Extending from yesterday’s entry and looking at the ‘failure’ side of ‘Zen and the Art of Poker’, Larry Phillips has an entire chapter called “Include Failure in the System” which illustrates many of the principles of embracing failure.

He relates ‘failure’ to it ultimate instantiation – death.  A bit extreme, but germane to the samurai context of many of his Zen sources:

However, though I don’t want to die, I want to practice so that when I am faced with death, I’ll think nothing of it” – Suzuki Shosan, ‘Warrior of Zen’ 

“Those who are reluctant to give up their lives and embrace death are not true warriors” – D.T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture

This extreme element of ‘death’ being on the line is one of the dimensions that has made not just poker, but ‘no limit’ poker so captivating.  One of the manoeuvres that a player can execute is to go ‘all in’ and in essence put their tournament/solvency life on the line in the course of battling for a pot.

Phillips highlights two qualities that emerge from ‘embracing failure’:

1.  Harmony – He says that in poker and as in life, failure (endemic in anything with risk) is just ‘part of the system’.  He first describes the concept in a somewhat lofty manner.

“The real underlying problem is that we can’t ‘will’ our harmony onto outside events.  It might be possible to do so in some activity where you totally control all aspects of it, but not in one where some part of it is outside of your control…Thus, calm and Zen-like as we may be, we can’t change outside events, and as a result, ‘bad beats’ and other untimely occurrences will continue to occur.  However, while we can’t will our harmony onto outside events, we can adopt a higher harmony that includes the bad occurrences under the larger umbrella of this harmony…Poker is a dynamic, constantly changing game, with a lot of rough edges.  Trying to be too perfect is like trying to keep your clothing and life vest perfectly arranged during a river-rafting trip.  You must roll with the water as it is moving along, not try to confine and control it.”

But then, he elaborates in a more pragmatic articulation:

“There is also the frustration aspect that occurs if you try to banish all losses from your game.  Stress occurs whenever a loss happens – anger, despair, indignation, outrage.  Every hand becomes a life-and-death matter.  This is the result of telling yourself that you must never fail.  By including losses in the system, however, we anticipate them and thereby remove all the power from them.  We are cool and composed; calmly factor them in and move on.”

Rise each time you fall.  I speak from experience to say that there is nothing that tests your inner harmony more than a full house beaten by four of a kind.

2.  Humility – The deepening of ‘humility’ as a by-product to embracing failure is a very ‘Zen’ perspective and superb insight.

“Including failure in our poker strategy also has another Zen-like quality.  It brings about humility.  Factoring it into our game means that while we may win 55 percent of the time, we may lose the other 45 percent – working with this fact and accepting it, rather than fighting it.  (If you could walk through a doorway and know that 55 percent of the time you would be treated like royalty, and 45 percent of the time you’d be beaten up, would you walk through that door in a cocky, arrogant way?  Whenever we incorporate the possibility of failure into a system, humility appears.)  Humility is the Zen way (and probably the poker way as well).”