Wednesday, April 05, 2006

I was never, ever comfortable, and that to me was the biggest thing. It was that fear that made me good. You can't take anything for granted.
--Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley, on his success in the ninth inning (Contra Costa Times)

I read that quote--found here, first quote under the heading that starts "In Order To Be Successful..."-- and immediately thought of my own poker sojourn. I'm not claiming to be as good at poker as Eckersley was at pitching in the ninth inning (at least for five years), but I think his idea on how he approached his job was very similar to how I approached mine.

When I was doing my best, I was never comfortable. I was always on edge, convinced that I was one foul-up away from going broke. As the weeks and months went by and my success continued, my state of near-paranoia barely waned, thanks in large part to the variance inherent in poker--any time I'd get the slightest bit relaxed, I'd drop 150BBs in a blink of an eye, promptly resetting my nerves on edge.

But somewhere, I lost that constant state of paranoia, and with it my edge. The seeds were sown with my move out here to Las Vegas last July to live the dream. I was proclaiming that poker was no longer just a profitable hobby, but a career. Isolated from friends and in a new town I wasn't all that comfortable in or familiar with, I had little else to do besides play poker. Slowly, the other aspects of my life shriveled away. Socializing, physical activity, reading, trips to new places, all things I enjoyed, were no longer on the daily plan. Wake up, play poker, surf the web, play some more poker, go to sleep. Those were my days.

The staggering opportunity cost of doing anything besides poker compelled me to keep my attention on poker and nothing else. If I wasn't playing I was reading about it online or in books, or discussing it with friends or just thinking about it. But while my poker senses sharpened and my bankroll grew, my body softened, my intellect dulled, and my social skills withered. My life was poker hedonism at its most extreme. Any activity not required for the continued function of my body, ie, anything other than eating and sleeping, represented merely an obstactle in my undying pursuit of the next flop.

I managed quite fine like this for a suprisingly long time, nights blurring together, and weeks rolling by effortlessly. The first of every month I'd poke my head up to take stock of how I was doing, but otherwise my head was down, with my nose on the proverbial grindstone.

As anyone who's lived a singularly-focused life for a while knows, such a lifestyle is always temporary. Burnout will set in.

The first cracks in my dream lifestyle appeared in December. What? A losing month? That can't happen. Must be an anomaly. Sure I lost in September, but that was playing 80% live. In December I played primarily online. Losing over 3000 hands is one thing. Over 30,000, it's something else.

But it happens, even to the best of us. Right? Except that even with my attempts at rationalizing the losing month away, it shook me. Poker had become such a huge part of my life that at some point I become emotionally invested in it. If I couldn't do poker, what else could I do? There was nothing else in my life.

I continued my grind into the new year and had success overall but with wild fluctuation, much worse than typical. And sharp drop brought another emotional jolt; each one was actually now a blow to my self-worth.

To cap it all off, I was experiencing "poker numbness." Just like overexposure to any other kind of stimulation will cause one to simply go numb from it, playing poker day after day, week after week, month after month, left me unable to feel the game as I once did. This is different from emotional detachment (a very good trait to have while playing), rather it's more like poker apathy--I wasn't caring enough to focus on what was happening enough to try to learn from my mistakes. Individual wins and losses stopped mattering. Did I just win $5000? Meh. Did I just lose $5000? Meh (although when I was still down at the end of the week or month, it did hurt).

Because of my apathetic approach to individual wins and losses, gone was my motivation to make every decision as good as it can be. I was comfortable. I was no longer the least bit afraid, no longer on edge. Perhaps being unafraid is an asset in NL, but in limit that's death. A few bets that have no chance of accomplishing anything, a few calldowns that have no chance of winning, that's all that separates the winners from the losers in many circumstances. No longer focusing on those small edges is limit poker suicide.

And so I swung wilder and wilder. Any financial adviser will tell you not to put all your eggs in one basket. Diversity is key, otherwise you risk losing it all in one fell swoop. Just like people's money is invested in stocks, people's emotions are invested in their lives. My life was poker, poker was getting wacky, and so my emotions were also getting wacky.

February nearly broke me emotionally. The first half was brutal, but then I made a raging comeback the second half. However this didn't make me happy. Much like after many years a heroin addict will take heroin not because it makes him feel better, but rather because not taking it makes him feel worse--a subtle but real difference--I'd simply been granted a reprieve from my pain.

March accomplished what February nearly did. I think the snowboarding trip was a large part of it. The first half of March went just like the first half of February, only worse. But before I could try to regroup, I was off for a week freezing my ass off on some godforsaken mountain, intermittently digging snow out of my pants, or my ears. I didn't play any poker the entire time, and for the first time in as long as I could remember I was 1) completely focused on an activity besides poker and 2) enjoying it. I can't emphasize that enough. That trip reopened my eyes to the variety of experiences life offers.

