Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Zen and the Art of Poker Maintenance

I am inherently a curious person. I get paid to find facts, after all. But it's a hobby I pursue in my leisure, as well. Lately, as you know, I've been looking for poker answers.

Since I am primarily concerned with the psychological issues in my game just now, there are obvious places to look for help (The Psychology of Poker, et al). I'll get there, I guess. But, right now, I'm poking around elsewhere, roads not traveled, looking for art in the trees, rather than in a museum. Which brings me to Robert Pirsig's classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

He uses the word "gumption" to describe that desire to tackle a task (or, in his more philosophical words, "describes what happens to someone who connects with Quality"), finding the purity of mind to fully "see" the trail before you. So, to solve your problem, you need gumption.

The gumption-filling process occurs when one is quiet long enough to see and hear and feel the real universe, not just one's own stale opinions about it.

Excellent. Exactly right. A perfect rendering of why I'm pulling back on my online play. With all the hands careening around in my head, my analysis of my play and that of my opponents, my rigid adherence to the rote lessons, there's no room for re-appraisal. Too much clutter. To much reliance on repetitive actions instead of careful analysis of other potential avenues, which are currently blocked.

Throughout the process of fixing...things always come up. These drain off gumption, destroy enthusiasm and leave you so discouraged you want to forget the whole business. I call these things "gumption traps."

We've all run into these traps in poker. It can be something like a diminished bankroll and its attendant effect on your psyche. Or something as simple as a bad beat. Or a hand poorly played. They sap your desire in varying degrees. But it's also part of the lure, is it not?

Motorcycle maintenance gets frustrating. Angering. Infuriating. That's what makes it interesting.

So, what are these traps, common to all of us? Many seem so simple, so obvious, but their impact on our poker game may not be similarly obvious. I'm only concerned today with those "internal" traps, our psychological reactions to both success and setback. These emotional influences that we first need to identify, then block the effect on your game.

Of the value traps, the most widespread and pernicious is value rigidity. This is an inability to re-value what one sees because of commitment to previous values.

These come up all the time, especially for the learning player. For example, you start out with ABC poker, a solid strategy in the No Fold 'Em games everywhere. As you move up limits--or to PL and NL games--you find that basic strategy is not conducive to improvement. You're too easily read, too easily pushed around. At this point, a natural evolution should take place. New lessons should be absorbed and assimilated. But you can't get there without "forgetting" what you've already learned. You've got to slow down, re-trace your steps, find out what applies in this new game and discard the rest.

Next up, Ego.

If you have a high evaluation of yourself then your ability to recognize new facts is weakened. Your ego isolates you...When the facts show that you've just goofed, you're not as likely to admit it. When false information makes you look good, you're likely to believe it.

Hooo boy. Show of hands? This apply to anybody? Nah, me neither.

Aside from the obvious drawbacks to an inability to admit mistakes, thereby repeating them over and over again out of sheer hubris, I've experienced Ego in a different sort of way. It generally manifests itself when I am playing well and results in an over-confidence. It's not the sort of thing one thinks about when summoning the concept of "tilt," but it is exactly that. Things are going well, I think, so that no matter what I do, this pot is mine. I am invincible. And those "thoughts" block any reception of clues that this may not be the case.

This next one has undoubtedly given me the MOST trouble these past months: Anxiety.

(You) chase after imaginary ailments. You jump to wild conclusions and build all kinds of errors...because of your own nervousness. These errors, when made, tend to confirm your original underestimation of yourself.

Wait, you say. You have ego problems AND under-estimation problems? Hell yes. The latter visited me at the tables during a period this summer when, no matter what I held, I was always second best. Pocket Queens? Hello, Aces.

The immediate effect of me consistently running into monsters was to conjure them every time I was in a pot. Turn the nut flush? Swell, but the board just paired on the river and you're beat to a boat. Bottom set? Oh, somebody's got to have top set. It made me play tentatively. The slightest aggression and I toss my TPTK. Pushing people off what I KNOW were marginal hands? Forget it.

The way out of this is not just recognizing it, but allaying your fears. Find understanding. The odds of set over set are small enough to not even worry about. It happens, it happens. Play your cards with no regard for the tough beat you took. Play them for the first time, making your best decision based on the intricacies of the hand, don't put a player on aces just because you've seen aces a lot lately.

Boredom means you're off the Quality track, you're not seeing things freshly, you've lost your "beginner's mind."

This trap has cost me a fair share of cash this summer. It's what happens when I sit to play while in the wrong frame of mind. When I play just to play, without motivation or proper attention, without a goal in mind. Without edge. It leads to loose play, an "Aw, fuck it" attitude, the exact opposite of what is desired. You have to be focused. You have to be willing. If you are not all of these things, don't play. Stop. Come back when you want to play.


The last thing I'm going to appropriate from Pirsig is a bit more hinky than above, more conceptual. At least to me. My pragmatic brain has trouble latching onto philosophy for the most part, but I thought this was kinda cool. The trap here is yes-no logic and his idea that there is a third potential answer, embodied in the Japanese term mu.

Mu means "no thing"...It states that the context of the question is such that a yes or no answer is in error and should not be given.

Reminiscent of "It depends" don't ya think?

Yes or no confirms or denies a hypothesis. Mu says the answer is beyond the hypothesis. Mu is the "phenomenon" that inspires scientific inquiry...

For example, doubleas posted and talked about the QJ hand at great length. If the question posed was, "Would you bet here?" (I know that wasn't exactly it), then a yes or no answer would be woefully inadequate. The answer, or answers, demand we not confine ourselves to those simple terms and by breaking from the bonds of those rigid parameters, we are able to discover truths (strategies) beyond those which immediately present themselves.


I'd recommend the book to any who've not read it. There's quite a bit of metaphysical wandering, but there's a palpable tension throughout the entire tome. It is also, at times, exhilarating.


At 5:35 AM, Blogger doubleas said...

There is also a Zen and the Art of Poker, but of course the motorcycle maintenance is more interesting to read.

At 8:35 AM, Blogger Drizztdj said...

I can't tell you how many "aw, fuck it"'s I've done in MTTs and SnGs lately.

So many times I could have fought despite a low stack and push knowing I was beat. Last night was probably the first time I'd fought tooth and nail the whole way in a tournament for 4 months.

Results? A cash and a final table. Not to mention outlasting Billy-bob toothed Bobby Bracelet. That was worth more then the cash. :)

At 10:11 AM, Blogger Joaquin "The Rooster" Ochoa said...

At 12:36 PM, Blogger Human Head said...

Nice post, I just discovered and finished this book about 4 months ago. Anytime I mention it to anyone here they look at me like I'm from another planet...oh yeah, I live in KS, that explains a lot.

Now I'll shut up and end this longwinded comment that was intended to say how great the post was :)

At 1:05 PM, Blogger Captain Freeman said...

Amazing post about an amazing book. I first red ZAMM when I was a teenager, and not to overdramaticize but it kinda changed my life a little bit. Certainly I wouldn't be playing poker now if it weren't for that book, and I've thought about Pirsig's capital-Q Quality and gumption traps in relation to poker a lot. However, I never actually went back to the book to look for specific advice... my mistake, obviously. Well, now I have something to read when I finish Miller's SSH.

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