It has happened to me more than I like to admit. Things are going fine; I might even be doing very well. Then, something happens. Something statistically possible, but very unlikely. It sets me off. I start making bad decisions, then worse ones. Before I know it, everything I had and everything I gained flows away to nothing. I may even come away worse off. Sometimes it takes me by surprise; other times I can feel it coming but am helpless to head it off.
A Cruel Game
I’m talking about a phenomenon in poker known as tilt. It is a destructive cycle that starts with something not going your way and it ends up in a state of rage where you just aren’t thinking clearly. Your reactions are based on emotions driven by that first instant when things didn’t go as they should.
Before online poker went illegal, I used to play a lot. I started while I was in Kuwait by using a dial-up 56K Internet service and a proxy server (Failing to use the proxy server meant you got a screen warning you that the site had been blocked because it was immoral). Anyway, I put $100 on an account and started playing for pennies. At the penny level, people will chase you to the river (the last card) with nearly any hand. It is a recipe for bad beats (losing when statistically, you should have won).
I’m not good with math, but I am good with percentages and probabilities. My wife loves me on shopping trips as an instant sales calculator. How much is that $17.99 dress when it’s 30% off? I’m your guy. In every poker hand, based on the cards you’ve seen, how may are left in the deck, what’s on the board, and what’s in your hand you can figure a rough probability on what the odds are that your hand will improve before the end of the hand.
The problem with knowing this is that it builds a false sense of expectation. If I have a “10” and a “Jack” and the board shows “9, Queen, 4,” I know that I have eight cards or a 31.5% chance of making a straight (five cards in a row) before the end of the hand. Hands like this are played or not based on what kind of money is in the pot vs what you must pay to play. Hands like “Ace, King” versus a dealt (or pocket) pair are nearly even money. You expect mixed results with these hands.
In some cases, your hand is so far ahead that it is nearly impossible to beat. You’ve got Ace, Ace and your opponent got all his money in before seeing any more cards with Ace,2 (same suit) in his hand. You get him all in and have him dominated. You’re going to win this hand 87.24% of the time. You sit back and smile.
One of the other people at the table mentions that she discarded a “2,7 ” so there are only 2 cards in the deck which can hurt you, and they would have to both come out. No two in the first three cards. Now you are 93.49% to win this hand. The next card is a 2. Even though it improves his hand it makes the odds even better, over 95% your favor. There is only one card in the deck that can hurt you if the other player was honest about discarding a two. One card out of 30 left in the deck. It hurts when that final two magically finds its way out of the deck to knock you out of a tournament just shy of the money, but it will happen just over 3.3% of the time. You will lose even though you have done everything right. You are not in control, despite your advantage.
When it happens, I cycle through surprise, disbelief, sadness, anger, and finally full blown rage. I start throwing money at the next hand sure that somehow fate owes me a correction. I was robbed and the universe will right itself in my favor. It never happens. Usually I am not even thinking about odds at this point. The further I fall behind the more desperately I play trying to get it back. If I were smart, I’d walk away from the table right after the bad beat, but I am rarely so controlled.
The same can be said of life. Things come at us out of the blue. There is more randomness in life than any deck of cards. There is no fairness principle. There odds are immeasurable. And yet, when things go wrong, or different from what we expect, we can get upset that they did not meet our expectations. We rage against our misfortune. It should have gone this way or that, but it didn’t. At this point, we start taking bigger and bigger chances, but odds are odds. Long shots are long shots and almost always lose.
A Stoic Front
The answer was written 2000 years ago by Marcus Aurelius and Epicurus before him. “You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all.” Circumstances around you even those that impact you that are beyond your control should be beyond your concern. If you cannot change it, do not worry about it.
Focus on things over which you have control and let the other stuff fall where it may. Yeah it sucks to lose when you know that you should have won.
These ideas form the basis of a philosophy known as stoicism. It is far easier to write than practice. I try to separate the controllable from the uncontrollable, but the line is blurry and sometimes painful. In poker and in life you do not control all the cards. Sometimes they will fall your way, when they shouldn’t. We are quick to forget these long shots and determined to remember those that fell against us.
The only way to peace is through an ancient idea that has been carried forward to the present. Maya Angelou, summed up Aurelius when she wrote “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”