We all have bad habits that we wish we could kick. For some of us these habits are consumption addictions: perhaps we eat more chocolate than we would like, or perhaps we smoke.
For others of us our bad habits show up in social situations. Perhaps we find ourselves being too critical or argumentative. Or perhaps we repeatedly enter into destructive relationships, despite seeing the warning signs of problems ahead.
If we could kick our addictive behaviours, we would have better life outcomes. Our relationships and health would likely improve.
Some of us have managed to give up our ‘addictive behaviour’ for a while. Maybe we stopped smoking for 5 months straight. Or perhaps we gave up chocolate for 3 months.
But then the stresses and strains of life set in. We lost our job, or broke up with our boyfriend. And once again, we found ourselves picking up our old addictive habits.
Learning to manage addiction
It is my great privilege to have this opportunity to interview semi-professional poker player, Nate Chance. As a young man Nate began to try his hand at poker. Unfortunately, he quickly developed an addictive gambling habit.
This interview is very important for those of us who struggle with addictive behaviours. Nate has tremendous insight into the nature of addictive tendencies. I find that often, those who have successful dealt with the worst behaviour patterns, typically have the greatest understanding of how to manage addiction.
In the opening section of this interview I ask Nate to describe how his addictive behaviour began. Then in the second part of this interview, Nate describes, in great detail, how he has learned to manage his addictive personality.
For those who wish to better understand addiction behaviour patterns, this article will be an invaluable resource.
At age 17, Nate went to hang out with his cousin, Sam. Sam wanted to introduce Nate to a friend of his. Aged only 19, this friend had won $800,000 after having played poker for just 1 year. Nate had been playing with college friends for some time now. So he was very keen to meet this young, successful poker player.
Nate sat with excitement as he watched the professional at work. Nate recalls,
We were just hanging out. This guy had his computer on, with six poker tables running at once. He was playing $2000 on each table. I watched him win $4000 in half one hour! There was a part of me, at that age, that was just like: ‘If he can do that, why can’t I?
Nate’s addictive personality did not suit poker playing
As soon as Nate turned 18, he started playing online. However, Nate quickly discovered that his tendency towards addictive behaviour did not suit poker playing at this time. Nate explains: ‘My personality in general lends itself to addiction. I’ve found that if I like something more than others, I typically overdo it. However, it wasn’t until I started playing online at 18, that I realized there was a part of me that could lose control.’
I’m talking to Nate over Skype. It’s 1am my time (UK) – 6pm Nate’s time. Nate is Skyping me from Colorado. He has a short beard and speaks with a laid back, almost lazy tone. It seems strange to think that this wonderfully engaging and calm charactered guy suffers from addictive tendencies.
What’s even more surprising, is that Nate currently earns half of his living from playing professional poker.
And this is why I am fascinated by Nate. Clearly, Poker playing has caused Nate great distress over the years. In fact for two years, Nate had to cut himself off from the poker scene in order to stop his habit from escalating. However, Nate now applies checks and balances. And he has learnt to manage the difficult emotions associated with his addictive tendencies. Through doing this, Nate has now turned his previously treacherous tendencies into behaviours that yield success.
How do gamblers end up losing so much money?
I’ve never quite understood what drives gamblers to lose so much money. And so I am particularly keen to glean some insight into the psyche of the addictive gambler. Nate explains how his negative behavioural patterns would operate when he began playing online.
The key trigger for me, was losing a game. I would experience anxiety and stress from losing money. Then I would try to seek relief from this anxiety. There were two ways in which I found I was able to reduce my anxiety. I could either win my money back, or I could go broke.
'By winning my money back I would feel great relief. However, by losing everything, I would also feel relief! So when I lost a game, I would end up chasing my losses by buying into bigger stake games.’
Control in gambling means setting clear boundaries
Nate then moves on to further explain the factors contributing to losing all his money. ‘Money in gambling is quite relative, and what matters most is how big the stakes are compared to your bankroll. My problem arises when I chase losses and jump into games higher than my bankroll allots.’
At this point, I have to stop Nate and display my lack of poker knowledge. ‘Bankroll – what is that?'
You can play sensibly, if you play within a limit that you have set aside. This set limit, that you determine in advance of playing, is your ‘bankroll’. That’s an amount you can loose, without going broke. If you play outside of your bankroll, you certainly will go broke.
‘Poker in general is an extremely emotional and stressful game, and if you have not sufficiently worked on yourself in this area, then you will 100% of the time go broke.’
Question: How long was it before you began to make money from poker?
I’m interested to know how long it took Nate to start making money from Poker. I’m very surprised by his response. ‘In the early stages of my poker career, I mostly lost money.'
'I thought I was a good player. But I was still learning the game. I mostly lost while moving through this steep learning curve.'
'For me, it took almost 5 years of consistent failure to develop the skills and emotional stability needed in order to become a winning player.’
Q: So what changed? How did you learn to start making money?
All of this sounds to me like a high price to pay in order to become successful. But Nate is very successful at poker now. I want to know more about the process he went through.
‘So when did things change’ I ask Nate, ‘When did you begin to make money?’ Nate pauses to think. ‘When I started playing live was when I started winning.'
In my first live tournament I won $1400. I believe I won 4 consecutive tournaments after that. In fact, in a course of 2 months I won or took second in 8 out of 10 tournaments. I won almost every cash game and felt untouchable.
'During this period I was able to pay my rent, save money and purchase gear to create a home recording studio. This success probably played a big role in bringing about my return to the game. It was a crazy streak. It was kind of bizarre. But other times you have losing streaks as well.’
Q: Why did you make so much more money when you played live?
I ask Nate why playing live made such a difference to him. ‘People think that poker is a logic game. To be honest its about emotions.'
