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Memento Mori

I have put a lot of effort in my life trying to control what happens to me, and that I have choices and options for dealing with events that may occur. I wanted and got an education, I lived within my means, and did pretty much what I needed to do to be in control and to minimize being controlled by outside forces.  

With the recent turn of events that you are all aware of, it has been a reminder that I am not in control as much as I would like to think.

A few months ago I read a book called The Biggest Bluff, by Maria Konnikova.  It was a very interesting read, and with the events of the past few weeks, it has taken on greater meaning to me.

The author is a psychologist that studies people’s perception of how much control they have over situations.  How do people respond when placed in uncertain situations, with incomplete information?

She found that over and over, people would overestimate the degree of control or skill (I’m going to use those words interchangeably) they have over events.  Basically, we humans too often think ourselves in firm control when we are actually really playing by the rules of chance. 

As part of her studies she came across John von Neumann’s Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. He was not a fan of games of chance except for poker, particularly no limit Texas Hold ‘em. 

Quoting from the book, “For poker, unlike quite any other game, mirrors life.  It isn’t the roulette wheel of pure chance, nor is it the chess of mathematical elegance and perfect information.  Like the world we inhabit, it consists of an inextricable joining of the two.  Poker stands at the fulcrum that balances two oppositional forces in our lives – chance and control.  Anyone can get lucky – or unlucky – at a single hand, a single game, a single tournament.  One turn and you’re on top of the world – another, you are cast out, no matter your skill, training, preparation, aptitude. 

Poker has a mathematical foundation, but with a dose of human intention, interaction, psychology – nuance, deception, little tricks that don’t quite reflect reality but help you gain an edge over others.  Humans aren’t rational.  Information isn’t open to all.  There are no rules of behavior, only norms and suggestions – and within certain broad constraints, anyone might break those norms at any point. Real life is based on making the best decisions you can from information that can never be complete; you never know someone else’s mind, just like you can never know any poker hand but your own.  Real life is not about modeling the mathematically optimal decisions.  It’s about discerning the hidden, the uniquely human.  It’s about realizing that no amount of formal modeling will ever be able to capture the vagaries and surprises of human nature.”

Texas Hold ‘em creates a particularly useful balance between skill and chance.  Two hole cards is just about as practical a ratio as you can have; enough unknown to make the game a good simulation of life, but not so much that it becomes a total crapshoot.  Also, the ability to go ‘all in’ is what makes the game a particularly strong metaphor for our daily decision making.  Because in life, there is never a limit: there is no external restriction to betting everything you have on any given decision.  What’s to stop you from risking all your money, your reputation, your heart, even your life at any point you choose?  Nothing. There are no rules, only some internal calculus that only you are privy to.  Any everyone around you has to know that when they make their decisions; knowing you can go all in, how much should they themselves invest? 

It’s an endless game of brinkmanship.  Who will say ‘I love you’ first, going all in on the relationship, and if you say it, will you be left out?  Who will walk away from the business negotiation?  Who will wage war?  The ability to go all in is the crucial variable that makes so many decisions so very difficult

So, to better understand this pull between skill or control versus luck, the author decided to learn to play poker with the goal of being in the WSOP within one year.  It is a very interesting read on her journey, her interviews and coaching from some of the top poker players in the world, and what she learned about herself.

There is a lot of great information in this book, but I want to share with you a few observations that really hit home with me.

One thing I learned was how little I actually know about how poker is really played.  Warren Buffett is claimed to have said that if you sit down at the poker table and in 15 minutes you haven’t found the chump, you’re the chump.  This helped me see that when I’m at the table, why I’m usually the chump.

But seriously, I want to share the following observations from the book that I found very meaningful:

First, life is uncertain.  We can’t know everything.  We can’t control it all, no matter how much we think we may be able to.  Chance is just chance; it is neither good nor bad nor personal.  The most we can do is learn to control what we can – our thinking, our decision processes, our reactions. 

The stoic philosopher Epictetus writes; ‘Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and in a word, whatever are our own actions.  Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command and in a word, whatever are not our own actions.  If we cannot do it ourselves, we cannot control it.  We control how we play the hand, how we react to its outcome, but that outcome itself – that we don’t control.

We don’t know what will happen.  We never can.  There is no skill in birth and death. At the beginning and at the end, luck reigns unchallenged.  We can never see beyond the present moment.  We never know what the next card will be and we don’t even know when we see it if its good or bad. 

Buddhist proverb. Horse runs away. Bad, maybe.  Horse returns with 10 wild horses. Good, maybe. Son breaks leg breaking in one of the feral horses. Bad, maybe. War declared and all able-bodied young men are conscripted, but son not since he had broken leg.  Good, maybe. We’ll see. 

When we see the next card we can’t immediately know if it’s good or bad.

Second, because life is life, luck will always be a factor in anything we might do or undertake.  Skill can open up new vistas, new choices, allow us to see the chance that others less skilled than us, less observant or less keen, may miss – but should chance go against us, all our skill can do is mitigate the damage.

And the biggest bluff of all?  That skill or control can EVER be enough.  But this is the hope that allows us to move forward in those moments when luck is most stacked against us, the useful delusion that lets us push on rather than give up.  We don’t know, we can’t ever know, if we’ll manage or not.  But we must convince ourselves that in the end, our skill will be enough to carry the day.  Because it has to be.

Next, the fact that we are even here.  Think of all the ovum and spermatozoa that exists and has existed that never created life.  I quote from Richard Dawkins, author of Unweaving the Rainbow.  Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born.  The potential people who could have been here in my place but who in fact will never see the light of day outnumber the grains of sand of Arabia.  Certainly, those unborn ghosts include poets greater than Keats and scientists greater than Newton. 

It’s mind-boggling to even consider.  In the teeth of these stupefying odds, it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.  We are here, and we have the chance to experience life, in all its vicissitudes, all its unfairness, all its noise. 

Out of countless billions – trillions, quintillions, more than the mind is capable of imagining – of possible people who were never to be, we are the ones who are here.  We have won the impossible, improbable lottery of birth.

Finally, and most importantly, life happens, and through it all we play.  We play, gaining perspective, survival skills, the strength, and knowledge to be the conqueror rather than the conquered.  We play, and acknowledge, with the full force of the outside world, just how lucky we are to be sitting at the table, to have a chance to even play the game.    

Memento Mori!

Britt Kauffman, Past Master

March 3rd, 2022

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