Life Choices

Dealing with Downswings in Poker

In three out of last six months and five out of last 11, I have lost money playing poker. In the 12 months before that, I lost money in only one. I am playing the worst poker of my life. And it doesn’t seem like I am any closer to turning things around.

I am writing this on a Sunday, the biggest day of the week for a poker player, dropping today’s grind. Before I play another hand, I have decided to take a break to investigate what the fuck is going on. And hopefully, you can use some of this to steer out of your own downswing if and when it occurs.


FACTS

At the end of each month, I take stock of my poker results and add notes on events that influenced the results. Thanks to this, I have a clear hindsight and I can see my current downswing rooted in the past.

POKER FACTS

1. Variance

Without data, I can't say for sure that I have run bad or it is just selective memory bias. Any half-decent poker player will tell you that they don't remember the times they sucked out on someone else as much as when they were on the receiving end. Keeping this in mind, I do believe that I ran below EV in critical spots in tourneys or in big pots in cash games.

2. Volume

The number of hours I spent playing went down considerably - 'Didn't play enough' features in my notes in 6 of the last 9 months.

This is a problem. Putting in volume is a way to deal with variance. Poker players pride themselves on making decisions which may turn out to be wrong in that instance but are +EV long term. The long term is achieved by playing a lot of hands so that the variance evens out and the effect of your +EV decisions shines through. And the shorter and fewer sessions I put in didn’t help in this regard.

3. Distributed effort

I am primarily a cash game player but I’ve experimented with tournaments with decent success.

Mixing cash and tournaments is actually a pretty good strategy but I went in without any proper plan. I played tournaments without discretion (although within the rules of BRM). This reduced my cash game time (which is my main source of income) and introduced more variance.

4. Study

While I watched more videos, I did much less off the table hands-on work. In terms of pure technical knowledge, I know more than I ever did in my poker career. But I executed a much smaller percentage of what I learnt.

Why I didn't apply those skills is the mental game weakness.

5. Mental Game

I’ve been a professional when it came to dealing with swings, bad beats, or with someone saying bullshit in the chat. But the mental game slump sneaked up on me - the first big red sign was when for the first time I started considering moving up to cover the losses (which thankfully I didn’t pursue for long).

mental game over time

Often I showed up with my B-game or C-game. Auto-piloting, just clicking buttons. When I was all in a certain spot with say an over-pair against top pair, I would expect getting five outer-ed. I knew I’d lose flips or get my Aces cracked against Kings or run into Aces with my Kings and not get there.

There was a tangible shift in mentality, it was like I had resigned to the idea of losing even in way ahead situations. I would hero call in spots where I knew the villain is never bluffing, and make over elaborate bluffs and then wonder why did I get called.

As to the reason why this happened, it could be as simple as not paying attention to the mind. The way our body needs exercise to stay fit, the mind also needs workout to keep it in good shape, whether it is by meditation or reading books. Furthermore, it is also affected by your life outside poker.


LIFE FACTS

1. Higher Expenses

In the last 12 months, I have spent twice the amount I spent in the 12 months before that (I got married and went on more vacations).

If I am honest with myself, I do think that higher expenses brings pressure and affects the game. It is not all about the money, but also about missing days where I could have put in a grind instead. Unlike a salaried employee, every day we are not on our job, we don’t get paid

I am a flow-player meaning that I perform better when I am playing on a regular schedule. Even though I relished the wedding and the vacations, these breaks ruptured that momentum. Having said this, it is a lifestyle I chose - traveling, enjoying life and playing poker. So the onus is on me to get better at managing the breaks.

2. Unfit body, unfit mind

I have become a not so proud owner of the Indian epidemic called the beer belly. Binge drinking and smoking became a norm. My food habits aren’t the best. And I have nothing to show for in the name of physical exercise.

It should surprise no one that this has a direct correlation with my performance. Alcohol and drugs affect the ability to focus for a sustained period of time. The morning after, I felt drowsy and not capable to think deeply about spots. I felt returning to auto-pilot mode often because I had no stamina left.

Goa monsoons didn’t help either. At the onset, sure it looked green and beautiful. But with time, when I couldn’t go to the beach for a run, or see the sun for days, my mood became as overcast as the sky above.

3. Loneliness

Even before getting married, my wife and I stayed together - so there was no change in that. The friends I had here moved away either geographically or emotionally. With the kind of lifestyle I (and my wife) have - working from home, rarely stepping out - I didn’t meet a lot of new people either. During most days, I said hello to more birds and animals than humans.

This solitude of living in a Goan village got to me. I grew concerned about my mental health as I could see it precipitating into something more serious.

4. No creative outlet

I wrote five articles in 2017 and 13 in 2016. In 2018, I published one.

The reason I got into poker was to sustain my writing. But somewhere along the way, I forgot that initial purpose and focused just on poker. At least I thought I did. What actually happened was that the unsatisfied creative urge to produce something bred discontent and disillusion with poker. The dissatisfaction manifested itself in a sense of futility and a lackadaisical attitude towards the game.

I remember the feeling of waking up in the morning and springing out of the bed so that I can study and play poker. I don't feel that way anymore. The motivation to play the game to enjoy it is not there. Sure, I want to play the game for money but it's not like before where I used to play because I actually enjoyed the game.

5. Indifference towards money

I became numb to losing money. Some of my biggest single day losing sessions came in this period. I stopped caring about money not because I am super rich but because I don't see more money equaling more contentment or happiness.

The detachment with money comes as part of the job description. When we see daily swings which can sometimes equal someone's monthly salary, you stop looking at money as something that is hard to get. It is not bad per se but when it affects your decisions on the table, when you make that big hero call because ‘Fuck you, fuck me, fuck everyone,’ then it becomes a problem.


THERE HAVE BEEN SOME POSITIVES

  • The losses haven't been that big because of my low volume and a conservative BRM. I am disciplined with my bankroll management and that has allowed me to not worry about my personal financial situation.

  • I dropped down the stakes. So the mistakes I make are not as costly as before.

  • I still believe in my ability to bounce back. Self-confidence, which has come from hours of study and playing is holding me in good stead.

  • PSL Season 2 runner up spot was pretty sweet.


WHAT ARE MY SOLUTIONS?

If you are not doing well in life with say your relationships or mental health, it is unlikely that you will get good results on the felt. A single bad beat will bring forth all the negative emotions and cause you to play worse. So my focus is on improving my life outside poker first.

LIFE SOLUTIONS

1. Moving to Bangalore

At the end of this month, I will move to Bangalore. When you are in a rut, a change of any kind can work wonders. And I am hoping it does.

The move will solve a lot of problems in one go. I have a lot of close friends there which should help curing loneliness. The sports and fitness infrastructure is better so I can do a physical activity regularly. Additionally, I hope to channel city’s energy into my life outside poker.

2. Getting fitter, eating healthier, quitting smoking

These are non-negotiable not just for poker but for life in general.

3. Creation over consumption

The easiest way to find time for writing would be to forego Netflix and such. I also intend to fill my days with things that give me contentment like art and culture. The idea is to live everyday and not postpone it to an imagined future.

4. Mindset training

Even though I wrote about a daily meditation habit, I haven’t been able to put it in practice. That is going to change.

I also want to read more Non-Fiction (Books like When, Deep Work are great to help you live at the peak of your abilities). And of course poker specific - The Mental Game of Poker (I read this early in my career. Now it needs refreshing and reading of the second part).

POKER SOLUTIONS

1. Staying at lower stakes till I get my winning mindset back.

2. Designing my grind as a professional

An elite athlete in any sport probably has a schedule for his work out, practice and pre-game rituals designed to put him in a situation where he can perform at the peak of his abilities. I need something similar.

So the days where I lazily open a lobby and stumble upon a table would be gone. Instead, pre-session rituals, vigilance and restorative breaks, autopilot checks will come in. A target for number of hands/hours to play per week, which tournaments to play will be set. This structure should also help in allowing me to play well even between vacations solving another problem.

I still have a lot of work to do on what it means to be a ‘professional’ in this game. I'll probably post a short post when I have it in proper form.

3. Studying a lot more in a structured method

HH reviews, working with software, videos and a coach. Setting a target for number of hours/week for each of these.


PARTING THOUGHTS

One last thing I want to talk about is envy.

I never got into poker thinking that I want to be the best poker player in the world. But seeing endless brag posts of people made me crave that too. The FOMO kicked in and when I looked at others succeeding, I wanted that success for myself. Even though my definition of success was not about making a certain amount of money or winning a marquee tournament. I accepted, mistakenly so, other people's ambitions as my own without realizing the trade-offs they are making.

I don't know if envy had an affect on my game but it certainly degraded my mental health.

The hardest thing in life is to find your own truth amidst all the noise and the gyaan and have the courage to pursue it. The Instagram culture we are a part of, induces a feeling of discontent at not doing cool things.

What I would suggest to you is to find your own truth, whatever it may be. If it is to grind 16 hours a day for a cash games leaderboard, then go for it. If it is to be able to have a regular source of income while working a day job but still be able to play some tournaments on the side, then so be it.

