Tournament Poker Therapy, Part 1: Pain and Heather Graham

Alex Rousso

If tournament poker were a lottery where the prize was to spend a night with Heather Graham, the prizes would be as follows. Ninety-nine of the nights would end with you being punched in the stomach by Heather, and one would end with you sleeping with her.

You wouldn’t know in advance whether this would be the night. Nor would you know how long you’d spend with her each night; it might be ten minutes, it might be all night. On approximately nine out of the ninety-nine occasions she punches you, she will give you a kiss goodnight before she does so. A peck on the cheek, that is, not a snog.

Just to make sure you understand the rules, even if you’ve been punched 99 times in a row, that’s no guarantee that tonight is your night to get lucky. Nope. It could be another 100 or more before that happens again. Past success is no guarantee of future results. Oh, and one more thing. Heather knows how to punch. She’s got a black belt in martial arts and makes sure that it’s a solar-plexus crunching, writhing on the floor, internal-damaging punch. And she never develops a conscience – even if she hit you for the last thirty nights in a row, this punch is going to be just as hard as the rest.

The newbies in the tournament poker world are the ones who may only have been punched a couple of times. Or maybe they got lucky with Heather the first night they met her. But what about the rest of us? We’ve had good times with Heather, and we’ve had runs of twenty punches without so much as a goodnight kiss. Isn’t our experience painful? Is an average of 99 punches in the stomach for one bonk with Felicity Shagwell worth it?

I know what you’re thinking. Right now you’re saying to yourself “well, for me, it’s actually only an average of 50 punches”. All I can say is (a) don’t be ridiculous, and (b) that’s not what I’m talking about. Yes, there are those of us out there who make money from the game, and those of us that don’t, but we all – yes, even you – end up on the floor of the hall outside Heather’s flat, clutching our bellies, fighting back tears of pain, most of the time.

I’m not here to tot up whether it’s worth it or not. Firstly, because microeconomics is famously bad at cross-comparing things whose “currency” isn’t obvious. (In other words, it’s not easy to calculate – either theoretically or empirically – how many punches a shag with Heather Graham is worth). And second, because we already have the “currency” in tournament poker to do the calculation: it’s called money. As for the financial positives and negatives in tournament poker, please see my other articles. Here, I want to talk about that pain. I’m here to ask why in spite of all that pain, we still come back for more.

At first blush, it’s quite similar to that feeling when we have a dreadful hangover and say “never again”. Drugs (including alcohol) have that quality to them: the occasional highs are something truly celestial to experience, but we spend most of the time consuming them in pursuit of another of those highs, only to end up with our feet firmly planted on the ground.

However, there is one major difference between the pain of a hangover or a punch from Heather and the pain you feel on exiting a tournament. Tournament pain is psychological – it’s about mental anguish, disappointment, anger, frustration, stress, the pain of waiting for something for so long, being so close, and still not having it. The brand of pain we suffer in poker is Psychic Pain.

Psychic Pain and Core Pain

Psychic Pain is different from everyday physical pain. If we have a pain in our foot, we either ignore it, presuming it will go away, or if it doesn’t, we go to the doctor to try to fix the problem. Granted, with psychic pain, we often ignore it and hope it goes away, but if it recurs, we rarely (some of us never) decide to do something about it. In other words, if we do not treat recurrent psychic pain, we are destined to suffer it again and again.

I still can’t believe that in a society as sophisticated as ours this is true, but it most definitely is, so let me repeat the concept: if we suffer a recurrent physical pain, we go to the doctor; if we suffer a recurrent psychic pain, we do nothing about it and hope it goes away.

As you might hope, over a century of psychological research has yielded some results into the roots of recurring psychic pain. The concept I will be using in this article is from Cognitive Analytical Therapy (CAT). CAT attempts to tackle psychological problems by identifying learned negative behavioural patterns and seeking to correct them. It does so by encouraging the patient to delve into their past to find an event which may have been a primer or marker for the learning of the negative behaviour.

