Losing & Learning—poker and writing

You are going to lose.

At some point, you are going down the tubes, over the edge, off the rails. You may have something to do with the inexorable demolition of your temporary hopes and dreams, or a house may fall on you from out of the sky, while you are in mid-sentence about to say the most profound thing anyone has ever heard. Or not. You may be doing nothing more than mowing the lawn and wondering why it has gotten so dark so suddenly.

What prepared me? Nothing. I led a life of easy glory. Success came without consequence, well other than the third grade geography teacher who told me that my coloring was atrocious, or awful, and I wondered how the other kids filled in the map without the striations of crayons. So what, I won the class spelling bee. I sang in the chorus and joined the math club. Years passed, achievements accumulated.

I sat in my car after the first night I played in our local poker game in Pittsburgh. My heart pounded wildly in my chest, and my hands shook too much to take the wheel. I had lost sixty dollars, which was, at the time, the most I had ever lost at cards. I had played in a casual game in graduate school, and rarely lost, and when I did, it was the cost of a couple of cups of coffee at the local diner. And my winnings were rarely more than a few plates of hotcakes. Sixty dollars hurt. When I returned the next week—it was an amiable bunch of guys, and I sought their company as much as the play of the game—I played to watch and learn. I did.

Over time, I earned back my initial loss, and rarely lost in that group of players. When I sat down to play, I sat down with a plan, and with the hard-honed anger that allowed me to focus on the task. One player’s wife remarked that I had more testosterone than anyone else at the table. It was a back-handed compliment. She was—still is—a feminist, and masculinity, even back in the nineties, was out of favor, especially among academics.  Which we were. The game was made up of Ph.D. candidates and recently minted Doctors, along with a few locals (a movie reviewer for a local paper, a former Priest turned pharmacist, a former UPS worker, a purveyor of goods imported from South America and Southeast Asia). We played the gamut of Friday night neighborhood poker games—all sorts of strange and changing wildcards. Maybe that was why I lost the first time I played. Probably not. Later, when Texas Hold ‘Em became de rigueur, the table talk abated. Most games are quieter now. I miss the conversation—it took the edge of the testosterone. But I never forgot that first night.

We don’t learn from losses unless they hurt. A short sharp shock teaches better than a slow accumulation of pain.  Maria Konnikova includes an early chapter on loss in her book about poker, The Biggest Bluff.  She writes, “After all, losing is what brought me to the table in the first place. It makes sense that learning to lose in a game, to lose constructively and productively, would help me lose at life. Lose and come back. Lose and not see it as a personal failure… When it comes to learning, triumph is the real foe. It’s disaster that’s your teacher. It’s disaster that brings objectivity. It’s disaster that’s the antidote to that greatest of delusions: overconfidence.”

Later in the book, when she begins to recount the disaster that ended one particular tournament to her mentor, Eric Seidel, he tells her, “Stop… Look, every player is going to want to tell you about the time their aces got cracked. Don’t be that player. Bad beats are a really bad mental habit. You don’t want to ever dwell on them.” This may seem contradictory. Learn that losing is part of the game, but don’t talk about them. As long as you made good decisions, the outcome does not matter. Win or lose.

But, you say, don’t we play for an outcome? No. We play because we love the thrill of sustained focus. Making precise, intricate, and meaningful decisions allows us to shine. Define “shine” as you will. I recall Baudelaire’s poem, “Get Drunk”—“With wine, with poetry, with virtue, as you choose!” Choose where you will shine, and focus furiously. I stopped playing poker, saving my focus for what brings me back to the world. I write.

In my classroom, there are a series of posters proclaiming, “Think like a poet,” “Read like a poet,” “Write like a poet.” They were there when I arrived, and I left them up. The joy of writing (and yes, here’s where this comes back to writing), is the simplest of pleasures—making decisions, and learning as you go. You learn the process when you learn to read. (Or not.) You approach the text as a series of branches. “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…” Why the tripled “tomorrow’s”? Why the “and’s”? What comes next? (Creeps…). If you learned to read like THAT, then you have practiced how to write.

