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Poker and Zen 2010-Jul-09 at 13:14 PDT

Posted by Scott Arbeit in Blog.
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I occasionally get the question about how I could be trying to make my living playing poker while having an Integral understanding of spirituality, and the ultimate fallacy of competition, from an absolute perspective.  What am I trying to achieve through this (other than, you know, paying the rent and eating)?

A long excerpt from Poker and Zen, by Howard Lederer:

Tournament poker can be very exciting, but like many exciting things in life, it can also be terrifying. There is nothing quite like the thrill of playing at a big money final table. I am often asked how I handle the pressure of playing for such big money. I could give the standard answer of "You have to forget the money and just think about the chips as units." This is certainly true. But, those units are worth a lot of money and forgetting about the money and prestige that comes with winning is easier said than done.

I always had trouble doing this at the critical moments of poker tournaments even as recently as a few years ago. I then started to read some books on Zen Buddhism. Zen has always been associated with the fine arts of flower arranging, calligraphy, and tea making. But there is also quite a tradition of Zen in swordsmanship and archery. Through reading these books and in particular "Zen in the Art of Archery," I have a greater understanding of the process one goes through to master an art form.

Staying in the moment is the path to poker mastery. And it is poker tournaments that present the greatest challenge to this goal. How is it possible to think only about the current hand when you have made bad plays and taken bad beats only minutes before? How is it possible to stay mindful of only the current hand when if you could win this tournament it might change your life? These are questions that can only be answered by each individual player. But, I believe that the study of the Zen arts can lead you down that path.

I realized that the more I could stay focused on the present hand and forget about bad beats and bad plays from my recent past, the better I would play. I also concluded that even more damaging to my focus on the present hand might be the nervousness brought on by thoughts of winning the tournament. Staying in the moment at the poker table is not an easy task. But, when I read "Zen in the Art of Archery," there was a concept that stayed with me. The master archer hits the target without having aimed. This meant that the more I tried to focus on the moment, the more I would not succeed. I could only find that focus from within myself. I decided that I would sit at the table and relax. For two years now, I have been practicing my own form of poker meditation. Instead of trying hard to focus, I allow it to happen through relaxation.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.  Poker is not other than the path… it is the path, as much as any other is.  Beyond the money is the ability to stay centered at all times, through wrenching bad beats and occasional bad decisions.

Just like life.  It’s all on the path.

P.S. For the record, even last night I lost that center from a bad beat for a few minutes, so I’m still working on it, still walking the path.



1. Isaiah Landers - 2010-Jul-09 at 18:44 PDT

You are the arrow in your quiver, string on the bow, the fingers on the string, the bow itself…You are the force of thrust, the air through which it moves and the heart of the target you find……\o/

2. Scott Arbeit - 2010-Jul-10 at 09:05 PDT

Always nice to be reminded that nothing arises that’s not in consciousness, and there’s nothing outside. Not that I’ve been forgetting. :-)

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