As regards delving into the past, we’re not talking here about some eureka moment such as in the film The Prince of Tides where the patient suddenly realises that he was raped when he was a five-year-old and that’s the root of all his problems. Someone’s psychic pain in relation to a problem can be much more everyday than that, and can cover behavioural defects which are much more specific. So please note that you don’t have to be a victim of serious abuse before this is relevant to you. In my opinion most people could benefit from this kind of therapy.

The premise in CAT is that when faced with psychic pain as children, we sometimes developed coping mechanisms which were a best fit at the time – a set of emergency measures if you like, resulting from not having yet developed a decent way of dealing with an emotional problem. Examples of such might be: hiding in our rooms to avoid confrontations with our angry parents; shutting down emotionally in an attempt to cope with a huge change in life, and so on. Often people will carry over these coping mechanisms into their adulthood, when they are actually capable of developing much more sophisticated ways of dealing with psychic pain.

The problem in adulthood is that we are creatures of habit, so we are likely to stick with what we know. Much more significantly, if we abandon our old coping mechanisms in favour of new (and hopefully better) ones, for the initial period of change, we are exposed. In this situation, not only will we have the current psychic pain to deal with, but we are likely to be haunted in some way by the past, as our attempt to break the cycle of coping (and the habit of a lifetime) dredges up old feelings. The more painful the experience, the more we cling on to our old methods, afraid to expose ourselves to the pain of the past.

CAT attempts to break this cycle by replacing the old coping mechanisms with better ones, and at the same time soothing the pain of the past. It does so by identifying a certain erroneous coping mechanism and linking it to a certain moment in the past, from which we might have learned the coping behaviour. This moment is the root of our pain for that particular issue, also known as the Core Pain.

The idea is that by talking about the pain now (as an adult) and by monitoring how it manifests itself in the stresses and strains of our everyday lives, we learn when and where to adopt new methods of coping (what those methods are, we will come to later). Moreover, by learning to let go of that original core pain, we are less likely to be haunted by it in adult life, and the problem is less likely to occur in the future.

Stage 1: Making core pain statements

If we were to follow the process of CAT for tournament poker, the first thing we would do is try to express our feelings at the point of greatest pain. For this exercise I posted a thread on the Hendon Mob Forum asking people to give one sentence which sums up how they feel on exiting a tournament. Remember that this is not the embodiment of the core pain, but just the expression of the psychic pain there and then. Here are some answers given on that thread:

Why is it whenever I'm the fish, I never get lucky? 
Why does the f***ing donk have to have his moment of luck against me?!! 
Every time I build up a roll, I lose it.
Why do I not get that critical bit of luck?
Every **** time I go against a lagtard he has AA.
He makes a play that deserves punishment and instead he gets the miracle flop and busts me.
Please hold, please hold, please hold, please hold, bugger. 
Why can I never win a **** flip?
I don’t win flips.
Why me?

If you wish to try this exercise yourself, I suggest you start by writing down as much as you can about your thoughts on exiting each tournament. Remember to try to do it as it happens, or at least to remember the actual thoughts as they happen and try to remember them as accurately as possible when you write them down later.

The aim of this part of the therapy – which we shall call stage 1 – is to externalise your thought processes so you can analyse them later and see how it makes you feel to revisit those feelings. We want to get you out of the loop which consists of suffering the pain, venting about it, and then just going back to the same process (via the same old coping mechanism).

Next month we will move on to the analysis section. In CAT this would be done one-on-one with a therapist. For the purposes of a column, I will try to categorise these core pain statements above (and any more you care to email/twitter/facebook/Hendon Mob me until then) so that we can analyse them in order to suggest new and better coping mechanisms.

Follow Alex Rousso’s blog at: www.nibetambassadors.com/alexrousso

This article first appeared in Bluff Europe magazine