The truth for me is to write, play poker at a competitive level, be able to pay my bills, save for the future, travel and be fit. Creating a balance between them is my responsibility which I need to work on away from the table. And I hope to be back as a mentally, physically and skillswise improved professional.

If you want to talk about poker, mental health or life in general, feel free to ping ( mj [at] mayankja [dot] in ). I may not be an expert in this field, but I have found that letting your feelings out is often the first step in healing. As a sounding board, I am here. Cheers and good luck on the tables.

Further Reading:

Wait But Why’s article on Choosing a Career has a useful exercise on creating priorities when you want to do a lot of things. I am going to do that and I’d recommend it to you too.

If you like this post and want to receive emails on any new post I write, leave your email address here.

Playing Poker for a Living - A Complete Breakdown

The first thing my mother asked when I told her that I've quit my job and plan to play poker for a living was, "That's gambling, right?" Since she is my mom, and trusts me, a simple "No, it's not. It is a skill game," was enough to put her mind at ease. But it takes a lot more than that to convince the skeptics.

This post will try and explain that about poker. It will be a detailed breakdown of why I chose this profession, how the daily life of a poker player looks like and if this is something you should get into. We’ll also talk about money.

There are three aims of this post:

  1. For non-players, to give an inside look into what it entails to play poker for a living.
  2. For amateurs thinking of taking the game seriously, what it takes to make the jump.
  3. For poker professionals, an echo of thoughts, sharing struggles and victories.

Not all sections will be relevant to all the three groups; pick the ones you like. Here’s what follows:

  • What is Poker and Its Legal Status
  • Is Poker Gambling?
  • My Beginnings
  • The Journey Thus Far
  • Skills Needed
  • Let's Talk About Money
  • Good Way To Make A Living?
  • A Usual Day At The Office
  • A Little Bit About Live Poker
  • Where To Play
  • Future Of Poker

For the ones who don’t know about the game, let’s start with a quick introduction.


WHAT IS POKER AND ITS LEGAL STATUS

Poker is a card-based skill game that involves exchange of money. It has many variants and the most popular one is called Texas No-limit Hold'em, which is what I play. When most people say poker, this is what they mean. Other variations include Pot-Limit Omaha, Razz, Open Face Chinese etc.

The poker sites and rooms make money by charging rake. Rake is a percentage of every pot that is taken away - you can imagine it as a commission fees. It is usually anywhere from 2.5% - 5% of the pot with a cap on the total amount.

Most poker variations are played in two formats: Cash Games and Tournaments.

Cash games is where you show up with as much money you want (upto the maximum buy-in), and play with that. The stakes are fixed and are rarely increased as the game goes on.

In tournaments, everyone starts with the same amount of playing chips. As the game progresses, players are eliminated, and at the end a small percentage get the money, while the rest go empty handed. For example, in the last tournament I played, everyone paid Rs. 35k for the entry; there were 294 entries and  top 30 people were paid. The guy who got eliminated at the 30th place got Rs. 61k, and the winner got Rs. 27 lacs.

The legal status of poker varies in different countries. In some places, online poker is banned, while live poker in casinos is allowed. For example, Las Vegas is the mecca of poker players but online poker is banned in the US save for a few states. Then there are places like London, where both live and online poker thrive.

In India, online poker is legal. Live poker is legal in casinos or poker rooms in select few places - Goa, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Kolkata, Gangtok. Indian government treats poker under its gambling laws and a tax of flat 30% is applicable on your winnings.


IS POKER GAMBLING?

I think I may not have told my mom the complete truth.

By definition, to gamble is to play games of chance for money. Technically, this makes poker gambling. But the real answer is neither as straightforward, nor is it binary.

Here's what I'll tell you - Poker is a skill based game with an element of luck. Given a long enough duration (which we poker players call long-term), the better player will win against a worse player. We’ll take an example to understand these concepts a bit more.

Let’s say you decide to flip a coin 100 times against a friend. You bet Rs. 10 on Heads every single time, and your friend bets the same amount on Tails. The betting odds are 1:1. This means that for every flip you win, your friend gives you Rs. 10 above your bet and vice versa.

If the coin is not rigged, you can expect to win exactly Rs. 0 after 100 flips. The probability of Heads on a coin flip is 50%; half the time you'll win 10 bucks per flip and lose 10 per flip the other half.

Your Winnings = (50%*100)*10

Your Losses = (50%*100)*(-10 )

This coin toss is a net break even game. Your expected value (EV) from this game is 0.

But here's the thing: Each coin toss is an individual event. The coin itself doesn't know what it showed last time - Heads or Tails. Each individual outcome is independent of the previous one. So it is also possible that 70 out of 100 flips (or even all 100 of them!) show Tails and you lose.

  An unlucky day at the coin flip tournament. Hit by statistical probability.

An unlucky day at the coin flip tournament. Hit by statistical probability.

The coin flip follows the laws of probability and statistics but it is not bound by the sample size. Just like we don’t expect the coin to show one Heads and the other Tails in 2 back to back flips, we shouldn’t expect it to show 50 each out of 100 times.

This is called variance - deviation from the norm, from our expected results.  

In poker, just like a coin flip, each individual hand is different from the other and is independent of the previous outcome. In a coin flip, if we go long-term, by increasing the sample size to say a billion flips, the distribution should be equally weighted between Heads and Tails. Similarly, if two poker players play each other a billion hands, they can expect to get the same cards and situations equally.

Now the question arises: If both the sides can expect to have the best hand or the worst hand equal number of times, wouldn’t this be a break even game? No. This is where poker differs from a coin flip or any other purely probabilistic game.

You'll be dealt winning hands, and losing hands. The aim then is to extract the most value from your winning hands and minimise losses from your losing hands. This is called MinMax. Minimise losses - Maximise winnings.

Sidenote 1: Minimise losses doesn’t just mean losing the least money when you have a worse hand. It might also mean bluffing your opponent off of a better hand - in this case you are making money even when you have the losing hand.

How do we do that? This is what separates good players from bad. And where the skill comes in. So if an amateur wins against a better player 3 days in a row, it is variance. But, if this happens over a year, then our presumptions about who is a better player are wrong.


MY BEGINNINGS

Just like most people I know who play poker, I was introduced to the game in college. As broke college students, we didn't play for a lot of money - 100 bucks at max. The big winner would then take everyone out to the canteen for a treat. When we couldn’t borrow playing chips, we used matchsticks, or another deck of cards as play money. The setup was quite rudimentary.

The games continued when I started working, this time with proper chips. Stakes increased, nothing excessive, but reasonably higher than before. Poker nights became a thing. The biggest game I played was in the casinos in Goa. But it was just a handful of times as an amateur. And that was that.

Then in 2016, I got into it a lot more. I had money and time to spend. There were no obligations (house, car, family, loans) so I could afford an expensive hobby - and that's what it was at the time. I started playing a lot of home games and discovered Adda52.com - a poker site.

Here we'll take a quick leap across time to go back into the past - to a 13-14 year old me:

I was playing a lot of sports at the time and was competent at most. If two captains were choosing a team, I would be one of the early ones to get picked. And I entertained the dream of becoming a professional sportsperson. My father, who used to be a Table Tennis player/coach in his younger days, encouraged me to take up Snooker since I showed an inclination towards it. But, it was an expensive game; the hourly rates were prohibitively high for me. Around the same time, I had a serious injury which rendered me unable to play sports for a few years. So, the dream had to be put aside.

Coming to the recent past, during my college days, I picked up Snooker again (the hourly rates were ridiculously low). But it was just a hobby; a very time-consuming, entertaining and fulfilling hobby. It was too late to think about becoming a professional snooker player. To become world-class at any sport, you have to start young. Ronnie o' Sullivan, my snooker hero, and quite possibly the most talented snooker player in history, started playing at the age of 6. I couldn’t expect to start at 18 and think of becoming a good professional.

The point of these two stories is to tell you that playing a sport professionally would have been a dream come true for me. Cut back to the present and we see that I have discovered poker websites. A bulb lit up. What if I could do this for a living?

This was also at a time when I was thinking of quitting my job and finding a new location-independent income stream. I wrote about this in an earlier post (the one about my relocation to Goa). Playing online poker seemed to fit the bill. So, I decided to give it a shot. And by the time I quit my job in December 2015, I was on my path to make poker my profession.


THE JOURNEY THUS FAR

The first few months of grinding (that's our term for playing poker as a job) were difficult. The most common fallacy among poker players, especially amateurs, is that they believe themselves to be much better than they actually are. I wasn't immune to it either.

When I started, I thought I knew what the game was, I had my moves, and felt that my opponents are doing stupid things and getting lucky. Of course it wasn't true, but in a state of mind clouded by the haze of bad results, it's difficult to recognize it in real time. And I lost a bit of money.

Losing money wasn't the problem. It was in a sense that I had limited savings to experiment this new income stream with. But the real problem was that I didn't know what I was doing wrong.

I had assumed that poker was a simple game. I was wrong. As I wasn’t studying enough, the complexities of the game caught me by surprise. It was the classic case of not knowing what you don’t know.

I started playing at 2/4, 3/6 and 5/10 - at a buy-in of 300, 500 and 750 respectively. The simple fact that I was playing such varied stakes goes to show how bad of a poker professional I was. This is not the way to play. You have to find a stake you are good at, beat that level, and then move to the next one.

