“The only way you’re going to get a return, or value, is by engaging with this thing called ‘risk’.”
-Casper Berry (motivational and keynote business speaker specialising in the subjects of risk, decision making, innovation and leadership).
This week’s blog will most likely read like the diary entry of a hormonal teenager, so if you’re looking for some real insight into poker as opposed to an episode of Dawson’s Creek, then you’d best hit that tiny little “x” and get the fuck outta here.
I’ve been moaning for weeks about how I’m running pretty hard, and that’s definitely true at the moment. I’ve also stated on multiple occasions that I’m not playing well, and that’s true nearly all the time, principally because I’m not a very good player.
Something I have noticed recently is that I’m suddenly very scared of poker. I mean, it’s probably not sudden, it’s probably crept up on me over the previous couple of months after losing a disproportionate amount of races, getting slapped by the 5% crew too often, and coldly running into massive hands every time I think I’ve found a spot.
However I got here, whatever the reasons, (whether perceived or real) I am full of fear.
Every time I sit down at the table, every hand I get dealt, on every street of every pot I play, I have got the raging fear, and it’s in no way beneficial to my poker game.
I’m generally a fairly fearless individual. The things that seem to scare other people, ranging from spiders, to small spaces, to public speaking have never affected me at all.
I’m not scared of death, I don’t believe ghosts exist and my ego is so huge that fear of failure just isn’t a concern.
I am afraid of large, out of control fires- but I used that fear to make me a better person, and am now a serious expert on fire safety and (perhaps surprisingly, given my excitable personality type) an absolute rock of sense in intense and dangerous situations.
I’m also terrified of a Zombie apocalypse, no doubt as a result of watching “28 Days Later” whilst high as fuck about 15 years ago. This foolish irrationality is so far-fetched that I can box it up 99% of the time, and only sense the fear when I have realistic dreams about Zombies or am in an underground carpark (I can’t explain that, other than they usually smell apocalyptic).
So why am I suddenly so scared of poker?
Fear is a necessary human process, and we have two principal forms of it: Species Specific Defence Reactions and conditioned fear.
Species Specific Defence Reactions (SSDRs) are fears that we have genetically inherited from our successful ancestors. The ones who were instinctively scared of heights, fires and snakes were more likely to survive than those who weren’t, which is how certain fear instincts have survived the generations as part of natural selection.
There is evidence to suggest that some of these innate fears can be attributed to specific periods of history, for example that all mammals have an instinctual adverse reaction to snakes as a result of the Cenozoic Era, commonly defined as the time when mammals became the rulers of the earth and the reptiles, the previously dominant Terrans, began to slink back into their lizardy holes.
I’d be pushing it to say that my fear of poker could be referred to as a SSDR, I very much doubt that Neolithic man got his loin cloth in a knot about that Ace spiking the river; so I have to understand my fear as conditioned.
A conditioned fear is a fear you learn because something negative happened, and your brain tries to protect you from it hurting you again, so your feel the fear to stop you putting yourself in that situation.
Conditioned fear is necessary to generate the most appropriate behavioural response to ensure you carry on being a live creature.
Fear is not just a “mental state”, there are physical traits of fear, most commonly: hyperventilation (breathing more quickly so more oxygen gets into your brain and muscles), increased muscle tension, hyperglycaemia (blood sugar shoots up for energy) dyspepsia (when your tummy feels fluttery, it’s your body shutting down your digestive system).
This is not a biological design to make you feel shit, all these things prep you to fight or flight, and if you don’t respond to them, you freeze up and whatever you’re afraid of will finish you right there.
Except Poker can’t kill, can it? Not directly anyway, so fear of it is clearly very stupid.
I am clearly very stupid.
But what am I supposed to do? If conditioned fear is an unconscious biological response to stress paradigms, and poker definitely causes stress, what the hell can I do about it?
There is a whole class of people who appear to remain emotionally unaffected by the cruelties of poker. Fair play to them, they’re better suited to the game than me, but they’re a genetic anomaly, and they’re not the dominant psychological profile for the pure fact that their calm and controlled ancestors didn’t survive as frequently as mine did.
When the Zombie apocalypse does start, they’ll be food for the undead within days because they’ll try to study one of them instead of running like a whippet with a firework up its rectum.
I can’t just learn to live with this fear, like I have with the Zombie terror, because it actually affects my life: I’m playing poker scared, and that is no way to play poker.
Due to a cold run, I’ve been conditioned to think that I’m never hitting my draw and they always are. I’ve started to believe I can’t ever win with the best hand unless it’s the nuts on the river and I even feel dread when I get dealt AA because I’m pretty sure I’m going to be out of my tournament by the end of the hand… and recently, I’ve been right!
I’ve been holding back because I’m terrified it’s not going to go my way, and short term empirical experience has validated that, compounding the fear and letting me justify worse and worse decisions at the table.
Of course, my quiet, logical voice tells me that this is variance, that I need to think of the long game and that if I’m making the right choices, I will be profitable in the end.
Problem is, fear is stopping me from making the right choices because short term conditioning has taught me that whatever I do, I’m fucked, and there’s no stopping it.
Multiple psychologists have asserted that there are only a very few innate emotions, fear is one of them but logic is not, so guess which one wins a battle in my very average brain stem?
Logic is sensible, fear is powerful… and the briefest study of our modern Western society and politics will show beyond anecdotally that power beats sense every single time.
Am I totally screwed? Should I just give up poker and concentrate on chess and baking?
No, I don’t think so, and here’s why: I can be re-conditioned.
I can unlearn that the cards never go my way, not just through study and logic (although these things are important to cling onto), but through empirical experience.
All it takes is a few games where I win the flips, hold the 65%+ equity and even outdraw a couple myself, and my fear can be “untaught”.
Poker cannot physically hurt me, and when I cry because I get AA cracked by an underpair five times in a row, I will not be so physically broken I can’t click “register” on some new tourneys and try again.
After a cold few months, maths is giving me some reprieve and I’m not getting battered so hard by the three outers. Noticing this is what caused me to realise how scared I’ve been playing recently, and how I let fear take control of me without even realising.
I make a promise to myself today that I won’t let that happen again: I will feel the fear and ship it anyway.
Short video from Casper Berry about risk in poker, business and life: