During middle school, one of my father's coworkers introduced me to Texas Hold'em poker on Yahoo! Games.

Little did he know, in the decade that followed, I took the innocent introduction much, much further. Since then, I have:

  • started cash games in high school with lunch money
  • created a poker website for cryptocurrencies that sadly is now out of business
  • written a book about the subject
  • played in tournaments and cash games across the country, for 10k+ hours of my time

Part of why poker has been so interesting is that it does not stand alone. Poker has brought color into my life. As with chess, it has taught me many life lessons. Here, I will share probably one of the most valuable lessons that poker has taught me.

Results, results, results

It doesn't take long when browsing a job to see a post that requires someone to be "results-oriented". Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, explicitly said in a corporate presentation that being results-oriented is one of the top traits that the company looks for in new hires.

A Google search of "results-oriented" leads to the impression that the outlook is something people are actively trying to achieve. Everything from resume advice to HR guides overwhelmingly suggest that being results-oriented is a good thing.

I argue here that being results-oriented is one of the most detrimental outlooks to have, whether in the cardroom or the boardroom, in poker or in life. The moment you walk into poker circles, it becomes apparent that everyone is trying not to be results-oriented. Why?

Because it's really good decisions that matter, and it's easy to confuse good results with good decisions.

Good decisions can lead to bad results

Tilt is every poker player's worst nightmare. It is a state of frustration where a player knowingly adopts a suboptimal strategy.

The most common trigger for tilt by far is bad beats. Every poker player is given a quick, unwelcome introduction to both tilt and bad beats usually within days of starting the game. The structure is usually as follows:

Good decision: A player correctly bets/raises a good hand (e.g. Aces) Bad result: The player eventually loses the hand

To be results oriented would be to see the loss and to assume that the original decision was bad.

Laakasuo, Palomaki, and Samela note in a psychology study that:

"...experienced poker players experienced a more mature disposition towards encountering bad luck in response to good decisions, and losing in general"

A common psychological phenomenon is that bad beats lead towards "chasing behavior", where an otherwise good player, instigated by disassociative feelings of unfairness and moral indignation, pursues a suboptimal strategy to "restore a 'fair balance between wins and losses'" (Palomaki et al).

Good decisions can lead to missed opportunities

A plethora of scientific research indicates that humans try to predict patterns even in meaningless noise. UFOlogists see faces on Mars. Paranormalists hear dead people speaking on radio receivers. Though there is good evolutionary evidence for the drive to see patterns, it is can be disastrous with a results-oriented mindset.

In poker, except in special circumstances, it is a good idea to play only a small percentage of hands. Being tight aggressive, one of the most common and best ways to play, involves playing only 16-22% of hands. That means, over one in four hands are folded (i.e., thrown away) before voluntarily betting any money.

This style of play involves a lot of discipline. Every player who attempts this play style will eventually run into this scenario:

Good decision: A player correctly folds a bad hand (69 offsuit)
Missed opportunity: The player would have eventually won

To be results oriented would be to assume that because the hand would have won, we incorrectly folded the hand.

One of the few cognition studies where "low-intelligence" animals outperform humans is a simple test involving two levers. One delivers a reward with a low probability, and the other with high probability. Animals tend to exclusively press the lever with high probability, while humans try to predict patterns in the rewards and press the low probability lever with a non-zero percentage of the time.

In deciding which hands to play in poker, we can imagine 69o and AA as the metaphorical high and low probability levers. From a natural pattern-seeking, results-oriented mindset, it is easy for inexperienced poker players to stray from the optimal play style.

...but good decisions pay off in the long run

Good decisions are what separates world-class experts from the rest of us. In the long run, they pay off.

This is a real life online poker graph. The biggest takeaway is that even out of 100,000 hands, consistently making good decisions has a huge spread of outcomes, from barely breaking even to multiplying the initial bankroll more than 240-fold.

The same goes in real life. The inadequacy of results-oriented thinking has created a whole schism in philosophy regarding "moral luck". Esteemed ethicist Thomas Nagel mentions in his seminal essay the problematic nature of assigning judgment based on results.

From a consequentialist point of view, he poses this problem:

"...the penalty for attempted murder is less than that for successful murder - however similar the intentions and motives of the assailant may be in the two cases. His degree of culpability can depend, it would seem, on whether the victim happened to be wearing a bullet-proof vest, or whether a bird flew into the path of the bullet - matters beyond his control."

Nagel duly notes that the converse of our thesis as also true: bad decisions can lead to both good outcomes and fulfilled opportunities. Yet still, results are incorrectly put on a pedestal, in everywhere from our legal system to our social circles.

Sure enough, most people run into this problem daily. When was the last time a decision was questioned because it ran into bad luck? How often does a type of "should have, would have" thinking pervade the mind when new information arrives, absent from the original situation? Or for that matter, have you ever had a decidedly bad decision work out miraculously, to the point when you start to feel that the decision was actually good?

Process-oriented thinking

I propose from my poker experience that the way to go is to be process-oriented, by playing your absolute best, maintaining high focus, and improving tilt control.

The big takeaway here is that since there is no control over short term results, results-oriented thinking can be poisonous. The best we can hope for is to consistently make good decisions, through good outcomes or bad.

It is important to trust in the process, to avoid tilting when positive actions go awry, and to avoid seeing what's not there when inaction is the best play.

Whether in poker or in life, mathematics will take care of the rest.