Do you gamble or think strategically? How poker changed how I think about life

Some people learn economics at places like Harvard or Wharton, but my economic education started in 1996 by watching the History Channel.

I was almost 30, flipping burgers at a Denny’s in New Jersey. I was an economically conservative guy who never gambled, played the lottery or did anything risky with my money.

The word “finance” was foreign to me. I thought investing was a game for George Soros and Warren Buffett, and I had no idea about 401ks or index funds. Well-meaning people would condescendingly say to defer to professionals rather than learn how to read an annual report or the Wall Street Journal or sit at a board meeting.

Although I lived close to Atlantic City, the horror stories about gambling kept me away.

During the 90s, a stigma was still attached to gambling, and many of the casinos had ties to the mob. I lived with a lousy gambler and I had to pay his gambling debts. Coming from a spiritual family, gambling was too seedy and sleazy for me.

While I avoided the gambling bug for years, it finally snagged me when watching the History Channel about poker. I saw out-of-shape, overweight men, surrounded by half-naked women, laughing, making millions — and everything was legal.

That was the first time I heard names like Doyle Brunson, Stu Ungar, Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu. Little did I know 20 years later, I would one day meet and play some of those guys and hold my own.

After watching poker, there was no turning back. My parents had great expectations for me, wanting me to be a doctor or lawyer. But I hate corporate America. I didn’t care if they paid me millions. I hated living by someone else’s rules.

I fell in love with poker. What I loved is that nobody cares what color you are. I’ve seen blind men ship it all in with the nuts. Do I care if I play with Donald Trump or David Duke? If they push when I have a hand, I will ship it all in without hesitation.

Many people think poker is gambling, but it’s an occupation no different than being a psychologist, engineer or banker.

In poker, you have to be all three. I have a rule. I don’t play 20 pots unless I have a premium hand because when you play at a casino, you don’t know the players, so you need to know who plays foolishly and who plays good cards. If a guy never plays a hand and raises, you know he’s got a monster.

It’s good to be underestimated because many think I’m nice. They believe I’m incapable of bluffing, so I get respect when I raise a pot. Another strategy is to play tight, then raise, then everyone will fold.

That’s the beauty of poker — each game is different. Sometimes a lousy poker player starts playing like a pro, while a pro can go on tilt and lose everything. My strategy is to be alert, get rest and stay fit so I can pick up on others’ weaknesses.

There is math in poker. When you play at a high level, I see poker as no different than playing the markets. Poker is a lot more volatile than Bitcoin or currency exchanges. As in any market, if losing a few thousand dollars gives you stress, then that’s not the game for you.

The banker comes to the understanding that losing money is inevitable. I have been in games when I was down to my last nickel and returned to win the tournament. Great investors don’t play with their rent money.

I believe I’m successful as a writer, bartender and street vendor because I understand good times and bad don’t last forever.

I consider my broke days my education days. I was broke a lot because I needed to be more knowledgeable. Great poker players have great mentors, but I wasn’t trained, so I did not understand the position, card charts or what hands my opponents could have. I wouldn’t read, study or prepare, and I looked as poker as relaxing.

Poker gives you confidence. I’ve won it all and slept in bathroom stalls. My greatest night playing poker was I started with $2,000, lost $1,800, played another 18 hours, and made a $5 profit.

My life changed when I won a bracelet at the MGM. I attribute my success to some game theorist players that trained me, and I was humble enough to change the way I played. I treated poker like a job. I started studying my games, slowed my thinking and analyzed everything before I move.

I also know each game is different. I’m a professional tournament player. I’m okay at cash games but realize I have a terrible temper and am unsuitable for low-stakes cash games. I will probably be a great high-stakes cash player because I play better when the stakes are high but don’t have the courage to put my bankroll through the stress of a higher limit.

Poker is like being a good mixed martial arts fighter. A good trainer picks the fights. You must find the bums of the month to beat up on to gain confidence against better players. Like selling newspapers, I know the days when the fish are jumping, and days you shouldn’t be near a casino. That comes through experience.

I know how to go home. If I lose, I just get up and leave. The same thing if I’m up, I know me, and I can’t take a bad beat, so instead of losing my temper when I’m up a few hands, tomorrow is another day.

Poker gave me everything I couldn’t get had I graduated from a New Jersey college. Although some have pointed out the thousands I lost, where else can a poor man have the opportunity to travel to places like Belgium and Ireland as well as California, Florida and all over the east coast?

I love showing up to places where nobody knows me. They don’t know I can speak four different languages and I studied finance. Not only am I a pretty good poker player, but I can also hold my own in chess, horse racing and picking political races.

I wasn’t born Stu Ungar, I don’t have a photographic memory, nor do I believe in game theory or these other complicated concepts. I hate complexity, and my strategy is simple: observe you, see what you play and figure out what hand you’ll ship your chips to me.

I don’t feel so bad about being broke because I’m one of the few survivors from the heydays of Atlantic City while many of the regulars are not here or back to the daily grind of working a shitty job.

I wouldn’t want to trade places with any of them. I’m glad because of a bad bet, I ended up in Washington, D.C.

While I consider myself a professional, I don’t play as much as I once did, but the lessons I use help me in everything I do, from writing to bartending.

We all are poker players but don’t know it.

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