Transitioning to NOW

What was doesn’t matter. Only what is.

If every poker player could live by this little aphorism, then the standard of play would skyrocket.

Our mind doesn’t like the present; it prefers the past and the future. It is difficult to stay centred, and poker players know this better than most.

Somebody new to meditation finds their mind racing away, when they are instructed to be calm. A tennis player at 0-30 starts obsessing over the possible break of serve. A heartbroken suitor replays the most painful moments of their relationship over and over, fully aware that he is prolonging his misery.

Some gentle nostalgia can be therapeutic up to a point, and having future goals is certainly beneficial to productivity. However, they are for contemplative moments – moments away from the heat of action. No tennis player is better served thinking about a possible break of serve in the future than they are staying present. No footballer benefits from thinking about last season’s missed penalty when he’s starting his run-up to take one right now.

Transitions in poker

My recent, five part series for Drag the Bar was entitled Transitions (available for FREE here), but in hindsight the title was misleading. A better name is Transitioning to NOW.

The inspiration came from one of my students, Hans, who has a tendency to spend more time in the world of was and the world of could be than in the world of is. Much of my coaching is focused on helping Hans return to the present when his mind wanders, and helping him to develop methods of staying focused with more reliability.

How NOT to play Ace King

Transitioning to NOW manifests itself in a number of different ways in poker. Here is a simple example:

Hans holds Ace King, shallow stacked in a SNG. Its a monster starting hand, and almost always worthy of getting it in pre-flop.

However, when villain elects to call Hans’s minraise and then comes out firing on J-9-8, Hans is in a world of trouble if he can’t recognize that his AK has transitioned from a monster to junk.

Sometimes he clings to his previous appraisal of the hand strength (monster), rather than the new, post-flop one (junk), and can’t bring himself to find a fold. That is an obvious error. The error then gets compounded when he glosses over the real issue when discussing the hand with me:

‘I busted with Ace King,’ he’ll explain, shrugging his shoulders as if to say ‘it was a cooler’. It would be a cooler if it was all-in pre-flop, but it wasn’t. Hans had a simple fold to make, and he failed to do so because he couldn’t transition to NOW. He got all wrapped up in was, and forgot all about is. Brushing it off as a cooler perpetuates the problem, because it suggests that he hasn’t learned anything from the error.

And errors are only truly errors if nothing is learned from them.

 

A damn Feyn Man "Richard Feynman Nobel" by The Nobel Foundation -

A damn Feyn Man
“Richard Feynman Nobel” by The Nobel Foundation –

You are the easiest person to fool

I heard a great saying the other day, that applies perfectly to Hans’s Ace King inability or refusal to transition to NOW:

‘The first principle is that you must never fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.’ – Richard Feynman.

In brushing off the Ace King bust-out as a cooler, Hans fools himself. If he allows that to become a habit, then handling transitions will go from tough to near-impossible. And that, in itself, is another transition.

I will be writing more about transitions in my Anchoring article that will be online soon. I want to hear your experiences of transitions, and how you identify and manage them. Let me know in the comments below, or on Twitter or Skype (add me – casy151 – I’m friendly!)

 

The Flaw in Your Approach to Poker – and a Better Way to Think!

Why do you play poker? It is the simplest question, and has the simplest answer. Yet, in years of coaching, I have found it one of the most fundamentally misunderstood concepts.

Not many people actively ask themselves why they play the game to which they have devoted considerable time and effort. And if they do, they invariably come up with the sort of answer that is symptomatic of a flawed approach to the game.

Answers like these:

‘I play poker to win money.’

‘I play poker because it means I can take a day off whenever I choose, not whenever my boss chooses.’

‘I play poker because I am competitive.’

‘I play poker because I don’t want to work a 9-to-5 in an office.’

Do any of these sound familiar? Are you the sort of player that plays poker because the alternative sucks? Are you the sort of player that plays poker because it enables you to beat opponents and feel good about yourself?

MOST GOOD POKER PLAYERS THINK THIS WAY TOO

If you are, that’s fine. Most good poker players are the same as you. They want to prove something to others, to point to their Sharkscope rankings and say ‘hey, see, I have achieved X, Y, and Z.’ Or to take their parents on holiday with their poker earnings, as if to say ‘look, mum and dad, I’m not a screw-up! This game can make me rich!’

