A Story about Losing

Until I began working on my doctorate and coding URR I was intending to play online poker for a living for the rest of my life. A surprising number of people do this – no clear statistics exist, but based on my three years of playing the game semi-professionally and the research I did into making the “jump” to pro, I would guess there are perhaps around fifty thousand people around the world, in-person and online, tournament and cash game, who play the game as their primary source of income, and earn enough to “make a living” from it. When I quit, I was making enough to survive on full-time – not enough to fly off to Vegas every year and play in the World Series, not by a long margin, but grinding enough to get by. Along with roguelikes, poker was my first experience of playing something where there was something “at stake” every time you play – not the three minutes of a Counterstrike game or the rankings of a 1v1 competitive ladder, but many many hours of focus and concentration, effort, study, and (in poker’s case), money. The experience informed my contemporary opinions about game design, the value of roguelikes (and other games with an “arcade mentality” such as shmups), and the importance of being able to lose. This is thus the story of the most crushing defeat I suffered in poker, why after that hand – now three years ago – I haven’t played a single hand of poker since then, and also the benefits (and risks) of taking play a little more seriously than normal.

I started playing poker around my eighteenth birthday. I’d been playing it a lot in person and was the strongest player among my friends (though in hindsight I was a very poor player, but none of us had any idea what we were doing). I’d seen poker played on TV, and (in what has become a cliched story) thought this could be an interesting way to earn some money, and potentially a living. I started playing; I was awful, and lost my initial deposit to a poker site ($200, I think). I deposited again, and played fractionally better, though again in hindsight I recognize I got very, very lucky over the course of several weeks here which biased the young me to thinking he had some idea what he was doing. As time went by I continued to just about break even and started joining strategy forums, watching poker videos, discussing the game with players better than me (i.e. the majority of the planet). I got better, and started to profit, and profit more, and move up stakes. Once I was into my second year of university I was making enough that, without the degree consuming some of my time, I could easily make a living from the game. I thus decided that once I finished my degree I was just going to do that. Making a living from a game seemed like the absolute dream – yes, poker was sometimes frustrating, upsetting, infuriating and tedious, but it was also the deepest game I’ve ever played, challenging, enticing, and fascinating.

There are basically two types of poker game – cash games and tournament games. I was always a tournament player. The sense of building towards a conclusion, of “winning” a tournament rather than simply leaving the table with more money, and the structure of a tournament and the specific strategy concerns that needed all appealed to me. However, tournaments are notoriously “swingy” – the prize pools for tournaments are crammed into the top 1/2/3-place prizes, meaning that the graph of the average tournament player looks something like this:

FTgraph

Lots of tiny losses from paying the entry fees to play tournaments, and a few big wins (this is the graph from one of my side accounts). To mitigate this, I normally played tournaments of around 300-500 players. I found that was a sufficiently large field that the prizes were significant and worth actually competing for, but that the field wasn’t so absurdly large that you could play brilliantly for months or even years without a big score. This was the kind of game I made a consistent profit from, of the sort shown in the above graphs – 99/100 tournaments would go nowhere, but that tournament I made it to the end of would yield the serious income (for comparison, eSports tournaments are generally structured the same way, and I assume physical sports are too, though I have no idea if that’s the case).

All poker players above a certain level have specialisms. Some are great heads-up players (two player matches), some are great at sit-n-gos (small one-table tournaments), some at different games (holdem, stud, PLO, draw, whatever), and so forth. My specialism quickly became “final tables” – the point where there are only 9 or 6 people left in the tournament (depending on the structure) and all the remaining players are put on one table to play down to a winner. I had roughly a 25% winrate on final tables – this might seem low, but that’s actually a pretty insane record. Most people consider 20%+ on final tables to be a very, very solid result, but there was something about the structure and psychology of the final table that always played well with me. Other players suddenly become easy to exploit, easy to see if they were playing for the win or playing to creep up the pay ladder, and if I made it to the final table I always knew I had a fantastic shot of taking the entire thing down.

One day at the end of my final year of my degree I decided to play a bigger tournament than normal, not knowing this would be the last poker tournament I ever played. If I recall correctly there were around 6000 players, vastly larger than normal. I just fancied doing this tournament for fun, mostly, not for profit – I wasn’t seriously expecting to cash (finish in the top 10%), but I just wanted to see how a huge tournament played vs tournaments of the size I was more used to. I started this tournament at around 12am UK time.

