Poker: Changing the World for the Better

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Poker saved my life.

I was sitting in my in-laws garden. It was summer time. Terrence Trent D’Arby was singing about wishing wells, my aunts and uncles were slowly disappearing from reality - aided by alcohol, and the children were sitting inside the house playing on a video game console.

At one point in the evening, a suitably soaked member of the family, walked into the front room, pulled the video game console out of the wall, and forced the lot of them to go outside and play.

“What are you doing sitting inside on a day like this? Go outside and have fun. Meet the real world,” said the drunken old man.

The Real World?

The way I see it, the real world is frightening, depressing, boring, mundane, stressful, miserable, disconnected, pointless, unrewarding and lonely. Why on earth would a group of children want to meet that head on? Why did they exude so much fun and laughter when they were playing video games, and then so much boredom and misery when their butts hit the kerb?

Unbeknown to the drunken man, the children had found a solution to the world’s problems. As the author and gaming expert Jan,e McGonigal writes, “Reality is Broken”. My nephews and nieces knew this, half a billion gamers around the world know this. They also know where the cure lies. The cure lies in gaming.

“Come on kids,” I said to them. “You can all come with me.”

I said my goodbyes. Rammed the kids into the car. Took them home, and made them food while they all played video games. I mean, what’s an ex-alcoholic doing in a party full of drunks anyway?

So How Did Poker Save My Life?

I was a drunk. Alcohol had taken over my life. My relationships were fake. I was committing the slowest form of suicide imaginable. I was a terrible husband - even worse father. I cared about nothing but myself. One day, I found the courage to do something about it. I quit drinking after reading a life changing book called the Easy Way to Control Alcohol by Allen Carr.

A funny thing happens when you quit drinking. You earn time. I call this white space. One of the biggest reasons people relapse when trying to quit drinking is because they don’t know how to fill this white space. They get bored. They believe a lack of alcohol creates this boredom. They return to the bottle. Their lives are no longer boring. I didn’t return to the bottle. I filled my white space with poker.

In Jane McGonigal’s book, Reality is Broken, she offers up a hypothesis that reality is broken and that games offer a potential solution. My life is evidence that she speaks the truth. McGonigal describes 14 fixes that we can learn to understand the relationship between games and life, and how our understanding of them can create a better life for the whole of humankind.

Poker is one of the most interesting, challenging and rewarding games in the world.

Let me explain how it saved my life, and can be used as a great way to help save many more.

But before we get to those fixes, I want to explore first what makes games, in particular poker, fun to begin with and why this is such an important understanding to have in life.

Why Does Poker Make Us Happy?

According to McGonigal’s research all games are created from a foundation of four guiding principles:

  1. A goal
  2. Rules
  3. A feedback system
  4. Voluntary participation

Poker abides by all four of these principles. The goal is to make the best possible decision during each hand given the information that you have at your disposal. The rules are dependent on the type of poker you play, but each game has rules. The feedback system comes in the form of the amount of chips that you have. The more you have, the less likely it is that the game will soon be over.

I want to focus more on voluntary participation, and why I believe this is a critical factor in my belief that poker and games play such an important role in our happiness.

One of the reasons that reality is broken is because the vast majority of us spend a large amount of our time doing something that we don’t want to do. I am, of course, talking about your choice of career. Granted, many people in the world love what they do, but given the “Genie in the Lamp” option, many would drop that career in a heartbeat. In a recent blog post, Daniel Negreanu explained that his hard work now enables him to do what he wants in life, and that’s largely to play video games.

It’s not that human beings don’t like to work - quite the opposite actually - human beings love to work. It’s hard-wired in our DNA. However, we must be working on something on our terms. Playing games such as poker is on our terms. Nobody forces us to play poker.

Working the 9 to 5 for the sole reason of earning money provokes some pretty powerful emotional responses, most of which will veer to the side of pessimism. Poker provokes the same powerful emotional responses, only veering to the side of optimism, and this has the potential to bear great fruit in the world.

“When we are in a concentrated state of optimistic engagement, it becomes biologically possible for us to think positive thoughts, make social connections and build personal strengths,” writes McGonigal.