I know I did, when I played full-time. I played poker for all of the reasons mentioned above, and several more besides.

I played poker for every reason, except the only truly valid one. The one valid reason that is at the heart of the great players’ approach to the game.

The great players play poker to become better at playing poker.

It’s so simple, yet so often misunderstood. The game is the goal. Money; fame; admiration: these are consequences, not goals.

WHAT IS INSIDE-OUT POKER?

I use the term ‘inside-out’ poker, for where the player is motivated to enjoy and improve their game, and the pleasant upside of money and respect may follow naturally. They ensue organically from playing to become better at playing.

However, if these consequences become primary pursuits then it will lead to disillusionment, to self-judgment, and to a fundamental discontent with the nature of the game. Every losing day will feel like a failure. The temptation to check results after every session will persist. Studying will seem like a chore, because you could be grinding some extra volume to boost your ranking. This is ‘outside-in’ poker, where external considerations drive your approach – and it’s the quickest shortcut to disillusionment and burn-out.

WE CAN ALL LEARN FROM DOYLE’S APPROACH TO POKER

Doyle Gets It!

Doyle Gets It!

Have you ever wondered what makes 82-year old Doyle Brunson leave the house to play high-stakes poker most days? After numerous battles with cancer and the frailty that comes with ageing, he could be forgiven for turning his back on the nocturnal lifestyle and the hassle of the cardroom. He could be forgiven for letting his style go stale and becoming a loser in the nosebleed games of which he is a permanent fixture.

But he doesn’t. Not only does he still play – he still wins. Doyle is the archetype of ‘play the player, not the cards’. He isn’t bound by conventional wisdom and he doesn’t care much for what people think he’s ‘supposed’ to do. He knows, better than anyone, that there are no rules. His style is adaptive, fluid, and innovative. All of the great players share these hallmarks. Doyle plays because he fundamentally loves the game, and he still learns every day. It could be said that playing to get better at playing is what keeps Doyle Brunson young – it is undoubtedly what keeps him a fearsome competitor when countless attention-seeking would-be usurpers have blazed in and burned out over the years.

POKER IS AUTOTELIC

To the greats of the game, poker is an autotelic pursuit (derived from the Greek words for ‘self’ and ‘goal’.)  The goal of poker is self-contained. It is not ‘outside-in’, where external validation drives motivation, and which ultimately causes burn-out and stress. It is ‘inside-out’, where the challenge of improvement and enjoyment brings long-lasting fulfilment.

The grind, and its inherent connotations, has made many great players fall out of love with the game. These players are resisting poker’s true nature. Leaderboards, parental judgement, money….none of these are poker’s fault. Poker is just a game that you can play, to get better at playing it. And it’s beautiful in its simplicity. The complications are something that that you or other people have added, but they aren’t part of the game’s true nature. Recognise this, and you are taking a giant step towards liberating yourself from the ‘outside-in’ mindset.

 

Use the comments section to discuss your experience of the downside of the ‘outside-in’ approach. And don’t forget to be a hero and give this blog a share on Facebook and Twitter!

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Live FREE Coaching Session with Collin Moshman for Pokerstrategy.com

I am doing a live session this coming Wednesday (6 August) for Pokerstrategy.com. The session starts at 8pm UK time, and runs for 90 minutes.

SNG legend Collin Moshman will also be interviewing me.

You can tune in for FREE right here:

http://www.pokerstrategy.com/coaching/

Be sure to post up a question and let me know what you make of my 6max and HU play!

 

The Poker Problem – What Does Your Behaviour Say About Your Character?

Brian take the train a lot. When he is travelling solo, he likes to read a book and relax. There are days, however, when groups of boisterous teens or arguing couples ruin his relaxing journey.

‘Those inconsiderate so-and-sos’ thinks Brian, ‘how could anybody be so rude and oblivious to the noise they’re making? Anybody making that much commotion on a public train is clearly a selfish person. I bet they were brought up badly by their parents.’

This time it’s different!