…Twelve hours later, the 6000 players were down to 30, and I was 3rd in chips. It had been transformed from a silly passing diversion into, potentially, the most profitable tournament of my life. If I reached the final table I was guaranteed to make from that one tournament more than I would in several months; if I won, I’d make roughly as much as I’d made in the last three years combined, and basically a full year’s living wage. In one day. It was insane… the feeling of being so late in such a big tournament, with so much on the line, was like nothing I’d experienced before, even when final-tabling and winning smaller tournaments. However, there was a catch. If I went out of the tournament in 30th place, say, due to the top-heavy structure of tournaments I’d make a pittance, barely worth the time investment of the twelve hours. The extreme dichotomy between 9/6000, say, and 30/6000 was striking (as was the gap between 1/6000 and 9/6000). But I had a lot of chips, I was playing the best poker of my life, winning risky hands where I needed to, and on track to hit the final table, where I knew I had the best shot of almost anyone there.

Then… came the hand.

If you play a lot of poker (I played roughly 1,500,000 hands across my career), you get bored of “bad beat stories”. These are tales where the teller made a good play but someone else got lucky and won. There’s nothing more tedious to listen to if you’re a semi-pro/pro, as these happen a million times a day, and it is these players we profit from. Those who make mistakes, and rely on luck to win, are those that in the long-term will lose, infuriating as losing from time to time to these players may be. So I’m not going to whine about a “bad beat” here or bore everyone with the details – the fact I played a hand for all my chips, got my money in way ahead and lost, wasn’t the point. That happens a hundred times a day. But I remember the chips flying towards my opponent, the popup informing me I was out of the tournament, and the instant and almost epiphanic realization that I was never going to play poker again.

It wasn’t that I’d taken my shot and missed. I’d taken my shot, it had been perfectly on target, and some bastard had stepped in front and taken the bullet. The emotional investment I’d built up in the tournament entirely subconsciously hit me harder than I can describe. I remember I just stared blankly at the screen for about ten minutes then wandered into the living room of the house I was sharing, where I informed the person there (who I am once more moving in with next year as part of my full-time development year) about what had happened. That I’d (as it felt to me at the time) been on course to making a year’s income in one night, and I’d made the right play, and busted out of the biggest tournament I’d ever played. I then got a coat and went for a midnight walk for about three hours, trying to process what had just happened – how close I’d been to such an insane win, and that it had been taken from me.

I realized, as I wandered, that it takes two things to play poker for a living. One of those is the skill at the game – that I had. Even today I’m confident I could teach someone to play the game for a living. But the other, which I’d never truly appreciated until this night, but something like emotional stability, or ability to take losses and just move on. As I walked I came to understand that I didn’t have this – this loss was just too painful. It wasn’t the loss of money, or loss of time, but the loss of potential, the loss of what might-have-been. It was as if, to paraphrase an Iain Banks line of dialogue, I’d been cheated out of a birthright. The tournament was mine to win and it had been taken from me, just as if my internet had cut out, or the power had gone, or I’d suddenly been rushed to hospital. It’s hard to describe the feeling of playing a game perfectly, or near-perfectly, until you’ve experienced it, but I had it that night. It felt as if everyone else was playing with their cards face up and I just couldn’t make mistakes. I think anyone who’s played any game at a high level must have experienced this once or twice; the feeling of being so perfectly in tune with the game that you just can’t make mistakes. Again, in hindsight, this feeling of invincibility from the level I was playing contributed to the crushing weight of the unjust defeat. I no longer had it in me to play a game that could do this to me. The bad beat didn’t bother me intellectually, but the way it made me feel did, and I just didn’t think I could run the risk of feeling so dire ever again.

Zero

I returned home eventually and logged onto all my accounts on all the different websites and withdrew every dollar I had. Since that day I don’t think I’ve played the game once. Whilst trying to process how this had made me feel, I realized I needed a new career path and settled on academia. In hindsight, I also realize that there was something very William-Gibson-esque about the entire situation. An algorithm in a server somewhere in Florida had spat out a number; that number had resulted in an entirely virtual card falling; and the falling of that card had fundamentally, instantly and irreversibly altered the career path of a young man in England. The deeply weird global interconnectivity of the thing would have probably struck me more deeply at the time were it not for the emotional impact, but at the time I was too busy trying to come to terms with what had happened.

As time has gone by, though, I have developed something akin to a kind of pride in what happened, though pride is perhaps not the best word. I came to realize that the only reason something like that was able to happen was because of two things, the first of which was my skill at the game. I was able to play in such a huge tournament and push through to the absolute end, and even though I lost the fatal hand, the play I made was the statistically correct one. I was only there because I played perhaps the best poker of my life that day…

…but also because, in a way, I had opened myself up to be hurt by something like this. Not just the money but the time and the emotional impact were all things I had, knowingly or not, put on the line. I’d put all of myself into the game and allowed the game to do what it would with me. I’d had to transform a game, a thing of “play”, into something I cared about enough that it could have this impact on me. And as time has gone by, I realize that this has always been the case in whatever games I’ve taken seriously. Poker may be the most extreme example, but the same is the case in EVE Online (which I played for several years), where losing a ship can mean losing hours, days or weeks of money and work; the same case in roguelikes; the same case now where I’m pursuing bullet hell world records and the feeling I get every time I just fall short. But I’m putting myself out there – I put everything I have into these games. Maybe I will sometimes fall short, either through my own lack of skill or the cruelties of random number generators, but at least then I fail pushing my own limits as a twitch-reflex gamer or gaming tactician. If you can’t have a crushing defeat, so the wisdom goes, you can never know the true feeling of victory. I was denied it that day but I’ve had it in other games since, and I know before too long I’ll have a world record (or two) to put up on this blog.

