poker playing as a frame of mind

a guest post by my husband glenn:

years ago, in a land far, far away i spent a year as a crisis line volunteer. one call that i received was from a girl in senior high school. we talked about her difficulties with her foster family and difficulties socially at school, how she found it disconcerting that sometimes in largish groups of people she found herself mentally removing herself and becoming disassociated with the situation.

at one point she suddenly exclaimed, “why are there no nice guys?” i waited for a bit as this came out of nowhere, but as we talked some more she told me that she had been raped a few years back by a classmate, and that as a child she had been sexually abused by her father. she described how, when her father would come into her room at night, she would mentally float above as if she were watching from above. i pointed out to her that to me this reaction sounded very similar to what she was experiencing now in school. she said that in the childhood situation she used to do it intentionally but these current reactions were not intentional. i suggested that perhaps her mind had learned that disassociation could protect her and that it was a defence mechanism that it was calling up to react in stressful situations in the present.


i’m definitely no expert, but i find the subconscious mind capable of making all kinds of connections for us. for example when i can remember parts my dreams there are often specific emotional contexts that make it memorable. if i separate the emotional reaction or my feelings about a situation that occurred in the dream as separate from the actual people or place in the dream, i often find that i had the same emotion or feeling the day before. my subconscious is working with or reviewing that tension using different colours (i.e. substituting people, places, things).


these days i play a fair amount of poker on-line, and i’ve written about this before. just as anything that we do often affects the rest of our days, poker has it’s effect on those who play regularly. some of the things that can be noticed are better basic math skills, better emotional control (i believe that road rage has a very similar source to poker anger; perhaps a topic for another blog entry), more discipline, as well as perhaps less useful things such as an ability to recognise sunk costs (costs, in terms of dollars/time/effort, that become irrelevant to the later decision that you have to make because you can’t withdraw them) or situational decision making and the decision trees that are implied by them.


the incident that draws these things together was minor but interesting nevertheless. i sometimes take the skytrain to work at clark drive. to get to the station from the bus stop you have to walk down a block and cross a busy street. there is a light and pedestrian crosswalk at the end of the block, but i know from experience that the light takes a while to change after you press the button.

one day as i started to near the crosswalk the light changed. the traffic coming towards me was stopped for the light. going the other direction there was one car stopped and one other slowing down for the light so i cut across the street, angled towards the crosswalk, went between the now stopped two cars and to the corner. as i reached the corner a somewhat roughly dressed guy called out to me, “hey, you’ve got to cross at the crosswalk. i’m talking to you.” i made brief attempts to reason/argue with him but he wasn’t listening. he went on, saying “if you get hit, it’s your fault. i’ve seen three accidents just like that”, and so on.

for those of you who don’t play poker the next bit might not make too much sense but i’ll explain it in basic terms. when you are seated two seats to the left of the dealer you are the “big blind” and you must pay a cost even before you see your cards. if, after the hidden cards are dealt, some of the other players match the big blind cost but don’t raise during this first round of betting, you get to see the first three community cards (called the flop) for no additional cost. after those first community cards come out, another round of betting ensues, but your disadvantage is that you will be either the first or second player that has to decide whether or not to bet. if you do decide to bet, everyone after you that is still in the hand gets to decide whether or not to match your bet in order to keep playing, to fold and quit, or to raise your bet to challenge you.

usually in the situation i’ve described above you get pretty mediocre cards. sometimes the community cards are pretty mediocre as well but you get a little something and decide to bet it. after you’re done so, everyone else gets a chance either to match your bet or to raise it, and sometimes someone will challenge your bet and raise. then you have to decide whether the hand that you’ve been allowed to play cheaply to this point is good enough. their raise claims that they have something too, and they’re claiming that they think it’s better than your something. often the pot at this point is not very big and unless you think that the other person is bluffing or that what you have is pretty good, it’s a better choice just to fold and wait for the next hand.

my reason for explaining all of this is that i became aware that this situation of crossing the road “felt” like the poker situation i described above. i had taken advantage of a situation that presented itself, but someone decided to challenge my move. my subconscious automatically recognised the situation and realized that the “pot” was small. i considered the options that i had, like arguing, trying to reason, name calling, and decided to “fold my hand”. i gave a fake “okay, thanks” and walked away.


i’m sure that there have been other situations where poker has affected my actions and choices more subtly but this one was interesting to me because of 1) the degree to which i was aware of the “poker effect” consciously, and 2) the remoteness of the connection with poker, at least until you look at the underlying emotional/aggression/feeling aspects alone and compare the two situations.

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