Life, Love, & Happiness . . . all is a Chancey Poker Hand

deck of cardsI knew an old timer who thought of life as a poker game.  His theory was that we are dealt only so many cards in life . . . that we have to discard the old for the new if we hope to improve the hand that we are currently holding.  He believed that life was all just a gambling game of chance, predicated on our willingness to release something for something else.  In other words: if you don’t like the cards you are holding, you might just as well go ahead and discard.  The new cards that are dealt back to you might make for a better hand.  And if that isn’t the case?  Well, you discard again until you like the hand you are holding.  I should probably add that this older fellow led a very uncomplicated life.

Whether you look at life as Poker, Bridge, Backgammon, or Go Fish . . . there is some truth to what this old guy had to say.  And before I break out in my karaoke version of Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler,”  I just want to say that there is certainly an element of chance in every single moment of my life.  Like a deck of cards sitting before me on the poker table, I can actually feel the opportunities that are stacked up in front of me, beckoning and simply asking me to release my tight grip on my current reality and be brave enough to discard.

Paul_Cézanne,_1892-95,_Les_joueurs_de_carte_(The_Card_Players),_60_x_73_cm,_oil_on_canvas,_Courtauld_Institute_of_Art,_LondonThat’s the best part of taking a chance.  Any chance.  There is that little thrill that courses through our humanness right in that very second before we know that we have been dealt a bad hand or a good hand.  Research has shown that this “thrill” is actually what compulsive gamblers are addicted to.  It isn’t Winning that they are hooked on, otherwise they would walk away from the table when they have a nice high stack of chips sitting in front of them . . . it’s actually that feeling of not knowing whether they have won or lost that brings them back to the table.

I guess I have to give it to Kenny Rogers . . . or to whomever wrote the lyrics to that song about knowing when to hold them or when to fold them.   It is true.  You do have to know when to walk away.  Know when to run.  There is that expression that nature abhors a vacuum.  Experience tells us that this is true: when we create a hole or a gap in our lives, it is likely to fill up with something or someone else — perhaps with alarming similarities, but different nonetheless.

There are those pivotal times in life when we concede to discarding.  And receiving. When we [finally!] acknowledge that it’s okay to take a chance.  And if there are rules that define winning the game, it’s probably time to have a chat with Mr. Hoyle about writing in some exceptions.

All that life really requires of us is that we go forth and live it.  There is not a lot of thinking or haggling involved with it.  Or is there?   [Shifting back into OverThink drive now . . .]  But it sometimes seems that if  you overthink or strategize life, you are doomed to passivity.  Passivity, like counting cards, has its place but it has no depth, no growth, no change, no underbelly.  It just exists with predictable outcomes.

Jokers and trump cards.  The King of Hearts and the Queen of Spades.  Existence and living.  Risk and chance.  I don’t know exactly how this all spells out into my strategy for poker playing — not being very artful at this game — but I am thinking it’s time to look at what I have chosen to hold and maybe do a little discard here or there.  Change is bound to be good because, if we believe Kenny, every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser.  [My apologies if this song gets stuck in your head for the rest of the day! :)]



How to Play

I know someone who frequently compares his life to a poker hand.  It’s a game of chance.  And he always says that you have to discard the bad cards first before you can be dealt something that is a better match to what you are still holding.  I really like his philosophy.  Mainly because he lives it and doesn’t just talk about it.

But because life is all a gamble, he sometimes gets burned in the process of trading cards.  There is always that chance that you aren’t going to get better cards.  There is the possibility that you might want to fold.  There are times when you are going to want to bet high.  Maybe even all you have got.

Still, my friend is philosophical.  He knows that he will get another opportunity to discard the newly-acquired bad cards and ask for new cards.  In the meanwhile, he is patient.  This is another thing I like about him and his philosophy.

But as another friend said in response to the Poker Hand Philosophy, “Sounds more like Go Fish than Poker.”   True, true, true.  Poker requires strategy and luck to stay in the game.  As in life and love, Go Fish is just a random pile of cards where finding a pair feels to be a pretty risky and unlikely business.  Or is it?  Would I rather play Poker than Go Fish?  I honestly do not know.  Is life all this enormous game of chancy Go Fish?  Or is more strategizing and planning involved álá Poker that will guide the way?

