Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
– Dylan Thomas
My friend (and editor-in-chief of this website), Brad Willis, and I were talking about me being a poker player. Brad and I have shared over 15 years in this game, and we’ve both ping-ponged across the line between player and industry participant.
I was saying that after leaving full-time employment as a poker industry professional, I felt the need to become a student of the game again if I wanted to compete in the current era.
“Adapt or die, I suppose,” he said. Brad Willis, he gets to the core of the matter quickly.
Now, it’s not a question of literally dying – not yet, anyway. I turned 65 two months ago. Many people my age choose to take whatever they’ve learned of the world, and get by on that for their remaining years. A few generations ago, when my age group was largely put out to pasture, that worked well. You weren’t expected to do much: play with the grandkids, tell stories of the old days. Those are both crucially important, but they don’t require mental growth.
The poker analogy is taking the attitude that, “It worked for me in 2007, so it’s still fine 15 years later.”
But that’s not me (or a lot of my generation, to be fair). So when Brad suggested, “Adapt or die,” I took that to mean exactly what I am feeling. Continue learning, reinvent yourself, push your limits. Father Time will eventually win, as he always does. But as Dylan Thomas reminds us, you can rage at the dying of the light.
Become the grasshopper
When I became serious about becoming a better poker player, I did two things. First, I joined the Hand History Lounge. It’s a group of folks who study poker, and critique hands that members played. I learn both by having my hands reviewed, and providing reviews to others.
Then I hired a poker coach, specifically Andrew Brokos. After reading his books, and listening to his podcasts, I was persuaded that he has the right mix of poker theory smarts and pedagogical technique to make me a stronger player.
Andrew’s lessons are indeed having an effect, and I’m a better poker player for them. But as I alluded to above, improving at poker is just one of the goals – the journey really is the destination. In our first coaching call, he said, “We may be moving you out of your comfort zone at times.”
I thought about that, and replied, “Moving out of your comfort zone is where growth happens, right?”
I could hear him smile down the Skype line.
So, what have you learned?
As I talked with Andrew, watched his teaching material, and absorbed as much as I could from the Hand History Lounge and other sources, I noted two interesting changes in the entire conversation.
New words: The vocabulary is far richer than when I last studied the game seriously (let’s say the early noughts). I’m pretty sure the concept of “range” wasn’t in general usage, and it was common to hear expert poker commentators say things such as, “I put him on a pair, like 9’s or 10’s.” Now, I routinely hear people at the table say, “I put you on a range of flush draws and middling pairs.”
Not only do we now put our opponents on a range of hands, but we put ourselves on a range of hands. This is another radical shift from the way we thought about poker 20 years ago. Our vocabulary talks about how our range of hands interacts with the villain’s range of hands. We have the “range advantage,” but they might have the “nuts advantage.”
A gold standard: Until the dawn of solvers and poker-playing AI engines, everything anybody taught about poker (yes, including me) was wrapped in a cloud of “IMHO.” Maybe we didn’t say it that way, but we had no proof that what we were saying was correct. We gave a lot of leeway to “playing styles,” and similar fuzzy concepts.
But now, we have what can be reasonably described as “correct answers.” And the semantics of our discussions reflect this. People say, “Am I allowed to bet here?” Which is shorthand for, “Would a solver, in this situation, bet?” We know that the rules of the game permit betting, but the conversation has shifted to what a solver would do.
You hear the smart podcast hosts say things such as, “Well, you’ll see some 3-betting.” Which means, “The solvers are 3-betting sometimes.” And my absolute favorite: “It’s a mix.” Meaning, solvers split their decision between multiple actions in this spot. But again, note the semantics: “It’s a mix.” Not, “I sometimes raise and sometimes fold.” That is, there is a gold standard that we can reference.
What does this mean for me?
I find it pleasing that poker has risen to a level of academic rigor similar to other pursuits I’ve had in life. I have a graduate degree in electrical engineering, and spent 25 years programming computers for a living. Computers are notoriously unforgiving about “right” versus “wrong.” Thus, it tickles me that we can now say, “Folding is better than calling in this spot,” with a high degree of certainty.
There’s still plenty of windage in this game, mostly because human players don’t play near as well as computers do. So to maximize your profit, you need to exploit those errors. But to exploit them, you need to know what they are. All this learning I’m doing is helping me recognize and exploit the errors that my human opponents are making.
I’m tougher now
There are not a lot of things at which I’m better now than I was ten years ago, but playing poker is one of them. Another is playing double bass and leading a bluegrass band, but that’s a discussion for a different website.
So yeah, Brad – I’m adapting. Something will eventually kill me, but I shall not go gentle.