October 24th, 2008 | 1:00 pm

My Shadow Life as a Texas Hold ‘Em Player

filed under Passions

poker.JPGBy Sedef Onder

Some of my friends would be surprised to learn that I harbor a special affection for No Limit Texas Hold ‘Em poker. Truth is, I find a lot of parallels between the game and my life as a businesswoman.

The game, like any form of gambling, is inherently based on risk. In the case of no limit poker, you have to know when to take strategically-considered risks. Whether it be based on the strength of your hand; the personality, previous play and behavior, and motivations of your opponents; or maybe your position relative to the dealer button. Or sometimes simply based on a gut instinct. In short, it demands insight on your competitive landscape and market conditions.

It didn’t hurt that my first-ever time playing a cash game, I walked away $500 the richer. Or that in my first-ever time playing a tournament, which I learned requires a different style of play entirely, I placed 10th for winnings of about $1000. But ultimately, it’s not about the money; it’s the adrenaline you get from exerting control over something many misperceive as being determined by luck. Or the rush from having read an opponent well enough to call their bluff even though you know there are several hands that have you beat, and doubling your chip stack through that intuition. Or having the good sense to fold a top hand like pocket aces when you know your opponent has you beat, even though you started out on top at the beginning of the hand.

Ultimately, there’s a lot of discipline required. Financial discipline to effectively manage, grow, and sustain your chip stack…and importantly, get up from the table after those times you exhaust your pre-determined budget. Emotional discipline so you don’t go on tilt, despite losing hands when you’re playing a “best practices” type of game (“on tilt” refers to players who allow a lost pot or two to affect their ability to play solid poker, remain mentally sharp and focused in the game). And especially discipline in the form of patience required so you wait for the right hand, the right circumstances, the right table position, and the right play by your opponents before deciding whether and how to play your hand.

Analytical skills are essential, including game theory and basic math. What’s the probability of your hand being the strongest, based on the open cards on the table and how others are playing their hands? What size bet do you need to make relative to the pot to push opponents out of the hand, even though they may have a stronger hand? What are they signaling about the strength of their hand when they place their bets? What are your “outs” based on your hand and the open cards, or how many different cards can potentially give you the winning hand… and what are the odds that they will be dealt?

It’s as strategic a game as chess. With the same ongoing need for mentally processing information based on recent history and patterns, current situations, potential choices, predictive behavior, and outcomes. Not unlike the world of business.

No limit poker is a psychological dance, with subtle negotiations, posturing and concessions occurring over hours of play. Players these days are as likely to be college students, mothers, retired seniors on fixed incomes, and business professionals of both sexes, as they are to be die-hard Vegas cowboys or the average Joe Sixpack whose been playing a regular home game for decades.

But for me, and I suspect most habitual players, it’s more for the fun and sheer pleasure of play than for the brain exercise. I was a skeptic who had the good fortune to be introduced to the game by a friend who consistently reminds me that the best poker players have killer instincts. “No mercy” she says under her breath as we enter a room full of players. Even so, I often find it hard to take the very last dollar of any opponent, though I’m keenly competitive. I’m just there for the sport.

So, as they say, may your cards be live and your pots be monsters.

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