When looking at a high-stakes professional poker player losing a half a
million dollar pot, or busting out of a huge tournament “in the bubble” and
taking it in stride, the word “stoic” might come to mind.
While colloquially referred to as someone who is calm and emotionless in the
face of adversity, this kind of definition doesn’t quite do justice to the
original philosophy of Stoicism and doesn’t really tell the full story.
Like most things, the original meaning and the ideas have changed and molded
with the times, and what we’re left with today is a superficial understanding
of what once was.
There is a lot more to being stoic than merely showing (or even feeling) no
emotion and accepting your cruel fate. It’s not about suppressing emotions
either, for doing so tends to backfire, sooner or later.
The surface-level understanding of Stoicism would indeed have us picture a
totally cold and detached person, but it’s just a facade.
It’s not about the appearances, it’s about the underlying principles beneath
the surface that guide our thinking and behaviour.
What is Stoicism and How it Can Make You a Better Poker Player
Stoicism is a holistic philosophy that encompasses physics, logic and ethics.
It surmises that the path to a good life is to be found in pursuing virtue,
using reason, and living in accordance with nature.
According to the Stoics, the four main virtues were wisdom, courage, justice
and temperance (or self-discipline). Certainly great things to have at your
side, especially when things don’t go your way.
And they won’t.
Anyone who has played poker for some period of time can attest to that.
Quite simply put, stoic philosophy emphasizes virtues as a means of achieving
what they called Apatheia (Greek: ἀπάθεια; literally, “without
passion”). It’s not to be confused with apathy.
The most accurate translation would be equanimity, similar to the Buddhist
concept of the enlightenment, (i.e. a state of stability and composure in the
face of adversity).
In practical terms, it means reacting logically and reasonably to external
events beyond our control, rather than our decision-making process being
hijacked by emotions.
That is not to say to be emotionless or robotic, but clear-headed, objective
and aware. Awareness being the key.
Poker and Stoicism – The Hidden Connection
The less aware you are, the more likely you are to react negatively to
external events beyond your control. The poker fish are the best example of
player types, ranges and so on. A lot of
advanced technical poker knowledge
is completely foreign to them.
Sure, they might be familiar with some concepts to a certain extent, but
knowing that something exists and being able to apply it effectively are not
the same thing.
I might have some theoretical knowledge about internal combustion engines. It
doesn’t mean I have the slightest clue how to go about fixing my car.
Poker is deceptively simple, and fish are notorious for overestimating their
skill level and playing in games they have no business being in.
You will often hear players say something along the lines of: I’m not a math
person. I’m more of a feel player. This is mostly a BS excuse.
Sure, intuition and gut feelings are not to be underestimated, but they are
usually the consequence of acquired knowledge and reasoning that isn’t quite
It can be useful at times, but it can also be dead wrong, because emotions can
be unreliable at best, and highly destructive at worst.
Example of How a Poker Amateur Reasons Incorrectly
You may think someone who is overbet shoving on the river is bluffing because
they’ve been overly aggressive and have been pushing you out of pots for more
than an hour
So you decide to make a hero call, only to be shown the absolute stone cold
The problem is you only considered a piece of the puzzle, and built a
narrative around it. You didn’t consider previous action, bet sizing, their
probable range, the board runout and what have you.
You were probably more motivated to get even, or to make a sick call, or show
you won’t be pushed around. Probably a combination of those actually.
Either way, you let emotions (anger or pride) guide your decision-making
process, even if you weren’t quite aware of it at the time.
You did make a conscious decision, and there was certainly merit to your line
of thinking (i.e. the villain WAS overly aggressive and could have been
bluffing), but it’s not the whole story.
It’s a single piece of the variable that stood out to you because of previous
events and your personal involvement.
And that’s the core problem:
We might think we are making rational decisions, and we aren’t even aware of
the ways our decision-making process is compromised before it’s too late.
How to Mitigate the Negative Effects of Emotional Based Reasoning in
If we could mitigate the negative effects of emotions and let the rational
part of our brain take the wheel, poker would be a fundamentally different
(and quite easier) game.
This is where a little bit of stoic wisdom can come in handy. This article
will provide some insight into the mind of one of stoicism’s most stellar
personalities, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus Aurelius was quite an impressive person. He was dubbed the Philosopher
king by his contemporaries and was known as the last of the five good emperors
He ruled from 161 to 180, and his reign will mark the beginning of an end of a
period which will later be called Pax Romana (lat. Roman peace), the golden
age of the Roman empire.