No, we like fun, but we like hard fun. Sitting in front of the TV set watching Dancing With The Stars is not hard fun. Tough games that provide beautiful, emotional benefits - now, that’s what I’m talking about. It’s one of the reasons high stakes professional poker players find it difficult to play at lower stakes. In their mind, the hard fun is just not hard enough at that level to be fun anymore.

Playing poker can be described as the antidote to depression. When we are depressed, we develop a tremendous depth of pessimism, and all the associated negative emotions that accompany it. Playing poker creates a tremendous sense of optimism and all the positive emotional responses that tag along for the ride.

If you are feeling down in the dumps, play some poker. Now to those fixes.

Fix #1: Unnecessary Obstacles

Games are a series of unnecessary obstacles. We are fired up by this because we derive enjoyment from the task of overcoming them. It’s these obstacles that provide poker players with a challenge.

Reality is often viewed as being too easy. Instead of putting our personal strengths to use to fix our real world problems, we often procrastinate. When we play poker, we are always searching for a way to achieve our goal, and we use all of our personal strengths to do this.

When I got sober, I started to realise that life is like a game. Alcohol was an unnecessary obstacle for me. In the gaming world, had you been hit with that same obstacle, you would have figured a way to resolve it. Yet in the real world, we avoid it.

When you start to remove one unnecessary obstacle from your life, you feel a rush of positive emotions. To recapture that rush of positive emotions, you take up the next challenge. Poker helped me understand this.

Fix #2: Emotional Activation

Reality can be depressing. I am looking outside my window, and everything is grey. Yesterday, one of my clients fired me. I have so much to do, and so little time. It’s Christmas, and I have no money to buy everyone presents. When was the last time you played a game like that? 

Continuing on from Fix #1, games focus on building optimism because we are often engaged in something we are good at. Most importantly, we enjoy what we are doing, and as described earlier, we are choosing to do what we are doing, instead of being forced into it, or from a sense of need. 

McGonigal writes about the importance of the feeling of ‘Fiero.’ It’s the Italian word for ‘pride’ and scientists have proven that it’s one of the most extreme neurochemical highs one can experience.  Fiero is the feeling we get when hit that two-outer on the river.

McGonigal believes because we all experience Fiero, it has to be part of our DNA. 

“It’s the most primal emotional rush you can experience,” writes McGonigal.

Each time your unnecessary gets more difficult to overcome, when you achieve it, you will receive a greater Fiero rush. It’s what keeps pro poker players wanting to keep playing higher stakes. It’s why, when I quit drinking, I decided to quit my job and try and become a professional poker player.

Fix #3: More Satisfying Work

The real world can become a very unsatisfying and unproductive place. The wonder of autonomy is replaced by a robotic drive towards mundanity. All games have clear goals and missions. Online poker companies have always had rewards programs, goals and missions. Live tournament players have goals to win World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets.

Games like poker create this environment for you. All you have to do is sit down and play. Fiero and flow will do the rest. I quit my job in the rail industry because it was unsatisfying. The kids sulked on the kerb because it was unsatisfying. Quitting alcohol created a power in me, a belief, a renewed sense of optimism. It made me realise that I was unsatisfied in the area of life where I spent most of my time.

So I quit.

I loved poker and the way it made me feel, so I started out on a journey to play it professionally.

Fix #4: Better Hope of Success

The beauty with poker is you always believe you can win. There is no doubting the skill element of the game, but the element of luck means everyone at some time in their experience, will have a fiero moment.

Life is also like this, skill and hard work will get you much further than relying on luck alone, but luck certainly plays its part. The difference between the two is the rate that poker pushes out fiero moments compared to life. But what if your life was full of excitement and possibility?

What if you were waking up on a daily basis desperate for your next fix of fiero, and knowing it was just around the corner?

Fix #5: Stronger Social Connection &  Fix #9 More Fun With Strangers

I was raised in a small community of 3,000. There were rules. Nobody spoke them. There was no book that contained them. But they were there. One of the rules said that in school you were either cool or not. There were certain attributes to be cool, and certain attributes to be deemed uncool. It’s classic societal conditioning 101.

The world can be a very disconnected place. Fear rules. We are all scared to talk to the person sitting next to us. We don’t even have a need to leave the house. We text rather than talk. I remember worrying about my son playing video games all the time. I was worried he wouldn’t meet any friends. Then he explained that all his friends were online with him.

