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Nov 01

What Games Have Taught Me: Courage of Conviction

Of the many things I that have learned from playing games, I believe that one of the most important to success in games and life, is the need to possess courage of conviction.  In the realms of politics and religion, having the courage of one’s convictions is another way of saying that people should practice what they preach.  For my purposes here, I would describe it as having the discipline to apply principles that have been shown to be true, through a combination of applied reason and objective observation of prior experiences, regardless of the short-term temptations to behave in a different manner.  In other words,  once I know what works, I try to stick to it.  Making decisions can be very difficult and in the moment there are all manner of distractions that can impair good judgement.  In such a time, having the ability to take a deep breath and do what I know is right has been the difference between winning and losing many times!

The game that has given me the greatest lessons about having courage of conviction is without a doubt Poker.  I learned some very basic 5 Card Draw Poker at the age of seven and I have enjoyed playing the game ever since.  I used to hustle for lunch money on the school bus during Junior High and High School, but I really got into Poker in my early 20’s after the release of the movie Rounders.  Like much of America, I learned of Texas Holdem for the first time, and immediately fell in love.  At the time, I was a very hardcore Magic the Gathering tournament player, and figured that with the advantage of my competitive gaming experience I could make a little supplemental income off of the hoards of poker noobs coming out of the woodwork.  This proved to be true for quite a while, but as time went by the noobs got better, and to continue winning I was forced to study poker intensely so that I could stay ahead of the curve.  I read through every tome of Poker wisdom that I could find (There were a lot fewer back then) in an attempt to gain a greater understanding of the fundamentals of the game as well as higher level theory.  I used to set in Denny’s and Steak and Shake until the wee hours of the morning discussing hands and strategy with my poker playing friends in an effort to sharpen my skills.  It was through these studious efforts that I learned some very important truths about probability, pot-odds, reading hands, reading opponents, betting strategy, psychological strategy, and bank roll management.  I assure you, that no opponent of mine has ever reached for his Oreos when he had the nuts, but there are many real world tools that can help with the reading of hands.  Playing poker can be EXTREMELY stressful, and all manner of emotions try to seep in and influence the decision-making process.  I have felt the urge to seek revenge on a luck-sack who had put a bad beat on me and was tempted to call his bets when I should fold just to show him that I mean business.  I have grown weary of folding for hours and wanted to play bad hands out of boredom.  I have felt fear in my stomach when faced with a re-raise for all of my chips, which also just happened to be my rent money.  I have experienced the desire to satisfy my ego by making some new player fold simply because my arrogance made me disdainful of his play.  I have also felt compelled, like many poker players at one point or another, to flip the table over in a rage due to incredible bad luck, all the while cussing out the other players, the dealers, the poker gods, and anyone else within earshot!  It is in moments like these that only by having the courage of my convictions could I ignore what my entire being was shouting at me and find a more positive outcome!  Some of the basic convictions that I relied on where the following:

Poker, like life, is about decisions not results.  Make the right decisions often enough and in the long-term you will have good results.

The odds will come true…eventually.  I know it does not seem like it when some moron is hitting every miracle draw at the table, or a person that you know is leading an insanely reckless lifestyle and somehow being rewarded for it, but the odds do play out.  If the odds did not work, your aunt Susie would be rich and the casinos would be broke.

If someone is beating you due to luck, it is important to remember that it is beyond your control and no amount of egotistical certainty in your own superiority will change the situation.  Trying to will things that are out of your hands will only get you in trouble.

Winning, not fun, is the goal, and if you are bored go do something else because very often the right decision is the most boring one!

The truth is the truth, and whether you are afraid or not changes nothing.  If you would call a bet for pennies because you are absolutely certain that you have the best of it, then ignore that feeling in your stomach and put your chips in no matter the stakes!

Reason, not emotion, is the most useful tool for success in all endeavors!  If you truly want revenge on your opponent are you more likely to achieve it by shouting about how stupid he is, or if he is in fact as stupid as you believe, using cold and calculating logic to formulate a superior strategy that exploits his weaknesses?  This also can mean abandoning a plan that your heart tells you to pursue, but your brain knows to be hopeless.  The movies lie.  Only follow your heart if your head approves of the plan!