To conclude, I’m reminded of one of my favourite quotes from Johan Huizinga. As painful (and surreal) as this experience was, this quote helped remind me that when one plays at any kind of serious level, you have to accept the possibility of loss, severe loss, and in the final reckoning this is really what play is. And that the only reason I was able to experience this kind of crushing event was because I’d managed to learn and study a game to a high enough level that enough was at stake for such a thing to happen, and put enough of myself into the game that something could hit me this hard. In hindsight I really have no regrets. The ride, ultimately, was worth it.

“There is something at stake” – the essence of play is contained in that phrase. 

– Johan Huizinga

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59 thoughts on “A Story about Losing

  1. I trade on the stock market, including options. The emotional component is intoxicating and infuriating. The good news for me is that trading isn’t a game where the field is fair and the hands are zero sum.

    I still want to make it my primary income source but I’m a bit more cautious than I was when I started. Six months ago I was putting in regular amounts into my brokerage account, now its much more infrequent although I budget the same amount. The big change was when I started trading options and found myself on the wrong side of an earnings play. So I’m reevaluating risk, wanting to put more funds into “safe” options plays and control my more risky but better paying positions.

    • This is very interesting. There’s a lot of overlap between poker/investments – a lot of top players invest, a lot of pro players sometimes move into investing instead of poker, and the biggest poker forums are replete with investment/stock-trading discussion threads. I know little about it, but I understand there are a number of similarities, or at least they require similar kinds of thought/decision-making. How much “oversight” does what you’re doing require? By which I mean, if you were to do it full-time, how many hours per day do you think you’d have to put in? I would guess that’s like poker, to an extent; the higher the stakes you play, the less time you have to invest to make a living, but the higher your risk.

      • >how much oversight
        It really depends on what the time frame of your trade is. If you knew the market was going to tank and bought UVXY in the morning and sold in the afternoon you’d want to watch it all day because it could go sour at any minute.

        If you bought AMZN at its most recent dip and are holding it for a few weeks or months then you could just check in on it every few days. An hour or two a day is fair but if you’re researching its more and some short term plays have to be watched like a hawk.

        Or you could buy no-load ETFs that track entire sectors of the market, setup automatic buy-ins and hold for years and still do well.

        • Hmm, I see. Temporally then it sounds very different to poker – much more “stop and start” than sitting down to put in consistent sessions (which I would assume is the same for eSports etc). Well, I wish you the very best of luck! I always approve of the unusual career path.

  2. What percentage of poker-playing at the top level is psychology? How well would an AI program do at poker, evaluating only the cards it can see and probabilities and not trying to “read” players at all? I could google these things but I’d be interested in your answer, and it may stimulate discussion.

    • Hmm. Most of the very top online players are stats/theory players, most of the very top live players are read/”feel”/experience players. A good poker AI has never been created (one of the reasons I believe it is a far deeper game than, say, chess), and using data-mining to identify a poker AI is surprisingly simple. Bear in mind, of course, that playing online poker is basically the same as playing a life player with a good poker face – reads cannot be physical, so reads have to be about timing, play styles, the data you have on them, how they played in other hands similar to this one, etc.

  3. Good read.

    I experienced something a bit similar (albeit far less extreme) when I was “seriously” playing multiplayer RTS games (warcraft 3 and later to a less extent starcraft 2). I never reached anywhere near a pro level in either but I spent months at a time playing either and got to pretty good ranking (my peak was getting to at the highest division at the time in the starcraft 2 ladder).

    At some point it became so stressful that I just decided to stop playing altogether. The adrenaline just wasn’t worth it.

    • Hey Ido! Yeah, the stress level in competitive gaming can be surprisingly high. I’ve always found it a tough balance between striving to reach the top/do better than you’ve done before, and the potential stress of reaching that stage. I think that’s why, in hindsight, I’m slightly more psychologically suited to competitive singleplayer (world record competition etc) than competitive multiplayer; you can work in isolation a bit more, set your own standards/timings a bit more (you don’t have to play to maintain your rank, for example), and so on. I have such a love/hate relationship with competitive gaming…

  4. That was a fantastic story to read. I really enjoyed that! Thank you for sharing.

    Have you ever heard of Helen DeWitt? I ask because this blog reminded me a lot of many of the stories that come up in her novel, the cult favorite, The Last Samurai (unrelated to the movie with Tom Cruise). I don’t know if you read much, but I wonder if you might enjoy that one, if you do.