A week later, and Brian is travelling to the cup final with his friends. Some beers get cracked open, a sing-song is started. Brian is loving every second when a middle-aged lady catches his eye. He knows exactly what she’s thinking: ‘those inconsiderate so-and-sos…’

But this is different. It’s the cup final! Brian is with the guys! He hasn’t seen some of them for years! Plus, it’s a one-off. Brian doesn’t usually act like this…

U09_Luis_Suárez_7523

Can you relate to Brian?

Here’s the crucial bit: when reflecting on others, we tend to use their behaviour to make judgments as to their character. Someone who is obnoxious in public is a rude person.

When reflecting on ourselves, we tend to use circumstances to explain our behaviour. When we are obnoxious in public, it is because of the external factors. It is cup final day, or it is because we are excited at catching up with friends.

We do not re-evaluate our character because of our actions, but we do use them to evaluate the character of others.

This is called correspondence bias.

In poker, we are quick to label players as fish (or nits, or nutters, or whatever) based on a hand that we deem bizarre. We use scanty evidence to make judgments as to the character of our opponents, deeming them tilt-monkeys or probable-drunks or likely-degens, because they played a hand of poker a little strangely.

However, when we make a reckless re-jam or a loose call, we dismiss it as a mis-read or a mis-click or a mystery. We blame the circumstances – often with due reason – for our errors in judgment. Even when we know that we are on tilt, we write it off as an anomalous development which is not representative of our typical poker game.

Character vs Behaviour

There are people who have multiple affairs or who commit fraud or who bite other players on the football pitch who will argue that they are not bad people, but they had a momentary lapse in judgment.

Outsiders looking in, so quick to judge, will label them ‘scumbags’ and speculate that they are bad parents, liabilities as employees, and selfish in all aspects of life.

Brian on the train will argue that he acted selfishly, but is not a selfish person. Then in his next breath, he will argue that the couple having a shouting match on the train are selfish people and terrible partners and bad parents.

Correspondence bias in poker can be kept in check by refraining from making judgments as to the character or traits of opponents, based on moves that could be explained by circumstances (game flow, erroneous belief in fold equity, mass-multi-tabling mis-clicks etc).

And, by extension, it is important to task your poker coach with keeping you in check when it comes to justifying your own play. Sometimes you will be on tilt and eager to blame it on external factors. Make your coach earn their money by keeping a close eye on the development of leaks that you are eager to blame on easily-explainable errors.

Does correspondence bias ring a bell with you? Have a little think about scenarios in which you are too quick to extend your judgments as to behaviour onto their character, and give the article a share on Facebook and Twitter!

 

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Ten Poker Outlook Tips to Improve Awareness and Focus

Poker strategy is written about by every Tom, Dick, and Harry. However, in my frustration at the shortage of worthwhile poker outlook ‘heuristics’ (handy little rules of thumb), I decided to do something about it.

Bankroll with unspeakable nittiness - to avoid nitting up at the tables!

Here are ten little heuristics to improve your awareness and focus at the poker tables.

–          A good poker player is one who doesn’t get in his own way

–          You are only as good as your C-game

–          Awareness is curative (thanks to Timothy Gallwey for this one!)

–          A great poker player is one who can analyse herself without rushing to judgment

–          Experimenting and curiosity came before ‘rules’; never be bound by              conventional theory. ‘Rules’ are created after discovery through creativity.

–          You will never be great if the desire to study only arises when on a bad run

–          The only thing that truly matters is this decision in front of you, right now

–          Tilt is not entirely a bad thing; a little bit of poison strengthens the immune  system

–          We must bankroll with excessive, almost embarrassing conservatism to truly focus on the long game

–          We must prepare for even the most remote possibilities, as they are often the  most impactful

 

 

Do you agree with my ten heuristics? Let me know which are the most useful – and which you take issue with. And of course, please take a moment to use the Share buttons to spread the word.

Why You MUST Slow-Play Pocket Aces – The Availability Bias

Quickly answer this question: do more words feature the letter K as the first or the third letter in the English language?

***

Vedran is a strong low-stakes 6-max SNG player who is playing his way out of a minor downswing. He posted up the following hand in my students’ chat group:

‘I am dealt AA and open raise from middle position. The TAG reg in the Big Blind 3-bets me, and I decide to flat call, for deception and balance purposes.

The flop comes Ks Jd 3h. The reg checks, I continuation bet 60% of the pot, and the reg mini-raises me. I estimate his range preflop to be TT-KK, and, based on this range, I feel that he must have a set so I puke-fold. This is why I hate slow-playing AA!’

