Poker & The Bodhisattva

Rafe Furst
Feb 14, 2017 · 4 min read

Who the fuck are YOU?!? — The Who

According to Buddhist teachings, our existence can be characterized by three marks:

  • Anicca (“impermanence”). Everything changes; the universe is in a state of constant flux. Thus, even what appears to be a stable, immutable object, fundamental truth or universal law, may change or disappear entirely.
  • Dukkha (“suffering”). Attachment to permanence causes suffering. Wanting things not to change is natural, but unless we surrender to the truth of impermanence, we become more and more out of touch with reality. Ultimately clinging to a falsehood leads to profound delusion. We suffer, not because things change, but rather because we want them to stay the same.
  • Anatta (“not self”). Each of us is an “I” that is ever changing. There is no one thing that is our “self”. Any attempt to describe what we are, is an attempt to create stability/permanence where there is none (which leads to suffering).

Since there is nothing that can be relied upon, there is no one thing or state of being that can bring true happiness.

It is only through the acceptance of these truths that we can hope to be free from suffering, and thus truly happy. Someone who is on this path is known as a bodhisattva.

Money is most poignant in illuminating the truth and relevance of the three marks of anicca, dukkha and anatta. More than anything in modern life, we identify thoroughly with our money. Our self-worth and our net-worth have become inextricably linked. We attach our egos to our money, and when we lose money, we suffer a loss of self. In Victorian times, the most intimate thing one could talk about was sex. Today it’s money.

To underscore this claim, let’s imagine we are playing a game. I get to ask you four questions, and you must choose three of them that you will answer (and answer truthfully):

  1. When was the last time you had sex?
  2. What are your religious beliefs?
  3. Who did you vote for, and why?
  4. What’s your financial net worth, and how much money do you make annually?

Which question did you choose to not answer?

Now imagine that you get to ask me just one of the above questions. Which one are you most curious about?

Whether money is your most self-ish subject or not, I bet it’s up there. And if you are on the bodhisattva path, this is where poker comes in.

The Impermanence of Money

Most of us go through life with the unconscious belief that as we get older the amount of money we have will steadily increase. Not only do we believe it will, we believe it should. We get anxious when we don’t have any income. When we see our savings dwindle, or we go into debt, we despair. Yet there is not a single human whose wealth over time has looked like this:


Poker teaches us first hand how ephemeral money can be. Here is what a realistic wealth chart looks like:


Although this is a graph of someone’s poker winnings, it could just as well depict someone’s full net worth over a typical career/life. Regarding the giant downswings you see… remember that bankruptcy? Divorce? Medical emergency? The fire that destroyed your house? Cocaine addiction? Business partnership that went bad? Failed startup? The time you were sued? The stock market crash? The times you were robbed? Crashed your car? Paid tuition? Paid your taxes?

You get the picture.

The first graph is an ideal, a picture of permanence. The second graph is reality.

Unlike the rest of us, poker players cannot delude themselves about the impermanent nature of money. In poker, one moment you literally have the money in your hands, and the next moment you don’t.

In life, our money is stored in various different forms, different assets, different currencies, with different levels of liquidity, so it’s easy to fool ourselves about where we stand, financially speaking.

When you have $100K in cash and you buy a boat with it, you didn’t lose $100K. But when you bet $100K and your opponent spikes the case ace on the river, you sure as fuck did lose $100K. Just like when your boat got stolen, insurance refused to pay, and you don’t have the money to sue your insurance company for breach of contract.

Attachment to Money is Suffering

Amateur poker players are in awe that professionals can lose $100,000 on the turn of a card and not bat an eyelash. The pro’s secret is that she’s not deluding herself about the impermanence of money.

Professional players can experience swings where their wealth increases a thousandfold in a year, only to be back to square one (or lower).

Poker is brutal. But so is life. Shit happens. To resist reality is to cause yourself to suffer. To accept and embrace reality is to be truly happy.

You could look askance at the poker player who makes $10 Million one year and loses it all the next. Or you could recognize that they are free from suffering over money in a way that you may never be. They are not fooling themselves about the impermanent nature of money — you are.

You Are Not Your Money

The poker-bodhisattva has many delusions to overcome, and most cannot be overcome from within the world of professional poker. But the one delusion that causes the most suffering in the “real” world, sure as fuck can be lost at the poker table.

If you’d like to learn how to play better poker, I’m happy to teach you (for free):

Rafe Furst

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