23 Things Poker Teaches You About Life (According to Pros)


Is poker really a game of luck? One could argue that it is, to some degree, but everything still boils down to the skills of a player. It’s capricious, but poker pros know that rational decision-making and empirical evidence always wins the pot.  

increase real life skills by playing poker
Playing poker teaches you a lot about life but in a shorter time frame.

Poker is life, and life is poker. It’s utterly interchangeable for professionals because almost everything that happens at the felt is applicable in real life. The way we play it, the way we interact with others, the preparations and decisions that we make, and all the work we do to win, can teach us something about life.

Poker and life are very much alike, so much so that professionals consider each hand as an accelerated microcosm of a lifetime. Surely, after playing millions of games, poker pros can teach us a few things about life. Let’s hear it from them as we discuss 23 life lessons that these pros have learned at the felt.

Liv Boeree

She’s the only female player in history to win a WSOP bracelet. Liv Boeree now spends her time doing talks about poker, and the lessons in life that it teaches us.

Lesson #1: Life is a game of skill and luck.

Luck plays a role in the cards that we draw, but what’s more important is how we play these cards. Winning or losing in poker may be associated with luck, but our skills, ultimately, determine the outcome of the game.

In life, we wake up to different circumstances. Some are more challenging, like growing up with fewer opportunities or poor health, while others pick up ideal situations from the start. These are factors that depend on luck, and it has the power to influence our strategies, plans, and goals in life.

However, having the right skills to play your cards, regardless of its strength, is quintessential to a successful path. We’ve seen time and time again that even the worst hands were used by professionals to their advantage and win huge pots. Winning in poker and life depends on your skills and how well you play your cards.

Check Liv Talking at the TED conference about it.

Lesson #2: Don’t over privilege intuitions.

“While we shouldn’t ignore our intuitions, we shouldn’t over privilege them either.”

– Liv Boeree

When playing poker or just making real-life decisions, we often use intuitions. These are unfounded thoughts, and emotions are always the basis of our intuition.

Although we’ve made some of our best decisions using our intuition, it’s not always accurate. It’s highly vulnerable and often leads people to have biases in decision making.

According to Liv, whenever you have a gut feeling about something, make sure that you look for evidence that supports it. Slow and careful analysis is always a better path on your way to success in life.

Lesson #3: The most damaging bias in life is confirmation bias.

The element of ambiguity in poker and life makes confirmation bias one of the most devastating biases that people encounter. It is a state of mind that confirms everything we want to believe in and discards anything that disproves it.

In poker, if our hands are not good, it’s more likely that we want to believe other players are bluffing. So we’ll always look for signs that confirm this thought. People tend to look for the slightest tell, such as a shaky hand to prove that another player is bluffing.

In life, when we make decisions, it’s almost always based on confirmation biases. We see the signs, data inputs, and factors that lead to our desired outcome while neglecting all the empirical evidence that says otherwise. We fail to take a step back and look at all the factors rationally, which could prove that a decision won’t work in our favor.

YouTube video of a professional poker player about confirmation bias.

Lesson #4: The status quo bias slows down innovation and improvement.

It’s common to see poker players who played well for months, then start to get into a losing streak. According to Liv Boeree, when you see this happen, it’s most likely that he’s suffering from status quo bias.

The status quo bias is a state of mind that prevents people from trying new things. When something worked for us before, or if it was how things worked for years, we’re afraid to change. People tend to retain their methodology or way of thinking because it’s in our nature.

It’s often the fear of getting unknown results for a strategy that gets people to stay in the status quo bias. Knowing that it exists will help us make better judgments and be more capable of improving our life, career, relationship, and business.

Kristy Arnett

Kristy Arnett was a poker player who played for almost ten years, before starting her career as a content creator. Today, Kristy focuses on teaching people how they can take calculated risks in life and love.

Lesson #5: Fortune favors the bold.

In poker, players who don’t take risks eventually lose. Playing safe can only get you so far, and players who take risks will always get ahead of you. Players who are too afraid to put money in the pot will never win big. Sure, they don’t lose big, but their stacks will slowly dwindle.

The same is true in life. You can play safe, but if you don’t take calculated risks, you can never get ahead. Being too afraid of the risks involved in going after your dreams will only result in either of these two; be mediocre or die trying not to be one.