After the first few months of losing (mostly online, some live home games for fun), I started spending more time on learning the game. I read articles, watched YouTube lessons, read books and discussed strategy with a friend who was a better player than me at the time.

Gradually, I leveled up to playing 5/10 exclusively (for a maximum buy-in of 1200) and started beating those games. Around the same time, a friend offered to stake me and I began taking shots at 10/20 (for Rs. 2000 buy-in).

Sidenote 2: Staking - Here's how it works: a person gives you money to play poker and you share the winnings with that person. The benefit to the investor is that he gets to make money without expending any effort (with a risk of loss). The player’s benefit is that he gets to take shots at higher stakes with a lower risk exposure. The exact terms of the deal (% winnings and % loss shared) depend upon the two individuals.

In a few months, a combination of studying, running good, and a confidence boost from the arrangement (the fact that someone else trusted my skills gave me a lift) led me to move up to 10/20 permanently.

Sidenote 3: Running good means falling on the positive side of statistical distribution. In our coin flip example, where you lost 70 flips out of 100, you would be said to be running bad, and your opponent would be running good.

By this time I was turning in a regular profit. Hence, with the new found belief that I can make poker my profession, I relocated to Goa.

Current State: I have now graduated up to 25/50 (with a max buy-in of Rs. 6000) playing 4 tables at a time. I prefer cash games over tournaments but if there is a good value tournament, I don’t mind giving it a shot.

PITFALLS ALONG THE JOURNEY

Poker is an emotionally challenging game. Imagine losing 10 coin flips in a row, and having the emotional maturity to be able to convince yourself that it’s OK, in the long term, you’ll end up break even. In poker, there are situations where you are a percentage favorite (say 99%) to win the hand, you made the best play, but the last card comes out to be one of the 1% times when you lose.

The solace that a good poker professional seeks in such situations is in knowing that he made the best play. The opponent got lucky once, but the rest 99 times, you’ll make money. But here's the problem: You cannot expect that the 1% will occur every 99 times. It is a possibility that it happens twice or thrice or any number of times in a row.

  Replace The guy on the right with Computer Screen/Wall/Keyboard

Replace The guy on the right with Computer Screen/Wall/Keyboard

At times like these, rationality, logic and analytical thinking goes down the drain. Emotions take over and you start questioning your game play and basically become a wreck. In such situations, having the emotional stability to look beyond the immediate results, is the hallmark of a great poker player. And it takes time to develop. It certainly took me a lot of time to improve at.

I’ve had nights where I lost a lot because of variance. If you are not emotionally detached to the immediate results, this run-bad will cause you to play worse and it becomes a vicious cycle. It pushed me to the verge of quitting a few times.

This leads perfectly to our next section - the skills needed to become a professional poker player.


SKILLS NEEDED

In my experience so far, here is my top 4 list:

1. Focus - It is not uncommon for an online poker session to be 12 hours long. Live poker sessions can even go on for days. My last tournament started at 7 p.m. and ended at 4.30 a.m. and that was just the first day. The ability to focus deeply for an extended period of time thus becomes a critical skill to succeed. If you are easily distracted, this is probably not for you.

2. Discipline - Let's be honest, Poker is a little bit like gambling. It is easy to be running good and perceive yourself as being a great player and take shots at higher stakes. The ability to play within your Bankroll (We'll explore this concept later) and have the discipline to put in regular hours of studying is thus vital.

3. Analytical Mind - A lot of poker players have a background in strategy games like chess or video games. This is not to say that it is a necessity to be a good chess player, but the ability to break things down to basics is a huge plus.

4. Emotional Stability - As we learnt in the pitfalls during my journey, even during a run bad, you should have the emotional stability to look past the trees and see the forest. Decisions in poker are based on the expected value of an action. Even though you might lose in a particular instance, being able to commend yourself for making the right play is a good sign.

A lot of poker players, including myself, work on their mental game extensively. It is a big part of the profession and there are coaches who work with you just for that. To lose money and still be able to have a sound sleep, and function normally in your relationships and daily life is a skill that needs to be developed.


LET’S TALK ABOUT MONEY

I was talking about playing poker on Reddit, and people asked me a few questions about making money. I’ll answer some here.

Q. How many months in a year can you expect to be in profit?

I don’t think this is the right question to ask because it is irrelevant. You can have more losing months in a year yet still end up net positive for the year and vice versa.

This is especially true for tournament players for whom a big score usually skews the results of one month or sometimes a whole year. But I am a cash game player, and even though a downswing of one month isn't unheard of (and not un-experienced either), I have had more positive months over the last 12 months than negative. Here's a graph of my cummulative results (the numbers aren't there, but the trajectory is true).

  As you can see, I've had a few negative months, but the net effect is positive

As you can see, I've had a few negative months, but the net effect is positive

Sidenote 4: Downswing -  A long streak of losses/run bad.

Q. How much can you expect to make?

Simple Answer - Good amount of money. This amount is based on a lot of ‘Ifs’. If you: study enough, select good games, play your A-game a big % of the time, run well and a whole lot of other factors.

Complicated Answer - Winrate in poker is usually calculated on the basis of BB/100 which is Big Blinds per 100 hands. So if you play 1000 hands in a day, 20 days a month, and you make Rs. 50000 playing on 10/20, your winrate would be (50,000*100/20*1000*20) = 12.5 which is great. A winrate of 12.5BB per 100 will put you in the top 1-2% of players. A more realistic winrate could be anywhere from 5-7BB/100. Really good players can reach 10BB/100 and higher.

Q. How much money do you need to start playing poker?

Simple Answer - The games are available at all stakes starting as low as for Rs. 100. If your question was how much you need to be able to make this a living, then the answer would be you need enough to survive the inevitable downswing without punching your monitor.

Complicated Answer - This is the part where most people fail, even some pros: Bankroll Management (BRM). Bankroll is the amount of money you have. As a poker player, you need to have two BRs - life bankroll and poker bankroll.

BRM is a way to manage your poker bankroll in such a way that it minimises the effects of negative variance. If you are a true professional, this is one of the key areas which you would have to master. I have been guilty of misusing my bankroll at times, and it has come back to bite me in the ass. Let me explain.

Let's say you have Rs. 1 lac to play poker. You like two games - one at 10/20 with max buy-in of Rs. 2k and the other at 100/200 with max buy-in of Rs. 20k.

Good BRM would tell you that former is the game to choose. In latter case, you have a 5 buy-in cushion. But, that's not enough to handle the inevitable downswing. What if your 99% hands lose against 1% hands 5 times in a row? You will end up broke.

Personally, I have experienced a downswing of 10-15 buy-ins. I have read stories of people experiencing 40 buy-ins downswings too. And they were not bad players. As a rule of thumb, on a conservative side, I'd recommend a bankroll of 100 buy-ins. I don't always follow this rule, I wish I did, but do as I say, not as I do.

A more practical approach would be to play with a 40-60 buy-in bankroll. But anything below this would be inviting trouble. If you don't have that much money, drop down the stakes, build your bankroll and then move up.

A bad beat doesn't care about the stake you are playing. It doesn't care that you are playing well and have just made good winnings on a lower level and are now taking a shot at a higher level. It cares only about statistics and probability. It might strike you the hardest when you are taking shot at a higher level, or it might also smile on you.

If you are a professional, better not take a chance.

Q. Which is better - Cash Games or Tournaments?

It depends on your goals with poker. These three basic differences should make it clear:

1. Nature of Earnings - If you are a good player, you can expect to have a decent regular income from cash games. It may not be big, but it will be fairly regular. The effects of variance are not pronounced.

On the other hand, tournaments are high-variance in nature. So, even if you are a very good player, you can expect to have long dry spells; or find yourself winning life-changing money in a single day.

2. Fame and Glory - The way you have trophies in other sports, we have Bracelets for esteemed Poker Tournament winners. And it is a matter of great pride to win a bracelet. There is no such tangible reward for a good cash game player.

Here’s a short documentary called 10 for 10 about Martin Jacobson, the winner of 2015 World Series of Poker. It is the most prestigious poker tournament in the world, and awarded $10 million for the winner.

  Look at all that money and the big shiny bracelet - Martin Jacobson, 2015 WSOP Main Event Winner

Look at all that money and the big shiny bracelet - Martin Jacobson, 2015 WSOP Main Event Winner

3. Schedule Constraints - Most good tournaments (online) are scheduled over the weekend. So, you need to plan your schedule around that. There is no such constraint with cash games - you choose when you want to play.


GOOD WAY TO MAKE A LIVING?

There's a popular saying about the game: "Poker is a hard way to make easy money." And I couldn't have put it across any better. Let's break it down into Pros and Cons:

PROS:

1. Freedom of time and schedule - I fix my own schedule. I decide how long I want to play, when I want to play. Sometimes, if I am not feeling up to it, I read a book, or watch a movie.

2. BYOB (Be Your Own Boss) - Need I explain further?

3. It is challenging - Just like any competitive sport, it is a challenging game. Even if you start beating the players at your stakes, there will always be a level up or a newer variant of the game for you to master. It keeps the game fresh and invigorating. There is nothing like a good challenge to keep your brain cells young and healthy.