    • Well thank you! Very glad you enjoyed it, I’m happy with how the tale turned out. I have, actually, though I haven’t read the novel; I think it might be somewhere in my towering Amazon Wishlist. Although it has slowed to a halt with the near-completion of my thesis, I’m normally a voracious reader, and I’m confident I’ll get to it eventually. I think I have a Pynchon and a book about the DRC both half-read, but honestly it has been at least a month since I touched them so I’ll probably have to start them again…

  5. I really don’t understand this. Sure, playing as a career was a bit silly, but clearly you had the right strategy to get to the end, and modifying your strategy to be more cautious could have been a big payoff. Seems like something worth doing occasionally.

    • Why “a bit silly”? Actually, modifying my strategy would have been the worst decision. That’s what we poker folk call “being results oriented”. What matters is that you made the right *choice*, not that you got the right *outcome*. If you had a 99-1 chance to win £1m if you gambled £1000, and you did it, would you say you made the “wrong decision” if you lost? It was clearly the right decision; you were getting amazing odds! The outcome doesn’t affect the decision being right/wrong.

      • Hey man, former professional poker player here, and currently a game dev too(http://store.steampowered.com/app/300280/), so we got a lot in common.

        While John just starts off by making his entire advice not worth reading by labeling a poker career as silly, he does have a point, that I’ll illustrate by taking your own analogy (one I use all the time BTW to make the decision vs results point) a step further:

        Let’s say I gave you two options: you could have a 5% chance of winning $150k, or a 50% chance of winning 10k. Essentially what you are saying is: “You should pick the former every time because it’s +EV”. What I would say instead is: “How many times would you let me take that choice?”. If the answer was “one”, as was in your case, “I’d probably take the lower EV choice” – but it’s not an easy answer at all.

        It’s the difference in how a professional thinks about a WSOP tournament, and how a tourist that got lucky thinks. But you were a tourist in that tournament, you didn’t have the luxury to wait for the long term to arrive, since your sample size at these types of tournaments was basically one, and it might have been in your best interest after a certain point to start playing sub-optimally to secure a nice payday like a tourist. Specially considering your reaction to a big loss, then it would definitively be the proper way to play.

        The same way that sometimes it’s correct to make the “wrong” play if you think it might put your opponent on tilt and make you more money later, in this case it could be correct to play sub-optimally to ensure you didn’t hit the floor hard enough to quit entirely, if that was a possibility.

        It goes beyond simple EV calculations, and it is indeed the hardest part of being a pro poker player. Which is, BTW, insanely harder than 99% of other careers out there, so calling it silly is just ignorant and absurd.

        Best of luck with URR.

        • Ah, yes, now this is an interesting point. As you say, if I’d been able to step “outside” the tournament for a moment whilst playing and come to the realization that if this went badly it would be the last tournament I was going to play, I completely agree – the +EV move would, indeed, have been to play a tad more cautiously. I didn’t realize I playing briefly as a tourist in that tournament since I’d become so used to playing tournaments per se, and the difference wasn’t clear to me until I’d actually lost. If I could go back in time I would certainly play more cautiously when I got to the end of that tournament – not just because of my timetravel knowledge of the losing hand, but for exactly the reason you said. If I’d known what would happen from busting out in this way, I would have seriously thought twice about it.

          Thanks for the comment, and for the good wishes! Same to you on WPF!

  6. This is a cracking bit of writing, Mark. I don’t know anything about poker, but I was interested and informed. Also your description of the kind of numb incomprehension, without emotional attachment was very easy to relate to. Thanks for linking this to me x

  7. Excellent post, and a great quote to sum it up–so true!

    As I was reading, the idea of skill and emotional capacity as two important requirements struck a chord with my own experiences with investing (which I see another commenter has mentioned already). The most successful investors can divorce themselves from emotional attachments to the potential money involved in order to focus purely on the situation at hand and apply their skills. I used to invest in forex, and even completely stopped playing any other games for the duration because I was already “playing” at something. But once the stakes were high and success at the “game” became entangled with all the other things that money is connected to, the emotional burden just wasn’t worth it and even interfered with my ability to make the right decisions (the simplest examples being quitting while you’re ahead, and cutting your losses early, both of which require detachment from emotion). I eventually quit and withdrew the remaining balance which I gave to my wife wife as “compensation” for the negative impact it all had on my emotional state.

    (Afterword: I later made back all the losses by switching from daytrading to longer term trades through banks rather than brokers, but only after finding a certain major international bank that incorrectly delayed updates on their quotes in our local currency, which completely removed the emotional component since there was no way I could lose, ha… The earlier losses certain still taught me valuable lessons, though.)

