Poker Zoo 67: Bad Beat Therapy

It’s the end of an era at Twoplustwo, but the conversation, especially on controversial topics, doesn’t stop. Robert Samuels has been a major contributor to the gem of 2+2 media, its monthly magazine, and joins us today on the Zoo for poker psychology talk. Samuels is a double doctorate and professor at UC Santa Barbara who goes beyond rudimentary mental clarity exercises to look at the heart of the poker player and his unusual game. His book Bad Beat Therapy: How to Become a Better Poker Player and Person, much of which is available in selected essays on Twoplustwo, gives us a lot to discuss.

Bob, who I believe is working with Mason Malmuth on a revision of the controversial Real Poker Psychology, helps us bridge the gap between the extremes of opinion about where mental game assistance (or even its existence) should belong.  The key concept is self-honesty, according to Dr. Samuels. Doesn’t sound easy. I’ve now had a brief recap of his thoughts from Mason, who argues from a statistical and logical point of view for the study of poker as the solution to mental anguish in poker, and a very different perspective from Jason Su, who believes this chicken-and-egg performance question is greatly aided through focusing on the body and person. I suppose as long as there are bad beats to take, we’ll be having conversations like this.

As a psychoanalyst who plays poker, one of the most interesting things that I have learned is how people are so deluded about their own personality and behaviors. For example, one time I was playing at the table with this guy who was winning most of the pots, and he had accumulated a huge stack. During one of the breaks, we started to talk, and he said to me, “I love every part of poker, every moment.” I asked him if he still loved the game when he was losing, and told me that it does not matter if he is up or down; he just loves the game. About an hour later, he had lost almost all of his giant stack, and I could see that he was becoming increasingly agitated and loud; finally, after a bad beat, he screamed, and it looked like he was trying to tip over the table. Clearly this guy was not in touch with his own emotions and psychology.

As Tommy Angelo argues in his book Painless Poker, tilt can be reduced if you practice meditation; however, there is a dark side to this strategy. While I argue that one can learn a great deal from one’s own bad beats and the bad beat stories of other players, the type of Zen meditation that Angelo discusses can lead to one simply denying the truth of one’s own actions, thoughts, and desires. For instance, Angelo suggests that after a bad beat, one should focus on one’s breathing and try to remain still in order to remove oneself from the immediate emotions of one’s situation. In contrast, I think that one has to learn from one’s emotions and not escape into the bliss of meaningless nothingness.

-from chapter one of Bad Beat Therapy

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