The Yoga of Poker

Yoga, it is said, helps you do everything better. Neal Pollack has found that this extends to his poker game.
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Yoga, it is said, helps you do everything better. Neal Pollack has found that this extends to his poker game.

I used to be a really bad poker player. There was no hand I couldn't misplay, no ill-advised bet I wouldn't make, no tell I wouldn't reveal. People would invite me to their games just to take away my 40 bucks, because they knew that I'd lose. Poker made me miserable. It cycled me downward. But I kept sitting at the table, determined to get better.

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These days, I'm still not a particularly good poker player. But I don't lose as much money. Occasionally, I even win a little. Why have I improved? Partly, it's because I've played thousands of hands, online, in casinos, and at home games. People who I trust have given me advice, and I've read some books.

But mostly, I credit my limited poker progress to yoga.

At first, they seem incompatible: Poker, with its reputation for late nights, cigar smoke, foul invective, drunkenness, and ruinous financial loss; and Yoga, designed to purify the body and clarify the mind. But I've found myself able to reconcile them without too much trouble. As one wise teacher once said to me, "yoga makes whatever you do next better." And that includes playing poker.

First, and not insubstantially, practicing yoga has allowed me to be able to sit at the poker table for long periods of time without becoming twitchy and uncomfortable. Poker isn't a sport, really, but it does require a lot of physical endurance. The final table at this year's World Series, with millions of dollars at stake, went more than 12 hours. That would challenge even the most serene vipassana master.

More importantly, though, yoga philosophy has helped me deal with poker anxiety. The sutras teach that you must approach every situation mindfully, but without attachment to results. Where better does that apply than in poker? The game demands that you devote your full attention to the present moment. If you don't, you risk total destruction. But even when you play perfectly, you can still lose if fate isn't on your side that night. Random forces can destroy you at any moment. We've all dropped money to a giggling noob on a lucky streak. As Patanjali says, you have to, no matter what, "acquire contentment." And that doesn't come when you cash in your chips.

I can think of countless other ways that yoga has helped me enjoy poker more: Where once the game was a source of anxiety about losing money, now it's about hanging out and having a good time with friends. I know my limits and don't push beyond them. In yoga poses and in poker, you must know when to hold and when to fold. May Shiva forgive me for that last sentence.

Poker, like yoga, and like everything in life, is an activity with no endpoint, no real goal. It is random and fun and should be enjoyed in its true nature, even if that nature involves getting consistently, and for no good reason, raised on the flop by a sweaty, alcoholic weirdo. As Pattahabi Jois often said, "practice, practice, practice, and all is coming." Though I doubt even guruji would have felt that way after getting beaten by a nut flush on the river.