When I was growing up, one of the first things my step father taught me was how to play poker. I was near the age of 12 when I first played, but by the time I was 18 (the legal gambling age in Washington State) I had become a shark. I used my age to an advantage–the older men thinking I was too ‘green’ to play. To fool them further, I would ask silly questions at the gambling table, make bets incorrectly, and moves out of turn.
This became profitable for me, and it wasn’t long before I was hooked. At the height of it all, I took home a couple thousand dollars from a local tournament. In my excitement, I immediately went to a higher stakes table and lost it all in a bad play where I got over confident. Not only did I lose all the winnings from the tournament, but I took out a couple thousand dollars from savings and lost that too. It left me reeling and feeling sorry for myself.
I grew up poor, and I thought my future was among the poker stars that had become my heroes. However, this dramatic loss left me thinking I wasted my time learning the ins-and-outs of poker. I felt sorry for myself that my family wasn’t rich. That I couldn’t afford college. That my destiny was to make a minimum wage living forever. And finally, that I was even losing at the one thing I trained six years to be good at: Texas Hold’em Poker.
But then I had an epiphany. Life IS Hold’em.
PRE-FLOP [A game begins and cards are dealt to each player.]
There are two things more important than anything in Hold’em:
- The first, is your position: who you are sitting next to, and whether you bet first or last.
- The second, is the cards you’re dealt during pre-flop.
In life, just like in poker, we don’t get to choose who we start next to, or even what cards we get. You know what we do get to choose? Whether or not we are going to play, learn the rules, and use psychology to our advantage.
In my life I felt like I was dealt a 7 and a 2 (off suit at that). The worst hand in Hold’em. I was poor, born to a single mother without an education and the odds were stacked against me. I could see the other players in life, they had good cards–and a LOT more chips to bet and take risks with.
THE FLOP [Refers to the action of dealing the first three face-up cards to the board.]
For one reason or another, I decided to play my cards. Lucky for me it was cheap to get to the flop. One thing I know from watching so many poker games, is that the flop gives a player about 71% of the data they need to play their hand.
Tip: On the flop, never look at your cards or at the flop cards–always watch the other players faces. If they get good cards, they will show it in their eyes.
By now I had joined the military. I wished I was going to college, but I knew that if I worked hard enough in the service–I could go to college afterwards. My friends posted pictures online of all the great times they were having at their universities–and I was in a combat zone, with hardly the internet to load the images that captured their fun. The flop worked out for them–it was certain to me that they were going to get good jobs when they graduated, I could see it in their eyes.
THE TURN [The fourth community card is dealt alongside the flop. It is time for you to decide how much you like the strength of your hand. ]
My service to the U.S. military lasted 7 years. To me it was a lifetime, and a large price to pay for schooling. My friends had all graduated and were now looking forward to their new, high-paying jobs. I was applying to schools–and still feeling sorry for myself. Because not only did I not get good cards to start with or on the flop, but the turn hit me harder: I was diagnosed with PTSD, and it’s symptoms were destroying my life.
Tip: In Poker, when things are going poorly for you, it’s a smart idea to consider leaving the hand by giving your cards back to the dealer–a move called, “folding.”
I was ready to fold. “This game just isn’t for me” I thought. It was probably time for me to resign to the minimum wage job I was destined for. After all, it must’ve been what the Dealer wanted, since he gave me such bad cards to begin with. It was time for me to toss my cards and do what was easy–move back to Washington. I even laughed to myself, “Maybe I can become a small time table shark in poker again.”
That’s when it hit me: There is one thing that separates Hold’em over almost any other card game. Psychology.
And one of the most devastating psychological maneuvers in Poker is the Bluff.
THE BLUFF [A bluff is a bet or raise made with a hand which is not thought to be the best hand.]
“A bluff!” How had I not thought of it before? When you have nothing, sometimes the best play is to pretend like you have everything in the world going right for you. I got my bluff together: my Wife and I would start a business.
I put the few chips I had left into the biggest bet I could muster together. This was it, and the other players knew it. They saw the excitement in my eyes, the eagerness in my heart, and the shakiness of my hands as I put my chips into the center of the table. For sure I was going to win. The business was going to take off and this game was mine.
All those years of poker playing finally paid off!
… or so I thought.
THE CALL [To match the current amount of the bet made by a previous player in the round of betting.]
To my disbelief the other players all figured out my bluff, and matched my bet. I felt sick to my stomach–I was out of chips, and the business wasn’t working. I was done for.
Tip: The “turn” is named as it can turn the tide of bad luck into a players favor.
I thought the business would work–it was supposed to turn the tide of luck into my favor. When it didn’t I had nothing left–my hope was in the outside world. In poker this would mean my only chance was on the last card dealt to the table: the river.
THE RIVER [A final single community card is then dealt, followed by a showdown.]
With no chips left, my only shot was in the river. One thing important to Hold’em players is the speed at which the Dealer reveals the river card. The goal for the Dealer is to reveal it slowly, and dramatically–as this is where all the stakes are held.
Tip: The last card given to the community is called “the river” because it will sell you down the river. As they say, “dreams are made on the river.”
The river appeared to me in the form of a mentor; he knew how to make my hand good again. Looking over the business he gave us tips and strategies to get back into the game. Interestingly enough, all that time serving the military and missing out on school ended up being the greatest help to my business. It gave me the work ethic to keep going when things were hard.
I was thankful for growing up in the American version of poverty. When you are dealt a bad hand, the only option you get is to play it. If you can win with a bad hand, you can DEFINITELY win with a good one.
The game isn’t over for me though. This was just one hand. Something I learned from this hand was that it’s important to stay persistent, even when it looks like the other players are winning out. Some crazy things can happen on the river.
And when I look back at it, I can’t help but wonder if the Dealer knew exactly what he was doing.