As one of the most prominent Stoic philosophers, a lot of what we know about
Stoicism today can be ascribed to Marcus Aurelius and his capital work, “The
Meditations,” a series of letters and notes he wrote to himself as a means of
The work was never written to be published, but his ideas survived to this day
in one form or another long after the emperor’s passing almost two millennia
lesson aside, let’s get into the actual tips, starting with the cornerstone of
1. Some Things Are Out of Your Control
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you
will find strength.” – Marcus Aurelius
As poker players, there is a lot we can do to improve our results, and how
much we win or lose depends greatly on us. We choose the game to play, we
choose a site, a table, a seat.
We choose the stakes, when to play, how long, what cards to play, how to play
in a certain spot and so on.
We are just not entirely sure about the outcome in a lot of situations. And it
certainly can be a deal-breaker to many people who want to be in control of
their life’s outcomes, and playing dice just isn’t their particular cup of
But for the rest of us degenerate gamblers, it’s a cruel reality that we need
to make peace with in order to survive this brutal game.
You need to be aware that the prospect of loss is ever present, and disasters
are just waiting to happen.
And there is absolutely no way around it, no matter how good you are.
Sometimes you will do everything right and lose anyway. It’s beyond you. But
the way you react when things don’t go your way is the true mark of character.
Everyone can play well when the deck keeps hitting them, but as soon as things
go south, their game collapses along with their fortunes.
And this is what makes poker a lucrative endeavour for some, and a losing
investment for most.
The key Stoic takeaway is this: True wisdom is identifying and separating
what’s within our control and what isn’t, and focusing exclusively on the
former. So how do we do that?
With another piece of advice from Marcus Aurelius…
2. Stay Present
“At every moment keep a sturdy mind on the task at hand, as a Roman and
human being, doing it with strict and simple dignity, affection, freedom,
and justice — giving yourself a break from all other
You can do this if you approach each task as if it is your last, giving up
every distraction, emotional subversion of reason, and all drama, vanity,
and complaint over your fair share.” – Marcus Aurelius
Making peace with things beyond our control and focusing only on what is
within our control means letting go of past and future.
The past is fixed and impossible to change, the future is uncertain and
impossible to predict. That is not to say that Stoics were just living in the
moment, partying non-stop and to hell with the consequences.
Quite the contrary.
They did in fact think extensively about what their life would and could be
like, and what was the best course of action to take in order to live a
They also meditated on what has transpired already, but not to dwell on past
mistakes and misfortunes, but to learn from them.
But when they weren’t pondering life’s biggest questions and were engaged in a
certain activity, they were all in on it, for they believed that anything that
is worth doing is worth doing well.
Otherwise, why are you doing it in the first place?
So the next time you sit down to play poker, make sure you are focused on the
task at hand. Remove all distractions like your phone, email, Netflix
Make sure you are not to be disturbed, either by external forces or by your
own internal turmoil of any kind. Leave the past, the future, and your ego at
the door and play to the best of your abilities.
Focus on every hand individually, street by street, action by action. Pay
attention even when you’re not directly involved in the hand.
Don’t let your mind wander off. You can’t expect to have great results if you
keep missing key pieces of information. Information is power, and every little
piece of it helps.
Stay inquisitive, stay present.
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3. Expect Adversity
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with
today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.
They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.
But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have
recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the
same blood and birth, but the same mind… And so none of them can hurt me.
No one can implicate me in ugliness.
Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him… To feel anger at
someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.” – Marcus Aurelius
People are here to take your money and you are there to take theirs. It is not
a cooperative endeavour. Poker in its essence is closer to a Hobbesian
nightmare than to a utopia.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world. It’s fair in so far that the rules regulate the
behavior of the participants, and the participants adhere to those rules. It
has evolved a lot from the lawless gunslinging days of the wild west, but at
its core, it’s still you against everybody else and vice versa.
Sure, there is a sense of camaraderie and mutual respect between players,
especially in live games, but at the end of the day, you are still there to
take their money and prevent them from taking yours, and you are to use any
means necessary to achieve that, as long as it is within the boundaries of
rules and fair play.
The Stoic takeaway here is that other people will be out to get you in some
way or the other, and sometimes they will get the better of you in some
particularly nasty way.
overfold to 3-bets out of position.
They can get frustrated with your aggression and keep calling you down and
hitting their miracle gutshot draw on the river.
Or they can go on an insane monkey tilt and shove 63 offsuit preflop you snap
call with your pocket queens and the board runs out like this: Q♥2♠9♣4♠5♥
The universe won’t always cooperate with you. The cards won’t always fall your
way, and the people will be out to get you. And they will get you
It won’t be fair and it won’t be pretty, and you won’t see it coming. Just
remember that the universe isn’t conspiring against you. Which brings us to
the next point…
4. Don’t Take Things Personally
“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and
you haven’t been.” – Marcus Aurelius
Poker is random. People aren’t used to randomness, and they don’t interpret
the world as such. We are pattern seeking creatures, and if we don’t find a
pattern, we are more than happy to make one up.
