I'm reading a fascinating book about poker, "The Biggest Bluff." The author, Maria Konnikova, has a Ph.D. in psychology from Princeton after graduating from Harvard.
So she's obviously smart. But she knew nothing about poker until she decided to learn the game under the guidance of Erik Seidel, a poker champion with tens of millions of dollars in earnings.
That would make for interesting reading all by itself. What makes this book much more intriguing is how Konnikova's background in behavioral science enables her to discover important life lessons as she starts to play poker with the goal of entering the World Series of Poker in just a year's time.
Here's excerpts from the Texting Your Way Out of Millions chapter that I read this morning. Having practiced Tai Chi for sixteen years, with about a dozen years of hard style (karate) martial arts experience before that, I can relate to what Chewy says below. Chewy got his nickname by always having a stack of chewy bars on the table next to him when he played poker.
This is the first time I am seeing him in person, and what I notice right away isn't the beard or the hair or the washed-out sweats. It's the poise with which he carries himself at the table. His posture is perfect. Both hands rest lightly on the felt, long fingers perfectly quiet, resisting the rustle of chips or flip of cards.
His gaze is even and intense, absorbing the whole of the room. He's the embodiment of focus. When I glance at him two hours later, the only thing that has changed is the size of the stack of chips in front of him. It has tripled.
...The image of Chewy sitting, Zen-like, amid the clinking chips and flashing phones and constant call of "Drinks, beverages" from the cocktail waitresses walking around the tables doesn't leave me. I ask him if we could meet and talk about his approach to poker. I'm hoping some of that unruffled poise may transfer by osmosis.
He agrees, and I soon find myself in a nondescript Starbucks, doing my best to get to the heart of his aura. Is that intensity of focus a conscious decision or a sort of by-product of his personality? Is it natural or learned, cultivated or coming easily?
I'm not surprised to hear that there's nothing easy about Chewy's ability to summon what seems like infinite focus. Yoga is just the beginning of his practice -- and, he says, it's not quite enough.
He is also a kung fu and tai chi practitioner.
"The element of flow that yoga does, typically through vinyasa, is different in kung fu. It's more approached in kind of a tai chi qigong series. I'm not sure if you're familiar with that." I have no idea what tai chi qigong is, but it seems natural that military discipline would hold part of the answer.
"It's really simple," he explains. "Tai chi just means energy movement, and qigong means energy pulsation. It's just mostly standing form, just movements. The idea is, you're letting your body freely flow in such a way that each movement is determined by the previous movement. So it can be an endless flow, continuous movement where the functionalities maintain."
Each movement is determined by the prior: there is no preset plan; just a way of constantly reacting to the moment. Of course, that approach necessitates focused attention. An Edward follows the plan. A Chewy follows the flow.
And flow is how he sees the entirety of the game.
"There is a flow to poker, to the way the events unfold," he says. "I sort of look at it in a macro sense similar to tai chi. It's all about the movement of energy. Take even simple boxing. If I jab, jab, jab, jab, jab, jab and do no blocking, I"m going to get taken out. Someone's going to kick me or something. You have to be tactful in your movements, strike when it's right to strike, block when it's right to block, move when it's right to move."
And to do that, it's not enough to just watch your own energy. You have to keep track of the entire table. The energy flows between players.
"Everything in poker is always some sort of flow of energy, where whoever can apply the right amount of pressure and allow the right amount of retreat will win. If you find that balance, it's really nice. That's what will allow for success," Chewy says.
The idea seems solid, to be sure. But how to attain it in practice? Chewy, it turns out, also has an incredibly Zen attitude toward losing. Like Dan Harrington, he firmly believes that losing is essential to learning how to win -- but the atttitude toward loss is a very different one.
Where Dan views it as a way of teaching yourself strategic lessons and analyzing your game, finding your mistakes and plugging your leaks, Chewy sees it in more cosmic terms. When he loses, he sees the loss as part of a larger pattern.
"Maybe in the big picture of life, beyond what we can see immediately in this moment, we weren't meant to win that hand because some other stream of events had to transpire for us to be successful," he says. It's the same idea of flow, of one event causing another in a seamless succession of ripples whose pattern you have no way of predicting in advance.
Philosophically, it's a powerful way of viewing life. ("Poker is exactly like life, but with instant karma," Chewy remarks.)