Poker and decision-making

(This is a guest post by Tim Hathcock.)

Much has been written about poker as life, much of it overdone. But sometimes it’s true, you can learn much about life by playing poker.

My goal is to be the best that I can be at maintaining emotional stability and to consistently make good choices. It is my belief that these two go hand in hand.

This is important to me because in my past, I frequently made bad choices when in a highly charged emotional state.

In 2003, when I first started playing Texas Hold ‘Em poker, I flopped a royal flush.

If you don’t know anything about poker, I can tell you precisely how rare this is. It happens once every 649,740 times.

I had been playing poker for about a month and while I was not completely clueless about poker, I had no idea just how rare this event was. It was one of the worst things that has ever happened to me in poker.

For quite some time after that, I thought poker was an easy game. The amazing royal flush, combined with the poor players I was competing against, combined to give me that false notion. Truth is, poker is an excruciatingly complex game, much more so than chess, for example.

Poker is a game of incomplete information. You cannot see your opponents’ cards. That’s one of the things that make it so complex. In chess, you see everything your opponent does.

Poker is an odd game. Sometimes you can get very lucky — like the neophyte me with the flopped royal flush – and sometimes for lengthy stretches. Of course, you can also get very unlucky (poker players refer to it as “running good” or “running bad.”)

My best guess is that in the form of poker I play, well over half the results are due to luck rather than skill. Of course, in the long run, the skilled players get the money.

It is this preponderous of luck that makes poker such a great vehicle for controlling your emotions. Fortunes can change at the turn of a card. Hands you think you have won can be snatched from you in a flash. And this can happen over and over and over again.

It can get to a person, particularly someone as competitive as I am.

Our brains are wired to detect patterns. “Connecting the dots” was an important way early humans were able to survive and procreate. We still do it, but unfortunately we detect patterns where none exist.

Such as in poker, where you make the correct decision 14 times in a row and come out on the losing end every time. It’s particularly painful in poker because there is money involved.

That makes poker a great vehicle for me for better decision-making. Plus, once I pull off my goal, the extra money I win won’t hurt.


  1. Meg_Bertini on 10 August 2012 at 7:58 pm

    What do you do before you play to prepare yourself for good decision-making, and do those steps carry over into other parts of your life?

  2. Tim Hathcock on 11 August 2012 at 2:35 pm

    Before I play, I like to prepare myself by reading some from a good poker book. I am familiar enough with the author and the game to know that I can trust the material. It gets me in the right frame of mind.

    I also like to do a bit of meditating each day. That is not specific to poker but brings me clarity of thought.

    Does it carry over to other parts of my life? Well, that’s the idea! I would say yes, but I am a work in progress.

    Then again, aren’t we all?

  3. Meg_Bertini on 13 August 2012 at 7:17 am

    Yes, we are all works in progress! What book do you use?

  4. Tim Hathcock on 13 August 2012 at 3:54 pm

    I use “Small Stakes Hold ‘Em” by Ed Miller, David Sklansky, and Mason Malmouth. Also, “Hold ‘Em Poker” by Sklansky and Malmouth, and “The Theory of Poker” by Sklansky, are excellent reads, although the latter two are geared more toward middle and high stakes games.