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Bulletproof Confidence: The Secrets of a Professional Poker Player

Zat Rana
Zat Rana
Jun 15, 2017 · 8 min read

Vanessa Selbst is a poker player. By age 30, she had made over $10 million.

Raised in New York, Selbst started playing while studying at Yale. It began as a casual pastime with friends but quickly turned into many hours of online play and eventually led her to become one of the best players in the world.

The beauty of poker is that it’s a game of incomplete information. It heavily relies on skill in probability, psychology, and effective emotion regulation.

Luck is also an element, and your response to it largely shapes the outcome.

A person may have a strong understanding of the numbers, and they might have a clear strategic advantage, but if they don’t have the temperament to consistently act rationally in the face of wins and losses, little else matters.

Selbst is known for her incredibly aggressive style of play. Whether she’s holding the best hand or bluffing, she forces her opponents to make difficult decisions. It’s a style more common in today’s games, but there is more risk.

Effective aggression in poker requires an accurate read of the probabilities, a firm grasp of the opponent’s thought process, and a stable dose of self-belief.

Confidence is a necessity for success because it’s a game with the odds stacked against you in the short-term. To direct yourself towards a desirable long-term outcome, you have to be able to nurture a healthy source of conviction.

This is a narrative that applies to most things in life. A lack of confidence can often be the hurdle between where you are and where you want to go.

Selbst provides a useful case study for how that hurdle can be cleared.

Understand the What and the Why

Confidence is about the belief you have in your ability to deal with something. Low confidence signals doubt, while a healthy dose of confidence says, “I can handle this.” But for you to believe that you can handle it, your belief needs a source, and it needs to be reliable.

Doubt is shallow, especially when it manifests as a fear of failure. Humans are programmed to avoid risks. Historically, the cost of failure was high. When we lived in the wild, we had to be attuned to the slightest of threats. They could be life-threatening.

As societies evolved, however, although many of the dangerous situations in our environment were eliminated, our brains continued to presume that all risks should be avoided. Behavioral economists call this loss-aversion.

In the modern world, the cost of failure is rarely about life and death anymore, and the only guaranteed way to fail is to let doubt stop you.

To get moving, you need a system, and this system should focus on evaluating your what, to help you understand your intentions, and it should remind you of why they are important.

Use Brute Rationality to Fight Doubt

In an interview with Forbes, Selbst made a point to talk about the role of confidence in poker.

Her stance is that, by nature, poker is a game where a player will lose the vast majority of the time. Due to the chance factor, it isn’t reasonable to assume that you will win each game. Instead, you have to address failure and self-doubt by flipping the script with brute rationality.

Her trick is to get to the crux of the issue. She very much acknowledges that losing is a likely reality. Her expectation isn’t to win every time, but it’s to use her skill to give her an advantage over the long-term. Under these conditions, it’s perfectly okay for her not to always win. She eliminates second-thoughts by addressing the reality of her circumstance.

Confidence needs legs to stand on, and that’s only possible if you have a source that gives you a strong conviction in whatever it is you want.

If you break things down to their core and are thoroughly aware of what you are trying to accomplish and why it’s important, then you have the reminder you need to shift away the obstacle of doubt, because you should know that the alternative of not acting is far worse.

You Can’t Think Your Way There

Ever since the self-help genre first got on its feet, above all, it’s shared one particular piece of advice: what you think will manifest into reality, and if you believe it, you’re on your way.

The idea gained traction after Napoleon Hill’s popular book, Think and Grow Rich, in the 1930s, and it’s been a theme since. Today, blogs and gurus preach it unapologetically.

While the commercialization of the genre has brought with it a range of ill-informed advice and exaggerated claims, not all of it lacks reliability. Some of it has value. Unfortunately, it’s often incomplete, and it’s presented in a way that doesn’t look at the whole picture.

Let’s be clear: simply thinking about being more confident isn’t necessarily going to make it happen. That said, if you take it one step further and act in ways that a more confident you might act, there’s a fairly substantial body of research that suggests that you might get there.