    • Awesome, glad you enjoyed it. “The game became entangled” is a great way to put it, and thanks for the very interesting story! Game development makes it much easier to keep oneself sane, I think (though, perhaps, not by much…?)

      • I think it depends on what language you’re using. With python+libtcod you can really focus on development of the game itself and that’s wonderful. For years I wrestled with C/C++ and low-level concepts, the frustration nearly driving me insane and threatening to push me to the point of quitting forever. Fortunately I didn’t do that and learned to get by, but I know my limits and try to minimize the number and types of different libraries/technologies in use.

        As for the creative element and bringing a world to life, that’s the liberating part of gamedev. Technology can be fun but is damn annoying when it interferes with the ultimate goal 🙂

        • Hmm, interesting. Python is the only language I’ve ever used (and I suspect the only one I will ever use) – I wasn’t aware there was that much difference! Yeah, the infrastructure / data structures stuff I find the least interesting. About 1/100 days I awake with a burning desire to optimize saving/loading or something like that, and it sure feels satisfying after you do it, but compared to all the creative stuff…

          • Huge difference between python and C, and you’re definitely taking the right approach given your interest in actually completing something 🙂 The engineer types have trouble finishing projects because endlessly playing with the internals is fun in itself rather than a mere means to an end.

            I’m kind of half-and-half myself, and really enjoy implementing data processing and solving optimization problems, but have trouble keeping up with really advanced programming or technical issues so end up learning just enough to create what I want while hoping I don’t hit any major roadblocks. It was tough for the first five years or so pushing through all those inevitable roadblocks. Would have been so much less painful with python, but it wasn’t popular at all back when I started. It’s better having made it to the other side though, since C++ is much more powerful than python, if somewhat more error-prone and slower to code with.

          • Yeah I think it’s a “right tool for the job” sort of decision really. I have worked with python a bit, mostly for hacking up data-massaging scripts, as I find it is easy to get working code out quickly, but in my forays into gamedev with it, it was a bit slow for my purposes, though that might have been down to my choice of libraries or general inexperience.

            The C family are very fast and powerful, but also finicky on syntax and easy to make hard-to-find mistakes in, especially when you’re starting out. I got a Sokoban solving algorithm working pretty well in C++, although mostly what it taught me was that the solution space for a sokoban level was a lot bigger than I had anticipated…

          • Hmm, all interesting comments! I’m glad to learn a little about the differences between languages, even if I think it’s very unlikely I’ll ever change to another language, even for a future project. Kyzrati, I think your comment about engineer types ring true – I am coming to game design/coding from a totally non engineery/mathy background, so maybe that’s one of the reasons why Python has appealed so much, in that I can just get straight into it without having to worry about the optimization stuff too much. @ Bonus, I have found a few minor speed issues with Python in one or two bottlenecks, but those are entirely my incompetence – they’ve all either been fixed once I got better at coding and figured out a superior way to handle them, or they’re on the list of stuff to be fixed and I just haven’t got them yet!

  8. Sort of the opposite happened to me, and I had pretty much the exact same reaction.

    I was mid 20’s and I had some friends that had more money than me and liked to blow it pretending they understood poker.

    They invited me to play one night and one of the guys paid my buy-in. This was a cash game.

    I had no idea what I was doing, not really. I basically played on the theory that the scoring hands were like Yahtzee and the harder to acquire hands were worth more. Seriously, I had no clue.

    Well I was winning. A lot. And people kept buying back in. And these guys started playing with a ton of money. I didn’t even know that you can walk away from a cash game. I’m just playing on someone else’s 500 bucks and now I’ve got like 40 grand.

    I’m sweating and feeling nauseous. I have no idea what is going on. Some fellow apparently couldn’t afford to lose so much money and gets some great hand and asks if he can go ‘all in’ with his house as the bet, head up against me.

    The pot at the time was like 2k. In hindsight I think he just wanted me to let him have the pot. Well I was like, hey, this dude looks about ready to stab me, I better let him do what he wants, so I’m like yeah, my entire pile of money against your house.

    Of course, he loses. He had a pair of Kings, that’s it.

    I got a three of a kind on the last card. Three 8’s.

    And everyone just sat there silent. And I got up and walked out. Didn’t take a damn thing with me. Haven’t played poker or anything like it since.

    Even writing this out makes me sick to my stomach.

    • Wow, thanks for posting this story. That’s remarkable – and, as you say, rather the exact opposite. Your description of your friends is so accurate of some people I know, too. Back when I was in secondary school there was a person in the year above us who was good friends with most of my friends and hung around with us a lot. He left to university and a year later when we were in upper sixth, he came back for a day and started talking about all the money he was making playing poker (at which point I actually was doing so). It was… hard to describe, but it was instantly blindingly obvious he was lying. Nobody who actually profited from poker would talk about it like he did. Once he’d left I informed my friends “well, I hate to say it, but he was lying about everything.” and explained why it was so obvious. That kind of brazen and transparent lying really bothered me, especially as the falsehood of everything he was saying was so clear to me.