Lesson #6: Who are you when the chips are down?

When playing poker, you can win or lose thousands within minutes. Players experience a sudden shift in their perception when everything is going their way, but one draw can change everything.

Just like in life, it’s easy to be the best version of yourself when everything is going your way. But, who are you when you’re up against the wall? Are you still capable of making rational decisions when life is down?

It’s easy to be our worst version when things don’t go our way. It’s in all of us. Yes! There’s a Hulk in all of us. So when it hits you, try your best to act in a way that you’ll be proud of when things calm down.

Lesson #7: You can’t win every time.

No player on Earth is skilled enough to win every time. Players can improve their skills to put the odds in their favor, but sometimes, it’s not enough to influence the outcome of the game.

A 96% chance to win a hand can go down to 0% with a river card. The same is true in life. Bad luck can strike at any time, and it can overturn a seemingly successful career into a devastating one.

Life is as capricious as poker, but we can’t live in fear of these things. The best that we can do is to be better, keep learning, and work hard without letting the outcome affect your decisions and actions.

Kristy is a great poker player. Go and give a visit to her website.

Charles Ngo

He was a professional poker player for almost ten years. Charles is now working as a full-time internet marketer, but the lessons that he learned from playing poker were still the same core values that he practices until today.

emotions in poker
Keep emotions in check in poker for optimal results.

Lesson #8: Emotions are dangerous when left unchecked.

Emotions drive almost every decision that we make. People tend to make decisions based on emotions, regardless of how irrational it is, then we try to justify it using logic afterward.

Allowing another player or an unfortunate circumstance to affect your emotion will ultimately cripple your decision-making skills. When emotions come into play, you can be sure that you’re not making the right decisions.

In life, we need to have self-awareness when we start to make emotional decisions. It’s not easy to control your emotions, but the mere act of keeping it in check guarantees that your choices and actions are rational. 

Lesson #9: Keep firing bullets.

If you wake up to a strong hand pre-flop, it’s easy to bet aggressively and try to build up the pot. When the flop comes out, and you have nothing, it’s still easy to keep going. But when the turn card comes out, things change.

It will take courage for any player to keep bluffing on the turn and river.

The same is true in life. When an opportunity comes, it’s easy for everyone to be aggressive. After taking a leap of faith, and we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere, do we have the courage to keep going?

We’ve seen, time and time again, successful people who thrived because they have the guts to keep firing bullets. Even when the circumstances show otherwise, or if the future is uncertain, they keep going. They keep building the pot and prepare themselves to claim it.

Lesson #10: Play the hand you’re dealt with.

A huge difference between an amateur and a professional poker player is how they react to their cards. Most players always blame luck for the hand that they receive. Professionals, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about it. They play the game, regardless of their hand, and do everything they can to influence the outcome.

Sure, poker is a game of luck, and sometimes you can’t do anything about it. However, if you keep on complaining about the cards, wondering about the could haves and would haves, you’ll end up going home early.

In life, we were all given different sets of cards. Some were lucky to be born with billionaire parents, while others wake up to low-value life cards. It can affect the decisions and paths you take in life, but you have to keep playing and do your best to influence the outcome.

Nathan Williams

He is a professional poker known for playing millions of games in small stakes tables. Nathan is one of the most popular online poker players who built the biggest accumulated winnings in history.

Lesson #11: You can’t win a big pot unless you build one.

When playing small stakes, it’s easy to play slow and stay safe. In Nathan’s book, however, lower-stakes present a great chance to win big pots. Players need to know how to build a big pot in small stakes because no one is going to do it for them.

No one will build your dream pot. If someone does, you’re in trouble.

The same is true in our lives. We may have a career that we want to pursue. A skill that we want to learn. A place that we want to visit. It doesn’t matter what it is, what matters is you understand that no one will build it for you. You can’t slow play life and expect that you’ll win big.

You can’t win a big pot in poker unless you build one.

Lesson #12: Make decisive decisions on the flop.

In poker, players make the most decisions on the flop. A player who makes decisive decisions uses the current situation and empirical evidence to determine the next course of action.

