3 Things I Learned From a Game of Poker

life lessons we can learn from poker

A few months ago Joey found my poker chips. They had been in the basement collecting dust with most of the other things I brought home from college. There was a time when poker was a pretty big part of my life, but it’s been a while since I last played. Of course, Joey had a bunch of questions and Gianna’s curiosity was piqued, too. So we each took a stack of chips and I got to explaining how the game works.

As often happens when teaching them something, it turned out I learned a thing or two as well. This time, in delivering a beginner poker lesson, I took away an advanced lesson on life. Here are three things I learned by introducing my whippersnappers to the world’s greatest card game.

1. Kids are more interested in the chips than the cards.

When we started playing it took forever for me to get them to focus on learning the game and not just playing with the chips. I am not sure they would have cared if we used cards or not, which, for a card game, is kind of a necessity. Though, if you know poker, you’ll agree they may have been on to something in their instinct to ignore the cards.

2. My mother-in-law is a pretty damn good poker player

She happened to be visiting during our game and took turns helping the kids play their hands. There were a few times I found myself on the short end of some pretty big pots and they were all at the hands of my card shark mother-in-law, Patti.

3. Poker is a deep metaphor for life.

We’ve all heard about “playing the hand you’re dealt,” but I think it even goes beyond that. First, life is more like draw poker than stud. Sure we get cards dealt to us, but we always have the opportunity to make adjustments to our hand. There’s no guarantee the adjustments will work out the way we hope, but our hands are not limited to those initial five or seven cards. So we take inventory of what we have, trade some cards in, change some things around, and suddenly our hand can look quite different. That’s one component.

Betting on yourself

Before and after we draw there are rounds of betting. This is another opportunity to get more value from our hand. The stronger our hand, the more we are comfortable putting on the line. And how much we have available to risk will depend on how well we’ve played previous hands. In that way, poker games have a memory, and like life, no one hand is ever completely isolated. Our accomplishments create momentum, improving our potential to “win” subsequent hands.

There is no guarantee the best hand will win. If you play your hand as well as you can, you may still get what you’re after, even with cards that are not the strongest. I don’t think it’s good to advocate for bluffing in life (and I definitely don’t subscribe to the only one winner mentality), but a good poker player will use a strong betting strategy in tandem with the cards they’re dealt, and again with those they ultimately draw to. There’s no reason we can’t do the same thing in real life.

Surrounding yourself with a strong community

Draw poker does a great job holding up as a metaphor for life. It does miss in one key area, but thankfully we have Texas Hold-Em to pick up the slack. Texas Hold-Em is a unique poker game in that it uses “community” cards that are shared by all players. Each player only has two cards of their own, and five more that are shared. I think this is important to mention because, in life, no one ever “wins a hand” all on their own.

All successful people have been helped by someone else. In Texas Hold-Em, your hand is only as good as the strength of the community cards coupled with those you hold. In life, the success of your “hand” is dependent on the quality of the people you surround yourself with — your personal community.

The role of others is crucial. In poker, we have opponents. We’re all trying to win the same hand, and barring a tie, only one person can win. Therefore, success is scarce. In life, there might be opponents in the form of competitors, saboteurs, or indifferent spectators. But life is not a zero-sum game. More than one person can win any given hand. There are such things as win-win scenarios. This means we don’t have to knock others down to raise ourselves up.

Putting it to work

As complex as it may seem, all of the above can be summarized in 7 simple actions. You’ll notice only the first one is completely left to chance.

  1. Review the hand you are dealt.
  2. Determine what you want your hand to look like.
  3. Risk appropriately based on your chip stack and your cards.
  4. Analyze your opponent.
  5. Take a shot at drawing to your desired hand (using help from the community cards as necessary).
  6. Assess where you are.
  7. Adjust your next risk accordingly.

We have the choice of whether or not to join a poker game. But life isn’t optional. We’re all dealt in whether we like it or not. Not only are we dealt the cards, we’ve got an ante in the pot as well. There’s a lot at stake. Every hand is a risk. But there’s also an awful lot to gain. Most importantly, regardless what our hand looks like, we always control our destiny.

For these reasons, I’m glad Joey found my chips. I’m glad he pressed me when asking if we could play. They both impressed me with how quickly they picked up the basics. By no means are they ready to sit at a table with the pros, but that’s what Dani and I are here for. Our job is to teach them to play the game as well and as fairly as possible. Every day they’ll get a little better, and eventually, they’ll be ready to show the world what they’ve got.

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