Mental Models of Poker #1: Game Selection

October 6, 2020
Estimated reading time:
3 minutes

This is the first in a series of posts on what you can learn from the world of poker. For more on my journey through the poker world, check out this post.

The young Swede’s heart is racing. He can barely think.

Nearly $1.4m is on the table, in the biggest pot in online poker history. The crowd look on in anticipation, talking furiously about the historic action unfolding.

It’s November 2009, and the online poker boom is at its peak. The Swede’s arrival on the scene, with his incredible appetite for risk, and desire to take on the very best in the game, is all anyone can talk about, including the hundreds watching live.

A 3, 6, 7 or 8 would win the hand for the Swede, and with it, the glory and admiration of the poker world.

The next card comes.

5 of hearts. No good.

One last card.

9 of clubs.

No good.

As the chips slide towards his opponent, his heart sinks. He feels sick to his stomach.

That’s how Viktor Blom, the 19 year old Swede and poker phenom known as Isildur1, lost $1.4m in a single pot to Finnish Pro Patrik Antonius.

Pictured: better times
Pictured: better times

Blom instantly made news among poker fans in 2009 for his willingness to play anyone and everyone. He went toe-to-toe with the best in the game, including Phil Ivey, Tom Dwan, Brian Hastings, and Antonius. Pros with years of experience playing at the very highest stakes.

Even more amazingly, he would sometimes be playing multiple world-class players — at the same time. A couple of tables against Ivey, and a couple against Antonius. For hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Meanwhile, at lower stakes, Dusty Schmidt was quietly collecting another small pot on one of his 20 tables.

Schmidt went by another name in the online poker community: leatherass. This was a reference to the cult poker movie Rounders, in which Matt Damon and Ed Norton are discussing the merits of another regular player’s approach to the game:

“That guy hasn't had to work in fifteen years.”

“You don't think that's work? Grinding it out on his leather ass?”

Schmidt took the “leather ass” name and leaned into the name and everything it represented. Over the course of his career Schmidt spent hours after hours grinding away at low and mid stakes games, playing over 7 million hands of poker, making over seven figures in winnings, and later releasing a book called Treating Poker Like a Business.

“We are here to make money,” Schmidt writes. “This is a business. Check your ego at the door.”

Schmidt’s approach to poker — methodical, low-risk, shying away from the limelight — stands in stark contrast to that of Blom’s.

While Blom took big shots at the best players in the world, Schmidt returned day after day to lower stakes.

While Blom was winning million-dollar pots, Schmidt was raking in thousand dollar pots.

While Blom was the darling of the online poker world, Schmidt was looked down upon for his boring and tight style of play.

And while Blom went on to lose $4.2m in one afternoon, Schmidt continued to make small profits, day in, day out.

Charlie Munger, the billionaire investor and Warren Buffett’s right hand man, is a wise person. He says:

“One of the greatest ways to avoid trouble is to keep it simple."  

There are no extra points for style or for difficulty. You can be like Blom, going for incredibly difficult, complex, competitive gains.

Or you can be like Schmidt: play games you know you can win. Avoid being stupid rather than trying to be brilliant all the time.

The latter is much easier, and much more profitable.

That’s game selection.

Related posts

Did you like this?

I write a weekly email newsletter called Human Capital, where I share all the interesting things I’ve written or found in the last 7 days. I aim to make you healthier, wealthier, wiser, and smarter than when you woke up in the morning.

Sign up below and you’ll get the very next one. No spam, ever, I promise.