Do you want to play big or small? Slow or fast? What’s your plan based on your current hand? What are the possible ranges for the other players? These are the questions that you need to be asking on the flop.

In life, it’s easy to take a leap of faith when starting. You can test the waters and see the various options that are available for you. Just be sure that you’ll make decisions based on the initial results of your action.

Do you want to go big or go home? Do you want to play safe and stretch your career path? All of these things come into play when making big decisions in life, but these decisions should respect lesson #13.

Lesson #13: Don’t make decisions that put you in tough spots.

Making decisive decisions on the flop is crucial for poker players. It determines their next course of action, but it should be a decision that won’t put them in tough spots.

According to Nathan, decisions made pre-flop and on the flop will greatly influence the actions that players take on the turn and river. So a decision has to be made, but it needs to be one that won’t push you back against the wall.

Putting this into the context of life, people should always consider the cause and effect of all the decisions that they make. We’ve seen people trapped in tough situations brought forth by actions that were taken earlier in life. Be decisive, but it needs to be rational and calculated.

Annie Duke

She was a professional poker player who led the money winner among women in WSOP history. Today, Annie spends most of her time educating people about the lessons that she learned from playing poker.

Lesson #14: Rational thinking is not common.

A huge part of our brain is hardwired to act upon our primitive instincts.

Fear, speculation, and probabilities are the driving force behind our decisions. Being a successful poker player requires you to master how to reason and look at all the evidence that proves an idea or speculation.

In life, we tend to make irrational decisions, whether small or big. The same thought process always drives people, but a lot of us are unaware of it. We tend to justify all decisions made with emotions, making it seem like a logical choice for us.

According to Annie Duke, developing self-awareness in our thought process will help us make better judgments and decisions. It activates the smaller but smarter part of our brain that processes information using data and evidence.

Rational thinking is not common.

Lesson #15: Gather feedback and improve on it.

The best thing about poker is that you can experience life in a super accelerated timetable.

You’ll see people who use the same style of play over and over again. People make the same mistakes despite having enough feedback to analyze and improve their game.

In life, you can’t play a million times, so you have to be very keen on aggregating feedback about your actions and act on it to improve. If you want to be the best in something, work hard on it, gather feedback, and use these variables to make better decisions in life.

The key to winning in poker and life is to be adaptive. You need to have the capability to adapt based on the feedback you received and different circumstances.

Lesson #16: Failure and success aren’t only about luck.

When players lose, they blame bad luck. When players win, they think that they are the best.

It’s not always the case, and you’ll notice poker players who fail to improve their game because they always find reasons not to grow.

Life, just like in poker, relies on a combination of luck and skill. Winning or losing isn’t solely determined by luck.

Great poker players and successful people have one thing in common; they don’t let the idea of luck get in their way to be better. If they lose or fail, they’ll use it to improve, and if they win or succeed, they’ll look into it and see how they can do things better.

Lesson #17: Long game and adaptability leads to success – David Ramsey

According to David Ramsey, when you put up an amateur against someone like Phil Ivey, the amateur may be ahead by the end of the hour. However, Phil Ivey knows that poker is a long-term activity. With enough data to process and test games, he’ll be dominant throughout the remainder of the game.

Looking at life as a long-term activity works the same. Disregard the best and worst days and assess your average daily life. A great day or a terrible day doesn’t determine your life. If you keep improving your average, you’ll soon find yourself doing better in life.

Lesson #18: Know your stacks before betting – Phil Hellmuth

Your stacks always determine the actions that you take in every game. Make sure you are aware of it before you decide on anything. – Phil Hellmuth

Managing your stacks or your bankroll is a crucial part of becoming a successful poker player. Knowing how much you can bet saves you from games that your stack can’t handle.

In life, stacks are your capacity to perform a specific task. When starting a business, taking on a new career path, or starting new relationships, you should know your ability. It will determine the course of actions that you can take and help you avoid making decisions that are way beyond what you can handle.

Phill Hellmuth was always fun to watch on TV but in this YouTube video, he gives us some good tips.

Daniel Negreanu

He is a poker superstar with 6 WSOP bracelets, 2 WPT titles, and Global Poker Index’s player of the decade. When Daniel talks about poker, everyone listens.

