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Life-Lessons We Can Take From Poker

by Barbara Connors

Be Observant. Poker players live and die by their ability to read opponents— their quirks, tendencies, patterns of behavior. In a live game, body language and tone of voice add more invaluable information. Put your opponent on the correct hands and no amount of bad luck can keep you down for long. Fail to put your opponent on the right hands, or, worse yet, don’t even try because you can’t be bothered to think about anything beyond your own two cards, and no amount of good luck will save you in the long run.

The power of observation is just as crucial in the real world. Whether the person sitting across the table from you is your boss, your customer, your enemy, or the love of your life—everybody has cards they don’t want to show. Only by reading people can you get a feeling for what those cards are. Is this a good time to approach your boss about a promotion? Is it a good time to ask the object of your affection to move in together? Will they be receptive and call your bet, or will they fold and walk away?

Pick Your Battles. In a poker game, aggression must be selective or else you’re no better than a maniac on tilt. Away from the poker table, it’s no different. Life is full of problems and power struggles that get our aggressive juices flowing, but they’re not always winnable or worth the effort. Unfortunately, there is always a limit to how much time, energy, and money you can throw at any given problem. So pick the ones that matter the most to you and focus your efforts on those. Whether you’re at work fighting for an assignment, or at home watching TV fighting over the remote control, know when to fight—and when to fold and wait for a better spot.

Consider The Risk vs. Reward. Winning poker players always consider the pot odds. All things being equal, if you’re drawing to a two-outer with one card to come (a 22-to-1 shot), you’re not going to call if the pot is only giving you 3-to-1 odds. The reward just doesn’t justify the risk in that scenario. The same logic applies to many non-poker decisions. You find yourself faced with a choice to invest something— your time, your money, the sweat of your brow—for the opportunity of some potential payoff down the line. But there is always a risk involved, even if it’s “only” the loss of your wasted time and energy. If you’re investing in a company, either directly or through buying a stock, what’s the risk the company will go bankrupt versus the chance they will hit it big and make you rich? And what’s the risk to your personal finances? Can you afford to lose that money if the company does go belly-up? Poker teaches us that before we put our money on the line, we need to think it through.

Learn to Lose. If not gracefully, then at least without going on tilt. The most painful lesson that poker teaches us is that losing is inevitable sometimes. The more often you play the game, the more you’re destined to run up against soul-crushing bad beats and brutal losing streaks. But if you play smart and keep your cool, the loss is never permanent. It’s the same story away from the poker table. Most of us have gone on life-tilt at one time or another. Losing love, losing a job, losing health, money, status, or anything else that matters to us— can be excruciating. It can bring the strongest person in the world to his knees. But we make the problem infinitely worse if we use that loss as an excuse to fall into a downward spiral. As the old saying goes, Keep calm and carry on, because if there’s one thing poker teaches us, it’s that bad luck never lasts forever.

Barbara Connors is a sucker for classic old movies, science fiction, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Her life’s ambition is to figure out the unusual behavior patterns of that unique breed of humans who call themselves poker players. Contact her at fyreflye222@

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