4. Location independence - I have played poker from the mountains of Dharmasala while watching the sun set behind the mountains, to the sound of the flowing river as a furry dog jumped around trying to catch a sparrow. I have played poker in my underwear in my house in Goa. I have played at Cafes and in friends' houses (fully clothed). If location independence is your dream, it’s a great profession.

Not just online, but live as well. Poker tournaments are hosted all over the world in some exotic places. Casinos can be found in a lot of countries. So if you choose to be a live player, the regular travel to tournaments or casinos and meeting new people could be really satisfying.

5. Money - Of course there's money to be made in poker. A lot of money. You won't become a billionaire. A millionaire, yes, if you work hard at it. And having poker as a skill means that you can go in any poker room and expect to make money - so it’s like having your own money fountain.

CONS:

1. Not enough freedom - Remember what I said earlier about freedom of time and money, it's there but it’s not absolute. Here's the thing - unlike a regular job, where you get paid even during a holiday, poker doesn't pay you for a day off. Call it opportunity cost. So, if you choose to spend your free time watching a movie, you will have to ask yourself as to whether that time could be better used studying.

2. BYOB - With most professions where you set your own deadlines, it can be hard to be disciplined.

3. It is challenging - A simple fact of the game of poker is that you make money by playing against players who are worse than you. Unlike a few years ago, today there are a larger % of people who are good at the game. The sheer number of resources - both free and paid makes it dead simple to learn the game quickly and in a better way.

Hence, the game is only getting tougher. And if you are relying on this to make you money, this could be a problem if you aren't learning faster than others are.

4. Emotionally Taxing - You need to have a very clear head to be good at the game. I have punched walls and screamed in frustration after getting unlucky a few times in a row even after making the correct play. All that was earlier in my poker journey and much before I became a better professional.

5. Search for contentment and fulfillment - Before I got into poker, I had an inkling that this will be a problem. Poker is a negative-sum game. For you to make money, not only does the other player have to lose money, but you also have to make more than the amount of rake you are paying the site.

Grinding each day, playing cards, without making an impact in the real world can make people unfulfilled. It is not a spectator sport to an extent that say Tennis is. So whereas Tennis players can rejoice in the fact that they provide entertainment to their fans, and find fulfillment in that; poker players can't. Sure, some events are televised, but it’s much harder for a newbie to be hooked to poker than tennis.

I have read personal stories, spoken to people who have expressed the same sense of emptiness. I had a feeling that I might be prone to it and that is why I have my writing to balance it off - to satisfy my creative urges, to create something for the world.

So, if you are thinking of getting into poker professionally, having something to balance it off would be a good idea to counter fatigue especially if you look at it as a 10-15 year career.


A USUAL DAY AT THE OFFICE

I wake up 10-11ish; do my morning rituals followed by exercise. I make a quick breakfast - most days I eat cereal with milk - helps keep things simple. A little bit of Start with Art and then I get to writing. Writing doesn't happen daily but I try to make it a practice to sit down for sometime and write. A few days, I go to the pool for a swim.

I take a break to make lunch, shower, eating and then some lazing around. I try to get my meditation in between. The evenings are beautiful here in Goa, so I make it a point to spend some time outdoors  - walks, grocery shopping, beach visits, or sitting in the porch and bird-watching (quite literally) or reading.

At dusk, I fire up my poker session. Depending upon the action, and if there are any tournaments scheduled, I squeeze in daily study time. It doesn't always happen but I'd like to take out more time to study. I take a break for dinner and then end the session around midnight. An hour or two of winding down follows and I call it a day.

Some weekends I am busier than usual, because good tournaments are lined up over the weekend. As I am busy most evenings, sometimes I choose to skip meeting friends and avoid social obligations. But, if I want to party, I go out partying. “The games will always be there tomorrow,” is what I tell myself.


A LITTLE BIT ABOUT LIVE POKER

I have played in home games, in poker rooms and in fancy casinos. I have played on beds, on mattresses, on floors, at dining tables, at restaurant tables, and at fancy poker tables. I have played drunk, high, and sometimes both (not recommended).

Playing live poker is a very enjoyable activity. Get a group of 6-7 people, get the banter going, order food, put on some music and it makes for a superb friday evening. Often the games go on till the wee hours of the morning, which is when you go out for a cup of tea at the roadside thela and discuss hands and the action. Just writing about it makes me crave for a good live poker session since I don't play live much anymore.

This is what makes this game great - the social aspect. You'll often find that people make it a regular part of their lives because of its entertainment value. I have made new friends at the poker table and shared laughs with many.

If you want to play live poker professionally, by all means go for it. Even though I like playing live, I can't do it regularly. Usually, the live games start late in the evening and go on till early morning which screws up your sleep cycle. The long hours and the lopsided schedule - I can't do it. Perhaps I am getting old (I am still 28 but the early 20s time feels such a long time ago), but I like a good sleep and a reasonable schedule.


WHERE TO PLAY

Online: I play almost exclusively on Adda52.com. It doesn’t have the best software but it has other positives. First, it has been around the longest. This makes it much safer to play there since you can trust them to handle your money with care (there’ve been cases of fraud by poker sites). Secondly, it has the  most number of active users. This ensures that there are games running at most times of the day.

Other popular sites are Spartan Poker (great tournament structures), PokerBaazi, Poker Ninja, FTR Poker, GoPoker, PokerHigh. I haven't played much on these sites except maybe some tourneys on Spartan. So, I won’t be able to comment on them with authority.

Live: If you want to play live, you can always find home games. Otherwise, there are poker rooms in Bangalore, Kolkata, Ahmedabad and Casinos in Goa and Sikkim. A news came in recently today that Indian Poker Association (IPA) is opening up new poker rooms in Radisson Blu, Delhi and a few other 5 star properties. Their plan is to open up more rooms in other cities like Rajkot, Indore, Varanasi, Kochi, Chennai too, which is great news for poker.

The logistics of playing online are simple - You deposit money via usual methods: Credit Card/Debit Card/Netbanking etc. And you can withdraw it directly to your bank account or via cheques. I use direct withdrawals to my bank account and they are smooth - usually happens within 2-3 days of raising a withdrawal request.

Then there are a bunch of international sites you can play on: PokerStars, 888 poker, TonyBet etc. I don't play much over there since deposits and withdrawals have been a hassle. But you’ll find many more active users on these sites, and a lot of different variations of the game.


FUTURE OF POKER

If you read the news recently, you would have found an article about how a computer beat some top poker players. Does it mean that computers can now beat poker players? The answer is No. That computer, called Libratus, beat humans at Heads-Up No Limit Hold'em. It is a subset of Texas No-limit Hold'em and it has much fewer decision trees. The popular variant isn't beaten yet.

This is not to say that I don't see a time that computers would completely be able to beat the game. AI is coming! The online version is seeing a barrage of new tools which help you improve as a poker player and tell you the Game Theory Optimal way of playing.

The edges between the top players are becoming smaller and smaller, which is true for most sports at elite level. But the difference between poker and other sports is that these edges directly relate to money in poker. In other sports, say two top football teams play each other 10 times. Both win 3 times each and draw the rest 4. They will still get paid because of tickets and TV rights. In poker, if the same scenario happens, both the players actually end up losing (because of rake).

Having said this, live poker would always be around. It is a fun, social and entertaining game and I don't see it going away any time sooner.

Talking specifically about India, this is a time of sharp growth. More number of poker sites are coming up than ever before. The people behind them are doing good to promote the game by conducting events in colleges and catching young players at an early stage. A new league on the lines of IPL called the Poker Sports League (PSL) will have its debut tournament this May. It has been running qualifiers for the past 4-5 months to shortlist the best poker players in the country. The 12 teams participating have reputable business houses as their owners. So the trajectory is looking up. 

As for me, poker has become an indispensable part of my life. Not only does it pay my bills, it also gives me immense joy to compete. If a day goes by without poker, something feels amiss. I have a long way to go, and I looking forward to move ahead and upwards on my poker journey.

Enjoyed the post? Please consider sharing. And let me know your thoughts in the comments below. 

READ NEXT: HOW TO UNDERSTAND ART - A MARK ROTHKO CASE STUDY

If you are not on the mailing list, you can leave your email address here. You'll receive notification of any new post.

I Relocated to Goa - Why, How and Status Report of The First 3 Months

Last year, in the second week of October, I moved to Goa.  This post is a story of why and how that happened. Also, my perspective on the good and the bad of living here.


THE WHY

Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Paul Graham, Elon Musk - these were the names I idolised a few years ago. Then, I built a startup, sold it off and was burnt out in the process. Building and running a startup was by far the most difficult thing I had done in my life and it exhausted me.

While recovering from my burn out, I discovered the joys of slow travel. I found new idols - Tim Ferriss, Levels, Chris Guillebeau, Derek Sivers, Mark Manson. I envied their lifestyles - regular travel, seeing new things, meeting new people, working on the move. I envied all this and what it represented - freedom of time and money, and flexibility of schedule. They pushed boundaries of human productivity and the breadth of their achievements enamored me.

I discovered the term 'Digital Nomad' and was instantly attracted towards it.

