Poker’s Yellow Brick Road
On the face of it, poker is a simple game, a game with only 52 variables and a rigid hand ranking system. But as the adage goes, it takes minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. Poker is, in fact, a complex game, requiring a multitude of diverse skills. The more you learn, the more you realize how much there is yet to learn. And the other confounding problem with poker is that there is no one right way to play this game. There is no magic formula. This game is successfully navigated with strategies as diverse as the players that employ them. What works for one player may be unsuccessful for another. To play this game well, you must discover what works for you. And like most worthwhile discoveries, that requires time, study, creativity, self-challenge, the ability to rebound from failure, and resolve.
On the professional tournament circuit, I invariably run into newer players who have reached a point of frustration with the game. They were apparently quick studies who learned the fundamentals at breakneck speed. They grasped the math and had some level of innate abilities that guided them through tricky table dynamics. They may have even had a number of modest successes in their early going. They had a vision that they were on a straight path to consistent wins and glory, a vision yet to be realized. Each feels that one big score will validate that they have arrived. For all their demonstrated promise, they have missed an important element of the game; poker is a journey, not a destination.
When I talk with the long time pros, the discussion almost always gravitates towards their personal poker journey; the constant reassessment of their game, a subtle discovery, or a new facet they are anxious to explore. At times, their journey is arduous. Even with WSOP bracelets dangling from their wrists, they sometimes have to backtrack over familiar terrain to discover something in the landscape they missed the first time around. But for every obstacle they overcome, there is learning; learning about the game and about themselves. Every insight is a victory, as golden as any bracelet. For many of the pros, there is no end game. The journey of discovery is everything.
A Different Poker Guide
I often wish that more poker books talked about the challenges and rewards of the journey, rather than the prevailing wisdom on how to play AK under the gun. But if you’re contemplating a life of professional poker, perhaps there is literature that can act as your guide.
Think about your quest to become a professional player as akin to Dorothy’s quest to be back by Auntie Em’s side. In the end, the Wizard of OZ did not have the power to send Dorothy home. The Scarecrow couldn’t think of the answer for her. As Glinda the good witch recounted, “She had to find it out for herself.”
The power to return home resided within Dorothy, but was only revealed through her journey down the meandering, yellow brick road. It took a long time, she had to battle a witch, she had a bad brush with poppies, and she constantly yearned for home. But along the way, Dorothy picked up some supportive friends and learned many things about life and, most importantly, about herself.
Specifically, Dorothy learned to ask for directions when she got lost. At a confusing crossroad, she turned to the scarecrow for advice. There are times when we lose our way in poker. We hit a plateau and our progress is slowed or halted. Or sometimes we believe we are playing in the manner we are accustomed, but something is amiss. Every losing hand and frustrating moment betrays we’ve lost our way. Get advice. Join a study group. Read books. Once you are aware of the paths that lead back to your main road, you will be able to find the right one for you.
Dorothy learned that a mistake could be turned into something positive. Dorothy and company wandered into a forest of vicious, gnarly apple trees. Instead of calling it quits, blaming others for the situation, or bemoaning her fate, Dorothy taunted the trees into throwing apples at the hungry crew. In the end, she was better off for stumbling into a dangerous situation. In poker, mistakes are only fatal if unrecognized. We have the potential to do our best learning from our mistakes.
Not everyone has the same goals. Not everyone makes the same journey. The Munchkins were happy in Munchkin Land. Dorothy’s traveling companions achieved their goals in OZ. But Dorothy still had to make her way back to Kansas to achieve hers. If you find a spot along your poker journey that suits you, there is nothing wrong with settling there. If you are happy with a competitive recreational game, why take on the professional journey?
In Dorothy’s case it might have been poppy-induced, but when you’re tired, you need to rest. There will be times on your journey when you will be tired and listless. Take a break. Do something else. Poker is a tough game, requiring focus and concentration. As tough as it is to execute a good poker game, learning one is even harder. You’ll make better time on your journey once you’re rested.
Dorothy traveled with friends. Collaboration is a powerful tool for learning. So much of poker is individual and oftentimes, lonely. It’s good to find like minded travelers.
Dorothy traveled light. If you’re carrying a lot of baggage, you won’t get very far. If you have obligations and needs that aren’t being met by spending time on the felt, don’t make the trip. Poker is not the most important journey in life and maybe it isn’t yours.
But most of all, Dorothy learned that she was stronger than she thought. She challenged the prevailing wisdom of the Wizard. She defeated the wicked witch. And she tapped the powers within to find her way home.
Poker is not a destination. Poker isn’t Kansas. Poker is a journey of learning, self-discovery and challenge.