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The Lessons I Learned From Poker

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Poker is Life. Life is Poker. So the saying goes. Now, my life does not revolve around poker, but I do learn a few things from it: luck, logic, forbearance, and risk. Life is full of uncertainty, and so is poker. Some people bet on luck, just like the guy sitting to my right yesterday. He went all-in before the flop, scaring half the table into folding. I hate to make big blind bet, but I would rather accept my hand and try my best, so I called.

Sometimes risk can be quantified, and I love taking a calculated risk. In that same game yesterday, the flop was five of spades, eight of spades, and five of diamonds. As I was sitting on a pocket of a six and seven of spades, I had a 2/47 chance of getting a straight flush and winning for certain. Considering that the call was just 2-thousand against a pot of 50-thousand Vietnam Dongs, any logical mind would have called. You see, with a leap of faith and a bit of logic, uncertainty can turn into opportunity. "Raised!" Shouted the guy to my left. The rest of the table folded, except me and a bespectacled guy. Was the guy who had raised just bluffing? Was he not? It is not easy to see through a person’s poker face, even when you have played with him for a long time.

In a repeated game, the experienced player can intentionally get caught bluffing earlier, so that no one will later suspect that he has an upper hand when he goes all in. I have read that some people are so good at manipulating their appearances that they don’t need to show their hole, and such manipulation applies to many life situations other than poker. It is the very byzantine nature of humans that intrigues me, that leads me to explore interdisciplinary fields as an undergrad, then obtain a graduate degree in psychology and eventually become a clinical psychologist. But when I first told my mother about my intention, she was fervently opposed. "Do you think you can deal with the mentally unstable or the sociopathic?" sneered my mother. She has a point. No matter how well-trained I am after years of undergraduate and graduate study, how can I be completely trusted to detect a person’s lies or to determine whether a suspect was in his right mind?

It is while playing poker that I realized that uncertainty will always exist in life; one needs to embrace it and act, using all the knowledge – and luck – that he has in order to test different possibilities and minimize the risk. That’s what I did in my poker game: raising the stake on the turn, a king of diamonds, to test my opponents. The glasses-wearing guy immediately called, but the guy who had raised was hesitant before matching my bet. Sensing his uncertainty, I figured he only had a medium-strength hand, but given that he only had less than 5% of the pot in his stack, he would certainly go all in on the river. Luck was on my side, as a nine of spades appeared in the end, completing my straight flush. All that’s left is to manipulate the last betting round. I checked. Thinking I was bluffing in the previous round, both of my opponents went all in. This tactical check essentially tripled the pot I won.

To conclude the essay, I know that the opponents I defeated yesterday can come back and surprise me tomorrow, and that they are as complex as the personalities I will face if I pursue a career in psychology. But I am ready to walk that road. As we sometimes say in poker, “the only way to live meaningfully is to go all-in.” I want to use every bit of brain and brawn I have to create my own fortune.

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