'I mean there’s luck; there’s skills. But if you’re playing online, and you lose, you feel it. That’s when I would chase my losses: I would either win my money back or lose it all.'
'But when you play live, it's more paced. You’re more in control of your emotions. And when you play live, you play the cash you have. Whereas when you play online, your money is just a number on the screen.'
Learning to manage addiction
However, Nate is interested in more than just earning money. Nate has been forced to learn to manage the relationship between his addictive personality and poker. And this has taught Nate a great deal.
- What really interests Nate, is the process of learning to walk the line between addiction and emotional control. In fact Nate is currently training to become a professional counsellor. I’m actually calling Nate at his University Campus. He’s chatting to me between lectures.
'Although my story may be interesting, I am currently most interested in discussing the psychology of addiction and the keys to being responsible.'
Poker is fascinating in that one can be very successful if one is emotionally stable. It takes years of stable playing to amass a fortune. However, it only takes 5 minutes of instability to lose it all.
'I am most interested in examining these 5 minute moments of instability. I want to understand what, why and how they occur. And I want to look at the ways one can work on avoiding these moments. I think this kind of emotional response can be applied to so many other addictions and experiences.’
What drives gamblers to lose all their money?
Nate describes what gamblers call a ‘Bad Beat’.
- Bad Beat. A ‘Bad Beat’ occurs when,
Imagine there is a very high probability that you will win with a particular hand. But your opponent possesses a weak hand. There is a low chance that she will win with her hand. In poker, you place the bet before the last cards are dealt. If the wrong card is dealt you can still lose, even if your hand appeared really strong before the final cards were dealt.
- You have an extremely strong hand of cards.
- Your opponent has a very weak hand.
- You lose regardless.
Great emotional strain can overwhelm you
Nate describes the situation: ‘Let’s say you put money in. You’re supposed to win the hand: you’re 93% favourite to win. Then some guy hits his one card on the deck [i.e. is dealt the one card that he needs]. And so he beats you.’
‘That would enrage some people! However, I can brush it off. To me that’s just part of the game.'
'But then let’s say it happens again two minutes later. If you’re playing online, you’re playing all these different tables at once. So a lot can happen quickly.’
Let’s say you get four ‘Bad Beats’ in the course of six minutes. There’s only so much of a threshold that every human has for great anxiety. Eventually it becomes psychological torture.
Things can spiral out of control!
‘Typically what you can do in that situation is just stop playing. Let yourself cool down, you know? But let’s just say you stop playing. Then the next time you play, you lose again.’
‘Of course, losing a number of times in a row has a negative affect on your confidence. So, as a result of your lowered confidence, you can start playing poorly. Then it’s like a self-fulfilling prophesy.’
At this point, playing until you have no more money is like a solution. It’s a terrible solution. I know I have to stop when I start thinking like that. My body is telling me to stop.
‘When I say 5 minutes of getting unhinged – that is it. When people learn how to deal with that, then that’s a big thing.’
Q: Do you think that your current emotional state has any effect on your tendency to act impulsively?
Me: ‘For example, what if you are feeling a bit down? What if you’re feeling a little depressed? I personally find I start becoming more impulsive and more addictive when I’m in a bad place. But when I am in a better place, I can manage my impulses better. I wonder whether that has any effect on your playing?’
Nate: ‘Yeah - 100%! When you’re weakened, you’re far more susceptible to fall into addictive patterns. I’m talking about poker playing. But you can apply this to a lot of things.’
- ‘The key thing I’ve learned is that I need to take breaks. You have to set aside that break time. I might say to myself, “Ok, tomorrow I’m not gonna play.” Or, “I’m taking a week off.”
Now if, during those times that I have set aside for myself, I go and play anyway – those are typically the days I lose the most money. This is because I shouldn’t be playing: I should be taking a break! I should be doing some care for myself. You gotta trust your body.
Adopting the additude “You should just have more self-control” doesn’t work
‘I am very introspective. I think I understand myself very well. You often hear advice on how to manage yourself at these times. A lot of this advice is just like (faux paternal voice): "Control yourself – don’t feel things."
‘You can control your behaviour. But you can’t control your reactions. I was thinking about how this relates to ‘implicit memory’ the other day. You have an internet password that you can type, right? But you might not be able to say that password.’
I interject at this point: ‘Yes - I have this with my cash card pin code! I don’t know what the code is. But I can type it because my fingers just move to the right places…’
Nate responds: ‘Yeah absolutely, right! And I think addiction, and a lot of these behaviours, are the same. You have a physical pattern in your body – it’s like an emotional experience. It’s not conscious.’
‘People try to solve their problems through strategies. They try to apply mental techniques. I have tried these kinds of techniques too. They honestly don’t work.’
‘These techniques may put the problem at bay. Like one of the strategies I have is “Play short sessions”. Or I tell myself “If you start to feel weak, then stop!”.’
‘And I can do that up to a certain point. And then it’s like your body takes over and says “nope! I’m not listening any more!”’
Q: You said it took five years of playing and losing before you learnt the skills you needed in order to win at poker. Do you think it’s possible to do the five years of ‘practise playing’ without losing a lot of money on the way?
This question obviously has an impact. Nate stutters for words as he begins to respond.
Life is unfair. Life is brutal. Poker is truthful. Poker also helps you learn about yourself. It teaches you how to take responsibility for yourself.
‘And it teaches you to deal with these difficult things. In real life you have to deal with these things.’
‘I think a lot of people I hear about whom play poker professionally, won a pretty big tournament early in their career. They got lucky. So then they had a big bankroll. And then they rode the wave and figured out the skills they needed along the way.’
‘Then the people who didn’t get lucky – you don’t hear about them – they’re gone. Me, on the other hand: I’m the one who was just insane enough to keep going….’
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