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So, I was in my favorite game of $5 - $10 no limit hold ‘em playing with all the verve and grace of a guy who has been on a bit of roll. I got smacked around pretty quickly when a bluff got snapped off and a flopped set got run down but, no matter, I’m the best here, right? Right!

So, I fought my way back to even, mainly with smoke and mirrors, and sat back feeling pretty damn good about my game and myself. If you can here the devil’s hoof beats coming up behind me, your ears are up to par. I was deaf as a post.

In retrospect, a lot of things happened. Some of it just unlucky (all-in with the nut straight and the dirty rat hits one of his four outs and fills up), but most of the debacle that consumed the next three hours of my life and ate off about four millimetres of stomach lining was self-inflicted. In short, I played the worst poker one can image being played by someone who at least thinks he knows a little bit about the game. “Yeah,” I hear you, I hear you…. “Been there, done that, sigh…..”

The church fathers and the shrinks learned long ago that it is good for you to lay bare your soul. The theologians discovered it first and called it ‘confession,’ the psychotherapists dubbed it the “talking cure” and claimed it had ‘cathartic value.’ Of course they were both right and, having bleated my agony before you all, I feel better already. But the point of this column isn’t to wipe the stain from my psyche; it is, as always, to ruminate on poker and see if we can’t learn something about the game from looking at the psychological side. Howling at the moon or sulking in a corner won’t do it. Poker “mornings after” need more. They demand self-reflection. We have all had sessions like this one. The question is: what do we do about them?

My recommendation: sit down, pour yourself a beer and have a pleasant chat with the fellow in the mirror. But be careful; self-reflection is no simple psychological gimmick. There are levels to it and it isn’t always going to lead to self-illumination. Clinical psychologists, particularly those trained in psychoanalysis, will tell you that in order to survive in this world, you need to develop defense mechanisms. The world is a pretty harsh place and most of us have personal styles that allow us to get along most of — but not all of —- the time. When things get a bit dicey, we need to find ways to defend ourselves from painful truths and anxiety-provoking realities.

If what happened to me last night is happening to you on anything like a routine basis, well, that’s pretty dicey and pretty tough to face as a compelling reality. There’s lot of anxiety associated with getting regularly hammered at a game that you think you should be able to play reasonably well. So, what do we do?

Basically, there are two roads to travel down. The first, the easiest, the road most travelled, is the defensive one, the path of least resistance, the one where we stroll along and blithely dump our sins upon those about us. There are a bunch of characters who do it this way. Here’s a short list of my favorite psyche-savers.

—The Benighted: Our game has a bunch of these guys. They’re the ones whose visions of themselves are so far from reality that it scares you just to hear them tell it. These folks are the ones who think they are giving their psyches the once-over but, in fact, are simply engaging in self-delusion. They whine about back luck; curse the dealers, belittle the “morons” who call their bluffs etc. etc. etc. If you bump into one of these characters they will immediately flood you with “bad beat” stories. There isn’t much to say about them other than if this description feels at all familiar, read at least to the end of this column.

—The Self-flagellator: We know these folks all too well. They are the ruminators, the ones who constantly beat themselves. They go home and mutter to themselves about all the things that went wrong. Sometimes they view their fallen fortunes as self-inflicted wounds and beat themselves up for their poor play; sometimes they see them as some kind of insidious, Karmic fate. Whenever anyone at the table hits a miracle river you can hear them mutter, “When’s my turn? When am I going to hit one of those? Why doesn’t it ever happen to me?”

—The Self-defender: These are the ones who constantly defend their own play. Most of us learned long ago not to even try talking to one of these. They never lose because of any mistakes they might have made, and they never imagine that someone else at the table might play the game better than they do. Just the suggestion that they might have approached a hand from a different perspective will get you a face full of insults and challenges to your own sanity.

These self-defensive routines and others like them are fairly common, face-saving devices which help keep their practitioners psychologically stable. But if we want to improve we are going to have to go beyond them. Defense mechanisms are two-faced. They are effective because they protect us from painful truths. But they are ultimately deadly just because they protect us from painful truths. You may be able to fool yourself but you will not fool your bankroll. If you want to really get better you need to become:

—The Honest Self-appraiser: This rare avis is the player who can acknowledge errors and seek to correct them —- and, equally importantly, acknowledge good play and feel good about it. All winning players do this. They have to; otherwise they would not be winning players.

One of the joys the past several years has been following the on-going, and very public, self-analysis of Daniel Negreanu. Daniel, universally acknowledged as one of the best players alive, also appears to be one of the more engaging and ingenuous people on this planet. Unlike so many of his colleagues in the higher echelons of the game, he has pulled up the analyst’s couch, stretched his modest physique on its quilted surface and peeled back the layers of his soul for us to witness.

He has been open about his failings and his successes. He has shared with us his pain and his triumph. He has unburdened himself in plain sight about his early struggles to control his darker impulses and he has graced us with his subsequent achievements. When he has played well, he tells us and explains why. When he has gone down for the count, he has been uncompromising in his self-analysis —- and he has been eloquent in his honesty.

I offer Daniel as a model for us all. I don’t know him, but I am willing to go out on my psychologist’s limb and guess that a goodly piece of his recent accomplishments came from the open, honest and probing self-reflections that he has subjected himself to —- it has had the right balance between self-criticism and self-respect.

When I look about me in this funny little slice of society, the land of the green felt, I do not see enough of this. There are just too many of us hiding behind veils of delusion, ducking painful questions. I see the benighted, the self-defenders, the self-flagellators; I hear the rationalizations, the paranoid rants and witness the inevitable ends. Without honest self-reflection we just ain’t gonna cut it.

One small blackberry in the tangle of thorns: I get to post this column and hope that someone actually reads it. So this little bout of self-reflection just made me back, psychologically speaking, a piece of what I pissed away at the table. That’s good.

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