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Be Here Now: Mindfulness and Gambling

“The best way to capture moments is to pay attention. This is how we cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness means being awake. It means knowing what you are doing.”
-Jon Kabat-Zinn

“Mindfulness” is a word you’ll hear thrown around a lot by some of your New Age types. It just means paying close attention to what’s happening right now in front of you. To develop mindfulness, most people who are interested in that sort of thing learn to meditate.

I’d suggest that mindfulness can be a useful tool for the gambler—especially advantage gamblers like pro poker players and card counters in blackjack. In other words, mindfulness ain’t just for Buddhists.

But the Buddhists have some perspective about mindfulness that’s also useful for the savvy gambler. Their idea is to use mindfulness as a tool for enlightenment or cessation of suffering.

This is purely anecdotal, but I’ve known lots of depressed gamblers, and I’ve known many gamblers who suffer from anxiety. Science has demonstrated that mindfulness-based therapies can help with both anxiety and depression.

I’ve also read about studies that demonstrate the efficacy of mindfulness therapy for the treatment of addictions. Since gambling can be addictive, the applications of mindfulness here are obvious, too.

Lots of gamblers suffer from health problems, too. It’s easy for a pro poker player to eat badly, get too little sleep, and not get enough exercise.  It’s easy to forget that a healthy mind must have a healthy body to live in. Mindfulness can help with that, too.

The purpose of this post is to look at the usefulness of mindfulness to the gambler and to offer suggestions for how to implement a “be here now” strategy in your own gambling career.

Meditation for Gamblers: A Brief How-To Guide

I enjoy writing practical stuff—stuff you can learn how to do specific things from. It’s tempting to go into a lot of detail about how mindfulness is a good thing for everyone, but I’d rather get into some of the nitty gritty how to be more mindful stuff.

But before I get into that, let’s just agree that being able to concentrate for lengthy periods of time is a good thing. This is especially true if you’re a poker player or a blackjack player. It’s even better if you’re so good at concentrating that you can do so while remaining relaxed.

Meditation is exactly the kind of practice you need. And it’s easier than you think.

There’s a misconception that you’re supposed to clear your mind of thoughts when you meditate—that you’re supposed to turn your mind into a blank slate. That’s not really how meditation works.

The best explanation I saw for meditation was a video from a Buddhist monk who explained a concept called “the monkey mind.” He compared your mind (and his) to a monkey in a cage. The monkey just can’t help but jump around and be active. That’s his nature.

Getting mad at the monkey and telling him to sit still doesn’t work. He’s just going to keep jumping around and going crazy.

So instead of angrily trying to force the monkey to calm down, you’re supposed to calmly give the monkey one thing to do. The monkey is easier to train than you might think, too.

In practical terms, this usually means giving the monkey a single thing to focus on. Most people who meditate focus on their breath. I know some people who meditate who stare at a candle flame and think about that. Others like to listen to guided meditations and focus on the visualizations provided by the person narrating the guided meditation.

That’s the Eastern tradition of meditation, but it’s quite different from the Western tradition of meditation. I’m a member of a 12 step program, so I’ve learned a lot of what I know about the Western tradition of meditation from a book called 12 Steps and 12 Traditions.

In that book, Bill Wilson explains how one way to meditate is to take a particular prayer or reading and think about it intently. Think about each word and each sentence and what it means to you in your life. This tradition of meditation comes largely from the Catholic Church, which should be no surprise, as Wilson was close friends with Father Ed Dowling, a Catholic priest.

No matter which method of meditation you prefer, it’s probably best to start small and work your way up. Most people aren’t going to be able to sit down and meditate all day without some practice first. In fact, I don’t think most people can meditate for an hour without building up to it slowly.

My suggestion is to start with 5 minutes of meditation in the morning and another 5 minutes in the evening.

For purposes of increasing your powers of concentration for gambling, the Eastern style of meditation might be a more effective tool.

The trick, though, is to not get upset when your mind wanders. That’s what the mind does. Instead, just gently refocus the mind on your breathing or whatever else it is that you’ve decided to concentrate on.

How Mindfulness Benefits Gamblers

For recreational gamblers, it’s easy to get lost in a daze of action and not realize how much money you’ve lost during a session. Improving your ability to be mindful can help you pay better attention to how much money you’re spending and what you’re really getting in return for that money.

My suggestion to recreational gamblers has always been simple:

Own it.

If you’re going to deliberately gamble in a negative expectation game, you must change your definition of winning. Otherwise you’re entering a world of pain.

Slot machine players are especially susceptible to the dangers of mindless gambling. If you’ve heard the expression “slots zombie,” you probably know what I’m talking about. Some slot machine players wind up in a trancelike state where they’re numb to what they’re doing.

