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Religion, Poker, and Peace

October 23, 2023

Suppose you’re playing Texas Hold ‘Em and you’re dealt pocket aces. This is the best hand you can start with. It’s game-theory optimal (GTO) to get as much money in at this moment before any other cards are dealt.

Let’s assume your opponent goes all in before you bet. Easy call.

Now despite the fact that you have the best hand, pocket aces will still lose about 20% of the time.

Pro poker players understand this and can find peace when they lose these types of plays (Phil Helmuth is an exception). They understand they had the best hand and made the best move and that despite this they’ll still lose some times. I was reading the Old Testament not too long ago and read a passage that reminded me of this:

“Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away. Trust in the Lord and do good; dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.”

Something clicked for me when I read this passage. Playing life is a lot like playing poker. It’s easy to get tricked into believing certain hands are better than they are. Our media is filled with people playing all sorts of bad hands, and (seemingly) getting rewarded for it. For example:

Kim Kardashian becoming one of the richest and most famous people of our time off the back of a sex tape.

Rappers and pop stars promoting hedonism, violence, materialism, and general degeneracy. See as an example. To be clear I still love rap, but if I had to put money on it I’d bet it is slowly and subtly tilting the listeners psyche towards its values the same way propaganda and advertising does.

Salesmen, politicians and corporations lying for their own self-interest.

I could go on but you get the point. There’s no shortage of material rewards for people willing to be open-minded about ignoring ancestral/biblical wisdom. But this is exactly what the passage above is speaking to. These people are playing 2-7 offsuit repeatedly and winning. Of course, everything they “win” spiritually superficial or bankrupt; it’s not hard to find endless examples of money, fame, sex, and other vices turning people’s lives into hell on Earth. To be fair, there’s probably plently of people who lived lives completely full of sin, worshipping false idols (aka prioritizing baser values) and didn’t suffer much for it. But we can still say they played bad poker even if they were never punished for it, and if most people followed their footsteps, most would get punished.

Good values, values that have stood the test of time, that have echoed through the Bible, Buddhism, the Bhagavad Gita, in Stoicism, and more, values that lead to long-term good outcomes, are the key to playing good poker in life, and the key to peace in every waking moment of consciousness.