Fred Faour: How poker can teach us life lessons and how it applies to sports decisions
If you are a poker player, you will understand this column. If not? Bear with me. By the end, you will.
Poker is an amazing game. And it is the perfect way to learn life lessons. Sometimes, you do everything right and lose. Sometimes, you do everything wrong and win. The key is knowing the difference. Make the right decision as often as possible, and in the long term, you will come out ahead. Make the wrong ones – even if you win – and long term, you will lose.
As one of my poker mentors, the great Matt Dean once told me: Decisions, not outcomes.
That does not mean you always win. In fact, you will lose at times. There is luck involved, and sometimes it is bad. But if you ignore the adversity and avoid going “on tilt” – where you let the losses get in your head and lead to bad decisions – you will come out ahead.
And that’s life, right? We are going to deal with losses and adversity. It’s how we respond that makes the difference. Losses and setbacks don’t mean failure. But even that is a lesson. Did you make a bad decision? Maybe. What do you do from that? You learn. You do better. You keep living.
If you do that, you can accomplish your goals. Mine? Win a World Series of Poker bracelet. I have been playing Texas Hold ‘Em since 1994. There is an old saying – it takes minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. You learn something new every time you sit at a table. If you don’t? You aren’t playing the game right and you will never master it.
I play lots of small tournaments and cash games. The point? Keep learning. Keep making the right decisions as often as possible. That way, when I get to the big games, I have practice so I can compete at a high level.
It is much like golf – you work on your game on the driving range, so you are ready when you get on the course.
If you treat your life the same way, you will succeed. Learn every day. Make mistakes but don’t let them define you. Don’t go on tilt. Follow your dream. I hope mine happens this year. If not? I will try again next year. And the year after.
Because giving up in life – and poker – is not an option.
And yes, this applies to sports as well. Coaches make decisions all the time in the course of a game. Sometimes, they make ones that do not work. Sometimes they are playing next-level poker. As fans, we analyze everything they do. And many times, we don’t understand the context.
A team goes for it on fourth and 2 and does not convert. The immediate reaction? Bad decision.
That’s silly. And that’s something we can learn from. Just because something does not work does not mean it was the wrong decision. Just because it does? Maybe it was not. The easy, simple reaction is if it fails, it was a bad decision. That’s lazy thinking. But that’s not how sports works. It’s not how life works. Context is everything. We can work hard and get sick and get into a mess and it is out of our control. It’s not that it happens; it’s how you react. And we will make mistakes. It’s OK. We just learn from them. Poker can teach us that.
Some of the best coaches could benefit from poker. Andy Reid is as good as there is. But his clock management and game management at times are baffling. The team is clearly good enough to overcome it. But that does not mean they are good decisions. Yet the Chiefs still win. That does not work for everyone.
It took years of losing at poker, horse racing, and sports for me to become a consistent winner. But I kept learning.
Decisions not outcomes.
Which brings us to what the best coaches and managers do. We talk a lot about Kelvin Sampson on this site. He mixes and matches lineups and makes his teams better as the season goes on.
And then there is Dusty Baker. Lazy fans and radio hosts were critical of lineups and decisions all season. But these were not done in a vacuum. Dusty was playing next-level poker. Sometimes, you make decisions on a hand to get information for later. I will often make calls to see what a player has – win or lose – so I can take them down for a bigger pot later.
That’s what good coaches do. Yes, you want to win. But the decisions you make in August will lead to victory in November. The Astros and Dusty were the gold standard, and it resulted in a World Series championship. Dusty would make a hell of a poker player.
And that is what poker is about. That is what sports are about. And that is what life is about. We can all learn from that – all we have to do is play.
Decisions not outcomes.