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The Biggest Bluff

Really good book.
Gave me a new set of mental models.
Notes follow.

“Focus on the process, not the luck”

“Attention is a powerful mitigator to overconfidence: it forces you to constantly reevaluate your knowledge and your game plan, lest you become too tied to a certain course of action. And if you lose? Well, it allows you to admit when it’s actually your fault and not a bad beat”

“I feel like I will never make sense of it all. I tell Erik as much.
It will all make sense, eventually,” he tells me. “Don’t sweat it too much.”

“Poet, W. H. Auden: “Choice of attention—to pay attention to this and ignore that—is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences.”
Pay attention, or accept the consequences of your failure”

“How we frame something affects not just our thinking but our emotional state. It may seem a small deal, but the words we select—the ones we filter out and the ones we eventually choose to put forward—are a mirror to our thinking. Clarity of language is clarity of thought—and the expression of a certain sentiment, no matter how innocuous it seems, can change your learning, your thinking, your mindset, your mood, your whole outlook. As W. H. Auden told an interviewer, Webster Schott, in a 1970 conversation, “Language is the mother, not the handmaiden of thought; words will tell you things you never thought or felt before.” The language we use becomes our mental habits—and our mental habits determine how we learn, how we grow, what we become. It’s not just a question of semantics: telling bad beat stories matters. Our thinking about luck has real consequences in terms of our emotional well-being, our decisions, and the way we implicitly view the world and our role in it.”

“I make myself two promises. First, I am going to stick with this. I will master this game, even if it takes more than a year. I will be a winning player. I will be someone to contend with—or give my all trying. And second: if I’m known as anything in this game, I want to be known as a good poker player, not a good female poker player. No modifiers need apply.”

“The trick is to get past the plateau. The relationship between our awareness of chance and our skill is a U-curve. No skill: chance looms high. Relatively high skill: chance recedes. Expert level: you once again see your shortcomings and realize that no matter your skill level, chance has a strong role to play. In poker and in life, the learning pattern is identical”

“Always ask why: Why is someone acting this way? Why am I acting this way? Find the why and you find the key to winning.”

“Never do anything, no matter how small it may seem, without asking why, precisely, you’re doing it. And never judge anything others do without asking the same question. “Every action your opponent takes has a reason behind it, whether conscious or unconscious”

“I need to get out there and put this all into effect. It’s good that I’m observing and learning and seeking advice from so many different people, but there is such a thing as too much. “Too much studying without playing makes it hard to fully absorb knowledge,” he tells me. It will leave me with a head full of statistics and facts—and a mess when it comes time to execute.” this one is specially for me

“I SPEND THE NEXT week playing day after day after day, taking conscientious notes, talking them through with Erik, and putting in diligent hours. I’m a detective, a storyteller, an explorer—not a lost minnow about to be eaten by the sharks. It’s a mantra I repeat over and over, hoping that it will eventually stick”
“It’s dispiriting, playing event after event after event with nothing to show for it. It saps my motivation. It makes me feel like everything is for nothing, that I can’t improve no matter what I do.”

“People aren’t a combination of traits. They are a mosaic of reactions to and interactions with situations. If you can get a person’s behavioral profile—a catalogue of those reactions in an if-then relationship, such as “If I feel threatened, then I will lash out”—you have a far better read on who they are or how they will behave in a certain setting than if you have only a set of trait rankings.”

“it’s like John Boyd’s OODA loop playing out at the table instead of in the air. Boyd was a fighter pilot in the air force, and he invented OODA to describe a dynamic that he’d learned through his years in combat: to succeed, you need to constantly observe, orient, decide, and act. OODA. The way to outmaneuver your opponent is to get inside their OODA loop. Figure out what they are observing, how they are orienting and deciding, and how they act as a result. That way, you can anticipate them.”

“I do have a pair of Bose noise-canceling headphones that I gave myself as a gift after that Foxwoods adventure to drown out the little girls.
What I have to start doing is being proactive rather than reactive. When I react, it’s already too late.”

“Mastery is always a struggle for balance. How much time do you devote to the craft, and how much to yourself? And can you really do one without the other?”

“there’s a difference between knowing what you’re supposed to do and actually having the nerve to do it in the moment”

“People will often actively avoid information that would help them make a more informed decision when their intuition, or inner preference, is already decided. They will, for instance, avoid learning how many calories are in an attractive dessert, or how much they will be paid if they choose to take on a boring task instead of a more exciting one. Part of them knows that the information might mean they need to change their decision, so they choose to ignore it.”

