Friday, May 23, 2008


I dunno. Are you better or worse off for being rational?

I'm not superstitious and I don't believe people have luck, although I recognise that outcomes that can go several ways can be positive or negative in a run for a person, and that can make a person "lucky". There's nothing mystical about that though, no reason one person should be favoured and another not.

So why am I so unlucky?

Obv. in most things I think about poker. Yesterday I played four games. In the first, I came third. I am a patient, tight player, so with three of us left, I was playing cautiously, waiting for decent cards. The guy who had been raising nearly every hand raised. I pushed over with AQ. He had AK. Given that he could have a wide range of hands, it was a bit unlucky to be dominated. Next up I had 66 and I'll talk about that in a moment. Then in an MTT, I flatcalled a huge raise with AA to trap a guy. The flop was all low cards and he bet, I pushed. He called with JJ and rivered a J. He was 9/1 against doing that. Finally, playing a small tourney, I pushed with 88 on the bubble, got called by 55, and he hit a 5. Again, I'm 9/1 favourite.

But here's the thing. I can recall these hands because they are salient. Losses are. Bad luck is. What I find harder to recall are all the times I had AA, pushed and was called by a worse hand and duly won. (As it happens though you can analyse your "luck" in STTs, and mine has been bad recently, but I suppose I have had runs of good luck too.)

The other tourney something quite astonishing happened. I don't think I'll see another hand like it in a hurry. I had 66 and called the blind. The flop came QQ6. This gave me a very strong hand. I got it in with two other guys. One had KQ. In the moment after that was turned over, it was true that for me to be beaten, the other guy had to have the one remaining queen in the deck and the one remaining six, and even more astonishingly, the three of us would have all the Qs and 6s between us and the board. That's a very large longshot.

The reason for my original question is that I think that the world can be very hard to deal with if you are coldly rational. That an unaware universe conspires to give the guy Q6 is a lot harder to work with than believing you are unlucky. Because you can believe that luck can be fixed. When people read The Secret (which I believe boils down to "think positive and you'll attract positive things"), they are trying to learn how to stop being unlucky. (I guess there's something in it because you do seem to get worse outcomes from not approaching things positively, although there's nothing mystical in that either: you simply do better when you put a full, decent effort in and expect results than you ever will by doing it halfheartedly and expecting to fail.)

And when it comes to poker, it's a lot easier to say "I'm unlucky and that's why I don't do as well as I hope" than "I am not very good", even though not being good is fixable, and not being lucky is not. The reason the former is appealing though is that then it's not your fault, and that improving can seem impossible. It's hard to measure how good you are in poker, precisely because it does involve luck. (It's about making the most of good luck and losing the least when luck doesn't favour you much more than it is about defeating others with skill.)

But this is not a post about poker. It's a post about the mystical. In the same way it's tough to accept that your failings bring you misfortune just as much as your being unlucky, and that the world really is a cruel machine that doesn't take you into account in its unfolding, it's tough to accept that there is nothing more than being an ape on a small planet in a corner of a vast, unfeeling universe. Comfort should not be underrated (although it often is). The belief that you can personify the universe and have it give a shit about you may be irrational, but it's not incomprehensible. (I sometimes feel the likes of Richard Dawkins are protesting way too much, as they exclaim their delight at a godless universe, their excitement about just being alive--for my money, Dawkins' work is a vast collection of vanity.)

Vanity, I believe, is the primary outcome of self-awareness. Somehow, the collections of atoms that make us became aware that they were something distinct from the rest of the world, and immediately confused distinction with importance. (Well, of course we feel important to ourselves.) Shortly after becoming aware that we are, we must realise that we will not be. What a tremendous blow to our vanity it is. When I think about dying, I can't help thinking what a shame it is that this beautiful, incredible thing, my consciousness, must cease to be.

But of course it isn't. It's just what is. But even Dawkins cannot think like that! He cannot accept that what he does is not so important, that it doesn't matter to him that other people's children are indoctrinated or whatever. He suffers from one of the greater vanities that humans can fall prey to. He believes that what is right for him personally is universally right. He isn't alone, of course. That belief is almost universal, and a cause of such enormous suffering that I sometimes think we would gain more from abandoning it than from any single other thing we could do. It has its upside: surely a motivating force in our quest to vanquish disease is our personal desire not to suffer it, and our fellow feeling leads to good ends--recognising that others are like us allows us to want to help them in their suffering; autists do not do charity. (And we would not like to be without that fellow feeling: look what can happen when we start to believe strongly that others are not like us.)

But we mistake a family resemblance for a belief that others are exactly like us. We become unable to understand why they would choose differently, when what is right for us is so plainly right. Sometimes we can justify to ourselves punishing them for it.

I think Dawkins is not clear enough that sparing people from what is not good for them can become a lot like forcing people to do what is good for them. His anger over children exposed to Catholicism, say, is akin to Catholics' anger that others do not believe in God, when it so plainly benefits them, which led them to murder so many heathens in their time, and was a factor in many of the great crimes of history, not least the Holocaust.

