When Everything’s Going Wrong, Think Like a Poker Player
Being good at poker is a lot more than keeping a straight face and wearing sunglasses inside. It’s a lot more than reading people, calculating numbers in your head, and putting in the work. To become a successful poker player over time, you must defeat a deadly, invisible enemy: variance.
The mathematical definition of variance can be confusing: the expectation of the squared deviation of a random variable from its mean. But the definition in poker makes it seem simpler.
Variance is just the difference between how you expect to win on average over the long run and the results you see in the short term.
For anyone seeking personal growth, knowing that variance always exists is essential. Because we all go through what poker players know as downswings, phases in which a player sustains extended losses because of bad luck, not a lack of effort or skill. They’ll lose every hand, every big pot. Even their pocket aces will fail to hold up.
But here’s what I know from studying the game: How players handle downswings is what separates the good from the great. When you look at the earnings graph of an online poker wiz, a player who has earned millions from their craft, you’ll never see a straight 45-degree line. Instead, you’ll see one with multiple ups and downs. The only thing that prevails is the player’s ability to keep going in spite of the challenges: the self-doubt, the dwindling money, the stress of having to adapt to harder opponents at higher stakes.
The best poker players — like Doyle Brunson and Tom Dwan — always make “plus EV” decisions: the most profitable expected move. Sometimes they lose, but they stick to their process, and over time, they walk away with huge profits.
This strategy can be applied outside of the poker world. Variance manifests itself in many forms during our day-to-day lives: You ace a job interview, but one person beats you to the job. You find the perfect investment opportunity, but you still lose money. You publish an article that you think will go viral, but it flops instantly. Variance affects even the most successful writers, artists, sports players, comedians, and athletes. Ayn Rand’s first book was a triumph; her next book was a disaster. Stephen King’s Carrie was rejected by 30 publishers before it was finally distributed. Rafael Nadal could have lifted many more trophies, but Novak Djokovic came along.
Maybe you’re a writer who’s failing to build an audience. Maybe you’re an artist failing to make it into an art gallery. Maybe you’re just stuck in a rut, and can’t get yourself to take the next step. Over time, if you begin thinking like a poker player and keep making plus-EV decisions, you’ll learn to never let a downswing take over your emotions.
You’ll have hot streaks. You’ll have cold streaks. But, eventually, you’ll hit a “hot hand” high, turning multiple downswings around. Your secret weapon? Consistency.