“Identify the weaknesses and you start the process of responding to them in the moment rather than after the fact. “If you’re at the table under extreme pressure, you’ll often revert back to mistakes you wanted to avoid even though you consciously realize it. You need to train yourself, remove your triggers so that you don’t have that emotional response in the moment.” Here’s what Jared proposed to do for me: work through my underlying emotional holes and teach me to be a one-woman bomb squad, defusing the emotional bombs and getting rid of them before they show up and cloud my judgment.”

“Jared gives me an assignment: I need to map out my emotional process so that I can start finding ways to solve each problem. I need to actually sit down and make a spreadsheet. Each time something happens, write it down in the situation or trigger column. In the next column, write a description of the thoughts, emotional reactions, and behaviors that the situation or trigger causes. In the next column, give my best assessment of the underlying flaw or problem, and finally, write a logic statement that I can use in the moment to inject some rationality into the issue.”

“There’S the constant anxiety that I’m letting people down—the players who believe in me, the people who back me, myself. It’s a fear of high expectations that I’m afraid to subvert. The fear of making mistakes that has never quite gone away. Often as I play, I can see myself from afar, a fly observing what’s going on below. There I am, knowing exactly when I’m supposed to bluff and how, and not quite having the guts to pull the trigger. And I know that I can’t actually pull that trigger unless I’m feeling it. It works only if your mind and heart are behind it. Otherwise, people will spot the fake, the weakness, the half-heartedness. That’s what I’m supposed to spot in my opponents, not the other way around. When I overcome the jitters and just go for it is when I play the best—when I start winning. But I somehow can’t summon that inner strength at will.”

“we make a plan where I don’t go more than three weeks without playing—but I make sure to recharge fully in between. That, too, is crucial for learning the game. The recharging is also a part of playing well.”

“We take a twenty-minute break. Jared has created a routine for me, and I now follow it by the minute. First five minutes of break: off-load and brain dump. I write down some of the key hands so that they don’t occupy any of my headspace going forward. I’ll analyze them later with Erik. For now, the important thing is to get them out of my system so that my mind is ready for new information. Then a few minutes of contemplating my decision making. Asking myself: How was my thinking? Were there any emotionally compromised decisions? Again, I’m not analyzing now, just noting for the future. Next ten minutes: nothing. No poker talk. No thinking. Just walking and relaxing. And then, right before the end of break, a few minutes of warm-up for the next level. Get myself mentally ready, psyched, in gear. My goal is to keep my mind as clear and fresh as possible, for as long as possible. With every break, that will get harder and harder as fatigue sets in. For now, though, I’m ready.”

“Jared wouldn’t approve of my thinking, but I can’t help myself. We worked on this very thing. “Remember,” he tells me. “You haven’t seen those players in the lead-up to their peak. You don’t know that they were staked in their first hundred-K. You don’t know the serendipity that happened to get them there.” I try to remember this as I look at the table and feel like everyone deserves to be here except for me. “Everyone got lucky at some point. Strip down the mythology around their greatness. They still have weaknesses. They are humans first, players second.”

“One hand at a time,” he says. “The nerves go away when you are paying close attention to play. You’ve got this.”

“Erik texts me soon after—he’s following along online—and confirms what I already know: I screwed up, badly. But then he types something else: forget it ever happened. “Put it out of your mind and back to work,” he writes. We will discuss strategy later. For now, just focus on the next hand and forget the chips you’ve lost. Reset mentally, and play your short-stack game. One hand at a time.”

“Another hour passes. I’ve once again dwindled down to just over twenty big blinds—still playable, but not particularly comfortable. Nothing major; just bad cards, bad boards, and not many spots to do much but fold and wait. But now I’m far more comfortable doing just that. Waiting. Picking my spots, just like Erik has always said. The theory always made sense. My mental discipline has now caught up at last.”

“I’m torn. I try to think through the logic of both decisions. Would he play his really strong hands this way? Would he play a marginal hand this way, after I’ve already called twice? After all, I lose to even the marginal hands, with my bottom pair. A nine, a jack, those all beat me. I almost fold. But then something pushes me over the edge. I remember what Phil Galfond told me all those months ago over dinner in Vegas. Retell the story from the beginning. Does the narrative flow—or are there logical gaps? I’m a detective. I’m a storyteller. What does the expertise I bring to the table outside of poker tell me now? I slow down and rewind, not just the story of this hand, but the story of the gentleman’s play over the past three hours. How did he play his strong hands? What did he do when he was bluffing? My poker strategy knowledge is exhausted, so back to doing what I know best: looking for inconsistencies across behavior that can help me.”