After that trip, I decided to try to branch out. Only then did my fragile emotional state become apparent. So much of my time, effort and emotions were all invested in poker that when it cratered on me I was not only an emotional wreck, but one who would have to relearn how to get out there and deal with a life that had a lot more to it than dealers, floorpeople or overseas customer support. It was like I was six again. Simply dealing with, say, the counter person at the gym or the mechanic working on my car were learning experiences. Sad to say, but true.

This isn't the end of my poker career, not by a long shot. Despite what it may sound like, I'm far from broke financially--my March losses are but a small fraction of my overall success from the game.

This is, however, the end of my being a poker junkie. I am now rebuilding my life outside of poker. Slowly and a bit hesitantly, as is my style, but I am doing it. Once I add in the other parts of a well-balanced life in sufficient quantities--social life, physical activities, hobbies/interests--only then will I add poker back into the mix. Poker will become just a part of who I am, a small part, rather than the overwhelming defining characteristic of my person. Sure I'll give up some EV, perhaps quite a lot, but you know what? I don't care.

I want to go rock-climbing under the sun. I want to play a grueling session of racquetball. I want to roll down a snow-covered mountain while a snowboard is attached to my feet. I want to meet a group of friends for dinner and bullshit for hours even after the meal has ended. Then after all that, after I've enjoyed life a bit, I'll play some poker. Just a little bit. Enough to earn some money to pay the bills and maybe put a little more away. But just enough to do that. Because there will be a life to get back to.


Anonymous willyum said...

Well said.

Glad to see you're going to get your life back into balance.

5:44 AM  
Anonymous Johnny Flopboot said...


Make your money work for you... you've put in a lot of hard work and time to earn those profits.

Then you can just play enough to earn $$ for your daily expenses or travel or whatever.. in a few years you could be sitting on a nice little pile of cash.

Good luck.

7:35 AM  
Anonymous kytyn said...

and you're right out there next to Red Rocks - talk about prime climbing!

still bummed I didn't see you at Whistler (though it's just as well, 'Nessa and I would probably have given you the flu)

of course, now you don't have to wonder who 'kytyn' is anymore :)

11:50 AM  
Blogger DrChako said...

Good for you. We'll miss the frequent thought-provoking posts, but imagine if you came to this realization 10 or 20 years from now...

Go. Enjoy.


2:06 PM  
Anonymous Steve said...

I've always wondered how professional poker players do it. I mean I like poker and play at least a few times a week, but end of the day it is a pretty boring way to spend 40+ hours a week, especially if you only ever play one type of game online.

End of the day, everyone who needs to work for a living has to find a balance. Poker is probably one of the toughest cause its fairly grueling and tedious (like air traffic controller, or orthodontist) combined with a lot of financial variance (like sales or speculating). On top of that you live in Vegas which would be tough to stay balance in even if you weren't a gambler. triple whammy!

Outdoors activity where you can exercise different parts of your brain and body in a social setting regularly seems like a good solution. good luck!

4:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very well written post. I wish you the best.

4:48 PM  
Anonymous Evan said...

This is me.

It sounds like you're at least being smart enough to step back. I wasn't as good about stepping back, and that's why I'm in law school.

Yeah, I'm paying for law school by playing poker, but law school is basically just an expensive habit for me. It's a way to do something and see different people.

6:00 PM  
Blogger eric said...


One step ahead of ya!

and you're right out there next to Red Rocks - talk about prime climbing!

Thanks for the tip.

now you don't have to wonder who 'kytyn' is anymore :)


We'll miss the frequent thought-provoking posts

Oh I'll still be around and posting. I just figure for the next two weeks/month or so there won't be much poker going on, and then after that I'll be back to playing regularly but with a reduced load. I just need some time to develop other areas of my life, and then I'll fit poker in around that other stuff, rather than vice-versa.

Thanks thanks for the kind words, everyone.

7:45 PM  
Anonymous Paul Hempseed said...

Very wise words indeed Eric, something i'm sure many poker players should read and take note of your experiences.

6:29 PM  
Anonymous Evan said...

I just re-read my comment. It makes perfect sense to me, and probably no sense to everyone else.

Oh well.

10:52 AM  
Anonymous Aaron said...

Strange Nuts broke you!

Maybe that's why our poker group is slowly dwindling... Strange Nuts broke them all!

In any event, it seems that you're at least aware of your current status. Perhaps you should consider getting a "part time" job. It will force you to have interaction with others and you'll likely gain some local friends out of the deal. You'll also find that jobs that you do for reasons other than money are much more enjoyable :)

Good luck.

1:57 PM  
Blogger eric said...

Hey, I finished up in our HU matches for money. 4 to 1 or something like that.

What you have to say about doing jobs for money is actually spot on. When I quit to play poker, I wasn't doing it for only money. I loved to play and I'd play anyways. Since I was making good money at it, it only seemed logical to do it as a career.

At some point though, Dec or Jan or so, with the burnout, I'd only play because I could make money, not because I was enjoying it any more. And that ain't good.

3:35 PM  
Blogger Ben Waxman said...

great post.

11:32 AM  
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