The Poker Mindset gets cloudy

Now, let’s get something straight. Vedran posted up the hand because he suspected that he had made an error. And believe me, he most definitely had. He had fallen foul of availability bias.

ScreenHunter_57 Jun. 18 17.31

When we think back to all of the times that we slow-played AA, we instantly recall the occasions where it ended disastrously. Our minds become awash with memories of flopped sets, of backdoor draws hitting, and of losing our place in the hand.

As such, our mind wants us to believe that slow-playing monster hands is a terrible move, and that we will somehow get punished every time we do so.

Well guess what?

It’s total garbage.

Should we slow-play Pocket Aces?

There IS a time and a place for slow-playing Aces. It’s just that all the times that it works out well are harder to recall.

In this hand, Vedran back-fitted his analysis to paint a scenario in which a fold could be deemed acceptable. However, is it remotely realistic to peg the TAG reg’s range squarely at TT-KK? Hell no! What about all the 44s and JQo and A5s that elected to 3-bet pre-flop? Just because villain is tight, doesn’t mean that he MUST have a monster here.

Similarly, on the flop, Vedran disregarded any bluffs or value raises with AK, KQ etc. He feared the worst, partially because, on an unconscious level, he has been conditioned to believe that AA gets cracked FAR more often than is the reality.

Vedran allowed his irrational fears to influence his decision-making, and It resulted in his making a very poor fold.

We are programmed to remember the remarkable. We are more likely to recall the times where we got that horrible sinking feeling in our gut as we saw the diamonds hit, than all those times where we doubled-up unceremoniously and quickly moved our focus to the next hand.

Your Mind Plays Tricks

Just because something springs more readily to mind, does not mean that it occurs more commonly. In fact, it is BECAUSE Aces win more regularly than lose that the wins become routine and unremarkable. By extension, the losses are out of the ordinary and therefore easier to recall.

And, as you have probably worked out by now, you were wrong. The letter K features more than twice as often as the third letter than as the first. It’s just that those words that begin with K spring more readily to mind.

Ladies and gentlemen – the availability bias. A nasty little blighter that needs to be kept away from the poker tables!

***

Let me know of the times when YOU fell foul of the availability bias in the comments below! And don’t forget to use the Social Share buttons to spread the article online.

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*I borrowed the Letter K example from Daniel Kahneman’s groundbreaking Thinking, Fast and Slow.

 

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Why I Don’t Play The Lottery: The Winning Paradox

Good news: there is a sure-fire way to win the lottery.

Bad news: you will need to have £14m available.

To win the National Lottery here in the UK, you need to match 6 numbers from the draw of a possible 49.

There are about 14 million 6-number combinations between 1 and 49. At £1 per selection, and given that National Lottery organisers Camelot don’t do bulk-buy discounts, you’ll be looking at a £14m outlay, to guarantee yourself a £5m jackpot (give or take).

And of course, if someone else is lucky enough to have also picked the winning numbers, your jackpot is halved.

The Winning Paradox

This is what I call the Winning Paradox. Spending £14m to win £5m is clearly not a profitable approach.

Anyone who thinks about this for more than half-a-second can recognise that it is not a viable strategy. The upside does not get close to matching the downside.

In other words: even when you win, you lose. £5million in returns has cost you £14million in outlay. Ouch.

Winner winner!

Winner winner!

Poker Players and Sports Bettors Beware

Yet poker players and sports bettors fall for the Winning Paradox time after time.  They chase draws without the correct odds, or back short-priced favourites at the bookies even when the risk/reward ratio is terrible.

The problem with this strategy lies in those two simple words that unfortunately a lot of the gambling community forget to consider: risk and reward.

Unfortunately, it is all-too-easy to lose your discipline. Backing short-odds favourites may lead to a lot of small wins, but that is of little use when the big loss comes in that wipes out all of your profits – and then some. The Winning Paradox in all its glory.

Or picture the poker player who can’t resist chasing gutshots when they are being offered 3:1 – even though the ‘correct’ odds for making this loose play are around 10:1.