      Anyway, onto the actual story itself, I can understand why it’s a scary thing to think about. Although I think writing it out here helped, I do from time to time think it hard to think about my final day in much the same way. Being so far outside your comfort zone is often heralded in literature as being something wonderful and transformative, but in my experience it’s normally just bloody horrible (though clearly had I won, I wouldn’t be saying that!). I’m not surprised you’ve never played again after something like that, and I really appreciate you sharing it here.

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  10. Nice story, I assume this monster tournament was fairly cheap to buy into? Did you ever considered that all you lost was the buyin and 12 hours of your life, it wasn’t actually yours until it is all over as anything can happen and it did.

    FWIW, Full Tilt servers are in Guernsey (ex employee)

    • Thanks, glad you liked it. Of course that occurred to me intellectually – I do realize I hadn’t won, but the point I tried to get over was that it felt as if victory was already mine and it was taken from me, which is really the point of the story. I actually profited on the day since I still cashed, but that was besides the point. Ah, I wasn’t aware they were in Guernsey.

      • Ok. It clearly stressed you out a lot and the denial of a large gain forced you to ask yourself some tough questions which you answered by action.

        I came across this page from a tweet by a financial trader I listen to. I like to discuss and share stuff on that topic. From that side I would reccomend Charles Duhigg’s latest book and the books by Mark Douglas, (especially the one on discipline, that being the hardest element in trading and poker).

        • Yeah, I think that’s a good way to express it. Well, I’m glad the trader sent it your way, it’s been *really* surprising the way this entry has blown up, but I’m glad it seems to resonate with a lot of people. Thanks for the book recommendations!

  11. A very good read. I have come to realise that I would rather back a bad player with emotional stability, than the world’s best player who can’t handle their emotions. I feel I fit much closer to the latter description than the former :).

    I also echo your sentiment that somehow it isn’t about bad-beats or good or bad fortune. I can cope with anything that happens at the poker table. It is more about the considerations that come between tournaments or sessions – the question of why we would want to put ourselves in the position to receive them.

    The funny thing about poker, or any competitive game that encourages really deep thought, is that deep thought doubtless leads to more holistic concerns, ie the ‘why am I doing this?’ becomes one of the biggest questions of all, and one that isn’t always easy to answer. Especially in games where you quickly come to realise that the game itself, and the players lifestyle are actually inseparable from each other.

    • Thanks for the feedback! I think the question of “why am I putting myself in this position?” is the really important one. With poker I had a clear reason – I enjoyed the game and was making a solid profit – but that reason just evaporated after this. As you say it can be hard to see exactly why. I have always thought the word “fun” is a very inappropriate word for many games; I enjoyed poker a lot, for example, but I wouldn’t generally call it “fun”. Likewise for roguelikes, bullet hells, etc – to me, “fun” implies something trivial, a flippant passing diversion, whilst “enjoyment” denotes something deeper. So I certainly enjoyed poker, but it wasn’t “fun”, and (for me at least) that’s my drive for playing competitive games. I enjoy competing a high level, and (let’s be honest), I really enjoy the feeling of winning. That’s what makes me want to compete.

  12. Thank you for sharing this. I trade my own money, and the emotional ups and downs are rough. There’s the adrenalin rush and the huge endorphin release when you win. And when the market starts moving against you… your stomach starts turning upside down, and when you lock in a huge loss, it’s just utter shock and disbelief. There are days when I go home, scream my lungs out, and can’t eat anything. It’s like I go through the Five Stages of Grief on a quarterly basis. Probably the worst part about trading losses is the agency: the knowledge that it was your fault you lost that money, and it could have been prevented had you done X, Y, or Z differently.

    It’s rough on the mental health, but I’m determined to see it through. Thanks again.

    • You’re welcome, and I’m glad you got something from it! Your fourth sentence is so, so accurate of the feeling in poker too. That was something I had generally mastered (until this tournament) – in poker, at least, when you’re playing 9 tables at once, the downs on one table will always be balanced by the ups on another table, and that really helps to keep you balanced and relatively unconcerned by the immediate fluctuations. I don’t know if there’s really an equivalent for trading. Best of luck with the trading – hope you make it through to where you want to be with it.

  13. Funny you mention Banks; I just finished Player of Games about a month ago and it was in my mind when I was reading this. I think the emotional instability issue is what is a major draw to chancing. Too stable, and there is no vertigo when you are up high either, I think. I’d wager the big timers are very stoic rather than very stable.