This would be fine if you didn’t lose so much money when you’re sitting in front of a slot machine.

If I’m getting a thrill out of trying to buck the odds at a negative expectation game, I want to enjoy every minute of it. This means staying focused on the experience. If I’ve “numbed out,” I’m getting nothing back in exchange for my money.

But mindfulness becomes even more important when you start talking about professional gamblers like poker players and card counters in blackjack.

Both of these kinds of gamblers focus exclusively on the long-term mathematical expectation of each bet—the expected value (EV). So it might sound like a contradiction that they also always focus on the here and now.

But focusing on the here and now is the only way to capitalize effectively on that long-term expected value.

That’s because making decisions in blackjack and poker are all about deciding what you should do in the situation you’re now in.

What you did on the previous hand has no relevance to what you should do on the next hand. The goal is to make good decisions constantly in the moment. This demands concentration.

If you’re not sure what the current situation is, it’s impossible to make the right decision.

I’ve shared this story before, but I’ll share it again here, because it’s illustrative of a point I’d like to make. I used to play poker with a guy nicknamed “Lobster.” (I don’t even remember his real name.)

He used to say, “DBSRO.”

That stands for “don’t be so results-oriented.”

The point he was trying to make was that you should mentally pat yourself on the back for making the right decision rather than get excited when you won money.

In other words, that 70% of the time you’re losing when 9 people call your all-in bet preflop at the Texas holdem table? That’s the time to pat yourself on the back for doing the right thing, regardless of whether you win or lose the pot.

This is true in blackjack, too. Just because the deck is rich in aces and 10s doesn’t mean you’re going to get a blackjack every time. In fact, much of the time, you’ll bust in this situation.

It doesn’t matter, because what matters is the long-term expectation.

And the only way to achieve the long-term expectation is to repeatedly make good decisions in the here and now.

Hot Streaks and Cold Streaks

One mistake a lot of gamblers make is changing their decisions based on whether they’re running hot or running cold. This is an example of the Gambler’s Fallacy, which is the mistaken belief that previous results affect subsequent results.

The human brain is wired to see connections and patterns. This is why it requires so much self-discipline at the roulette table to ignore the fact that red has come up 7 times in a row. The probability that red will come up again on that 8th spin is the same—18/38, or 47.37%. It doesn’t change based on previous results.

Gamblers are likely to want to increase the size of their bet and bet on red or black based on whether they think black is due or red is hot. Neither is true, except in retrospect.

A mindful gambler—one who is focused on the here and now—ignores this illusionary streak of luck, because he knows it doesn’t matter. Every spin of the roulette wheel is an independent event.

If you’re playing poker and you’ve lost with the best starting hand several times in a row, you might easily change your decisions based on a reaction to those previous hands. You might go on tilt and start betting and raising indiscriminately. You might get scared and take fewer risks than would be appropriate.

Both of those are huge mistakes that can be avoided if you just ignore what happened previously and stay focused on what’s happening right now.

The only thing that matters is this hand you’re in now. You should make the play that you estimate has the highest expected value every single time, in every single situation.

Meditation and mindfulness can help provide you with the emotional control to do just that.

The Reasons to Quit Don’t Outnumber All the Reasons Why

Another decision you might face is when to quit. If you’re a recreational gambler, the best time to quit is when you’re no longer enjoying yourself. Since you have no realistic long-term expectation of winning as a recreational gambler, enjoyment is your only prize. Once that’s out of the picture, you should quit.

The same is true for poker or blackjack, but instead of enjoyment, you should focus on expected value. You only quit playing when the expected value goes from positive to negative. In blackjack, this could mean you’ve attracted some heat from the casino. In poker, it could mean that a couple of strong players have joined the table, and there are no weak players left to profit from.

Players who aren’t mindful don’t know when to quit. They often want to play until they get even, when the reality is that there’s no guarantee that they’ll ever get even. In fact, if you’re playing a negative expectation game, the probability is that you won’t ever get even again. You’ll just keep losing.

Having stop loss limits and win goals are just artificial ways of giving yourself a chance to quit while you’re ahead or to quit before you go broke. Truly mindful gamblers don’t need artificial incentives for these circumstances.

They quit when they stop having fun.

Or they quit when the expectation turns negative.

Conclusion

The advantages of studying mindfulness if you’re a gambler are obvious and plentiful. Being able to concentrate increases your enjoyment of gambling games, and it also increases the probability that you’ll be able to win—at least some games.

Staying focused on the here and now is a skill anyone can develop, but it might take a little time and effort on your part. Starting a meditation practice is probably the best way to go about it. Luckily, you don’t have to meditate for hours at a time to begin with. You can improve just by starting to meditate for 5 minutes or so twice a day.

Here’s my best advice to gamblers:

Be here now.

Michael Stevens :