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Poker, Motivation & Prop Bets

In the motivation section of The Mental Game of Poker I touch on a subject that is dear to me, prop bets. I have always been a big fan of some of the stories of outrageous proposition bets in poker, in particular, old school road gambler legends like Amarillo Slim (Shame he is a bit, erm, dodgy, in other aspects of his life).

There are some fantastic modern prop bets in the online generation, however, there is a notably different trend among online players, which I call 'Motivational Prop Bets'. Back in the day, a successful proposition gambler would rarely bet unless it was a sure thing (And in some cases, when they have outright cheated). Usually the bet would involve a 'sucker' who would be unaware of a significant edge the gambler had (Look up the legendary Amarillo Slim table tennis bet series to see what I mean).

I call these 'Edge Prop Bets', you only bet when you believe you have an edge that you can run 100 miles/play 100,000 hands a month/eat 30 eggs in an hour etc. That is exactly what a successful gambler should be doing, investing in a perceived edge which will pay off over time. Most successful poker players know all about this.

But the modern trend of 'Motivational Prop Bets' suggests quite the opposite. Check out any popular poker forum and you will likely find a ton of these. Someone will propose that they can play x number of hands in a month, win x amount of money, or lose x amount of weight. Most of the time, rather than proposing these because they believe they can do it, they propose them because they want to do them, but are struggling to motivate themselves.

They have no prior evidence to suggest they will actually succeed, in fact, they have a ton of evidence to support the opposite viewpoint. They don't have enough motivation to lose the weight or play x number of hands for its own sake, so they want to force their interest by putting money on the line.

If someone proposes a bet because they are struggling to motivate themselves to do something they should be doing anyway, particularly if it is way off what they are currently capable of, take it. This is a bet that is destined for failure more often than not.

Motivational problems are not caused by a lack of motivation, rather the focus of your motivation is elsewhere. When someone is struggling to motivate themselves to play more hands, it is actually because they are very motivated to take more time off from playing. If someone is struggling to motivate themselves to lose weight, it is because they are very motivated to eat bad foods and not exercise.

I know that sounds like really fluffy pop psychology but it is true, and most of the time that motivation to eat crap or play less is stronger, much stronger, than the motivation not to lose money in a prop bet. I read a great book called Drive by Daniel Pink recently that confirmed just that. Basically, our ability to perform actually decreases when financial incentives are introduced, even when it is a hobby you would do for free, introducing money makes it feel like work, which makes it a real grind – all of which makes it all the more likely that desire to be lazy will win.


It creates an interesting paradox with poker, because of course it is a game where money is the way to keep score. One thing I have learned from working with Jared Tendler, and also from observing hundreds of players I have interviewed, is that in order to succeed when money is on the line you need to detach yourself from the dollars and concentrate on developing the skill needed to make it for its own sake.

I can support this argument first hand too. After working on the book with Jared Tendler I managed to drop quite a bit of excess weight through plain old eating less and exercising more. I did this by applying his mental game methods by changing my attitude to eating (I was a bit of a binge eater) and learning to box at my gym. Rather than focussing on my weight, I focussed on why I was binge eating, my eating habits, and improving my ability in my new hobby at the gym. I haven't changed the food I eat, I just am learning how to exercise portion control. It has gone really well and I am only keeping half an eye on my weight (In fact my first real dip in progress came when I started weighing myself regularly and made it all about the numbers again, which I quickly changed back again to once a month).

It has been about five months I have lost about 20-22lbs, but more importantly it hasn’t felt like a grind because I have done it for its own sake, not for the sake of losing weight itself, which will hopefully means I am developing the habits that wont see me sling it all back on again.

I actually was offered to turn it into a prop bet at the start of the year with someone who was looking to lose a similar amount of weight, I am glad I turned them down. Doing something because I wanted to is much easier than doing something because I feel I had to. When you see some porker telling you they want odds that they can lose x amount of weight in a month, unless they are Ted Forrest, take them up on it, because deep down they probably don't want to win as much as they claim to.


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