Tommy Angelo, Gratefulness, Buddhism, and Becoming a Better Poker Player

Guest poster on Bill’s Poker Blog, Tommy Angelo, read my post Holidays Overseas and sent me a link to something he had recently written that he thought was relevant. In his blog post, In Gratitude of Gratefulness, Tommy discusses how the attitudes of gratitude and gratefulness can play a role not just in your poker game but your life as well.

I found his post especially interesting because he paraphrases famous Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn:

Imagine yourself with a terrible toothache. Now picture yourself moments after the toothache goes away. “Thank goodness the pain is gone! I am so grateful right now that my tooth does not ache!” But why should I only be grateful for painless teeth for such a brief moment? Isn’t it equally wonderful every moment that my teeth don’t ache? Right now, for example, I am ache-free. I can be grateful for that.

That really caught me because I had been mulling a blog post about Buddhism and poker. I had some ideas in my head but I’m neither a Buddhist nor can I really say that I fully understand Buddhism. However I do live in a Buddhist country (95% of the population), have a Buddhist girlfriend, and have read a few books on the subject, so let me take a shot at this.

The aspect I wanted to cover was the importance Buddhism places on knowing oneself. For instance, in one book I’ve read by Lama Surya Das he says:

We don’t perceive the truth of how things actually are directly, without distortion or illusion. Instead, we insist on seeing things as we would like them to be. We tell ourselves stories, and we live in our fantasies.

What does this have to do with poker? Think about it a moment. How many of us think that we’re better poker players than we actually are? Even if our bankrolls and results disagree we continue to see everything through a complicated set of filters that leaves us believing that it is bad luck, a rigged poker room, or some other external factor which is causing us to lose.

Some well-known poker players come to mind when I think of this behavior. Phil Hellmuth is probably the best example. He’s certainly a talented poker player. He’s demonstrated that with a long string of tournament wins. But, rumor has it, he gets crushed in cash games. On High Stakes Poker one gets the feeling that the rest of the players view him as a giant fish. We see his frustration with confronting the difference between what he actually is and how he sees himself manifest itself in his outbursts and childish behavior. With silly comments like “If it weren’t for luck I would win them all.”


Because Hellmuth doesn’t see himself as others see him. His distortion filters present him with the picture of someone who just can’t seem to catch a lucky break. Rather than objectively seeing the flaws in his cash game and fixing them he refuses to acknowledge that there is anything wrong so he continues to obtain the same results. He views himself as the best poker player in the world which makes it impossible for him to admit that he can learn from other players who use different strategies.

Lama Surya Das also says:

As every psychologist (and physicist) knows, we all have a tendency to resist change, particularly in those areas where we most need transformation. Freud was very articulate in pointing out that a resistance to changing for the better is one of the defining characteristics of neurosis. The fact is that we all tend to hang on to our negative habits and frozen behavior patterns. We keep retracing our steps; we keep walking the same circular patterns. We don’t climb out of our ruts, our comfort zones, however dissatisfying they really feel.

That sounds a lot like Phil Hellmuth, many other players I know, as well as myself at times.

Buddhism attempts to peel back a very complex onion of human behavior and get to the core person at the center. For instance, you’re driving in your car and someone cuts you off and you become irate. Why? Is it because you felt disrespected? Is it because this person carelessly endangered your safety? Is it because you are in a hurry for a big meeting?

For each person the answer is going to be different but it’s not the core issue. For instance, if it’s because you felt that the person who cut you off treated you in a disrespectful manner the next thing you need to figure out is why being respected by people who don’t know you is important to you. You just keep peeling back the layers until you get to the real reason that you react in that way.

Again, how does this relate to poker?

If you can’t understand yourself and what makes you act or react in a certain manner, how can you possibly understand your opponents? Once you get past some very basic mathematical concepts the thing that separates good and great players is their ability to outthink their opponents.

For instance, there’s a subtle difference between someone who responds to a possible bluff by calling and someone who folds. One is motivated by not looking a fool if he is right and the other if he is wrong. Knowing the difference and understanding their motivation can mean all the difference in the world at the poker tables. If you shove all-in against a guy who is afraid of looking like a fool if you have nothing, he’s going to call. If you make the very same exact move against someone who’s afraid of having been tricked into calling, he’s going to lay it down.

Here the very same exact action causes two completely different reactions. Knowing which reaction your actions are going to cause is a huge advantage at the poker table. Throwing water on a paper fire will put it out. Throwing water on a grease fire will probably result in you burning down the building. Same action. Different reactions.

To understand others you first have to understand yourself. While I’ve used Buddhism as a backdrop for this post this is far from a Buddhist concept. The goal wasn’t to preach Buddhism (and believe me, I’m pretty sure Buddhists would rather not have me preaching on their behalf, LOL). Rather the goal was to use it as a tool to help demonstrate that at the poker tables sometimes our toughest opponent isn’t sitting across from us. It is us. It’s our inability to truly see ourselves as we are. It is our inability to understand our own emotions so that we can better understand the emotions of our opponents. It’s that ever-elusive inner game that keeps us from our true poker potential.