Poker Talk with a Two-Time World Series of Poker Bracelet Winner

I was lucky enough last week to find myself drinking a beer with Pat Poels, Eventbrite VP of engineering and two-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner. And I was luckier still that he was in the mood to talk about his poker days. I love hearing these stories but I’m always reluctant to ask because I suspect people ask him about “the poker days” all the time.

In the start of the discussion Pat was talking about just how much of an edge you have if you are able to read people closely. He told me a story about a very subtle tell that one of his old poker buddies fell victim to. This friend, we’ll call him Bob, had the tendency to fold his hand quite predictably when confronted with the right circumstances. In particular, if Bob knew that he had a bad hand and if someone else showed an inclination to start betting aggressively, then Bob would quickly leave the hand on the table. Another one of Pat’s buddies noticed this first. This buddy, (we’ll say Steve), found out that every time he wanted to check on Bob’s hand, all he had to do was riffle around his chips, indicating that he was in the mood to bet big. If Bob folded, then that would be the answer Steve was looking for. If Bob didn’t fold then Steve would think long and hard about whether or not his hand was good enough to stay in the game. Thus, having this one insight into Bob’s behavior and psychology provided quite an edge to Steve’s game.

Following Pats story I aimed the conversation more towards business. “In the time since you retired from poker have you put your psychic ability to read people to any business use?” In my mind I pictured Pat in board meetings peering into colleagues eyes and inferring any hint of a hidden agenda.

“It’s not a psychic ability.” This is where Pat turned my thoughts around on me. “And the important lessons that I learned from poker were not about reading others but about reading myself.” Then he explained: Even though reading others’ tells could give you an advantage in poker and in life, that advantage pales in comparison to being able to understand your own intentions and motivations, your own abilities, and the limitations of what you can know about the world around you.

The Lessons

Pats first lesson here was that you needed to be able to fairly assess your decisions outside of their actual outcomes. In poker, as in life, you can make a great decision that leads to a disastrous outcome and you can make a horrible decision that leads to a fantastic outcome. But since you are continuously making new decisions it is important to not get bogged down by the outcomes themselves. Try not to award yourself credit for an outcome that you know was really dumb luck and try not the be too hard on yourself if a great idea just doesn’t pan out. As a result, Pat says, you will be able to be able to treat decisions more pragmatically, unemotionally, and – this is important – decisively.

Regarding the notion of decisiveness - in poker, as in life, decisions have to be made without complete knowledge. Just as you can’t know the other player’s hand at a poker table, when faced with a real-life decisions you must often make decisions before you’ve had time to fairly assess all the data. Or to paraphrase Pat “If you wait to understand 90% of the situation before making a decision, then often you’ve waited too long. In many situations it’s much better to say ‘Ok, I have 70% of the information I would like to have, but since I need a decision now, what is the best decision given the available information?’”

A third lesson from our conversation is that you must be able to fairly assess your own capabilities and your own current state. In playing poker professionally, the goal is naturally to make money. According to Pat, a big part of this is to read the table and understand whether or not you should even take a seat. At times this means letting go of ego and humbly recognizing when you are setting yourself up for failure. Pat also said that you need to consider your current state. If you feel like you’re not playing at your best, then there are times when you should choose to wait until you are in a state where can play to win. While Pat was using the poker table as a metaphor, the application to everyday life is obvious. Note that the message here is not to always give up before you get started - being aggressive and tenacious in reaching your goals is important - rather, the message here is to fairly assess yourself and place yourself in situations where you will excel.

Finally, Pat had a neat note about the nature of expertise. “You know, I’m a pretty good poker player, probably in the top 5 percent.” (Here I secretly chuckled a Pat’s understatement – I doubt that one in twenty poker players hold two World Series of Poker bracelets!) Pat went on, “But as I was getting better at the game, I noticed that it’s always difficult to tell the difference between the players that are a lot better than you and the next level of players that are even better than them.” Basically, the idea here is that in almost any interesting domain you’ve got to humbly recognize that there will always be people that are better. And even more humbly you will eventually recognize that the scale is exponential: there are people that are so much better than you that you may not even be able to discern why they are so good until your up a few levels higher so that you can see better. Food for thought.

Thanks for the conversation, Pat. I look forward to our next beers.

comments powered by Disqus