Lessons I Learned From Poker

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Yesterday in
the Twitter Q&A that I give every Thursday @GiraffesCanSwim
asked, “what did you learn from playing poker?” I gave
a 140 character answer. Something like, “you learn quickly
that all your friends lie to you all the time in order to steal
your money.”

But I’ve
been thinking a little more about it.

First off,
I spent 365 days straight playing poker in 1998-1999, including
the night
my first kid was born
. Including my birthday and my anniversary.
Including Christmas and Easter and whatever Jewish holidays occurred
during this time.

I used to play
at the Mayfair Club on 24th Street and the Diamond Club on 20th
Street, both illegal clubs. The Mayfair would close at 4am and some
stragglers would head over to the Diamond, which never seemed to
close. Ultimately both were closed down permanently by Giuliani.
I had a house in Atlantic City and would play there on the weekends.
I’d go via helicopter Fridays at 5pm and fly back on Sunday
night. Occasionally I would go to Las Vegas and play. This was pre-Internet
poker, tv poker, and pre the big money that is in poker now.

The only time
life had any color in it for me during this period was when I was
sitting around a table, chips in front of me, cards getting dealt,
and guys with nothing else in their lives making jokes back and
forth while everyone tried to take everyone else’s money.

A few weeks
ago, Claudia and I ran into the guy who had once owned the Diamond
Club. Oddly, we were at a party for the Wall St Journal on some
rooftop bar all the way west in Manhattan. The Diamond Club guy
wouldn’t give us a straight answer for why he was at the party.
All he kept doing was talking to Claudia, pointing at me, and saying
“this guy was the lowest down cheap hustler there was. He’s
a born criminal. Watch out for him.”

I told her
later he was kidding around. But the way he said it flattered me
actually. Poker is a charismatic game. People who are larger than
life play poker and make their living from playing games and hustling.
That’s what’s attractive about it. That’s part of
what’s attractive about being an entrepreneur, or doing anything
where you
eat only what you kill
and you survive in life only on your
instincts.

I played because
I was unhappy doing anything else. I played because I loved games.
I played because I thought everyone at the table was smart and witty
and I liked the repartee that was always darting back and forth.
I wanted to be friends with these people. I
had just sold my company
and I hadn’t yet lost
all my money
so it wasn’t the money that brought me to
the table. It was the game. The charisma. The excitement. The way
people adeptly played with the chips in front of them, or threw
their cards into the pot when they were out, the language of motion,
the gestures, the beautiful ballet of every movement in the game.

The only time
I played after those 365 days was one time I went up to Murder Inc.
Records about ten years later and all the same guys were playing
there as if they had never moved but the table had teleported over.
Irv Gotti, the rapper who owned Murder Inc, won about $2000 off
of me in a big pot and I left after that and didn’t play again.
I went to the game with Lenny Barshack who had just sold a poker
sofware company.

On the way
there Lenny told me how one month after he sold his company he
had a heart attack on a ski slope and had officially died.

Running a company
is like being mugged. When you are mugged you get a jolt of adrenalin
that SCREAMS to your body: FIGHT! or FLIGHT! But when you run a
company its like you are constantly being mugged but you still stare
at the computer all day. So the adrenalin builds up with nowhere
to go. All the adrenalin does is keep you alive because otherwise
you’d probably die from being mugged so much.

Once the stress
is over (in Lenny’s case: when he sold his company) the adrenalin
hits you full force. So Lenny had a heart attack one month after
he sold his company and his heart went to zero for at least two
minutes. Only a smart doctor brought him back to life and less than
a month later we were heading over to Murder Inc Records so I could
lose that final pot and then never play poker again. Poker sucks.
Here’s why:

A) Everyone
at the table is your friend but they are all lying to you to steal
your money.
I wanted to be around these grubby guys more than
I wanted to be around my wife and newborn. More than I wanted to
be around real friends. More than I wanted to be around my work
colleagues or my family. I don’t know why. Something was wrong
with me. All day long I read books about poker, and all night I
would play.

I felt for
the first time in years like I had a group of “buddies”.
Like I was one of the guys.

Here’s
the problem. We all were buddies but we spent the entire night lying
and trying to take money from each other. You could think, “oh,
its just a game”. But I watched some of my friends go broke
and cry and borrow and beg and steal. Nobody liked losing all of
their money. I watched lawyers get disbarred trying to steal enough
money to play poker. I saw guys escape to Israel to avoid extradition
when they lost their IRS money to the poker table.

And nobody
really cared about them. A guy would stop showing up and then he
would be forgotten. Nobody really cared about me. We were friends.
Until we weren’t. And that was that.

B) If you
find yourself playing a game all day, even Angry Birds, or Poker,
or Chess, ask yourself: what might be wrong in my life?
I was
happy I had sold my business, but maybe I wasn’t happy working
for a boss now. Or maybe I wasn’t happy in marriage. Or maybe
I wasn’t happy that all of my friends were work-related and
I had lost every other friend. An addiction is a symptom. Find the
real genetic roots of what is going on.

Read
the rest of the article

December
17, 2011

The
Best of James Altucher

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