By the time I quit my job in December of 2015, I had figured out what I wanted - to be the master of my own schedule and fill my life with things that I consider meaningful - travel, writing and whatever else that might come up later. So, by mid-September, I decided to move out of Gurgaon to experience a new way of living. I do not yet know if it is the perfect lifestyle for me. But without making this move, I would never know.


MAKING THE SWITCH

The first step before moving was to find a location independent income stream. 

Writing seemed like a good option. But the number of people who knew about my work and were willing to pay for it was limited to my network (I had only a single self-published eBook to my name). As with any art form, it would take me time to make writing financially sustainable.

So, I started working on a few other things to make money. Meanwhile, my savings formed a safety net for me to try out this arrangement. It took almost 10 months, and many nights of self-doubt, struggling, and coming back from the brink of quitting, to find a somewhat reliable income stream (more on this in a future post).

During this time, I learnt some basic life skills like cooking, and developed a habit of doing my chores on my own, becoming more self-reliant in the process. People like The Minimalists and Leo Babauta showed me the path of Minimalism which helped reduce my financial and mental energy expense. I also learnt how to procrastinate less, create more and find more time for the fulfilling things in life. 

The next step was to pick a location. The criteria was - clean air, less traffic, nice weather all-year round, small town, culturally active, scenic and good internet. And it had to be cheap to live in. Even though my expenses were low, I didn't want to take any chances. Moving abroad was ruled out for the same reason.

A milieu of options came up - Coorg, Dharamsala, North East, Goa. Some suggested Mysore or Pune. I disregarded the last two because even though they are good cities in their own right, I did not want to move from one city to another, however small it may be. Coorg sounded pleasant but I doubted if I'd find enough things to keep myself engaged; I wanted to move to live a healthy lifestyle and not a monastic one.

North East had seemed charming during my travels but it felt a little isolated and the move seemed difficult to execute. Dharamsala was a place I had been to and enjoyed. It scored well on all the parameters, except one - the winters, when it gets bitterly cold. And, I heard that the internet connection fluctuates a lot when the snow falls.

The choice narrowed down to Goa. It had pretty much everything I wanted. Beaches, parties, good weather for most part of the year, culturally very active. Moreover, three of my friends had made a move to Goa recently and they had said good things about it.

So, I packed my bags, sold off or gave away a lot of my possessions (books - I read exclusively on kindle now, guitars and amps, didgeridoo, snooker cue, tennis racket, old clothes, and other random junk), couriered the rest to my friend's place, booked an AirBnB for a week, and flew to Goa. 

It took me two weeks and multiple visits to see different houses, but I finally found the perfect place in a quiet village in North Goa. It's tucked away in the corner so it allows me privacy and peace, yet it is close enough to the beach and to the nearest town. I've got ample vegetation in the courtyard and trees of all sorts - coconut, mango, chikoo, pineapple. A family of langurs jumps around the tree tops, and the neighbor's dogs come in the evening to collect their treats. Parle-G is their favorite.

 Meet two caterpillars from the garden

Meet two caterpillars from the garden

Now, let's get into the specifics of Life in Goa. 


THE GOOD

 

1. Weather - I arrived in Goa at the right time of the year - mid October. This is when the last of the monsoon bids its goodbye. People get ready for the pleasant days in the sun and on the beach. They clean their gardens, weeding out the overgrowth caused by the rains. The days are breezy and sunny and the evenings get cool enough for a thin jacket. It's perfect. 

Goan monsoons, running from June till September, are a delight too.

2. Beach - I once told a friend that if I knew when the last day of my life would be, and I could choose where to spend it at, I’d go to a beach. So, obviously I love beaches. And Goa has the best of them.

Pro tip: South Goa beaches are cleaner and the water is more pleasant to swim in as compared to their North Goa counterparts.

3. Air - The Air quality is much better as compared to the cities. It seems such a stark contrast from Gurgaon where we encountered untimely haze in the sky caused by pollution. The night sky has more visible stars and decipherable constellations.

4. Traffic - Except in the tourist areas, traffic is not a big problem. The roads are lined with coconut trees and old Goan houses along the way, with sparse traffic, so it is pretty cool. There are a few tourist frequented spots where bottlenecks crop up, but other than that, it is just fine.

5. Cost of living - Goa is inexpensive to live in. The electricity rates are low, water bill is reasonable, petrol is cheaper, there are no extra taxes in the restaurants and a pint of beer is 35 bucks. House rentals are not as low as you might imagine for a place like Goa - but they are still much lower as compared to the metros.

6. Parties and Live Music - Another one of those non debatable things about Goa. You can't rival partying on the beach, with the moonlight reflecting off the sea, a fire dancer doing her tricks in front, and some good music behind you. Or Monday Nights Jazz, Reggae Wednesdays, Sitar on Thursdays, Friday Nights at any one of the many sexy clubs and so on. If you are the kind who loves a good party, this is the place to be.

7. People & Susegad - In September 2016, I went to Ziro Festival of Music in the North East. As luck would have it, the guys camping next to us were from Goa. And they were two of the most endearing people I have met. They've often gone out of their way to help me. The locals I met have appeared friendly and easy to strike up a conversation with too.

There is a popular term in Goa called Susegad - which roughly translates to laid back or chilled out. It is often used to describe the kind of life people live here. And it has rubbed off on me. Long breakfasts sitting in my porch, dipping in the sea, and a chilled beer in the evening have become a regular part of my life; Susegad is awesome. 

8. Activities - Art Galleries, Social dancing, Treks, Water Sports, Live Music, Night Markets, Heritage Walks, Casinos, numerous Art & Music Festivals - there's all this and so much more. The variety of options is tremendous and offered at very reasonable prices.

9. Visits - An added benefit of living in a tourist destination like Goa is that it is frequented by friends and acquaintances. I meet more friends now than I did earlier in the city. It’s a good preventive cure for isolation.


THE BAD

1. Weather - A slight downer is the heat of the summer. The humidity is high and at first, you might have to deal with typical tropical climate issues - bad hair, blocked nose and head, etc. However, as time progresses, your body will adjust and you’ll be fine.

2. Tourism and The Precedents - When given the space and the freedom to enjoy in a place with very few prohibitions, not a lot of people are good at doing it responsibly. And this has created a sense of discomfort in the heart of the locals. The bad tourist precedents have created biases, often unfair, against people like me who want to make Goa their new home.

There is a latent tension between the newcomers (I don’t really like the term ‘outsiders’) and the locals which occasionally ends up in confrontation and makes everyone involved very unhappy.

Let me give you an example:

My landlords stay in the house next to mine. Often, my friends come over to stay at my place while they are visiting Goa. Their visit could range from a few hours to a few days. And this is a problem for my landlord. He thought that we are subletting the house and making money off of it. He said that he has heard cases and seen people do that. It disconcerted me because I was being accused of something that I didn't do. But I could see where he is coming from. One of the AirBnBs I stayed at earlier had a similar situation. That dude was subletting his apartment on AirBnB without permission from his landlord. 

This is an example which explains the core issue - one newcomer does something stupid, a local gets affected by it, another local suspects some other newcomer of doing the same shit, and this newcomer in turn feels ostracized and angry at being treated unfairly. This also exists the other way around where the cycle is triggered by a local instead.

I don’t have a solution to it, but all I can give you is a very generic, non-answer: empathy, understanding and respect of each other’s sensibilities would help.

3. Bad Apples and Aggression - Every place has its cons, every herd has a black sheep and every society has its bad apples. We cannot generalise based on these outliers. But I have to address them nevertheless because they have affected me. 

The aggression in some folks is outrageous. I don't know what fuels it, but it's there, and I am wary of this a lot of the time. It often manifests in the form of rash, drunk driving (from cabbies and tourists alike), or a readiness for unprovoked confrontation. I want to think that all of this is caused due to the precedents that we talked about earlier. And I hope that these bad apples appear only during the tourist season which runs for a few months.

4. Public Transport - No Uber. No Ola. Not a lot of Auto-Rickshaws either. They do have private cabs over here which charge exorbitant amounts. Then there are bike taxis - which are fine I believe. The bus service is there, but I haven't used it enough to comment.

5. Connectivity - Depending upon where you live in Goa, Internet and Mobile Network connectivity can be a bit of an issue.

The cell reception is weak inside my house. I have to go outside in the garden to make or receive a call. The Internet has been erratic for the last couple of weeks caused by occasional fiber cuts and inexplicable frequent drops. Reliance Jio, which I bought as a backup, works well only on my roof. 

If instead, you choose to stay in a house which is less remote, you won’t face these problems. There are more ISPs to choose from. And my friend who lives in such a place tested my Reliance Jio and told me he’s getting upto 5 Mbps which is great news.

Update: After lodging a complaint with my ISP, the frequent drop issue seems to have been fixed.

Sidenote: The Internet service providers are private companies which claim speeds of upto 100Mbps. That is a bit of a stretch, but the realistic speed ranges from 30-80 Mbps which is ridiculously good in its own right. And for most part, it works like a dream.


The Future

Before arriving, my plan was to stay for a year and a half, maybe two. I imagined that thereafter I would want to explore some new place. So, would I move to a new place next year? It depends on the accomplishment of my goals this year. It is also possible that Goa keeps growing on me and I end up staying here for many more years to come.