Maybe there is a more laissez-faire thing going on than what we are aware of.  Perhaps all that life really requires is that we go forth and play it.  Play poker.  Play Go Fish.  It doesn’t matter which table you are sitting at.  Ask for a card.  Or two.  Or three.  Throw in your whole hand in exchange for completely different.  Maybe you’ll get what you asked for.  Maybe you won’t.  Maybe there is not that much thinking or haggling or strategizing involved.

Maybe if we overthink life, we are doomed to passivity.  Passivity has its place but it has no depth, no growth, no change, no opportunity of vulnerability.  It just exists.  Like that pile of cards on the table that is hiding the mate to my Slick Chick or my Hoppy Hippo.  No one wants to live the life of a Calling Station: “a weak-passive player who calls a lot, but doesn’t raise or fold much.  This is the kind of player you like to have in your game.”

Maybe it is true that we want this kind of player in our Poker game, but only if we want to clean up and win the pot.  But for me, winning is not what I am interested in.  I want all to win.  I want everyone to walk away from the table feeling good about life.  Maybe this is why playing “against each other” for M & Ms is preferable to $20-dollar bills.  No one is going to get mad because someone else won more yellow Skittles.  People come to the table with a different set of values placed on their investment depending on whether they are dealing in cash or in Jelly Bellies.

We don’t want to go through life passively rummaging around in the deck that is set before us . . . but who wants to go through life counting cards?  Keeping a poker face.  Bluffing to buy the pot without being called.  Holding your hand close to your chest.  Holed up in some smoke-filled saloon while keeping a pistol under the table, ready to fire at the least suspicion of any cheating.  (enter: piano man in the little hat and pin-striped shirt playing tinny-sounding ragtime music in the corner)  It sounds like an insane way to experience the present moment that is swirling all around.  Too much awareness can ruin the really spontaneous moments of fishing around and joyfully receiving a Wooly Lamb or a Gay Dog.

There is a vast difference between existence and living. I don’t know exactly how this all spells out into a code for living but it somehow does.  Like The Da Vinci Code, it doesn’t always go very deep, but it does scratch the surface.  And it certainly does get the attention of the code seekers.  There is always that.  We have expectations of how life is meant to be . . . but life is more about Implied Odds: “pot odds that do not exist at the moment, but may be included in your calculations because of bets you expect to win (italics mine) if you hit your hand.”

Whew.  There are SO many poker metaphors, similes, and analogies!  Someone, please, tell me to stop referring to the Poker Glossary.  Must.  Stop.  Looking.  My friend is right: Life IS a poker hand.   Still . . . there is that added bonus of seeking abundance in the ways that know no rules but that still keep me in the game.  Cultivating Mindfulness.  Integrity.  Clarity.  Balance.  Encouragement.  Taking healthy risk.  Taking inexplicable risk (aka “dumb risk” to the all-knowing observers).

In poker-speak, there is a hand called a Bad Beat.  It means that you have a hand that is “a large underdog” that “beats a heavily favored hand.  It is generally used to imply that the winner of the pot had no business being in the pot at all, and it was the wildest of luck that he managed to catch the one card in the deck that would win the pot.”  We all love underdog stories.  And it is even more fun to find yourself in one of these screenplays.  Local Girl Does Good and Wins the Pot.

I don’t know the rules of how all of this ties in with life or how life actually works as a game of chance, but I am very glad that I have the health, the vision, the vulnerability, and the opportunity to have an awareness of the concept of Adventure in the living years – even though there are times when I have been loath to discard while clutching my not-so-great cards.

Without Adventure and without being willing to play the game . . . the game of Go Fish or Poker or Set or Uno . . . there is no risk involved.  I don’t want to live my days disguising my “tell” – I want those around me to see me as transparent.  To see who I am.  And when I lay down my hand, I want to feel the satisfaction that although I might not have won every round, I was willing to take a risk.  There will be another opportunity to discard and ask for more.

Moments of bravery are required.  The poker word tilt is to “play wildly or recklessly.  A player is said to be ‘on tilt’ if he is not playing his best, playing too many hands, trying wild bluffs, raising with bad hands, etc.” I want to be brave.  I want to be a player that risks while hoping for a better hand.  There are times when I want to “play fast.”  I don’t necessarily want to careen through every single day on full tilt, but I want to know that I was willing to take a chance, to risk being wrong, to not live as if perfection were a lifestyle.

So, what’s your game?  Poker or Go Fish?  Hit me with a Royal Flush or a pair of deuces.  Tell me to Go Fish.  In an ideal world, I choose to be an adventurer on the High Seas of Go Fish.toaster oven




The definitions in quotation marks in this passage are from the awesome site: How to Play. []