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The Comfort Zone

Some years ago my wife and I found ourselves at a party with a number of couples, most of them somewhat less eroded by time than we were. It was a lot of fun. We sat there feeling very alive and drawn back into the earlier days when life had a different, somewhat sharper edge to it. After downing more than a few we found ourselves in conversation with a young couple who, as we soon discovered, had been married for about four years. A few more drinks later, and after I (stupidly) revealed that we were both psychologists, they wanted to know the answer to a question that was tearing them apart: “What did we do to stay together after that ‘zing’ was gone?

“Hmmm.” My wife said sagely. “Well, I think we just traded it in for comfort.”

Yeah, I know, you’re squirming in your chair thinking, “Man, that’s more than I really wanted to know about this guy.” A thought almost certainly followed by, “And what the hell has this got to do with poker?”

Well, oddly, a lot – and, don’t worry, that’s all you’re going to learn about me!

Poker is just like the rest of life. In fact, a good case can be made that it is more like life than just about any other game. Like the rest of the way most of us live, poker takes place in highly variable, emotionally charged, social settings where decisions with financial impact are routinely made. We play with others and have to interact with them – whether we like them or not. The game is intellectually compelling and emotionally demanding. And, hey, money is involved. It’s not like most other leisure activities which are designed to take us away from the mundane, the everyday. Chess is almost pure intellect; blackjack is algorithmic; football is for the physically strong; golf requires special equipment; running is only for the slightly demented (well, that’s one point of view). And none of these really mirror the rest of our lives.

Poker, on the very other hand, is a sublimely silvered glass that reflects back at us the essence of our very souls. The typical poker junkie plays the game in a manner that spins out of the core of his personality; the game mirrors virtually everything we are. Our weaknesses are laid bare; our strengths accentuated. The patience that allows you to suffer through ugly days at work will let you glide through the horrible runs of cards that will come as surely as flat tires, rain on barbeques and twisted ankles. The trip-wire temper that undermines your relationships with others will open you to the full-bore tilt episodes that will empty your wallet as though your pocket was picked.

In a recent column we mused about the rhythms of life and of the tempo of the game. There we noted that one element in becoming a successful player is to sense the rhythm of a game; find the pace and timing that you feel comfortable with. This last element, comfort, is where I want to focus. The advice to our young friends at that party was pretty damn good – for all ages.

If life is best lived in a zone of comfort, which I most certainly believe it is, then, assuredly, poker should be too. But, like the topics of all my columns, this one has sharp edges and hidden blind alleys. My comfort zone may not be yours – in fact, it almost certainly isn’t. I play a fairly aggressive game. I push hands when it feels right and never forget that position is paramount. I bluff, but not all that often. My game is “tight with a twist.” When I play this way, I am comfortable. Win or lose. I like my game.

But my game is not for everyone. I know players, good ones, who would go absolutely freakin’ nuts trying to play like I do. They crave action; they love the tension of playing on the edge. They hammer tables, intimidate people, raise on a prayer and do pretty damn well. I know others who seem as soft as a new born baby’s bottom. They sit there quietly and fold, fold, fold, fold….. Their game is built around mathematics and they won’t risk a plug nickel without a statistical edge. These guys think that watching paint dry is exciting. I know one who claims he can sit in his garden on a warm spring day and watch the petals of a rose unfold. He’s a winning player.

Here’s something to ponder: Bill Gates plays poker. He plays in poker rooms around Seattle and loves hold ‘em. He also has, to my knowledge, never played for stakes higher than $10 - $20, a fact which, if true, is nothing short of wonderful. While the richest man in all of creation plays for barely roasted peanuts, down in Vegas “The Big Game” goes on stage almost every night. There, the top-of-the-line crowd hunkers down and plays a rotating game of Stud, Hold ‘em and a couple of split games at anywhere from $2,000 - $4,000 to, if the well-heeled fish are in town, upwards of $20,000 - $40,000. Bill Gates could sit down in this game, lose every bloody hand he played for six months and he wouldn’t even notice the impact on his financial state. Sheesh, the guy could play $1,000,000 - $2,000,000 and it would have the same negligible impact on his bankroll.

Gates plays $10 - $20 because he is a very smart poker player and he knows where his comfort zone is. Doyle Brunson plays in the big game because he is a very smart poker player and he knows where his comfort zone is. And for every poker player there will be a different, very personal comfort zone. Sometimes it will be dictated by money, sometimes by ego, sometimes it gets pushed in novel ways by the people at the table. Sometimes it is just what feels right, right now.

If we understand this, will it help our game? Sure, but there are couple of things you need to do before it all makes sense. First, you need to find your own, personal comfort zone. This sounds easy but it isn’t. You really have to play for some time before you can appreciate how your emotions swing back and forth at the table. It will take a lot of experience before you come to understand what is going on inside your head. My advice: look for a sense of satisfaction. Try to find in yourself a feeling that you do, indeed, have a decent grip on the game in front of you.

This sense of well-being should be independent of whether you are winning or losing at the time. I know sounds a bit odd, but I am serious. Your sense of comfort at the table should be come from the knowledge that you feel like you are making good poker decisions. When you make the right decisions, the results will take care of themselves. If you focus too much on short-term outcomes, you’re doing it all wrong.

Second, learn to sense when you’re not in that zone, practice turning your own radar in on yourself. If Gates were to play a game as pedestrian as $50 - $100, he would not be a happy camper. He would not feel comfortable. Money is beside the point. Brunson has stated on several occasions that he simply cannot drop down to play at levels as low as $400 - $800. It just doesn’t “do anything” for him. It bores him. He does not feel comfortable. Money is beside the point. Neither of them would be making good poker decisions under these circumstances; Gates would be feeling tense and uneasy; Brunson wouldn’t be paying proper attention to the nuances of the game and his opponents.

When you find your style, the one that makes you feel good about yourself and the game, you’ve gone a long way toward becoming a solid, winning player. Sure, some the “zing” will be gone from the game. But the blush on the rose does fade; the rolling wave of emotion slips gently into a quiet tidal flow; lust gives way to love.

I know when I’m on my best game. It isn’t necessarily when my bearded chin disappears behind a monster stack (although that’s a lot of fun). It’s when I sit there and feel a quiet sense of calm understanding. When I feel like the game is mine. It’s got a bit of Zen in it. Cool.

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