The Zen of Poker

I pass out in slow motion. No dramatic fainting for me. More like a slow descent into a tunnel. I can even describe it in real time to the people around me: “Oh, hey, my vision is staring to go black around the edges. And you sound farther and farther away. Now I can feel my arms and legs getting very cold, like all the blood is rushing to my middle and away from my limbs…” At this point, someone will usually sit me down and find a cold towel or an alcohol swab to keep me from actually passing out.

I’ve thought a lot about why my body freaks out while my mind is curious and engaged by what’s happening (e.g., medical procedure, a book I’m reading). I’ve concluded there is a great gulf between my rational, intellectual brain and my instinctual, lizard brain, and this may actually be my greatest asset.

Every person has these two brains, that’s what separates us from animals who have only instinct to guide them. But not every person has enough separation between these brains to be able to consciously observe our basic, primal reaction to events, and therefore choose how to react in difficult, emotionally triggering situations. Many people react without knowing the why, without even really understanding how they are reacting. Their lizard brain has a direct line to their mouth (or their fist), bypassing their “you know better” brain. But having a slow connection makes me a good poker player, or at least it should.

I convinced myself of this after reading a new book by Maria Konnikova “The Biggest Bluff: How I learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win.” Konnikova is a writer who knew nothing about poker – she didn’t even know how many cards are in a deck. But she wanted to see if the lessons of poker would be applicable to life. Turns out, it’s a lot about awareness of others and awareness of yourself (AKA, watching yourself pass out).

Through her entertaining journey of finding a poker mentor, starting to play in online poker rooms and eventually winning a major event in the World Series of Poker, Konnikova does learn to Pay Attention (to her own emotional reaction, and to the actions and reactions of the other players), Master Herself (by learning to pause between her observing herself and others and her decision about how to react), and Win (by making strategically correct decisions time after time, tilting the odds in her favor over an extended period of time).

Who’s up for a little Texas Hold-em?

Published by Sharon Schneider

Sharon Schneider is an entrepreneur, impact investor, philanthropy expert and strategy consultant to the next generation of social impact founders and family offices. Currently, Sharon is Executive Director of the Telluray Foundation in Colorado.

One thought on “The Zen of Poker

  1. Sharon, thank you. Kudos on your first post. I love it.

    What’s the hardest part for you about this awareness she describes? About about lengthening the time between observing self and reacting self?

    Thank you for this. I know I could benefit from this book.


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