Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Sartre’s Gambler (3 of 3)

Jean-Paul SartreIf you ever to listen to PokerRoad Radio, you’ve probably heard a clip of T.J. Cloutier from his appearance on PRR back in early March. They’ve been using it repeatedly as a bumper on all of their shows. The clip begins with co-host Ali Nejad asking Cloutier what advice he has for players who are running bad or “who feel snakebit.”

“I wake up every day with a new attitude,” Cloutier responds. “I’m not gonna worry about what happened yeseterday. I just go on to the next day.” Then he adds, “How can anybody who’s won about 11 million in poker and lost about 3 million in craps worry about what happened yesterday?”

That last question elicits laughter -- and a bit of sarcasm -- from the PokerRoad crew. It’s a very existentialist thing for Cloutier to say, actually. In fact, every time I hear that clip, it makes me think again about Sartre’s gambler.

By describing each day as a new one -- or, to say it differently, to distinguish between what one is or does today from what one was or has done previously -- is to regard the past as Sartre does, as an example of “nothingness” that Cloutier says he chooses not to draw upon as he endeavors to make meaning of the present.

Of course, it isn’t as though Cloutier is “reborn” each day. There’s obviously a lot that he has experienced during those previous thousands of days that does help him figure out what today means for him. But his “attitude” or philosophy is basically existentialist, at least in the way he puts it. And frankly, all poker players who have enjoyed long-term success almost without exception adopt a similar approach in the way they view and interpret the game.

As a way to close the discussion, let me refer to three examples of poker writers also evoking this very existentialist view of life in their discussions of poker.

One comes from one of my favorite passages in Small Stakes Hold ‘em by Ed Miller, David Sklansky, and Mason Malmuth, that short little section early on titled “Random and Independent Events.” After talking a bit about how the human brain has a remarkable capacity for seeking out and identifying patterns, the trio explain how easy it is at the poker table to make the error of seeing patterns where none exist. “When it comes to gambling,” they point out, “mistaking false patterns as real has led many to ruin.”

In particular, many sometimes falsely conclude that the cards dealt in one hand have something to do with what gets dealt in the next. The authors underscore the importance of avoiding such a fallacy by using italics: “The cards dealt on any poker hand are, for practical purposes, completely random and independent of the cards dealt on any previous hands.” Indeed, the cards are simply “existents,” or “pieces of plastic” with “no knowledge, no memory, no cosmic plan.” An obvious point, perhaps, but we’ve all made that mistake at one time or another. (He can’t have aces again, can he?)

The second passage I’ll quote comes from the first volume of Dan Harrington’s Harrington on Hold ’em. It’s a point he makes over and over again when talking us through sample hands, particularly when he is narrating one in which his player has made an error early in the hand, and now faces a new quandary later on. “Once you’re in a hand,” he explains, “every subsequent decision has to be determined by your hand, the pot odds, and the total table situation.” Like the authors of SSHE, Harrington brings in the italics to emphasize the point: “Every betting decision is a new problem. Don’t forget that.”

Finally, I’ll share something from Barry Tanenbaum’s epilogue to his terrific Advanced Limit Hold ’em Strategy (published last year). Tanenbaum is especially gifted at explaining poker-related concepts, and in fact a lot of them apply regardless of the game one is playing.

The epilogue is titled “Forgive Yourself” and there Tanenbaum stresses the importance of not brooding over yr screw-ups (which, for most of us, are inevitable) and instead focusing on the next hand. “A positive attitude is essential,” Tanenbaum argues, thus the need to avoid beating oneself up over that missed bet or incorrect fold. “The better you get at not dwelling on past mistakes other than to learn from them and move on,” says Tanenbaum, “the better your play will be.”

Sounds a lot like Cloutier. And Sartre, in a way . . . .

The point, I suppose, is to understand that as humans we necessarily allow a lot of stuff that isn’t really “there” -- a lot of “nothingness” -- to creep into our understanding of what is there, such as all the different “existents” (cards, chips, people) gathered around a poker table at any given moment. We take that “nothingness” (be it from memories of the past, or ideas of the future, or wherever) and make meaning of our present. We can’t help it. We’re human.

But as we do, we should try to recognize and avoid those circumstances when we might be tempted to make meaning and then apply it incorrectly (and thus go down that path that “has led many to ruin”), e.g., expecting the next hand to balance the previous one, allowing a preflop mistake to affect unduly a post-flop decision, letting a bad session affect our play in the next one, and so forth.

All important to keep in mind, I would think. I just hope I remember it tomorrow.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, not sure if I agree with your article. I'm a fan of the The PokerRoad (Poker Radio, Poker TV, Poker in Print, among others). I really like the hosts Gavin Smith and Ali Nejad too... But i really like all your writing excerpts. Will keep checking back : )

5/21/2008 3:45 AM  
Blogger Short-Stacked Shamus said...

I also like PokerRoad Radio -- in fact, I enjoy all the shows over there (incl. Jacks in the Hole).

5/21/2008 8:06 AM  

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