Lesson #19: Pick the games that you’re playing.

It can be tempting to play high stakes or be in a tournament with the best of the best, but can you handle it? According to Daniel Negreanu, picking the right table to play is crucial to winning in poker.

Similarly, picking the right career path, business, relationship, or anything else in life needs to be decided based on your personality, skills, and capacity.

Picking the right tables to play in life will save you from situations that may be too tough to handle. It keeps you from the stress of unwanted outcomes and circumstances. When tough times arise, being on the right table will let you ride through smoothly.

Daniel is quite active on his YouTube channel. Often he gives updates on his poker life, but sometimes about strategy, like in this video.

Lesson #20: Know the compounding result of work.

“A combination of work away from the table, study, and practice is just as important as actually playing poker and getting the experience that you do at the felt.”

– Daniel Negreanu

Anyone can learn the basics of poker overnight, but only a few have the persistence to put in the hard work to succeed in poker. Everything that you do compounds to your overall poker skills.

The best way to succeed faster in poker is to learn in a smarter way combined with hard work. You can accelerate the learning process by watching videos from poker instructional websites. Some of them you get access to for free by simply playing on certain poker sites, while others can be expensive full courses that give you all the steps to crush the game.

Similarly, in life, if you want to succeed in something, you have to be willing to put in the hard work. It doesn’t matter where it happens. Whether you’re learning your craft, grinding for your business, watching tutorials, or analyzing a situation, all of it will contribute to your success.

Successful people are not always the most talented, but they are always the ones who put in the most amount of work.

Phil Ivey

He was once the best all-around poker player in the world. Phil Ivey won ten World Series of Poker bracelets, one World Poker Tour title, and participated in nine World Poker Tour final tables. 

Lesson #21: Take whatever they give you.

According to Phil Ivey, he doesn’t go to a tournament with a plan. He plays whatever is given to him and adjusts to different situations based on rational decision-making.

Poker is ambiguous, and carrying a plan before you even play can be counterintuitive. When making a real-life plan, you need to be aware of the circumstances and use them to make rational decisions. Most people use their intuition when making decisions, which is not wholly reliable when presented with facts.

Play whatever you have in front of you, and whatever life throws at you. We can be extremely lucky or not, but whatever the case may be, you have to do everything to make the most out of it.

Lesson #22: Learning from mistakes can only make you better.

There are times when you make a terrible decision, and when you start thinking about it, everything becomes clear. You factor in all the variables and figure out the best move that you should’ve done.

Having the ability to process information from previous mistakes is a huge advantage in poker. It will allow you to play better in your next games, and doing it enough times will make you better than everyone else.

Similarly, in life, bad decisions are being made daily. Knowing how to process information will allow you to continually improve yourself and be better with all the choices that you’ll make in your career, business, relationship, and health.

Phil Ivey about learning from mistakes.

#23 Know When to Walk Away – Every Poker Pro

If there’s one thing that poker pros can agree upon, it’s that tilt has taken down more poker players than anything else in history. Tilt is the state of mind where players become frustrated and mentally or emotionally confused. Experiencing it can lead players to become overly aggressive.

Recognizing tilt and getting out of it is the secret in a successful poker career.

You’ll be surprised how many pros practice getting out of poker tilt through real-life tilt. Stuck in traffic, overly stressful job, stagnant business, and bad relationship; all of these can get anyone into tilt.

Knowing when to walk away from a negative aspect of your life is the epitome of happiness and satisfaction. Learning how to differentiate tilt from bad luck can provide you with drastic positive changes in life.

tilt in poker
Dealing with tilt successfully is what will make you a big winner in poker.

Conclusion

Poker and life are very similar in many ways. Annie Duke once said, “everything you learn in poker is applicable in real life.”

John von Neumann used a simplified game of poker to formulate the Game Theory. It is a study of human behavior and decision-making that applies to social science, logic, computer science, and almost everything that makes up our society.

You don’t have to be a professional to recognize these lessons, and you don’t have to spend countless hours playing poker to figure it out. Experience may be the best teacher, but other people’s experience is a smarter teacher. Learn from the pros, and start applying these lessons in your life. You’ll be surprised by the massive impact that it can do for you.

Recent Content