Feedback Loop

Admittedly, the waters are muddied because, in poker and in sports betting, the feedback loop is misleading. It feels good when you win the hand (or the bet), so it is perfectly normal to attempt to replicate the success.

And because you are playing every hand and placing every bet in a batch of one (rather than in a batch of 14 million, as with the lottery example), the downside can be camouflaged. This is why discipline is the key.

When placing a wager or considering a call in poker, it is imperative that you ask yourself one simple question:

Is the juice worth the squeeze?

 

 

Do you always ensure that you are getting good value for your investment when playing poker or sports betting? Let me know in the comments, add me on Skype (search ‘casy151’), or follow me on Twitter.

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10 Tips to Transform Your Heads-Up Game

Heuristics are little rules-of-thumb that can be used to simplify decision-making. In poker, where every decision is vital, it is important to have some guidelines to fall back on when tough spots come up. Here are ten heuristics for Heads-Up that will help you to make better decisions, more consistently.

 

–          If in doubt, take the aggressive route

–          If you never look stupid, then you are playing too conservatively

–          There is no ICM heads-up, so you are free to take thin edges

–          Never assume; make every great SNG player prove that he’s a great HU player

–          Every street provides at least one opportunity to make a great decision

–          Contesting from the button can never be a big mistake; open-folding the button                       usually is

–          You need a very good reason not to c-bet

–          The second that your foot slips off the pedal is the second that your quality dips

–          A LAG fishbowl is a tougher opponent than a TAG reg

–          The great heads-up player makes plays that she doesn’t WANT to make

 

 

How many of these heuristics do you adhere to? And do you disagree with any of them? Don’t forget to drop me a comment, or get in touch via Twitter. And hey, be a hero and spread the ten tips around Twitter and Facebook!

 

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Are You Too Quick To Give Your Poker Coach Credit?

Beware of falsely attributing an upturn in your poker results to a good coach. This one can be extremely tricky, so you have to be on your guard. Here’s a scenario for you:

Mike is a long-term winning reg in the mid-stakes 6-max Sit N Gos. However, in the last couple of months he has been losing a chunk in his normal games, and he is worried that the other regs have figured him out.

On the recommendation of another reg, he contacts a coach to see what can be done to end his slump.

Sure enough, after five expensive coaching sessions, Mike’s results start to improve. Before long, Mike is back to his old win-rate, beating his normal games at a decent clip.

The coaching worked!

Or did it?

The Poker Coaching Conundrum

As a coach, I can assure you that most players seek out my services when they are suffering a bad run of form. They think that it must be addressed urgently, and hiring a coach must be the most efficient way of getting back to form.

I am always very wary of accepting coaching applications from such players. Indeed, I reject a lot more of them than I accept.

The reason is simple – it is immoral for me to take credit for aiding these players’ recoveries. 90% of the time, what they experience is a simple case of regression to the mean.

Poker’s Regression Obsession

Regression to the mean is when things naturally settle back towards their ‘true’ level over time. For example – in poker, an average player who binked a massive tournament win was almost certainly extremely lucky, rather than someone who had developed poker genius overnight.

Before long, they will dribble some of their money back to the poker community as the luck wears off and their typical skill level emerges.

When a football team sacks their manager, it is usually because they have been under-performing relative to their normal standard. The new boss gets appointed, and lo and behold, results start to improve. Miraculous!

Well, not really.

The reality is that the team were likely going through a run of bad luck and fragile confidence – a temporary blip that would rectify itself naturally in time.

Do you see where this is going?

Let’s get back to Mike

Mike’s poor recent run was overwhelmingly likely to correct itself over time – assuming, of course, that the bad luck would not provoke bad decision-making.

The real solution to Mike’s sticky situation is to simply keep doing what he does best: grinding away, until variance rights itself and he regresses towards his typical, impressive level.

classroom

So how best do we avoid getting into this sticky situation?

I always encourage my students to strengthen from a position of strength. That means that they should look to work hardest on their poker homework when things are going well for them. It is during such times that their thinking is at its clearest, and my students are at their most responsive to new ideas.

If they wait until something goes wrong (ie. a downswing) before attempting to appraise their game, then their outlook will be cloudy. They will be tempted to attempt root-and-branch, reactionary surgery when a few tweaks were all that was needed.

