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“I’ve missed…I’ve missed again,” I muttered in my mind.

The action checks around to Pete.

Rising to his feet; a big toothy grin on his mush, I get ready for the words I know are coming with the obviousness of a pair of boobs in a Dan Bilzerian selfie.

“POT!” He bellows.

The action folds around to me. I slam my cards onto the muck with such force I visibly notice each player jump in unison with the chips that momentarily leave the table.

I lost it.

My draws had missed, for what seemed to be the hundredth time, and I desperately needed someone to blame. I decided to blame the universe. It didn’t want me to play poker because I was supposed to be saving the world. Therefore it was making sure I would never hit my draws. This belief made me feel better.

This is what humans like to do. They explain away their successes and failures by aligning them with excuses that make them feel good about themselves. If my draw would have hit, and if I would have finished the night in profit, I would have told all and sundry that I had played well and thus deserved that money. That didn’t happen. Instead, I did my bollocks. The damned universe.

The Blame Game

When poker players lose they blame the poker gods, the dealer, the deck, the wife, the kids, the lack of time, tiredness, the idiocy of other players, and of course – the universe. One of the biggest reasons for failure that I often hear cited is the one attributed to ‘variance.’

Attributing our failures to all of these external factors makes us feel good, and by default this gives us an excuse to move on to the next game. By blaming external factors for your lack of success, you can retain a sense of optimism that you can effect change.

This way of thinking deadens our learning. The belief that variance is the reason why one is losing is like a plague. I hear this excuse more than most, particularly in the middle of the professional poker-playing pack.

If you believe that you are only losing because of variance, then you don’t seek to evaluate the deeper root causes of your losses. You brush them aside as being on the wrong side of more flips than an Olga Korbut floorshow.

Believing that variance is to blame allows you to take your foot off the gas. You feel better about yourself and all motivation to improve dissolves because you don’t think you have to. You might even go one further than that and believe that variance owns you. This leads to a lack of focus on the job in hand. You start to think you are going to lose, and as Napoleon Hill once said: “There are no limitations to the mind except those we acknowledge.” If you limit your mind to believing variance – or the universe – is the primary reason behind your failure, then you are setting up a roadblock to success in your mind.

Failure is Good

I’m not advocating that the only way to improve is to fail. It’s common folklore that when talking about his attempts to create the first commercially viable light bulb, Thomas A. Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Despite Edison’s quote, people still cite it as a good example that you can learn from failure. And whilst that’s true, the people who came after Edison learned from his success.

Moving back to the value of failure for a moment. If you are blaming your losses on external factors, and therefore turning away from internal review, then you miss out on the valuable lesson that failure can provide. Here is the paradox – if you can be honest, and spend time evaluating how and why you lost, then you can learn a lot about failing.

Conversely, when we are successful we attribute that success to internal factors. We tell people that we have been working really hard on our game: we have been meditating, we are more focused, we have been taking lessons from a coach, and we have been attuning our thinking. This is expected. Only we have to live with ourselves afterwards, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to live with someone who feels good.


I got the idea to waffle on about this subject after reading a great little book called Smartcuts: How Hackers, Innovators and Icons Accelerate Success by Shane Snow.

In the book, Snow refers to a hospital procedure known as coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG), and how a change in procedure was introduced to try and reduce the number of surgeries that ended in failure. A research team paid close attention to how the transitioning doctors reacted to the new procedure, and the results were interesting to say the least.

It seems that the surgeons who failed went on to do even worse in subsequent surgeries. They didn’t seem to learn from their failure. However, when surgeons performed well, they continued to perform well. I guess success begets success.

Now for the interesting part.

Surgeons who watched other surgeons fail to adapt to the new procedures showed a remarkable increase in their own ability to succeed. And yet watching a surgeon perform a successful operation did very little to change the direction of their own success or failure.

What Does This Mean in Poker?

Understanding this data means that it might be more beneficial for poker players to learn from other poker players’ mistakes. Perhaps this is why the elite in the game point to heavy discussions with other pros about the ways hands have been approached as one of the very highest critical success factors in their learning?

Instead, of blaming their failures on external factors, the very best players in the game are paying close attention to their internal factors – taking responsibility, and then talking to other players about the hand. The majority of hands that are discussed with fellow players are hands where the orator has lost. This helps the listener to improve their game. Believing this exchange is therefore a valuable one, the listener also comes to the table with a similar mistake, and the cycle repeats.

It’s important in any area of your life, not just poker, that you have a plan to deal with failure. This plan must include a detailed and honest review of internal and external factors. You must take 100% responsibility for the experience you are having. Then you must make sure that you have a maintenance and inspection regime in place to ensure that your method for evaluating your failure is sound. This could include laying out your process to a second player, and taking on constructive feedback. Woods, trees, branches and all of that.

There is another important lesson that poker players can learn from surgeons, and that’s the ability to introduce coping mechanisms. Imagine the devastating effect it could have on your emotional state if you failed in an attempted surgery that led to the death of a child. For a surgeon, this is an every day occurrence, and therefore they have to work hard at creating coping mechanisms for these eventualities.

When a player slams his hand into the muck in anger, then they are displaying a leaky coping mechanism. It’s full of holes and it needs to be shored up before you take on too much water and get eaten by the sharks. This is why meditation and yoga has become so important for the modern professional poker player. These habits help you to prepare for that inevitable day where you played fantastically well and were just a victim of variance.


When we see people fail, we think it’s because they haven’t put the work in. When we see people succeed, we just think it’s luck. This is a hard-wired response; so don’t beat yourself up for it. Instead, learn from it. Use open honest appraisal, seek out top quality feedback, and make your successes and failures count.

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Lee Davy

Life can be viewed as the sum of the parts or the parts themselves. I believe in the holistic view of life, or the sum. When dealing with individual parts you develop whack-a-mole syndrome; each time you clobber one problem with your hammer another one just pops up.