What would I say to people considering Goa to make a similar move? I'd say that the pros of the move far outweigh the cons. Issues like the newcomer-local tension is not unique to Goa and can be found in other major cities too. And even though there are bad apples, it feels a much safer place than where I was earlier. Goa has all the necessary ingredients for a wholesome life, what you make out of it is part luck and part individual.

Would I recommend this place to people looking for a longer term move, say 5-10 years? Honestly, I don't know. Three months is a short time to comment on this but my friends who’ve been here for a year and a half plan to stay here for many years to come.

To sum it up, my quality of life has increased considerably since I’ve arrived. And this move has been enabling in a lot of ways. So, if you want to come and stay here for a year or two to experience a new lifestyle, it's a yes, a definite, resounding Yes!

Enjoyed the post? Please consider sharing. And let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

FURTHER READING

  1. A Primer On Minimalism
  2. If you like a nice party, here's a poem I wrote on one - The Night's Beat
  3. Stories Of 10 Indians Who Left The City Behind For A Quieter Life
  4. How to do what you love and make good money by Derek Sivers
  5. Nomad List - A list of best cities to live and work remotely

If you are not on the mailing list yet, leave your email address on the right. Mails go out at most once a fortnight.

 

The Priming Effect and Making The World A Better Place

A couple of months ago, a friend recommended to me the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Laureate. It’s an intriguing read so far and serves as useful small talk topic. But, I wanted something more from it than just watercooler conversation. So, I’ve used some of the insights from the book and applied them to the cause of improvement of our daily lives.

This is the second post in the series. Words in italics are taken directly from the book. You can read the first post here: Ego-Depletion and Why Having a Job You Like Matters


PRIMING

If you have recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are temporarily more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP than as SOAP. The opposite would happen if you had just seen WASH. 

This is a Priming Effect. The idea of EAT primes the idea of SOUP, and WASH primes SOAP.

Priming effect takes many forms. If EAT is on your mind, you will recognize the word SOUP quicker if it is spoken in a whisper or written in a blurry font. You will also be primed for other food-related ideas like hungry, cookies, ice cream. If you ate at a wobbly table, you will be primed for 'wobbly' as well. Like ripples in a pond, priming spreads across a network of associated ideas.

Priming is not restricted to concepts and words. Even your actions and your emotions can be primed by events you are unaware of. In an experiment, young students were asked to assemble a four-word sentence from a set of five words (for example, "find he it yellow instantly"). For one group, half the scrambled sentences contained words associated with the elderly, such as forgetful, bald, gray, or wrinkle. After this, the students were sent in an office down the hall for the next task. That short walk was the actual experiment. The time it took to cross the hall was measured for each person. The students who had formed a sentence from words with an elderly theme walked down the hallway significantly slower than the others.

This experiment involves two stages of priming. First, the set of words primes thoughts of old age, even though the word 'old' is never mentioned. Second, these thoughts prime a behavior - walking slowly, which is associated with old age. Afterwards, when the students were questioned, they insisted that nothing they did after the experiment could have been influenced by the words. So, this effect happens without us being aware of it.

This priming phenomenon - the influencing of an action by the idea - is known as The Ideomotor Effect

If after reading the earlier paragraph, you wanted a glass of water, you would have been slightly slower than usual to rise from your chair - unless you dislike the elderly, in which case you might have been slightly faster than usual.

Reverse Ideomotor effect also holds true. If you were walking slowly, you would tend to recognize words like old, wrinkle, or bald faster. So, the age-old advice of smiling in the moments of adversity is quite useful. Just like amusing thoughts make you smile more, smiling more brings amusing thoughts. Acting like you are calm is likely to be rewarded by actual tranquility.

 

PRIMING IN OUR CULTURE

In another experiment, few volunteers were asked to construct a sentence from a selection of money related words ('high a desk salary paying' became a high-paying salary'). Other primes were introduced like a stack of Monopoly money on a table or a computer screen saver with dollar bills floating in the water. The results of this experiment were astounding:

  1. Money primed people became more independent than they would be without the associative trigger. They persevered longer to solve a difficult problem before asking for help, clearly showing increased self-reliance.
  2. Money primed people were also more selfish. They were much less willing to help a fellow participant who was confused about a task. When someone dropped a bunch of pencils on the floor, money primed people helped pick fewer pencils. 
  3. They also showed preference for being alone. Money primed people placed their chair farther apart from others than the ones who weren't primed.

These findings present a profound inference:

In a culture where we are constantly reminded of money, it is shaping our attitude and behavior in ways that we are unaware of and of which we may not be proud.

Another common portrayal of this priming effect is in dictatorial societies where the ubiquitous portraits of the national leader not only convey the feeling that 'The Big Brother Is Watching' but also lead to a reduction in spontaneous thought and independent action.

Some other common priming examples:

  1. Reminding people of mortality increases the appeal of authoritarian ideas. 
  2. Uniforms are the anti-prime of creativity.
  3. Thinking of stabbing a co-worker in the back will make you more inclined to buy soap or disinfectant  than juice, candy or batteries (Feeling that one's soul is stained triggers a desire to clean one's body).

You could react to these studies by disbelieving them. After all, we are all rational beings who think logically and are not affected by such trivial manipulations. But, the fact is that the results are authentic; they are not statistical flukes. The conclusions are true, and more importantly, they are true about me and you. If we were exposed to a dollar bills screensaver, we too would pick up fewer pencils to help a clumsy stranger.

 

MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE

I find the effects of priming astonishing. The profundity and width of its implications in our lives makes my head spin.

The simple act of reading the newspaper in the morning can affect the quality of our day. If you look at the majority of the front page news, it is sensational and often depressing. This is probably the worst way to start your day. It primes us to being more pessimistic and drains out energy for positive action. And as we found earlier, this happens without us being conscious of it.

So, does that mean that we should ignore all the negative happenings of the world? No. What it means is that we should ignore the inconsequential negative stuff. For example, do we really need to read about two celebrities bitching about each other. It doesn't add value to our lives, in fact, if were to accept the priming effect, it is going to make us meaner and drive us to the edge.

I remember an incident a few months back. It was late at night and I was checking Twitter about an event that was shaking up the world. I can't recollect what it was, but safe to say, it elicited extreme reactions from people. And, I was aghast  at the negativity surrounding the event. Random people were writing searing comments and I felt angry just by reading them. I took note of my rising heartbeat and promptly closed the app. Was the mass hysteria necessary? I doubt it.

Gossip, sensationalism and negativity like this is Antifragile ( ref. Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb ) - our attacks on them increase their resilience to obscurity. If we instead chose to deny it our acknowledgement, it will die of its own accord. 

So, can we collectively decide to tone down the frequency of discussions around negative incidents? Instead, why not talk about culture bearers, the ones who move our society forward? For example, instead of talking about a sexist comment by some celebrity, let’s talk about stories of women who have done something outstanding by breaking their traditional boundaries. By doing this, we are not ignoring the women who were disrespected in the first incident. But, we are choosing to bring change by showing the good (priming) instead of condemning the bad. 

If our parents read more stories of people taking unconventional paths, they might find it easier to accept your idea of quitting the job and traveling the world. Or, if we are amazed by a cannabis community celebration ( YouTube Link), perhaps it is time to share our own happy weed stories.  

 

END NOTES

Based on everything we read so far, 'Be positive' becomes not just a hippy mumbo-jumbo but a practical motto with real effects on our lives. Surround yourself with settings which would encourage the behavior you want to demonstrate. So, instead of reading news in the morning, I listen to good music and exercise. And then, to prime me for writing well, I read a nice book.

A lot of our decisions are impulsive and driven not by a rational, thought out process but by our whims and fancies influenced by external factors. So, if we want our decisions to make us better human beings, shouldn't we put ourselves in situations that make us the best version of ourselves? And if we all decide to do that, the world might just become a better place.

A final suggestion: Try out the priming effect on your own. Perhaps do a small experiment like not reading the newspaper in the morning for a week. Or, starting the day with upbeat music. See for yourself if it makes your day better. And let me know how it goes.

There is a very recent article on Slate which tells a different story on the priming effect. Here's where you can read it: Sad Face

Enjoyed the post? Please consider sharing.  I send post updates and inspiration that primes me for a better day in a fortnightly email. Leave your email address here to be notified.

Read Next: A Romantic's Guide to Finding Focus

Cover Image via Unsplash

Mindfulness - An Introduction

If something’s happening to me, I’d rather be around.
— Albert Camus

After coming back from work, I put on some music and stood in the kitchen, peeling off an orange. But, I wasn't really there. My mind was somewhere else, wandering off into the distant world of events past and the What-Could-Haves and What-Should-Bes. Suddenly, I heard the music - really heard it for the first time. And my feet started tapping of their own accord, a smile appeared on my lips and my mind started noticing what was happening. That was such a good feeling.

Mindfulness is being aware of what is happening around you in that particular moment, every moment. It means not ignoring the present in anticipation of the future or in memories of the past. 'Flow' and being 'in the zone' are the same concepts with different names.

