I’m not going to “church it up” and say that my life has been a smooth one with no bumps in the road. I’m not that good of a storyteller for the reader to believe me anyhow. Playing poker throughout my life has developed some advantageous characteristics within me that have aided in my success in intense moments. One of these characteristics, and what this article will focus on, is the ability to remain calm in stressful situations and how it can apply to life. The following will be a quick journey of sitting at a poker table to understand some of the emotions felt during a game, followed by real world experience that required some calming of the nerves.
To begin, poker playing runs deep in my family. As far back as I can remember, every family gathering had a poker game going on. Staying up past my bedtime as a kid, I would sit at my parents’, or other relative’s side, watching and learning as cards flipped and money filled the center of the table. Quickly, I learned the game and started playing with my family at the age of 10. Of course, we are family and all the hands played are friendly, but I was playing with my weekly allowance and felt the pressure much more than the elders at the table.
I remember one family gathering in particular that truly cultivated me into a man of a steady hand. It was Thanksgiving 2004, I was 14 years old. Tournament-style poker was being organized at the family dining table. A $10 buy-in, with a chance to buy in a second time if necessary. Calculating quickly; if all the players buy-in twice there will be a $120 pot to be had. The game kicks off. Minor details throughout the seemingly eternal gameplay aren’t as important as the last hand dealt between my uncle and me. The final two. No more buy-ins. Winner takes all.
My training was being put to the test. Questions and concerns flooded my psyche. Will I outwit my Uncle? He is a veteran at this game. Will I make the right moves? I’ve already lost once today, thank goodness for the second buy-in. Should I play it safe? There are more chips on my side of the table, I can wait it out until a sure win perhaps. The pressure is building inside and my seat is soaked with sweat.
The cards are dealt, and a first round of betting ensues. Chatter and banter fly across the table, my uncle is taking a jab at me for the raise I just made. Some kind of phrase providing the sentiment that the speaker will have a few more dollars in his pocket after this hand is finished. Who really knows what the other has? The only sure way find out what a player has is to play until the end.
I’m not getting up from this. I’m too focused on the prize. I’m committed. After the flop, he feels confident in his hand, tired as well, he decides to go all in, in hopes of making a substantial attack on my holdings. What the hell? I call. It took every ounce of energy to not let my voice crack and show that I was shitting bricks in my seat. Our cards go face up, he is holding pocket aces, and I’m one card away from a flush. Breathing calmly the turn card appeared. It did nothing for me. I sat calmly in my chair holding my breath for the final card. The final card flopped to the table: the 9 of clubs, my holy grail! I won! I didn’t crack under the pressure of being taunted, teased, exhausted, and out dealt at the beginning of the round.
On to how that type of high-stakes experience can be translated to life events. A friend of mine and I purchased tickets at Barcelona Sants Train Station in hopes of getting to Paris. Little did we know we bought the wrong tickets. Upon arriving at the border of Spain and France the conductor told us to get off the train, or buy another ticket to Paris.
The chaos of talking between Spanish, French, and English was throwing my friend into an incoherent frenzy. Poker playing banter has taught me to remain calm when words are being flown around. I was able to converse with them calmly to find out how we can remain on the train bound for Paris, and not sleep at the train station.
The train was ready for departure and we are on the platform trying to purchase another ticket to get us to Paris for the last minute price of 200 euros. We were traveling for a few months and shouldn’t just give that money out at the fall of a hat. We began trying to negotiate with them. Although it seemed that we were losing this negotiation, we didn’t fold and called their bluff on train tickets of being 200 euros.
Fortunately for us, the price dropped to 90 euros. However, we still couldn’t purchase a train ticket with our American non-electronic chip cards. No euros in cash on us either. The eminent feeling of being stranded at the border was growing rapidly. We offer a proposition, place a bet, that when we get to the next town we get off, retrieve the money from an ATM, and pay in cash. The French conductors hesitantly grant us this option. No one knew the ATM didn’t work.
Due to the malfunctioning, ATM my friend and I were in serious trouble. Middle of the night in a small French town with all shops and hotels closed, the cobblestoned streets didn’t look too comfortable to sleep on. He was on the verge of a breakdown. His face and body language was speaking this clearly. I’m not a stone-cold caballero with a picturesque pose either, but I am able to calm my nerves enough to talk with the conductor one last time and convince him to let us travel to Paris without a ticket and pay when we arrive at the station. We are going all in.
They take down our passport information and input it into a computer system. The conductor expressed that if we didn’t pay upon arrival to Paris then we would be fugitives. We paid and are not fugitives. Hell of a train ride, though.
This is just one situation from a life full of intense moments where I am thankful for my family traditions of playing poker. Life will deal out situations that require an “all in” move in order to see the final outcome. In these moments I call upon my habits at the poker table to remain cool, calm, and collected.
Read more about Kevin’s story here