Whether winning or losing, I always wonder whether God is in the game. Is there a message when I go on a long losing streak? Is God punishing me or trying to get through to me? Is it just random chance? When I win big, is God rewarding me or am I just running lucky. I used to think that this mental questioning was the "Jim Carroll has voices in the head" thing, but the more I discuss this with my poker buddies, the more I realize how many go through the same frustration.
I'm not talking about whether it is wrong or right to play poker. I think most people that play poker and believe in God have already settled this issue. There is nothing in the Bible to say that playing poker is prohibited. Of course anything that is addictive or destructive to family and life is bad. But this article isn't about that struggle.
I'm also not talking about praying to win or praying for a particular tournament. I think that kind of prayer is counter to what I'm about to say. After all, if I'm praying to win for my own benefit, I'm really praying for someone to lose. That’s hard for me to justify.
This also isn't about bribing God by promising him a percent. He has all the money he needs. He doesn't need to stake me. Gee, that would make Him a pretty dumb God. With all due respect.
When I was going through my cold streak I used to joke that you didn't want God playing on your team. Why? Because God doesn't BLUFF! He won't STEAL a pot. He believes GIVING is better than receiving! He believes in HUMILITY! And He has more money that He knows what to do with. That's not a very good partner.
You know what was really frustrating? It was watching the scum of the earth beat me. Hmmmm. Where was God in that? Did he want me to lose? I kept saying, "Heck God. I'm a pretty good guy. I help a lot of people. I give a lot to society. Surely I deserve to win against the strip club owner, the adulterer, the swinger club owner and the pimp." Yeah, that was the table I was sitting at. Full disclosure, I was feeling (inaccurately) superior.
Luckily for you, God taught me a great life lesson and I'm going to try to pass it on to you. Hopefully, you won't have to get hit over the head the way I did.
At the 2008 River tournament, I took the top prize of $700,000. At the time, I was in the midst of a messy divorce. First move, I cut a check to the IRS. My soon-to-be ex wife would shorty receive half the money. Every time I tell that story at the poker table I hear other players groan. The State of Oklahoma took theirs. Another percent went to charity and there wasn't that much left. No big deal. I found that I really didn't care much about the money. I loved the experience. I loved having a title under my belt.
It was almost immediately that something started to change. The cards weren't lucky anymore. In fact they were extremely unlucky. The odds were so much against me that I was getting mad. There were times that I was so angry at God that I would be cussing on the way out of the casino. How could he let another donkey kill me on the river? I must admit that I was pretty pathetic. But there was something there. God was trying to get a message to me and I couldn't figure it out.
I backed off poker until Aruba. My wife asked me what I wanted to accomplish there. It made me think. Am I going there to win? Does God want me to connect with someone? Is there another agenda that I need to consider with my wife and friends? I knew the trip had something interesting in store.
Here's part of the secret. God put a drive inside of mankind to compete and to win. Unfortunately a bumper crop of surgeries and old age ended my fun on the basketball court and the football field. My shoulders and knees are so messed up I can't even golf. While recovering from one surgery, I discovered online poker. It seemed to be a great outlet for my need to compete. But winning wasn't the answer. Success was to be defined by something else. Keep reading.
While on the plane toward Aruba I explained to my friend that I felt drawn to this tournament. It was the first time I was going to a tournament since the $700,000 win that I sensed something.
But the cards weren't there. I entered the $5000 main event and the same old same old happened. I survived two bad beats and then finally got knocked out when my suited AK saw an AK4 rainbow flop.
In disgust I ran over and entered the $540.00 event just to settle down. Again I picked up AK suited again. The guy on the dealer button goes all in. I sense a bluff and call. He has A5, blah, blah, blah. I'm out.
Check out these articles about God's lesson plan for Poker.
I'm now even more frustrated. Did God really want me in Aruba or was it a bad read? I'm walking back to my room and going through the casino, when I hear them say, new 5-10 game. It was a donkey fest, but somehow I managed to be the biggest one.
I didn't sleep good that night. What was the message? What was God trying to say by humiliating me by using a bunch of donkeys. This wasn't what I had expected at all.
The next morning I sat down with my wife, Elizabeth and tried to figure it out. She’s not the religious type, but she is a biblical scholar and does tend to look at life through the "what is God saying" lens. She also has a master's education in counseling psychology and I trust her wisdom. The first thing she did was isolate the desire to win and compete. I had to have peace about even being in the game and this is a key part of the equation. As a competitive athlete I had the passion to compete and win, losing is not acceptable. However, winning had become a priority and it was out of balance.
Now my wife doesn't know a thing about poker. But she asked me why I was referring to other people as donkeys. She jumped on her iphone and brought up a story about Balaam and the donkey that talked to him. It wasn't exactly the kind of story that related that well to donkey's in poker, but what the heck. By the time she was done parsing through the scripture, it hit me. Balaam was a good guy, called to serve, but he kept getting his ass kicked. By who? By a donkey!
Balaam had lost his focus and it took a donkey to get him back on track. So I refocused and came away with this: winning was all about being myself and what I did and said at the table, not about winning chips. If I just played my game, the chips would come.
So now the question was, "What was I suppose to do or say at the table?" I was already wearing a Christian shirt and a cross. I felt a little preachy just doing that. Then my wife re-read the words of Balaam. "I can only say what God puts in my mouth." That was perfect. Now my purpose had completely changed. Winning was now just doing or saying what God wants me to say and do, including sometimes just shutting up. Nothing more or nothing less.
My wife encouraged me to sign up for the $2100.00 event and try out the new approach. The cards started coming. I played with new life. I didn’t have to win. I just had to play. I never pulled out the sunglasses or ball cap. I never turned on the Ipod. My focus was just letting God do whatever He wanted through me.
At the end of day 1, I was in 5th place. I couldn't wait to get back the next day. In my mind I had already won by planting a few seeds, encouraging the other players, making it fun, sharing the love.
The next day I reached the final table. I was in third place. It wasn't long before I was the big stack. But disaster was about to happen. Within 5 minutes my full house ran into quads and my QQ ran into AK when I called his all in bet. I lost more than half my stack. I was starting to go into a funk. I looked at my stack with regret. My wife was watching from a distance. She crossed the ropes and came over and whispered in my ear, "It's not about winning."
Normally when I get in a funk, everything seems to go wrong. This time her words instantly pulled me out. She was right. It wasn't about winning the game. If I got eliminated right then and there, it would be OK because I served my purpose.
The next hand I got drawn into an opened ended straight draw with an over card. I tried to bluff him out and he just called. The turn produced nothing and I tired to push him out again. This time he re-raised on me. Like a donkey I called. Then something really strange happened. I sucked out. I hit my straight. I had to cover my face. I'll say it again, I sucked out. I had only an 18% chance. Unbelievable. He checked. I raised big and he called. Suddenly I was the big stack again and getting bigger every other hand.
I went on to win the event and took the first place title. The cash was $53,400 after we did a percentage chop. I had won in so many ways. Even if I had been eliminated early on, I would have been a winner. I was to "say only what God puts in my mouth." It's so simple, yet so evasive. That's the winning concept.
So the message I would you give to my poker brethren is, yes. God is in the game. You bring him there. Have a higher purpose than just winning and accumulating. Understand that you are uniquely built for a unique purpose. Thoughtfully consider this, find your purpose and play the best game of your life. Win or lose, God will bless the outcome and you will always walk away from the table a winner.