaments with such players, you typically end up folding 95% of the time until the blinds force you to gamble on moderate hands. Nevertheless, it remains satisfying to make the right decision regardless of the outcome.

  • Martin Lundqvist

    Mathematics & probability is also quite a deep subject in poker, and learning all that can certainly be helpful IRL too.