I’ll be celebrating my 38th wedding anniversary in August of this year. For 30 of those years, I’ve been a serious poker player, playing thousands of hours of poker in games all over the world. I’ve often been asked how I’ve balanced a rich and rewarding poker life with the rigors of a steady and serious relationship.
I’ve found certain governing principles have helped me maintain a balance between my poker playing and my home life. It hasn’t always been easy to follow these rules, but I’ve found them to be essential in balancing poker with the rest of my life. I share them with you here.
1. Have a separate poker account
There are few things more stressful than debates over money. To avoid such arguments and stresses, I’ve always kept my poker money completely separate from the family budget. This means having a separate bank account for my poker play, poker travel, and any poker-related purchases I need to make (poker tables, chips, cards, etc.).
I’ve been fortunate enough to be a winning player over the years – allowing my poker account to grow. But even if you’re a losing or break-even player, you can follow this rule.
You need to make sure that you set up a poker budget like an entertainment budget for the year. Play within your means and treat poker like a hobby or entertainment expense, with a fixed and predictable amount of money dedicated to it.
Keep that money separate. If your losses cause your poker account to shrink to zero, you stop playing until you can fund it again for another period of time. If your poker account grows, you can continue to play. If it grows considerably, you can consider moving up in stakes or spending more of it for other poker expenses.
But, in no event, should you drain money from your family’s living expenses to cover your poker losses. Similarly, you shouldn’t dip into your playing bankroll for family expenses. Keep your poker money separate from your family budget.
2. Schedule regular, predictable, inviolate time with your significant other
It’s easy to get lost in the rush of poker. Even good players often have a hard time getting up from the table or resisting the seductive call of a really juicy game. There are so many rationalizations that we can use to play, but all of those hours away can take a heavy toll on a relationship.
To avoid paying that cost, I’ve found it essential to commit to spending at least one evening a week — the same day every week — with my wife, no matter what. For us, it’s Friday night. And the key is that it’s every Friday night, no matter what.
I don’t ever play poker on Friday nights. If I’m playing Friday afternoon, even if I’m in the softest game in the world, I leave in time to be home for dinner. No matter what, we are together. If work requires that I be out of town over the weekend, my wife will arrange to join me, or I will fly home for Friday night and then fly back on Saturday. If she must be away over a Friday night, I will join her.
We’ve never missed a Friday night. Never. Not once. Sure, it’s meant that I couldn’t join my buddies for a Friday night game from time to time, and I have had to avoid WSOP tournaments that could last over a Friday night. But it’s been worth it.
Having a guaranteed Friday night together has helped preserve a strong and resilient marriage. I think of it as a rivet that holds our marriage together; it provides the confidence of regular contact that allows for a lot of activity outside the home in between Friday nights.
3. Family > Poker
This is a simple and crucial rule. My wife knows, with certainty, that if she needs me home for something, I will be home. No matter what poker activities I may have planned or may intend, if she says, “Can you stay home tomorrow,” I immediately and unquestioningly agree to cancel my poker plans and join her at home. No argument, no questions … just immediate obedience.
It may seem enormously generous of spirit on my part to always give in to such a request without even putting up a small argument. But this obsequiousness is rewarded in spades with the presumption that if she doesn’t say something, I’m free to do as I wish with regard to poker. I’m also fortunate that my wife, knowing that she will never get an argument from me, doesn’t frequently invoke this privilege of veto over my poker life. My absolute obedience to her expressed wishes helps engender a generosity of spirit in her, which leads me to my next rule.
4. Partner with a saint
There’s no denying that a fair amount of my ability to have such a balanced home and poker life flows from the fact that my wife isn’t insecure, overbearing, demanding, or shrewish. A more needy or controlling spouse would make an active poker life much more of a challenge. But I take some credit for that as well.
There’s skill in selecting an appropriate life partner. I purposefully looked for, and found, someone who’s independent, self-confident, and engaged in her own life. (My wife was and is a teacher and musician). Had I been less focused on finding such traits in someone when I was dating, I might well have coupled with someone who was more demanding of my time or more insistent that I toe the line with regard to joint activities. Admittedly, that would have made it much more difficult to find a balance.
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These four rules haven’t eliminated all poker-related stress from my everyday life, nor have they guaranteed me a completely unfettered poker life. But they have gone a long way in enabling me to have a healthy balance between the two worlds. To maintain a happy home while also having the ability to play poker extensively, I suggest you follow them.