The unwillingness to say "you won't accept what's good for you but so what, that's your funeral" is a terrible thing. It's in large part what motivates the Qutbistas in Al Qaida. They have made a crusade out of forcing other people to accept what's good for them, and because they truly believe what they are offering is of enormous value to people, they cannot conceive that they are doing anything wrong. Humans have often been able to convince themselves that good motives justify bad ends. (And this particular affliction of ours works on all sorts of scales: I'm doubtless not alone in thinking that everyone should love the music I love because it's so good, when in truth I should more reasonably not care a less what you like, even if it implies you have terrible taste. There are grounds of self-interest for thinking like this--that one needs others to like what one likes for its existence to continue and that one needs others who like what one likes if one wants to be able to enjoy it more broadly by talking about it--but they are rather thin.)


Anyway, having recognised this, I realise that I will be happier if I stop doing the thing I criticise in others. It will probably lessen the terrible culture shock I've been suffering too. It's not easy though. Affirming that what is good for you is good for others is a way of reinforcing that it is good for you in the first place. This is something we do when we have made choices, and particularly when we've made sacrifices, that we're unsure about. If I despise ignorance in others, I am mostly valuing my own attempt to dispel it in myself. But of course I do not know whether ignorance is bliss or poison.

And as for luck, I know why I'm so unlucky. I find it easier to lose than to win, so winning is not so salient for me, and I find it easier to diminish myself than to believe that I am good at something, and much easier to fail than to succeed somewhat--and have the concomitant pressure of needing then to succeed more--so it's easy to fail and blame it on luck than to say, well, actually, it's a game of chance and I know that, and I have the capability to cope with it. And when you've made that realisation, of course it's easy to see that life is the same.


I realise too that I am too focused on outcomes and not enough on the quality of my decision making in the first place. I worry more about how others will feel about what I do, and how they will react, and not enough about reining in impulsiveness. The latter is something I've fetishised, when it's not at all a plus. It's quite a stunning realisation that spontaneity has generally been bad for you, because it feels so good. The former is simply an outcome of control-freakery, I suppose. I care about how what I do will affect others too much because a/ I want them to have the best of it and b/ I want them to feel that I brought the goodness. But how they feel about the outcomes of what I decide is pretty much their problem a lot of the time.

I don't know whether I'm making sense. The two concepts seem intertwined to me. Like all humans, I suffer from wanting the good for me to be good for others, and I also suffer from anxiety that others should feel and appreciate the good I do or can do for them. That doesn't seem even to get past the surface of what I feel about it.

If I think of a small example, take my statistics on Sharkscope. (Which is a website poker players use to see how their opponents have run in the past: it gives number of games and results and so on.) My SS stats would be fairly decent but I block them. One of the reasons is that I don't want players who respect me to know that I haven't played many tourneys. (Only about 1.5K, and nearly all of those when I wasn't paying much attention!) I feel fraudulent anyway. But see what I'm doing? First, I am prejudging the outcome. Maybe they would be more impressed by how good my stats are, and less concerned about the volume. It's what I think that I worry about! Not what they think at all. Second, I am refusing to do something that might have a good outcome--expressing my fears and perhaps getting help and reassurance--because I can perceive a bad outcome in potentia. I don't want to be diminished, so I do something that actually diminishes me. That cannot be healthy.

Here's a thing about luck. I'm going to wrap up with this. It's something I understand but cannot do, and it's going to be my focus for the next couple of months in poker, and in life (until I change my views on that in about a day or two). A good aim in poker is to do this: make the right decision and then entirely disengage from the hand. If you win, you win. What matters is only the decision. You can control the decision; you cannot control the outcome. It's a bit like this: imagine you have to cross a road blindfolded. Get to the other side and you are rewarded in some way you will really appreciate: a million dollars, a threesome with the Olsen twins, whatever works for you. You cannot control the traffic but you can decide to cross when it's quiet. If you are then run over by a car that you did not hear, you do not have to blame yourself, beat yourself up for choosing to enter the road at that point, or anything else. You weren't driving. You chose your moment to the best of your ability, and that's that.

You know what's coming. This is the part where I say, and of course the worst thing you can do to yourself is to stand by the side of the road, fretting yourself into a puddle of pee worrying about cars that you cannot see and at that moment cannot even hear.


At 7:46 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

boots sez:

"But this is not a post about poker. It's a post about the mystical."

I see it isn't about poker, LOL; okay, I'll pretend to swallow that. Mystical? I've heard you should write about what you know, Zen.

"I find it easier to lose than to win,..."

I think you'd find that winning all the time would bore you to tears.

"I realise too that I am too focused on outcomes and not enough on the quality of my decision making in the first place."

Outcomes are too abstract, and if you ever get into the zone you'll recognize that "decision making" is, though more immediate than outcome, still too remote in time to keep you in the zone.

"You can control the decision; you cannot control the outcome."

You might find that you cannot even control the decision but if, having made it unsuspecting and then having been notified that it's an error, you do not act upon it... you don't need to control the outcome Zen, that's more work than necessary.

"You know what's coming."

This brings to mind the line from Moonstruck where O.D. says "Cosmo, you're gonna die, just like everybody else."

Worrying about outcomes, worrying about decisions, those will throw you out of the zone faster than damn near anything.

At 11:45 pm, Anonymous Arleen said...

Do I hear an AMEN!, Brothers and Sisters?

LOL! Good post.

This is the part where I say, and of course the worst thing you can do to yourself is to stand by the side of the road, fretting yourself into a puddle of pee worrying about cars that you cannot see and at that moment cannot even hear.

Good luck crossing the road! ;-)

For someone like myself, who doesn't give a crap about poker, it made perfect sense as applied to the things that I do give a crap about. So while it was a post about poker, it also wasn't a post about poker.


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