When I quit drinking, I lost all of my friends. My community didn’t shun me; I shunned them. I had nothing in common with them. Then I started playing poker. Within a few years, my community had become 100% concentrated within the poker community. It’s a bubble within the world. Hardly anyone knows it exists. But it’s there. It’s a beautiful place, and you get to experience a lot of cool things.

I know so many poker players who would have struggled to socialise if it weren’t for poker, because they would have been deemed uncool when they were younger. That belief would have embedded deeply. It would have eroded confidence. Poker - a game - creates confidence.

It’s also scientifically proven, that playing online, on your own, but with other online players, creates an ambient sociability. Research teams from Stanford called this phenomenon ‘playing alone together.’

I had no idea what the word ‘community’ meant until I quit alcohol and found poker. Communities can change the world because there is so much more power that than in the loneliness of the one.

Fix #6: Epic Scale

According to McGonigal’s research World of Warcraft (WOW) players have logged 5.93 million years of gameplay since the game was created in 2004. That’s exactly the point when man’s earliest ancestors started to walk. Now that’s what I call epic.

Poker is the same, and it’s not just confined to online poker. Tournament poker is gaming on an epic scale. At the 2015 WSOP Colossus, 22,374 players competed in the largest ever tournament held in a live setting. Online tournaments also amass thousands of players. There is a real sense of grandeur about being involved in something so larger-than-life.

Poker doesn’t only have epic environments; it also has epic projects. Poker is the type of game that anyone can play. Like most gamers, poker players won’t read the rule book. They will sit down, receive their cards and figure it out. But despite being an easy game to pick up, it takes a lifetime to master, and that’s epic.

In contrast, life can seem pretty mundane and unremarkable. When I was a drunk, there was nothing very epic about going to the pub every day. Poker gave me a new playground where I could experience so much more. But that doesn’t mean that life cannot be epic.

As the story of Philipp Gruissem proves.

Fix #7: Wholehearted Participation & #Fix 8: Meaningful Rewards When  Most Needed

Philipp Gruissem is one of the most successful poker players in the game. The young German has won close to $10m playing live tournament poker, and is also a very successful online poker player with cashes in the millions. There comes a point in every gamers' life when they question the point in it all. If you are playing games all day, then you are constantly in a state of fiero and flow, and it can be difficult to return to reality if you are not balanced.

Gruissem started questioning what more good he could have done with the time spent playing poker. He had become so good at the game; there were no more levels for him to attain. He had reached the peak of his prowess. When this happens, the game loses its competitiveness. There is no hard fun. It becomes too easy. Gruissem made his mind up to leave the game and pursue more philanthropic endeavours.

Then Gruissem met a group of people known as effective altruists. They taught Gruissem that he could play a much bigger game. An epic game. A game that was so much bigger than poker, but poker would be immersive in this epic experience.

Gruissem would use poker as a way to earn money and celebrity status that could be leveraged to help reduce suffering in the world, by linking with the world’s most effective charities. Gruissem started Raising For Effective Giving (REG), and today, more and more poker players are joining him in this new epic game to change the world.

And this is the beating heart of McGonigal’s excellent book, and how poker saved my life.

Fix #10: More Epic Wins

Reality can seem unambitious when compared to some of the greatest games in the world. But that’s only a perception biased by societal conditioning. REG Charity isn’t a job. People who are affiliated with REG aren’t there because they have no other choice. They are there because they want to be. REG Charity is a game. It’s a game to do the best that you can do in the world, and that game started within a simple card game called poker.

Since quitting alcohol I have also quit drugs, my job, created a new one, become vegan, recovered from debt and a terrible divorce. Now I spend my time helping people do the same. Poker helped me understand the full power of games. I used that understanding to turn my life into a game. It’s no exaggeration when I say that poker changed my life.

  • There are over half a billion gamers in the world.
  • They spend on average three billion hours a week gaming.
  • Most gamers have clocked 10,000 hours by the time they reach 21 years of age.

The eSports industry is on its way to becoming a billion dollar industry. Poker will become a part of that industry. Poker donates more money to charity than any other sport or game in the world. The stars of eSports and poker earn millions of dollars.

It’s time to stop pushing our kids onto the kerb.

It’s time to harness the power of games to make the world a better place.

It’s time to start following Jane McGonigal’s advice.

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