“Our older gent gets the better of me soon enough. After I check a flop, he barrels the turn and river, and I decide to just let him have it. It’s five o’clock, and the day is getting to me. I’m tired. I haven’t eaten. I’m running on pure adrenaline. I can’t fight every battle, and I make the strategically suspect but personally necessary decision to wait for another moment to strike. I need to refuel,”

“I don’t know if it’s the movement, the caffeine, or the snack, but when we sit down to play twenty minutes later, I feel like a different person. I can do this. Enough with the surrender. I may be the shortest stack by far, but that makes me powerful, too: I can pressure players without fear of getting bluffed. All I need to do is push my chips into the middle, and they know I have nothing left to lose.”

“to win a tournament you absolutely must get lucky. Skill alone won’t take you over the finish line.”

“this time I’m ready. I’ve spent the past two months working on this exact part of my strategy, practicing heads up play almost exclusively.”

“If I’m to finally crack that puzzle, establish, in White’s words, “an honest ratio between pluck and luck,” I need to go that extra step: keep going and confront the goddess of luck head-on. Otherwise, how will I ever know: Am I really good—or did I just get lucky?”

“TWO WEEKS LATER, I’M at the European Poker Tour in Barcelona, where I notch my best ever EPT finish. Thirty-fourth place out of over 1,500 entries, for €9,200. Far from a min cash. When my husband comes to join me for a post-EPT vacation, I have enough to pay for the whole trip with some left over. The day I return from Europe, I take a bus to Atlantic City for the WPT Borgata. I’m still on European time, but I’m playing well. I make the final three tables—not a final table, but pretty damn close, and pretty damn satisfying. Twentieth place, from 1,075 unique entrants. That’s a real run, and real money. Almost $25,000. My first year’s salary as a writer in NYC was $23,000. Not a bad payday, this. I’m not winning more titles, but I seem to have gotten over the hurdle of simple luck. Some skill appears to have seeped through. I settle into a rhythm. When the Global Poker Index, or GPI, awards are announced, I find that I’m a finalist for the award for Breakout Player of the Year.

“There is, of course, the inevitable downturn: in the summer of 2019, I realize that I’m losing money for the year. I may have profited over $100,000 the year before, but now it’s going in the other direction. Luckily, I have the tools to understand what’s going on, the ability to not panic, to analyze, to study, to move on. I’m willing to leave my ego at the door and revisit my thought process, over and over. I get into the habit of writing down the results of every all-in confrontation to see if I’m running at chance levels, and realize that I’m on the wrong side of variance—I’m losing more than my share of flips. It’s reassuring: variance plays both sides, and at least I’m not losing despite being on the right side.”

“Author and statistician Nassim Taleb distrusts the premise of my entire project: he believes we cannot use games as models of real life because in life, the rules derived from games can break down in unforeseen ways. It’s called the ludic fallacy. Games are too simplified. Life has all sorts of things it can throw at you to make your careful calculations useless. And that’s true enough. After all, that knowledge is precisely what brought me to poker. That life is uncertain. That we can’t know everything. That we can’t control it all, no matter how much we think we may be able to.
But one thing that poker has given me are the very skills necessary to deal with the chaos that can be thrown at you from outside the poker table. Experiencing smaller one-off events over and over during play has taught me both the mathematical and the emotional forbearance to accept them for what they are—and to emerge on the other side.

“Nothing is all skill. Ever. I shy away from absolutes, but this one calls out for my embrace. Because life is life, luck will always be a factor in anything we might do or undertake. Skill can open up new vistas, new choices, allow us to see the chance that others less skilled than us, less observant or less keen, may miss—but should chance go against us, all our skill can do is mitigate the damage.
And the biggest bluff of all? That skill can ever be enough. That’s the hope that allows us to move forward in those moments when luck is most stacked against us, the useful delusion that lets us push on rather than give up. We don’t know, we can’t ever know, if we’ll manage or not. But we must convince ourselves that we can. That, in the end, our skill will be enough to carry the day. Because it has to be.”

“You can’t control what will happen, so it makes no sense to try to guess at it. Chance is just chance: it is neither good nor bad nor personal. Without us to supply meaning, it’s simple noise. The most we can do is learn to control what we can—our thinking, our decision processes, our reactions. “Some things are in our control and others not,” writes the Stoic philosopher Epictetus in The Enchiridion. “Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.” If we cannot do it ourselves, we cannot control it. We control how we play the hand, how we react to its outcome, but that outcome itself—that, we don’t control”