Age 16 I played my first hand of Texas Hold’em poker for money. I was happy to be invited to my classmate’s house in Houston, Texas, because my family had just moved there from Jakarta, Indonesia, where we’d lived just under seven years (Indonesia was where I grew up and where one of my grandmothers comes from.)
Even though my hands were shaky holding the chips that night, I got pretty good at poker to the point that I could play at a solid amateur / semi-professional level during college, almost all online.
At bottom the game involves decision making based on basic math, probability, and the ability to spot human emotions, mainly anger and fear (which can even be dissected from opponents’ timing tells or bet-size patterns when playing online).
Clicking Buttons for a Living?
Online, poker is basically clicking buttons—bet, raise, call, and fold—to make money or lose money. I would usually play several hundred hands per hour (playing multiple tables) and logged about half a million hands before I graduated college.
At times I went on hot streaks. Beginner's luck is a feature that keeps even bad players playing longer than they should, to their detriment, often to the sharks’ benefit. But in the end, to the benefit of companies providing the software because they pulled money from every hand/pot, called rake. To be a winning player you had to ride out cold streaks and win at a rate above the rake/fee, usually around 5% of every pot.
Despite a constant income stream guaranteed by this rake/fee, shortly after regulation came to the American online poker industry in 2011, it was discovered one of the major sites, Full Tilt Poker, was only holding a fraction of its players deposited reserves. As such you had to get on a waiting list to get paid back, if at all.
During some of my hot streaks, not knowing what I’d to after college, I thought I might just play poker for a while until I figured out what I should be doing with my life.
One major downside of spending as much time as I did playing poker is that I didn’t develop other skills like research and writing or invest my attention and energy in various areas that might have served me better.
During soccer season, I would also play late into the night instead of getting proper rest before game days. I was elected (in a paper ballot election) one of the three team captains of the varsity soccer team, but I could certainly have been a better captain.
But my biggest downfall wasn’t that I was competent enough in the basics, but rather that I wasn’t accountable to basic bankroll management. I often chose bad games to play, sometimes against regulars and pros instead of against weaker players. And I lost big when taking shots at higher stakes, on one occasion playing heads-up no-limit in a game that required a $1,000 buy-in. At the time I’d wanted to visit friends from my high schools in Jakarta, Houston, and Beijing (where I finished high school) who were now in various countries all over the planet, but when I went on a nearly five-figure downswing because I lost control those plans were off the table.
These bad habits rolled over into my early twenties. Some days I could make more per hour playing poker than at my corporate job, which had me running cost/benefit scenarios of staying or leaving the company. Some days I would go to work and then go play poker at the race track or the casino. But the cold streaks would have their say and I’d have to reconsider. It was a loop of addiction.
Meanwhile, within a year of starting as an inventory analyst at Target headquarters in Minneapolis, I was given the responsibility to allocate $200 million of inventory per year in kitchen tool and gadget accessories (more than 500 SKUs) to about 1,800 Target stores across the country. With about 35 vendors it required a lot of planning, forecasting, and attention to detail to keep all those products instock in all those stores. Many of our products were imported which required an additional layer of logistical coordination.
It turned out that I wasn’t particularly good at all this, but perhaps only because my heart wasn’t in it. I justified my unreliability for that same reason—because my heart wasn’t in it. I told myself I didn’t need to try hard or do well or do what I said I would do. But I’d chosen to be there, so I should have been.
In the grand context of things, I believe we’ve all somehow chosen to be here.
Regarding the work, some days I thought I was above it all somehow—because I could do a good job, if I wanted…
But knowing one can make good decisions, take responsibility, and achieve reasonable outcomes is a far-cry from actually doing that work.
One day my manager’s manager told me he didn’t recommend me for another job internally.
Then, after further mistakes, I was almost let go. It was hard to come to terms with all the mistakes and I was in prideful denial for much of the time. My behavior was sometimes embarrassing. My performance was certainly unsatisfactory. Often incompetent.
Fortunately I picked up the pieces enough to stay employed and begin training in a replacement. After regaining somewhat solid standing I even had the nerve to pass on a new job that the company was basically handing to me because I wanted something better and believed it to be a dead end. That gave me a bit more time to advise my replacement in all the ways not to do the job so he could do much better than me, getting all the products back on the shelves with a lower total inventory base than I’d had even when some products were out of stock at many stores.
A few months later some networking brought me over to one of the software divisions, where my title was business process consultant—my job was to check in with the business departments to make sure their needs were met (or not forgotten) while the software leaders stitched new software into the already quite messy infrastructure.
There I saw for two years how difficult it is to architect, design, build, and maintain software that not only functions how it was drawn up but that is also secure—during my time there Target experienced a major security breach that led to the CEO resigning.
In general, very few people in the company knew how everything worked. A lot of time was spent trying to find the people who did and get enough of their time to help you comprehend merely a particular part of the increasingly complex puzzle.
An Opportunity to Change
After leaving Target on my own terms in 2014, nine years of freelance writing prepared me to begin a bit of an adventure during the last two years. No one could fire me for pursuing what I did and I didn’t have children to look after. For awhile in May 2022 through January 2023 I put almost all client work aside.
I’ve been given an opportunity to change.
Mainly, to be accountable.
And to develop the dormant skills waiting to be put to use. I think this is the case for very nearly all of us.
It may be that we endeavor against those few who have sold or twisted or lost their conscience, but by each of us attending to that which is within arm’s reach with full integrity, there’s no way we don’t succeed in learning fundamental insights and the ever greater lessons that may await.
Game Theory Optimal
Poker is a game. A game of information, mostly. And even though I haven’t played for some years, maybe after all this time there's something to be learned from it after all.
There is a way to play poker perfectly according to its underlying mathematical principles. That is, to play game-theory-optimally. If one plays this way, the maximum will be won (and the minimum lost) and one’s play will be unexploitable. Sometimes this means calling an all-in bet on the river when all you have is a pair because your opponent too rarely has the goods based on the range of hands he is representing at that moment. Sometimes it means folding the second best hand because your opponent too often has the best hand in that situation.
Life, though, is not a game. I don’t think it is so simple.
And yet I do think that there’s a way to be in this life that is unexploitable, an approach that is close to game theory optimal.
It is to act with complete integrity.
It is to do what one says will be done.
It is not only this, but that is a start.
Then, even when those without a conscience who cannot question your methods are left without options save to question your character, they will not be able to successfully do so.
They will not be successful in bringing you down because others will come to your aid to say: No, that is a man or woman of integrity.