And losing? What is the bad beat in writing? Rejection? Better writers than I save rejection letters; there are even books full of them. A book of bad beats. Why? Writer’s block caused by what? A lack of simply sitting and scratching out a few words on unproductive days? Hardly. Turn on the music and write about that. Watch the news and write about that. Talk to your friends and write about them. Walk and write about what you saw. Just write.

The bad beat is the loss of faith, in the belief that your vision is enough. I don’t know what caused it for you, or how to restore your loss. Follow me, let me be the Virgil to your Dante. Imagine that—me, Virgil. You will lose—midway on life’s journey, the right road lost. But there is a way. Follow.

Failure, Self-recrimination, and Advice in Much Ado About Nothing (and other places)

One of the joys of reading Shakespeare is finding small moments that are only (only!) tangentially connected to the play—as if Shakespeare was trying to overpack his plays with wisdom. One such moment happens in Much Ado About Nothing, when Leonato’s brother, Antonio, attempts to advise his brother. Antonio knows that his brother is grief-stricken, and wants to assuage that grief with wisdom. He offers this: “If you go on thus, you will kill yourself,/ And ’tis not wisdom thus to second grief/ Against yourself.”

Leonato responds with a diatribe against the advice:

I pray thee, cease thy counsel,

Which falls into mine ears as profitless

As water in a sieve. Give not me counsel,

Nor let no comforter delight mine ear…

Patch grief with proverbs, make misfortune drunk

With candle-wasters, bring him yet to me,

And I of him will gather patience.

But there is no such man. For, brother, men

Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief

Which they themselves not feel, but tasting it,

Their counsel turns to passion, which before

Would give preceptial med’cine to rage,

Fetter strong madness in a silken thread,

Charm ache with air and agony with words.

No, no, ’tis all men’s office to speak patience

To those that wring under the load of sorrow,

But no man’s virtue nor sufficiency

To be so moral when he shall endure

The like himself. Therefore give me no counsel.

My griefs cry louder than advertisement.

Later Antonio will suggest: “Yet bend not all the harm upon yourself./ Make those that do offend you suffer too”; and Leonato agrees to this course—grief will give way to anger and action.

All in all, Leonato hits on the failure of most advice to do anything like good. Can words “[c]harm ache,” or are they just “air”? And what will mend agony?

My father rarely swore. I recall two incidents of “fuck”—once while he was driving, and once when we were getting hammered by a boom made too dangerous by inattentive helmsmanship. Swearing on the ocean was easy for some, but not for him, because he was happier on the his sailboat than anywhere else. Of course there were often far from pleasant days and nights spent under sail. Instead of offering anodyne comment, or suggesting that better days were ahead (we were, after all, headed to Bermuda and at least one evening of perpetual dark n’ stormy’s), we would pronounce, “This is shitty.” That was as far as he would go under duress—save the one time when we were in specific danger—and it summed up the the awfulness of a third day of rain and misbegotten wind as well as anything.

I recognize that we were under sail, and therefore about as far from genuine grief as can be imagined, but soaked, misdirected, and cranky will approximate. We had the advantage, as Leonato said to “endure the like” all together. How often do we experience grief together, and just suffer with each other? How often do we witness those in grief, and feel compelled to offer wisdom—and recoil in shock when our solace is returned with scorn?

Leonato responds in this vein. His grief is exacerbated by his initial response to his daughter, when he excoriates her after Claudio wrongly heaps shame on her. His grief is doubled by the knowledge of his failure of faith in his daughter. Antonio’s final advice points his self-despite toward the men who caused his fault.

And this is a special sort of grief—a pain we lade on ourselves. How many of us can easily confront our failures? Not our foibles—we populate the empty air with “my bad’s.” But genuine failures? Only those who have can offer us solace. Shakespeare offers us this in Leonato’s rejoinder to Antonio.