All of us have experienced it in some form or the other. Perhaps you are a coder who gets lost in his code when being in the zone. Or while playing a sport, you probably give your best when your focus is on the game and not on some altercation you had with someone. A good movie drowns you in its fantasy world. Or you are texting and it takes a couple of shouts by someone to bring your attention away from your phone. The world fades away, for a brief few moments you lose sense of what is around you. You don't notice how your mind is working but it just does. That is being mindful. 

 

WHY SHOULD YOU CARE ABOUT IT

This moment is your life. The moments to come may or may not be what you imagined. But this moment, right now, will never come back again. 

Be mindful for the simple reason that it makes you attractive to other people - you may not know it - but I observe this for sure. I am automatically attracted towards people who seem in a flow, self assured and thus confident. Being mindful makes your relationships better - wouldn't you rather have a friend actually listening to what you are saying rather than wandering off into the distance? Some of your best work is produced when you are engrossed in it. Food tastes better, music is nicer and conversations are more enjoyable. 

Imagine dipping into ice cream and it melting into your mouth as you imagine the fruits it contains. You really let the tastebuds experience the true joy of feeling the ice cream caressing your tongue. This might seem like a lot at first because you have to train your mind. But, I feel it is a good way to live life. Otherwise, you might arrive at each destination and wonder what's next. I don't recommend it for the sake of finding a deep answer or anything of that sort but for the simple reason that it feels so good. Haven't you experienced it yourself - maybe you are watching a great video and someone calls your name - you totally don't hear that happen, right? Compare it with a situation where you are watching that same video or movie but your mind is somewhere else and you probably don't enjoy it as much. 

You know the times when the mornings seem brighter, sweets sweeter and all that, wouldn't you want to have it all the time?

 

How to practice mindfulness

The simplest way to be mindful is to actually practice it in your daily life rather than finding a time to do it. Experience the juices of the food that you eat mixing together as they fill up your mouth. Feel the food travelling down your throat drenching it with the superb taste you were craving for. Read a book and imagine the author writing those exact words, scratching, and writing again with his pen on a piece of paper. Imagine his thoughts preceding the line you are just reading. Try it out right now. Let the music fill your ears, notice each different instrument in a song and how they all sound different yet together. Imagine the earth moving down a little as you walk - it really does even though it is a very small amount. Lie down under the open sky with your arms outstretched and feel the earth rotating and revolving at the same time. 

Truly live each moment, be aware of what is happening around you - there is never nothing going on. Take stock of the realities and don't ruin it by imagining the possibility of a bad future. Stop looking for the next kick and try to be at ease with the OK-ness and enough-ness of now. Indulge yourself in the activity at hand completely.

What you have right now is enough at this moment, isn't it? You are surviving, breathing, living life wherever you are. You can't bring time back. So why be lost in the events gone by when you can rather be in the present and enjoy what you have right now. I don't mean ignore the contemplation but choose a deliberate time for it. Bring your wandering mind back into the present, tell it to wait a little longer and finish off the task at hand. 

It isn't easy and probably is a lot of work but it is totally worth it. I can tell - my orange tasted so much better. 

 

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed the post, please consider sharing it. You can also sign up to the mailing list to get updates on new posts before anyone else. Mails go out at most once a fortnight.

Simplifying everyday living

Our life is a sum total of the consequences of all the decisions that we make everyday. Every single day, we make countless big and small decisions which shape the course of our lives. What to wear, what to eat, whether to go out for dinner with that friend you haven't seen in a while or stay home and cook, so on and so forth. This constant decision making in every moment can take a toll on our mental space and leave us feeling exhausted. 

How do we cope with this? One way is to simplify our decision making. But, even after you do that, you still have to make those decisions. How about taking it one step forward and automating the decision making process? This, automated, simple and well-thought out decisions then become rules. 

Creating rules for your daily routine tasks frees up not only your day but clears up a lot of your mental space. These rules are based on your pre-thought out decisions. They are not made by any authority but by your own self which increases the chances of you actually going through with it. 

How do these rules look like? 
They can't be too generic - like Eat Healthier. This is not a rule. It is a state of life you want to reach to. Eat less sugar - this leaves ambiguity in the definition of what 'less' is. How about saying - Eat one sweet a week? This is actually a rule that I personally follow and so far I have been able to keep it up reasonably well. By making it time bound and by allowing a few treats I am also making it easier for me to follow since no sweet is much more difficult to do than one sweet a week.

There are multiple benefits with this. First is obviously that I eat less unhealthy stuff. Secondly, it is completely upto me to eat whatever I want as that one sweet of the week. I can choose to treat myself guilt free and without inhibitions.

Here are some of the rules that I intend to follow:

  1. Creating restraints - Eat one dessert over the weekend, one in a weekday is OK; check social media two times a day for 15 minutes each; one hour of leisure internet in the evening. This gives me the time do indulge into those guilty pleasures while keeping a check on them taking over my life.
  2. 30 seconds rule - After a work meeting, or after finishing up an article or after a movie, take 30 seconds to think through and if possible write down what happened and what you would like to remember about it. 
  3. Zone out time - This is the voluntary zone out time to let your mind wander. While doing our everyday tasks, our mind has a habit of wandering off. When this happens, our tasks get delayed, work gets affected. Instead, what we can do is notice that this is happening, tell ourselves to keep this thought for the zone out time to think about later and gently bring the mind back to the task at hand.
  4. Once a week clear up - Clear inbox over the weekend; clear Pocket queue; organise Evernote; clear out excess stuff from the house. This is to ensure a minimal style of living.
  5. Eat that frog - This is a technique that I've actually been following for quite some time. Do the most difficult task first when your energy levels are higher. Keep the smaller stuff for later.
  6. 15 seconds of mindfulness - Before starting a new activity, take a few moments to think if you actually want to do it or is it happening on its own accord. Be deliberate and take a few extra moments before rushing onto the next thing. 

These rules are intended to free up your mental space so that you can divert your time away from the mundane, unimportant or trivial to the more important stuff. Hope this technique serves you well.

For further reading on this topic, I recommend this Zenhabit's article.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed the post, please consider sharing it. You can also sign up to the mailing list to get updates on new posts before anyone else. Mails go out at most once a fortnight.


RELATED POSTS


Get more such posts in a fortnightly email. Join in below

The Problem of Plenty

In the last two years, we've produced more information than that was produced in the entire history of mankind before that. This is incredible. While it is an absolutely amazing thing that more people are creating and sharing their work than ever before, it also poses a problem of what to consume and what to focus on. There are thousands of ways to spend your time with. New videos on YouTube everyday, more movies released every week, and millions of blog posts like this one, released regularly. What you follow and what you do with the things that you involve yourself in, thus becomes critical to the quality of life you lead and the satisfaction you derive from it.

Recently, I started noticing my consumption habits which I take the liberty to presume is common with a lot of folks around. Even before we finish reading an article, we are thinking of ways to share it. Before a song ends, the mind starts wondering which one to listen to next. Or the video you clicked on and the witty comment you are going to make on it. Or the picture you just took, and your brain starts processing all the possible tagline you'll post it with. All this sharing and consuming leaves little scope for actually incorporating the lessons you've learnt from it. 

And it is not just with sharing things online. Even if it just consuming for personal use, life seems to become a checklist. That movie your friends said you have to watch. Or this incredibly funny video someone shared on Facebook that you have to see. But, hold on. What if, you do not click on that? Would it be too extreme a step? Would you be missing out on something important? Maybe, but probably not. Perhaps, you can live without watching another funny video, another movie trailer. 

We click multiple pictures during our travels but never see them again. How about clicking only a few? Pictures are definitely a good way to record memories but how about skipping just this one particular sunset? A picture will remind you of the good times you spent somewhere. But, what if you don't have a memory of it in the first place since you spent that time clicking pictures. 

One of the things that are at play here are our fear of missing out. This in itself is the biggest reason for our passive consumption. We all want to feel like we belong somewhere, and thus we involve ourselves in things that everyone else is talking about. But, it is for us to realise that whatver is happening is right there with you in that particular moment. 

Realise that you are never going to finish even a tiny bit of all the articles you want to read or all the movies you have saved in your hard drive. So, isn't it wiser to make the experience of whatever you already have a little better? How about growing deeper rather than wider. This of course doesn't mean you should restrict your experiences. But, whatever you are doing in that moment, immerse yourself in it completely.  

In my life, for instance, right now I have about 25 posts which are in draft. Before, publishing this, I couldn't decide on which one to finish. But, unless I finish one, I can't move on to another one. I recently purchased a Kindle, and I found my reading habit go down instead of increasing as I had presumed it will. The thing is, that even though I had multiple options, I couldn't decide on which one to finish now. Thus, I now have more than 10 unread books in various stages of completion. I couldn't derive pleasure from my reading as much as I used to earlier. 

The simplest way is to start with one and finish it if it interests you. Instead of running after the next shiny thing, finish off the one at hand now. Create simple rules like an hour of leisure browsing. Take time to sink in what you've consumed. Let it digest much like food. Form your opinions around it. See how you can use it to make your own life better. If not, just notice how you feel after reading it. Are you more energised,  happier or perhaps just a little entertained. If so, take stock of it. The thing is when you don't so this,  chances are you are going to move from one to another post and eventually get tired of all the jumping around and switching of context. But, if you feel happy with this moving around, by all means. 

