Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Test of Wills

A number of recent psychology studies and university research has shown that we humans literally wake up each morning with a finite amount of willpower. As the day progresses, we tap into that limited reserve whilst doing things like choosing a salad at lunch instead of a Big Mac, or forcing ourselves to walk instead of surfing the Internet on our breaks. If we marshal our willpower reserves properly, we can make it through the day unscathed and without lapsing into bad behavior. But if we use up all that reserve before the day is done, we run out of the mental fortitude to resist temptations. We're tired and worn out at the end of a long day, towing the line and doing the boss' bidding, and when we get home it's incredibly hard to scrape the bottom of the willpower bucket to find the strength to a) forgo the Twinkies in the refrigerator; and/or b) go to the gym instead. Unless and until you get in a long-term habit of a) not buying those Twinkies at the store in the first place; and/or b) hitting the gym earlier in the day before your willpower runs out, you're going to be stuck in temptation hell. And you will succumb. It's a matter of Science.

So what does this have to do with poker? A lot. We all know that feeling of sitting down to play, full of good, stoic intentions. We're going to fold all those small pocket pairs and shiny-bright suited connectors in early position! We're going to adhere to the Gap Concept in late position! We're going to concentrate! We're going to put our opponents on ranges! We're going to raise, not call! We're not going chase with draws unless we get the right odds! Oh, and we're not going to let bad beats and coolers affect our play! We have the willpower, dammit!

This is all fine and dandy, but we all also know that feeling late in a session, when we're tired and just had our Aces cracked for the third time, of saying to ourselves, "Fuck it, I don't care. I'm going to play this QJo!. I know I'm facing a raise and cold call, and I know I'm going to be OOP! But I just don't care!" And then we're mad at ourselves later, and we vow never to do that again.

Well, as Robin Williams said to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, "It's not your fault, son." Sitting down at the poker table, you only brought a limited amount of willpower to start the session-- and then you ran out. There was a definitive time to quit, but you didn't, so what came afterward was almost preordained.

The good news is that the same Science that shows we have a finite amount of willpower also has proven that our willpower can be improved and increased. In fact, your willpower reserve is a lot like a muscle-- you can exercise it and improve it and bulk it up. It takes time to do so, but it can actually be done. You simply push your boundaries each day a little bit. You resist that Twinkie in the 'frig for fifteen extra minutes before succumbing. Then the next night, you push that delay to 30 minutes. And so on. Pretty soon you're not eating Twinkies in the evening.

You can also learn to quit or avoid bad situations altogether, so that they don't tax your willpower reserves in the first place. This is tougher to do at the poker tables, as the very nature of sitting down at the felt to play is one of agreeing to test our wills against others. He who makes the least mistakes, wins, right? But you can learn to recognize when your psyche is starting to scrape the bottom of the endurance well-- and you have to have enough willpower remaining in that well to stand up and walk away. Sounds easy, right? Sure, it's just a matter of will.

Seriously, try to remember that it's not your fault, son. When you've run out of emotional reserves, you've run out. Period. The secret is a) bulking up those reserves; and, b) minimize how much we tap into those reserves in the first place.

Happy good willpower hunting.

All-in for now...


  1. I found this fascinating, so did some googling. One place said that physical exercise and meditation can help with having better willpower.

  2. Yes, I've read that too. I've also read that diet makes a difference; i.e. excessive sugar and carbs makes your willpower weaker.