    • Then I succeeded! The birthright quote is indeed from TPoG. I think that book has maybe the best depiction of the high-level game-playing mindset I’ve ever read (though Ender’s Game & the Glass Bead Game are both very good), and before IMB died I had a little correspondence with him about this. He said to me he was surprised by how accurately I thought he’d captured it, but I really do think it’s spot on (especially some of Gurgeh’s reflections about games early on). I think you’re totally right re: stoic/stable for the top players; Phil Galfond had some very interesting videos on “remaining emotionally stable when you just lost 100k in one hand” or similar, though I don’t quite recall now where I saw them…

      • I’ll have to check that out, if only to better understand the mindset. And I would agree with you on TPoG, Banks seemed to be astoundingly humble and almost elusive based on the interviews I saw with him, so maybe he was just doing his thing. If you have not seen Lawrence of Arabia, it can be seen in the vein of this topic, from a historical and highly aestheticized angle, I thought. The closest I’ve ever come to any of this is various rougelikes and DEFCON. Anyhow, good luck finishing up your doctorate and have fun working on URR!

        • Agreed re: Banks; he always seemed slightly surprised by the success of both his SF and his F work. Lawrence of Arabia? I haven’t actually seen it, but that’s very intriguing, I’ll try to hunt it down. And DEFCON? It’s… on the steam list. I’m sure it’ll get a post here once I’ve played it though! And thanks : ).

  14. In my country there is a saying: “Risky as physicist”.

    Could you tell what was your (and your opponent) hand and bets at preflop, flop, turn and river? (On this final joust)

    • Heh, I like the phrase. It was a preflop all-in; my foe opened, I 3bet, he shoved, and I made the (correct) call. It wasn’t really a very interesting hand, tbh, but I was a big favourite when the cash went in.

  15. Cash games pay *way* more than tournaments. Most of the time you’re essentially stealing money from idiots, but hey if that’s the goal…

    • That’s a very broad statement. Cash games don’t inherently “pay more” than tournaments – a $0.01/$0.02 cash game doesn’t pay more than the Main Event! Do you mean cash games pay more for a given skill level at poker than tournaments do? (In which case, I would actually argue the opposite is true)…

  16. Thanks for this great write up -without the possibility of loss there is no game and without the possibility of death there is no life!

  17. Thank you for posting this. The idea never occurred to me (the second quality needed to play poker for a living). I’m a bit surprised though, that this experience didn’t enforce your desire to play more. It seems for most gamblers, your experience would make them double their subsequent efforts. And in that spirit, things might not work out so well.

    Kudos for spending the time to emotionally process it and making a wise decision.

    • Thanks for the comment, I’m very glad you got something from it. I think you’re right about the experience reinforcing it for many people, but perhaps the difference is my background. Some professional poker players come from a “gambling” background – things like hustling at pool/bowling/golf etc, counting blackjack in the days when that was possible, etc. By contrast, I very explicit consider myself to come from a “gaming” background, and I always viewed poker as “gaming”, even once I was at the point where I could conceivably make a living from it. The gamble wasn’t the part that interested me, though I do understand why that does interest a lot of people (the rush, excitement, thrill, etc).

  18. Hey Mark,

    What a nice read! I especially liked the perspective on the similarities of roguelikes and poker. I totally imagined my or somebody’s URR Character dying after hours of exploring the world at feeling the whole unseen story and undiscovered parts of the world passing by. The fact that it’s unlikely for anybody to discover what you’re “end” of story would have been and no youtube let’s play or rps article could tell you exactly what you’ve missed.

    I’ve read your recent Interview with videogametourists and I’m looking at your development plan right now. I’m wondering in which ways your own character will evolve? Can you change religion? Can you level up, or do you “just” find stronger weapons (this one is probably already answered and I’m sorry for not looking it up properly)? Can you get a tattoo? (maybe on your wrist and it is a sign of recognition from a heresy(both ways possible? Like they use it to identify themselves, or their evil overloads marked them, so everybody can see) Will you be able to change/buy clothing and it will change the way people interact with you? (access to certain city areas that would otherwise be denied for example) Or put otherwise, in which ways can you invest in your own character or is the idea more that you invest in the generated world? (since the more invested you are in your character the more extreme would be your numbness, like my first meeting with the piranha-lake in adom)

    Sorry for the uncomfortable barrage of questions (and the insanely excessive use of brackets) it just kept coming at one point. I think I could go on, but the last question sums it up pretty nicely I think.

    If that’s not (and it probably isn’t) the right thread to ask questions like that (or they already have been answered), maybe you can link me to the correct place?

    Obviously keep going and hook me up for a patreon!