Take 30 seconds - that's it - no more. Think about what just happened. Or after coming out of a meeting with someone, take a minute to record what you felt. Or don't even record it, just think it over. Of course if you are doing it for entertainment, that's fine and you can ignore this suggestion. But, make a deliberate difference between your entertainment habits and learning habits.

Pick a few things and pursue them. There would be distractions for sure but ignore them. Otherwise, you would be left after a year of all half done things and stuff you haven’t completed. We can never do it all - the number of things to indulge ourselves in are too many out there. Choose wisely. Even if you can't do that, immerse yourself in what you have at hand. Do things that matter - there is the very popular 80-20 rule. 80% of your life is shaped by just the 20% of things you do. So, it is better to choose that 20% wisely. 

I am a compulsive consumer thus I have had to devise some strategies around my consumption patterns. One is I read much lesser when on the move. I just like looking outside instead. Some of the best things in the world have come out when the mind is wandering aimlessly. Or sometimes like it was for this post,  I write most of it on the move. I started simplifying my reading habits and my decision makingGradually, I am beginning to move into simplifying my wardrobe. The basic colors - whites/greys/blacks. And things which team up well with multiple items.

But, I am not very good at this myself. Even while finishing this article, I took a break for a few minutes to have dinner which then got extended to watching a movie (a pretty cool one by the way) and then a complete one day delay. Each of these small things add up and take away minutes/hours/days of your life. Your life then becomes a journal of what all you've finished doing and what else is pending. If you have a technique to sort this out, please add in your comments.


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed the post, please consider sharing it. You can also sign up to the mailing list to get updates on new posts before anyone else. Mails go out at most once a fortnight.

Lull

For the past few weeks, I haven't been able to find the pool of creativity which earlier I was able to reach into. In the recent past, I could summon ideas almost at will but now I feel uninspired. This has resulted in discontent and a sense that if unchecked, this could turn into a longer term state of mind. Thus, I write this post to investigate this feeling and find a way to come out of it.

I call this state The Lull. Lull is a period of inactivity and of dissatisfaction because of it. This is not the same as depression though you can call it one stage before that. In fact a lull can occur even when your life seems interesting from an outside point of view. Even the best of us are susceptible to it - Stephen Fry's note on it is a recommended reading. Or much closer, I am reminded of Dhanya who moved out of his country even though he was happy since that wasn't it for him. 

Why does it really happen? I mean, have't we been taught that aiming for happiness is a good way to live life? Personally, I put it down to a skewed ratio of consumption vs production. I've always had a constant urge to create something to feel relevant and good about myself. And in the past few weeks I wasn't creating anything. My writing was gone, I wasn't learning much of Spanish, no exercise, no playing guitar. I even stopped playing Snooker. I was just consuming by way of watching movies, partying out with friends, so on and so forth. 

So, how do we fix this? First step is to actually realise that you are going through this phase. It seems like a flippant statement to make; it is anything but. Notice that you are entering a lull and if you let it take it's course, you can spiral down into a negative place. 

How do you notice this change? Chances are that you'll suddenly find yourself in this situation and break down or just be absolutely frustrated with how you ended up there. But, more often than not, this happens gradually and not overnight. So, notice small changes in your best habits. For me, it was writing lesser and lesser. Writing was one thing that gave me peace of mind. But, lately, I had not even been able to write in my journal, forget about writing blog posts. This then went on to procrastination and quitting on the targets I set for myself. 

Second step is to notice what are you doing instead of that habit. I started deriving acknowledgement from writing small Haikus and showing off to my friends who were more than generous with their praise. This, then gave me a false sense of accomplishment which prevented me from doing my long due writing project.

Next, ignore your mind. You see, whenever you want to take up something against inertia, your mind will give you reasons to not do it. Waking up early would be tough because it is too cold outside the blanket. You don't feel inspired enough to create that tune you always wanted to. You don't have a good idea to write a post about. Or, going for a run is too troublesome. But, stop this thinking.

It will seem a monumental task if you think through the whole thing. Shut your mind off. Just pick up the tool of your trade. No one's asking you to do anything with it, just pick it up for a few moments. Take one single step. Get off the bed and stand for one second. Hold the guitar in your hand for 5 minutes. Take a blank piece of paper and a pen. Tie your shoelaces and take a step out of the door. This is it. That's all you need to do in this moment. 

Figure out priorities and lower your ambitions. Focus on even fewer things. Take just one single thing and do it. Not even do it great, but just do it. If you are navigating your ship in stormy seas, you don't care about whether your ship's paint is coming off. You just want to make sure that your ship doesn't sink. You can worry about the fancy stuff later. Similarly, in a lull, just focus on getting out of it. Avoid being overtly critical of how you do it and what you did during that time. 

Create the most fertile ground. Figure out the scenarios that you were in which enabled you to feel inspired. If it is the set and setting that has changed, find a way to create those situations yourself. Perhaps you were spending more time alone. Or, maybe you were hanging out with a lot of new people. Or maybe, you had a good routine. Whatever it was that helped you be calm and content earlier, try to set it up again.

tldr; Check your consumption vs production ratio and go back to that one thing that gave you the peace of mind in the first place. For me, this post is a start in that direction.


If you enjoyed the post, please consider sharing it. Thanks for reading. You can also sign up to the mailing list to get updates on new posts before anyone else. Mails go out at most once a fortnight.

Smartman

On moving from iOS to Android and finally owning a smartphone

For the past few years all my smart mobile activities happened on a 4th generation iPod Touch which is technically, not a smartphone. It has been a reliable companion and has served me well for 3 and a half years. And it chose the perfect moment to die, coinciding with the launch of a really good smartphone.

I had resisted buying a smartphone for quite some time because I didn’t trust myself with it. I am a compulsive consumer of information and spend, like many of you, most of my time plugged in to the internet. Often, I was absent from the moments that were passing me by and having another device to distract me was a scary thought. Now, I think I have become more mindful and more deliberate in the things I do and hopefully won’t repeat the bad habits of the past. Thus, I have recently purchased Xiaomi MI3 which looks like a great phone at an unbeatable price.

Our smartphones have more computation capacity than the computers that were used to send Apollo 11 to the moon, we might as well make good use of it. Here are some of the top apps I’ve been using on iOS and would recommend to you as well. Most of them are available on Android too. 

1. Reading
This has been my topmost activity on the iPod. Some of the apps that I use: Pocket, Readability, Next Draft (only on iOS). None of these require an internet connection once you sync the articles. I have also started using Audible to listen to audiobooks on my drive to work.

2. Music
A close second for the most popular use case of a smart device for me has been music. Apart from my own collection, I use 8tracks, Aupeo, Stereomood, Songza. But, all of these require an internet connection. If you are willing to pay 100 bucks a month, you can use Gaana to download almost unlimited music which can then work without an internet connection as well.

3. Finance
Excels and Google Spreadsheets aren’t fun and tracking monthly expenses can be difficult. Hence, I use Splitwise to split bills with roommates and friends. For tracking monthly expenses, I found Wally the best though it is only available on iOS.

4. Games
EA Sports’ FIFA has been my most played game. I enjoyed Infinity Blade 2 a lot though it is only available on iOS. Among car racing, Asphalt beats everyone else. Bad piggies is engaging and I find it more fun than Rovio’s other ubiquitous offering Angry Birds.

5. Messaging
You already are on top of this I believe. IMing is one of the most time consuming, distracting things on a smartphone. People have told me anecdotes of waking up in the middle of the night to check their WhatsApp. iPod doesn’t support WhatsApp so I used Kik and Messenger. But, now I am on WhatsApp and this is how one of my friends welcomed me: “You are fucked now”. I hope I am not.

6. To-Do Apps/Task Manager
Clear is simply the most beautiful to-do app out there. Its use of native iOS gestures is just brilliant. Sadly, it is not available on Android. Google keep is what I am going to use now. Evernote is another one that is my workhorse which I intend to continue using.

7. Fitness
Did you hear about the 7 minute workout thing that did the rounds of internet some time back? I found it pretty interesting and was using an app for it. If you run, using Runkeeper would be a good option though I’ve not used it personally.

8. Miscellaneous

Duolingo for learning languages. Dictionary: WordWeb and original edition of Webster’s. The breadth of Podcasts on iOS was amazing. HeyDay as an automatic journal. Guitar Tuner. 

Moving from iOS to Android is a big deal for any geek. The things that I am definitely going to miss is the experience. Apps made on iOS are simply better designed than their Android counterpart. I can quote you a bunch of examples - Uber, Pocket, Duolingo etc. These are apps which exist both on iOS and Android but the experience on iOS is way better. Then there are apps which exist solely on iOS and are incredibly designed leveraging full potential of the iOS platform.

Xiomi is known as the ‘Apple’ of China and I hope it lives up to its hype. The hardware is awesome albeit a 4.7 inch instead of a 5 inch screen would have been perfect for me. The software is a lot like Apple which is a very good thing. Overall, I am very pleased and don’t feel that it is my post-purchase rationalization. I’d recommend it.