Be What You Want to Become

Ellen Langer, a tenured professor at Harvard University, conducted a now-famous experiment in 1979 that inspired much of the subsequent research that supports this idea.

Langer brought together a group of men in their 70s for a week-long retreat. The point was to take them down memory lane. The place they stayed at was designed as if it was 1959. This meant vintage radios, black and white TVs, and old magazines. The men were also asked to act as if they were 20 years younger and told not to talk about anything that occurred after 1959.

Before, during, and after the experiment, the subjects were measured across a number of psychological and physiological factors, and the results were fascinating.

The participants showed improvements in not only things like memory and dexterity, but also hearing, seeing, and speed of movement. By acting younger, they had primed their bodies to quite literally become younger. Their health had vastly improved

Let’s take Selbst. When she plays poker, her aggression isn’t necessarily always the result of her having a great hand. Given how frequently she plays a hand, we know that she can’t possibly have a great hand all of the time. Her opponents just don’t know when that is.

The image of confidence that she projects directly affects the likelihood of her winning a hand. Timing, cards, and opponents all play a role, of course, but without acting the part of a winner when she isn’t one, she isn’t going to convince anyone else.

Expand Into Your Discomfort Zone

Sometimes, even with a healthy dose of self-confidence, it’s hard to follow through. There are times when it’s not failure we fear, but uncertainty. Most of us don’t like what we don’t know, and quite often, it limits the zone in which our confidence operates.

When it comes to uncertainty, we play out simulations. Our mind automatically runs through different scenarios that might occur, and we hesitate, and we second-guess.

We draw an imaginary line, and even if we believe that we have it in us to cross it, we don’t feel prepared, or the circumstances just seem off. At least, that’s the story we tell ourselves.

It’s paralyzing, and it makes us delay action. Most of the time, beyond a certain level of preparation, the only way to get familiar with the unknown is by acting. It’s by building the courage to walk into your discomfort zone to allow yourself to accomplish more.

One of the major differences between a professional poker player, like Vanessa Selbst, and your average-joe is the difference in their ability to consistently play well with variety. Most amateurs either fall into the category of being too passive or too reckless. Neither is ideal.

Although the reckless ones eliminate themselves, the passive ones tend to stick around. They’re just usually not very effective. They can’t seem to take the next step, because their game is transparent, and they fail to utilize one of the most valuable tools in poker — the bluff.

Now, even if you have a great hand in poker, in most scenarios, there will still be uncertainty. It’s just a familiar kind of uncertainty. It’s the kind that gives you a pretty good idea where you stand most of the time, and that’s where the passive amateurs play.

When it comes to bluffing, you bring in a lot more variables. Each bluff sneaks into a slightly new territory, even for the professionals. They just don’t think about it. They’ve crossed the imaginary line, and they do the most they can with the information they have. It’s no longer a discomfort zone, and they can leverage a whole new arena of opportunity.

The point is, at times, we actively limit the range in which we exist, and the only way to harness opportunity is to force our confidence forward. Preparation can only take us so far, and what’s on the other side is almost never as bad as we think. Familiarize discomfort.

All You Need to Know

Poker is seen as a gambler’s vice, and it’s not hard to see why. Combining money with an uncertain outcome is the definition of gambling. In many ways, however, poker requires a broader strategy than chess, and over time, less luck than the average board game.

Vanessa Selbst is one of the superstars of the game. Her success is largely a result of her aggressive style of play, and it’s a style that relies on a solid foundation of self-assurance.

Confidence is about the belief that you can do something. It comes more naturally to some than others, and even then, it’s not consistent across all areas of life. The only certainty about it is that it’s of critical importance when it comes to getting things done.

There’s also more than one path to get there. You can read a book filled with research and still come out no better. Conversely, one day, you might accidentally push past a boundary and never look back. Either way, it’s a process, and it begins with motion.

Life may be about more than confidence, but confidence will help you get more out of life.

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Personal Growth

Sharing our ideas and experiences.

Zat Rana

Written by

Zat Rana

Playing at the intersection of science, art, and philosophy. Trying to be less wrong. I share my more intimate thoughts at

Personal Growth

Sharing our ideas and experiences.