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.

Disappearing Lessons

When kids are little, you can play peek-a-boo with them, and delight them for hours because they have not yet developed their sense of object permanence. Objects that drift out of their sensory field cease to exist—the perfect “out of sight, out of mind” circumstance. It does not occur because of anything they will—it just happens. Sometime during the second year of life (and this is an imprecise measure), children learn that there is a world beyond their immediate senses. Trial and error teaches them that parents and food and comfort exist (or, do not!).

Jean Piaget proposes that we learn schemas—models for understanding the world. As we mature—during our early life—these schemas become more complex. They show us how to navigate a world that is not in our immediate grasp—at our egocentric beck and call. But how much do we simply extend our egos—using the schemas as a way of organizing the world in accordance with our desires?

I wonder how this applies to how we develop a sense of the world—how the schemas we develop shape our senses of morality and mortality. Do the schemas imbue more ephemeral things with a greater permanence than is warranted? Can the trial and error of early childhood be subverted by experiences that teach us about the ambiguity and ambivalence of the world? Or do we, from an early age and onward, cling to one master vision that cannot waver?

Because, as we age, we learn that impermanence is the standard. People come and people go. There must be some kind of formula for this: for every two people who enter our orbit, one must be released. Later, the ratios rise, switching to 1:1, and then 1:2. The causes are myriad—death, disaffection, dumb luck. People appear and disappear with stunning frequency, with hardly a moments notice for peek-a—

For example, I often think of my father, and miss him. I know that he is dead and cannot be a part of the life I lead now, however, his presence feels like the lingering effects of object permanence. Somehow, I have located him in my schema of the world, and no loss, no absence can remove him from that schema. Just like the child who can hunt for the toy hidden beneath the sheet, I can find my father behind the darker veil.

And yet, I am also fully aware that he felt often absent while he was still alive. He entered my life at intervals—holidays, sailing trips. There were stretches of time when I only saw him once a year, other times when when he was without more than with—present in the dimes and nickels that he left on his dresser for us to buy milk and ice cream at school, but only appearing, briefly, in the flesh, at dinner, and then disappearing into his den. Was he really there, or have I constructed a vision of him that became a durable substitute for the times he was away?

My parents championed independence in their children. While we were expected to be independent from them, did we, by happenstance, learn independence or absence as part of the schemas on which we built our early lives? We became free-floating, detached, prepared, in advance, for the disappearances that life would throw our ways—not the peek-a-boos of play, but the more enduring, and finally, more heart-breaking absences of adulthood. There is some solace in that, but also a modicum of sadness. We were pre-lost, almost, before we were found.