    Best Wishes,
    Frido

    • Thanks Frido! Very glad you enjoyed it. That is very much the kind of feeling I want to generate both if you lose – what parts of the world did I miss out on?! – but also, actually, if you win. The game should be eventually balanced so that even if you complete it, you shouldn’t have had time to explore the whole world; something really appeals to me about that kind of potential mystery and having the player make judgements about where they should/shouldn’t visit/explore.

      Leveling up: interesting question. I am seriously considering a purely “materialist” leveling system, i.e. only through items. It would be very weird, and very different, and potentially challenging to balance, but I think it could be quite intriguing (though possibly with just a few very basic stats too). Not loads of stats, skill trees, etc. Change religion: yes, with consequences; tattoo, almost certainly; clothing, yes, and I think it could be an interesting aspect of the semantic mechanics I have in mind where you can make assumptions/expectations about others based on their clothing, but others will also judge you (your nation, religion, etc) based on what they see you wearing; you will be investing in your character, but I also see that in some fairly abstract senses (akin to the “plots” system in Crusader Kings 2). So, basically: some very physical leveling through items, some very abstract through plots/associations/factions, but little in the middle of skill trees, stats, etc.

      Thanks! I might get a Patreon going at some point, we’ll see : )

  19. Greetings, Mark.

    I have to admit I never played poker in any serious or competitive way. But I find your story very similar to something that I had to (and I think will continue to) experience.

    I’m playing video games competitively. Mostly Team Fortress 2. But here is a twist. When you play poker you’re being left with the fact of the loss just on your own. While doing a mistake it leads only to you loosing everything.

    But Team Fortress is a teamwork-based shooter. Your every action and mistake can lead to your team to lose. This is where you just have to be not only able to hold up under the pressure but also help your team to do the same. With your team at hand, the stakes are multiplied by infinity. And so is the feeling of victory. But the loss is almost equal to emotional death.

    And now imagine when you’re a captain of the team that led the team to failure. I believe this is why I’ll never be a formal leader again. I can yell at my team to encourage them, I can even sacrifice myself(in-game of course) in order to achieve victory for my team.

    People don’t usually understand this. Video games are just games. right? But when you play with other people, people who are closer to you than your friends and sometimes family, against the same people like you – the thin fringe between reality and in-game graphics is being erased.

    I hope you will never experience something like this.

    • Hey Cheshire – thanks for the interesting comment! Although obviously poker is not a team game (and nor are danmaku games), I did play CS:S and RA2 competitively back in the day – but I have to admit, I never experienced the feeling you’re describing. Maybe this was because I was always playing with close friends and we all knew each other well and understood that we are all strong players, even if now and then things go wrong, and blame was never thrown around (sure, maybe we would have won if Person X hadn’t died, but if it was a 5v5, and 4 of those 5 are dead, it’s not like all the blame lies with the surviving player!). Interesting about captaining: I’ve always been fascinated by fleet command in EVE, which seems like a very distinctive and idiosyncratic form of gaming. Anyway: games are not just games (how can anyone think this?!) but as you say, and as I’ve talked about in a couple other entries on this blog, virtual events are no less real, or at least the meaning of virtual events is no less real, for their virtuality. Thanks again for the comment – and good luck with TF2! (I loved that game, but I confess, I don’t think it makes for as compelling a competitive spectacle (though I can’t speak to playing it at that level) as CS, or Melee, or SC2, for example).

      • Well i’m not talking about blaming someone individually. It just when the stackes are so high that feeling of the defeat is multiplied by each player in your team. The effort and time which were put toward the victory is not only yours.

        But to be fair, in big teams(especially in Highlander games where 2 teams consist of 9 players each) overcome the loss is easier. Since the loss is not experienced as an absence of the result. Just like any old-school rougelike fan, each defeat is a lesson. Usually when my team losses I immediately watch the replay to see where the mistake(or a serie of mistakes) was made.

        In some cases I even assemble the team in order to anylize who need to step up their game or how to reorganize our group actions in order to not do the same mistake twice.

        Learning on your mistakes as a team is almost a separate skill that you need to develop.

        P.S.: Team Fortress actually got all the treats for a competitive game. It has good balance, different classes with various roles, big room for experimentation in tearms of tactics since some classes can change their roles in a matter of seconds. But most of all what I find extremely exciting is communication in TF2. For some reason no other in-game communications feel the same way. I guess it comes from how differently all members of your team see the battlefield and what opportunities they have.

        • Ahhh, got it. I slightly misunderstood your comment. That’s interesting about learning mistakes as a team, as that’s definitely not a game skill I’ve had much need to develop in the past (RA2 for me, for instance, was just me and one other player I always partnered with in 2v2, so it was less a “team” discussion and more like working with another copy of yourself – our tactics were so strongly intertwined, and we tried to play effectively as a single army, that it never really had a “team” feel). That’s a very interesting description re: TF2 competitive play… maybe I’ll give it another look.

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