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Rock Bottom

by Barbara Connors

Why do you play poker?

 The most obvious answer would be money. Most of us consider ourselves to be winning players, or we aspire to be. But if money is the only thing that keeps you coming back to the tables, that can be problematic, because until the day you finally quit poker for good, your poker winnings are always going to be at risk.

 This is related to something called the “Sisyphic condition”—a term coined by psychologist Dan Ariely. The term comes from ancient Greek myths, specifically the character Sisyphus, a proud king who was punished by the gods by being forced to push the same giant boulder up the same hill over and over again. Each time Sisyphus got near the top of the hill, the boulder would roll back down to the bottom and he would have to start all over, again and again for all eternity.

 Ariely ran an experiment where people were invited to construct bionicle figures out of Legos for a small (and everdecreasing) sum of money, until finally the payment was so meager that they would decide it wasn’t worth it anymore. In one test run, called the meaningful condition, the finished bionicle was simply taken away after each person was done putting it together. In the other test, called the Sisyphic condition, each bionicle was immediately dismantled right in front of the person who had just built it, while they were putting together the next bionicle which itself would be immediately taken apart upon completion. In this condition, the same two bionicles were constantly being assembled and dismantled again and again in an endless loop.

 In the meaningful condition people were willing to build, on average, 11 bionicles before they finally gave up. But in the Sisyphic condition, being paid at the exact same rates but constantly watching their work be destroyed in front of their eyes, the average person was only willing to build seven bionicles before throwing in the towel. Like Sisyphus pushing his boulder up the same hill over and over, the futility of the work squashed the satisfaction of it.
 Now, what does all this have to do with poker? Anybody who has ever spent hours amassing a large stack of chips—or years building up a poker bankroll—only to watch it evaporate in front of their eyes due to a series of bad beats or even just one soul-crushing suckout, already knows the answer. Which brings us back to: Why do you play poker? If it’s just about the money, you must be prepared, like Sisyphus, to watch all your hard work go down the tubes. That’s not to say skilled players don’t win in the long run. Unlike Sisyphus, it won’t happen every single time, but even if you’re talented, it’ll happen often enough. Streaks of bad luck come to all of us sooner or later, and they can be brutal.

 This is why some cash-game players are tempted to quit when they’re ahead. If you can write a big fat “W” in your poker ledger, you can feel you’ve accomplished something. You have successfully pushed that boulder to the top of the hill. Except that you haven’t. As they say, it’s all one long poker session and the next time you sit down to play, that boulder is at risk of rolling down again, undoing all of your previous accomplishments. For tournament players it’s a slightly different story—though any monetary winnings are liable to be at risk again, the title of champion is permanent. To avoid feeling like Sisyphus, perhaps it’s best to look for other reasons to play this game. To make the best decisions possible, to learn and explore different strategies, to challenge ourselves. A stack of chips can disappear in an instant, but knowing you made the correct decisions is something that can never be taken away.

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

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