“Suddenly, I saw three rolled up aces and I was in late position.
It was a 7-card stud game, not at home, but on a family vacation in
Las Vegas.” This letter, from a reader in Colorado, is fascinating
for it’s frankness, and is probably the singularly most interesting
letter I’ve received from a reader since this column began. He
goes on to say: “A queen to my right raised, and I reraised. He
called. My adrenaline was really pumping. My next card was a king, and
as I was grabbing for my chips, I’m sure I was literally shaking.
My heart was pounding out of control, my jugular vein felt like it was
about to burst, and I’m sure my face must have turned redder than
the ace of diamonds. After witnessing my physiologic reaction, my opponent
“By profession,” the writer adds, “I am a surgeon.
Prior to major surgeries I am quiet and introspective, and excel at
handling crisis situations. With other people’s lives hanging
on a thread, I am calm — so why do I panic over a $10 dollar bet
in a card game? Ten dollars is like a penny to me, so why do I bet it
like it was my last dollar?”
The writer goes on to mention that he plays poker both for relaxation
as well as the challenge of winning, but that poses a dilemma for him.
“How,” he writes, “can I relax and enjoy myself when
I’m that stressed over a $10 bet?”
Does any of this make sense? Why would a surgeon, who effectively handles
the staccato pace of multiple trauma patients in a hospital emergency
room, and does so with with complete aplomb, come apart from the tensions
of a mere card game? Shouldn’t a poker game on a vacation in Las
Vegas be child’s play for a man who works in an environment where
the stakes, quite literally, are life and death?
While there are many forces at work here, the least of them is the
ten dollar bet. One major difference between poker and surgery is the
degree of control exerted by the practitioner. The surgeon is in total
command of the operating room. While surgery offers no guarantee of
success, a surgeon’s skill resides completely within himself.
No one rolls the dice in the operating room. In poker you make your
play then await the turn of a card. That card, which can be neither
controlled nor foretold, may reward your play or destroy it. Though
skill wins in the long run, in the narrow confines of any given hand,
the whims of fortune can rage with the force of a prairie fire.
A beginner, making all the wrong moves, is capable of beating a world-class
player just by getting lucky. That’s the essence of gambling.
Although every move made and each decision taken at the poker table
is done with all the knowledge and skill a player can muster, immediate
results may bear no relationship to his skills.
Risk, that high-wire act of uncertainty, is a vital force in poker.
If we all played for matchsticks what difference would it make whether
we won or lost — and what’s more, who’d care? But
it’s money we’re playing for, that inestimable measure of
a man’s worth, and something as small as a ten-dollar bet, even
for someone who can easily afford it, can produce stress.
Without any tension, poker wouldn’t be much fun. It’s precisely
that sense of tension — that visceral reaction we get from the
inherent insecurity of casting our fate to the winds of fortune, from
that feeling of being alone, out there on the edge, buttressed only
by our skills — that seems to reside deep within our core. Our
willingness to risk, to take a chance when the outcome is not entirely
clear, is probably one of the factors that helps us survive as a species.
Why else would we risk? Why climb mountains, run marathons, become entrepreneurs,
try sky diving, explore vast and unknown frontiers, play poker, or even
fall in love. All of these are high risk behaviors. They require risk,
and are accompanied only by the certain knowledge that the success of
our endeavor is not preordained.
Risk can be exhilarating as long as it is not overwhelming. Risk, after
all, is not some static point in experience. It lies on a continuum.
Too little risk and there’s no thrill. Too much risk can be overwhelming
to the point of immobility — like a deer frozen in the headlights.
And everyone has his own level of risk tolerance. Some individuals
don’t like any degree of real risk. Certain forms of seemingly
risky behavior are not risky at all; they merely simulate it —
like a ride in an amusement park. Other forms of risk seem suicidal.
The prospect of free-climbing a sheer rock face or cliff diving in Acapulco,
at least for the untrained, would be incredibly stressful. Like finding
yourself playing no-limit poker against Doyle Brunson and Johnny Chan
with the rent money, the effect can be stupefying.
For the visitor to Las Vegas, just playing poker there can be intimidating
if you’re not used to it. It is certainly not your local game
in a card casino where you know all the regulars. Your opponents are
faceless adversaries, not friends. The game is fast, the casino loud,
and everyone save you, the newcomer, seems to be completely in tune
with this environment. You’re trying to process so much information
and extant stimuli so quickly that you are overwhelmed. Seeking harmony
to calm your senses, you find only dissonance. It’s stage fright.
It’s opening night jitters. It’s the fighter who says he’s
nervous until he absorbs that first blow. It’s the writer who
can bang out a 3,000-word article in a single sitting — but only
after he’s spent three days laboring over a twenty-five word introductory
Sure, I’m not surprised that a $10 wager can seem like betting
the rent money, and that under all those pressures, losing can become
intolerable. Unless a player can accept the fact that short term results
are simply a scattergram, and endeavor to play his best at all times
— never mind if a given day brings a win or a loss — that
sense of tension, welling up from an inability to control something
as intractable as the turn of a card, will always be present.
But there is an out. Forget about winning. Just concentrate on playing
well. Concern yourself solely with playing your best game, and let the
chips literally fall where they may. Some things can’t be controlled,
so don’t bother trying. If you play your best, and you’re
a better player than your opponents, you’ll win money in the long
run. It may not be in that game, on that day, or in that casino, but
you’ll win. Take Mike Caro’s advice to heart. You’re
not being paid to win pots. You’re being paid to make good decisions.
Do it and the results take care of themselves. Take the long view and
I believe you’ll be overcome the stresses and tensions which seem
to hover around unimportant and ultimately insignificant short-term
Next year, next month, next week, it won’t matter at all whether
you won or lost with those rolled up aces — or even whether your
stress level was so transparent that your opponent folded once your
trembling hand reached for your chips. What matters is that you play
that hand as you play the others. It is, after all, just another in
a long series of poker decisions that began the first time you played
the game and will continue until your deal is done.
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