My advice to Mike

In future, look to engage the services of a coach when things are going well. Don’t fall into the trap of bolting the barn door after the horse has departed. When things are going badly, it is not the time to clutter up your mind with new concepts and it is very difficult to objectively appraise your game.

And most of all, don’t assume that the upturn in results was down to the genius of the expensive coach! In all probability, in a swingy game like poker, it was a simple case of regression to the mean.

A good coach will be able to say no to applicants who are suffering a temporary blip – or at least, they must be willing to hold their hands up and say that they had little to do with the sudden upswing in the student’s results!

 

What do you think – are you too quick to seek out coaching when you hit a downswing?  Are you the sort of person who wants to pat the coach on the back when you should really be applauding yourself? And most of all, do you truly understand the nature of variance and its sister – regression to the mean?

Let me know in the comments, or drop me a message on Twitter or Skype (just add me – ‘casy151’)

 

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What Every War Can Teach Us About Poker

‘In a conflict, the middle ground is the least likely to be correct’ – Nassim Taleb

Let me explain what Taleb’s neat little aphorism means – and how YOU can use it to plug a costly poker leak.

—–

We have all heard certain over-enthusiastic types talking about poker being war. It is an understandable concept. Enemies clash, and only one can prevail.

However, the reality is that it is a card game – not life or death. The war analogy is limited and ill thought-out. Professional poker players are often close friends away from the tables, and their rivalry stretches no further than their bankrolls.

Nassim Taleb would be a great poker player

Nassim Taleb would be a great poker player

Despite this, there is one clear truth that can be learned from war and applied seamlessly to poker:

When two conflicting view-points are expressed, many people make the mistake of believing that the truth must lay in the middle. In a war, it is easy to assume that there is validity to both sides’ stance, and that they are both half-right.

This is called the Argument to Moderation, and it is quite, quite wrong. Here’s why:

Let’s say that I truly believe that the cup of coffee in front of me is stone cold. My girlfriend, however, is adamant that it is boiling hot. When I drink it, I will either spit it out because it is disgustingly freezing, or I will spit it out because it is burning my mouth.

One of us is right, and the other is wrong. The cup of coffee is not lukewarm. I will not happily guzzle the coffee down because we were both part-right. The truth does NOT magically lie in the middle.

This is all well and good, Christy, but what has this got to do with poker?

As it turns out, quite a lot!

A variant of the following situation rears its ugly head a staggering amount of the time when I am coaching students in the art of the Sit N Go.

We are on the bubble, and Hero is faced with a borderline decision. It may be that Hero has raised, and Villain has 3-bet. Hero is torn between finding a pretty nitty fold, and bringing down the hammer with an aggressive, risky shove.

The Thought Process of the Poker Player

Hero’s thought process runs thus: ‘Villain knows that I am stealing wide. He is a good player, and so will be 3-betting quite often here. I am confident that I can generate a lot of fold equity by shoving. ICM dictates that Villain can only call my 4-bet with the top 5% of holdings. And if I win this pot, I claim the chip lead and can confidently bully the bubble. The stats are on my side. I like a shove here.’

However, my hand isn’t strong, and I am contemplating tangling with the chip leader. ICM dictates that I need a monster hand to play an all-in pot here. I have a lot of equity to protect, as the short-stack benefits every time that I take on the chip leader. There is a strong argument to find a fold here.’

Hero is torn between two strong options. To shove or to fold? To shove or to fold? Hero weighs it up and….

Calls.

When faced with a borderline decision, Hero did the worst possible thing. He took the middle ground. He failed to act decisively, and it cost him equity – which costs him money.

He hoped that the coffee was lukewarm, when he really knew that it was either freezing or boiling.

The Move of Moderation in Poker

Poker does not lend itself to moderation. Much as a golfer cannot sink a putt if it is under-hit, the best poker players recognise that a lack of conviction is inexcusable.

And a lack of conviction is what often leads the poker player to making the move of moderation – in this case, the call.

When torn between two conflicting options – both of which are at least partly meritorious – it is criminal for the poker player to choose the third path.

It is criminal to avoid making a tough decision by making a WRONG one instead.

 

What do you think – is this leak something of which you are guilty? Drop me a message or a tweet with your experiences.

And, as always, please spread the word by sharing this article on Facebook and Twitter.

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