Chance isn’t conspiring against you. Things don’t happen TO YOU. They just
happen. This kind of thinking might sound fatalistic, but it’s actually quite
a relief once you actually internalize it.
The law of large numbers pretty much guarantees that a series of highly
unlikely and highly unfortunate events will happen. And sometimes they’ll
happen in a quick succession. And they will happen to you.
probabilities. This is something that only
professional poker players
typically learn how to deal with.
Most amateurs instead are overly focused on the present moment, this
particular situation, this particular hand, this particular bad beat.
Or a series of them. And since we are also incredibly gifted in pattern
recognition and narrative building, we don’t analyze cold hard data on a
We are reacting to what’s happening to us in the moment, and what’s happening
is we’ve lost a huge pot in a particularly vicious way. And it keeps
happening. And it’s happening to ME.
We are all protagonists in our own stories, and it’s quite apt to jump to the
victim narrative. It’s a way of ego protection, and it’s a normal instinctive
It takes some serious brain power to overcome it, and it’s anything but
It might be worth remembering that bad things happen to everyone. One of the
great things about poker is it doesn’t discriminate.
Play it long enough, and you’re bound to run extremely hot at times, and
extremely cold at others. Sure, some people will run worse than others,
but on a long enough time line, the survival rate of everyone drops to zero
So it’s more about the journey, and how we deal with the inevitable obstacles.
Some do it better than others, because they…
5. View Obstacles as Opportunities
“Here is a rule to remember in future, when anything tempts you to feel
bitter: not “This is misfortune,” but “To bear this worthily is good
fortune.” – Marcus Aurelius
You will get unlucky sometimes. You will do everything right and still fail
miserably. But so will everyone else. What separates the winners is the way
they approach failure. They don’t fear it.
Because if you don’t risk failure, you can’t succeed. And if you never fail,
then you probably don’t ever try anything new or challenge yourself in any
If everything is coming easy to you, you might want to watch out, cause you
might just be going downhill at a slight slope.
The winners are those that take the best out of disaster, and use it as a way
to better themselves. They use it as fuel to improve, to see their
shortcomings and work on them consciously and deliberately.
Where some people see disaster, some see an opportunity. It’s a matter of
perspective. Remember that everyone will get their fair share of fortune and
The ones that deal with it the best will be the ones that will rise on top.
of 78/5/1 and lose your whole stack, think how much better you could react
than a vast majority of the player pool you’re competing against.
Because bad beats and coolers happen to everyone, fish included. And the fish
are the ones that are more likely to start tilting like crazy and spewing
their chips. Because they see a disaster.
And a shark sees an opportunity. It’s nature. And the Stoics were all for
living in accordance with nature.
6. Be Grateful
“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to
be alive — to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.” – Marcus Aurelius
Ending on a more positive note, be grateful for the fact that we’re able to
play this great game in the first place.
When you lose, remember that it is a privilege of the few to be able to afford
losing money playing cards. And the fact that some people are able to actually
make money in the long run is a miracle in and of itself.
It pays to count your blessings every once in a while. Sometimes you win,
sometimes you lose, but it’s the reality of life.
There is nothing to do but to ride it out as best we can, and rejoice in the
fact that we can play a silly little card game every once in a while.
Being calm and composed in the face of adversity is something we should all
strive for on the felt, as well as away from it.
But we humans are tragically ill-equipped to deal with poker, with our insane
monkey brains running amok with all sorts of complex emotions and
The idea that we can sit down at a table with a bunch of complete strangers
and take each other’s money back and forth for hours on end without tearing
each other to pieces is nothing short of a miracle.
However, in order to not just be able to do so, but to make sure we are the
ones who leave with said money, it might be prudent to keep our insane monkey
brain in check.
Fortunately for us, the great minds of antiquity have a few tips on how to go
Firstly, we need to accept and recognize that things are either in our control
or beyond it, and it is up to us to differentiate between the two, and focus
exclusively on what we can control.
And what we control is our mind, in this particular moment.
This moment is all we have, for the past and future don’t really exist but in
our mind. So we should get the best out of today, this hour, this minute, and
leave our regrets and anxieties behind.
Expect things to go bad, because they will.
When you plan for the worst, nothing can surprise you. It’s not about being
pessimistic, it’s about being aware of potential adversity and challenges.
It’s harder to fall in a hole if you see it up ahead.
Don’t take things personally. Things are things. The universe isn’t out to get
you. You aren’t cursed.
When you face an obstacle, embrace it. Instead of saying, this is a disaster,
say: this is an opportunity. Ask yourself: how can I make the best of the
situation? What can I learn from this?
Finally, be grateful, even for the difficulties, for they are there to make