To quote a little Shakespeare, “To thine own self be true.”  Is that guy really winning because of luck, or are you playing like crap?  If you are lying to yourself it is impossible to make the best decisions and there by impossible to get the best results!  If you doubt me on this, try watching the auditions for American Idol sometime.  A lot of people could have been spared a lot of pain and embarrassment with a little more self-awareness!  It is far more important to understand WHY you won or lost than it is whether you won or lost.  Only a loser blames luck for every loss and heralds skill for every victory!  Only by objectively observing reality can you learn the truths that will serve as your convictions.

Learn everything that you can about that which you wish to achieve, because somebody else is and if you want to beat them it is the only way.

While the above list of convictions does not resemble a standard strategy article for poker, or any other game for that matter, I assure it is some of the most helpful advice that I can give you.  I try to adhere to these concepts, and others, when undertaking any serious competitive endeavor as well as in everyday life.  It can be very hard to stick to your guns, because if you are anything like me you are lazy at heart and would love to get all of the gain with none of the pain.  That is where the hard part, the courage and discipline, comes into play.  How often do we all know the correct action to take and choose another path because it seems easier or satisfies some emotional desire?  Want to lose some weight?  Eat less and work out a lot more.  If it is not working then do more of both of those steps.  It is no great mystery if you are honest with yourself.  Of course, if you are like me, and most people, you will strongly consider your future weight loss activities while sitting on the couch enjoying a pizza.  This is an example of what I am talking about, in that, we all know the universal truth of how to lose weight, but we lack the courage of conviction to follow through with the needed actions because it is easier not to.  There is nothing really wrong about eating that pizza, unless you plan to whine about not being able to lose any weight.  Likewise, if you constantly want to chase one-outer draws for all your chips at the poker table, because you “love the thrill”, more power to you, but I don’t want to hear you griping later about how poker is all luck.  You did not lose weight because you lacked the will to follow a known avenue for success.  You did not win at poker, because you chose to play in a manner that is a guaranteed path to long-term failure.  Only by both knowing and by taking the correct actions can we achieve the results we hope to accomplish.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of advice on how to acquire the courage part of the equation.  All that I can recommend is setting small goals that will require minimal sacrifice to accomplish, and follow a known path to success.  If it works, bask in that feeling of achievement, and if you like it (you will) try setting a slightly more ambitious goal.   Developing a track record of success will only increase your self-confidence and your confidence that the convictions to which you are adhering are correct. At this point it will take much less courage to continue along a proven path, and what were once nerve-racking steps into the darkness of the unknown will become almost unconsciously performed and maintained positive habits.

It is because of my strong belief that trial and error is needed to learn the right things to do, and that repetition of those things is required to gain the needed confidence in those methods that I am of the opinion that games offer unique learning opportunities.  Games literally represent a risk free laboratory to try out ideas that may or may not work.  If you think that reason is a joke and emotion always lead to victory, by all means play any strategy game and make all of your decisions purely based on what feels right.  After about ten games, if you are honest, it will be quite apparent that a well-considered strategy and careful planning meet with far greater success.  It is much better to lose ten games of Chess because you think pawns look cool and knights suck, than to learn this lesson by spending thousands of dollars on a new car without doing any research because you really liked how it looked in the ad.  Poker, while certainly not without risk, can be played for low enough stakes that it is essentially free, and yet the minor sting that comes with the loss of even a little money is a powerful motivator to figure out what went wrong and how to avoid such mistakes in the future.  Playing Poker, and all strategy games, is virtually non-stop decision-making and by practicing in the safe environment of the gaming you will be far better prepared to make real world decisions that will have real world consequences.  As a result, when you move on to bigger stakes at the poker table, or in life, you will have had countless opportunities to perfect your decision-making skills.  This will allow you to have the peace of mind that comes with having the courage of your convictions and increase the chances that you will make the best choices out of the options available both in games, and more importantly life!

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