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The Abbot’s Gift

The following anecdote is quoted from John Vorhaus and Tony Guerrera’s book on poker strategies (Killer Poker Short-handed, 2007). It illustrates the buddhist approach to value judgements. It also makes for interesting poker table banter.

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The Abbot’s Gift

A Zen monk, early in his training, is preparing to leave the monastery and switch locations, for that is common in the Zen practice. Before he leaves he goes to the abbot of the monastery to say goodbye. He does so, but the abbot says he has a gift for him. Now, it is part of the Japanese way to accept gifts and be appreciative; to do otherwise is rude and, therefore, wrong. The abbot takes a pair of tongs and picks up a red-hot coal from the adjacent fire pit on which he has a teakettle.

The young monk starts to contemplate what he should do, and after a few moments, runs out of the hall distressed, for he cannot figure out how to act. He can take the coal and be burned, or he can refuse the gift of the abbot and be rude. Both in his mind, are things he cannot do.

He meditates on the problem for the next week, and comes back to say goodbye. However, the same scene is played again, and the same frustration blooms when he tries to figure out what the abbot wants him to do.

He meditates further on the subject and feels he has discovered how to respond to the abbot’s gift. He returns, for the third time, to say goodbye to the abbot, and as before the abbot picks up a red-hot coal and presents it as a gift to the young monk. The young monk simply replies, “Thank you.”

The abbot breaks into a grin, nods his head, and returns the coal to the fire pit. “You may go now,” he says.

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Further reflection on this anecdote by Vorhaus and Guerrero:

Accept what is offered you, say the Buddhists. A thing is not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just a thing that is. If someone successfully bluffs you off a pot, even if he gloats and taunts, simply accept the outcome, make appropriate adjustments, and move on. In the swirling dogfight of shorthanded poker, the minute you let your ego get engaged, you’re toast.

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Poker, especially its variant Texas Hold ’em is a very popular game around the world these days. Unlike other cards games such as Blackjack which are simply a question of odds, playing poker involves much more complex strategy since you are not playing against a house dealer, but other poker players as well.

The popular explosion of poker has also fueled an explosion in the number of books detailing poker strategy and nuances, but the more recent poker literature are beginning to delve deeply into the psychological and philosophical aspects of the game.

One psychologist and poker player: Alan Schoonmaker, has authored a number of very interesting poker books which are less about the strategy of poker hands (e.g. what are the best cards, mathematical odds, etc.), but more about getting the edge of playing the game by understanding the emotional and cognitive aspects of it.

In his book, Your Best Poker Friend, Schoonmaker provides an in-depth look at the challenges facing poker players as a result of our inborn biases and the natural way we think and learn.

I quoted an excerpt of Schoonmaker’s book in the Critical Thinking section because it greatly appealed to our thrust in this blog to encourage the process and practice of critical thinking. Arguably, a successful poker player not only has mastery of odds and risk management, but also has the ability to think critically of both himself and his opponents.

Here’s an excerpt from the excerpt:

Ignoring or misinterpreting later information because of our first impressions can cost us lots of money.

The effects of this tendency combine with one of my favorite subjects, the extremely common belief that we are more talented than we really are. Thousands of studies clearly indicate that people overestimate most of their abilities. Our first impresisons are probably not that good because we are not as perceptive as we think we are.

These insights put Schoonmaker on the same level as other critical thinkers we’ve featured here before like Nassim Taleb and George Soros–who both insist that our ability to accept a world of imperfect information (which is essentially what a poker game is) affects our ability to deal with it.

One of his recommendations:

You must guard against undue optimism, pessimism, and all other distorting emotions. Do whatever it takes to see what is really there, not what you expect, hope, or fear.

This is classic, exactly echoeing William Arthur Ward’s poem on risk.

Check out our excerpt of Schoonmaker’s book here.

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