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When it comes to poker, we have long lost the middle ground. The chances are one is either a star-struck poker-crazed gaming nut or a vehemently outspoken anti-poker puritan. My wife is the latter type. I'm trying to make the transition from the former category to a more balanced middle-of-the-road position.
Poker involves risk. Definitely. But which activity doesn't?
People lose money playing poker. But is that the only activity in which the law-abiding taxpayers are parted from their hard earned cash as a result of their very own voluntary decisions?
The year was 1999. The month, November. The stock market was so red hot it seemed like nobody could do anything wrong. You just closed your eyes, picked a stock, and damn if the darn thing didn't go up the very next day!
We sat down one night with my wife and discussed whether it made sense to keep our money in a savings account that earned three and a half percent a year when we knew a number of people who doubled up their money in stocks the year before. She grudgingly admitted that freezing our money in a savings account was not really the most rational thing to do.
So she allowed me to pull out $15,000 from our savings and various credit cards and open an account with one of the better known on-line brokerage houses.
December 1999 -- I dived into the Wall Street with the enthusiasm of a kid in a toy store.
The first month I not only did not lose any money but actually made $500. I felt like I knew what I was doing.
January 2000 was even better – I've made 15% on our initial $15,000.
February 2000 was a monster – an eye-popping 20% return in that single month!
At that rate, our initial $15,000 would swell up to a cool million bucks within only eighteen months.
Then March 2000 arrived and ... things started to change, to put it mildly.
Gone was the former elation of trades magically hitting the jack pot each and every time.
All of a sudden, all my positions were losing money. I had to admit to myself that perhaps we were all rushing headlong into the much-talked about “Bubble Burst.”
Midway through April, the bottom fell out. It was a rout.
The long-expected market collapse caught all investors in the midst of their American Dreams and we were no exception. I cashed out immediately, lucky enough to lose only two thousand dollars at the end.
Despite all that, nobody has offered to outlaw the stock market and folks are still plunking down their good cash on companies that they know zilch about. Even when we think we know what we are doing, the recent Enron and WorldCom corporate scandals prove how little control we actually do have on the final outcome.
To this day I'm wondering what would have happened if I started playing poker back in November 1999 with my initial $15,000 instead of playing the Wall Street.
At least in poker, what you see is what you get. When you lose, you lose, right there on the spot. But when you win, it is not like you think you win. You actually do win.
And there has never been a case when someone's poker winnings became worthless years later because the organization that hosted the poker event was indicted in a corporate scandal.
I remember what a shoeshine guy at Grand Central once told me: “A lucky day today sir, yes indeed it is. My lucky day for sure,” he said with an obvious glee in the way he was applying the shoewax on my wingtips. When I probed a little he admitted I was his twelfth customer that day. Twelfth.
I figured, at a maximum of ten bucks a pair, the guy had made the princely sum of one hundred and twenty dollars and that was the best he was going to see for a long long time. That was his lucky day.
I wonder what luck really means if the returns on our luckiest days are limited by the very restrictions built into the nature of what we are doing.
In poker you need to know what you are doing and on top of it, must get lucky as well. But if my shoe shine guy had the same luck in a poker tournament that he had on that particular day in New York City he might have made a million and two hundred instead of just one hundred and twenty.
Preparing the mind for the challenges ahead requires calculated and educated risks whether you decide to play the stocks, shine shoes at the Grand Central or play poker at championship level. Luck helps not only the prepared minds but also those who take risks.
You need luck to win no matter what you do in life. But how big you can win if and when you do get lucky – that's where the rub is. That's why I still feel that for me playing low-limit weekend poker makes as much economic sense as playing the stocks.
I neither fancy becoming a full-time professional poker player nor assail against a good game with the fervor of a crusader. Loving every minute of a hobby in which I take calculated and limited risks is my middle ground and I'm staying there.
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