One dark afternoon in December, a message on my phone lit up as a warning signal.
This was the third time in two days that Philipp Kiefel, my poker coach, asked me to register to play a specific online tournament. He had a huge top prize of $ 10,000 (£ 7,000 / € 8,250), and he thought that would be good practice. I am a science writer, not a professional player, and had started gambling as a hobby, but then began to seriously study it to help me research a non-fiction book on how poker can improve your critical thinking.
However, I was looking for my daughter at school, and nowhere near my laptop.
“Pick up Ava,” I replied.
I felt guilty, but had no interest in playing that day.
“You have 26 minutes before the end of late registrations,” he insisted.
“I’ll get there,” I surrendered.
Walking back was no longer an option, so Ava and I hopped in a cab and made it home with only a few minutes to spare. She went to her bedroom to play with her Lego and I sat at the kitchen table playing with strangers online – totally oblivious to the impact this was going to have on my life.
That day, I beat 1,666 other players to win the tournament and take the $ 10,000 prize.
My unexpected victory was just the start. Over the next few months, I would be pitted against a controversial player I had never met, known for his explosive Instagram lifestyle and negative comments about women. I would be immersed in 15 minutes of fame in the poker media, drawn to the larger issue of sexism in the game. And I would be offered training by some of the best poker coaches in the world – idols of mine who have won. millions of dollars thanks to their skills, and who would become friends. Along the way, the experience has taught me to think differently about gambling – and the world in general, too. It upped my state of mind in a way that I started to see quite differently. And it all started at my kitchen table that December afternoon.
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For the past few years, I’ve been working on a book on the mental benefits of poker. During the writing process, I realized that I should include my own experiences and show my reader that I know what it takes to play and win. But I am only an amateur player. I enjoy the game as some people enjoy yoga or running. So like many of these people, I found myself a coach – Kiefel, a German online poker pro.
The online tournament he encouraged me to play was called a “freeroll” – and that was one of the reasons I was reluctant to register. Since there is no entry fee, what tends to happen in a freeroll is that most players dump their chips, play sloppily, and simply spit out their stack. They perfectly display human psychology in action: give people something for free and they’ll appreciate it less than what they paid for. I didn’t want to waste my time playing what I thought was a game of chance. Kiefel had a different point of view, however. Playing with less invested players, he said, was a good thing: “Play your game and you will crush them.” And I crushed them.