Leaving It All On the Table

Leaving It All On the Table

A couple of years ago someone taught me how to play poker. To be fair, he might say he tried to teach me how to play. I’d always wanted to learn, but no one had ever been around to teach me before, and I’m not the sort to just learn it on my own or in only one sitting.

I’m also not the sort to learn the mathematical way — counting the cards and calculating the odds. I’m an intuitive player. I learn the lay of the land, and until I do, I may blunder around a bit, venturing off in different directions and trying to sort out what goes where and who and when. But then one day, it all just clicks, and as one life-long Chicagoan I know says about navigating the territory, I can just “feel where the Lake is.”

I’m not easy to beat once that happens.

At least, that’s how games have always worked for me before. Poker is different. Because poker is life — or maybe life is poker.

The lessons went well, as lessons usually do when you’re invested in learning. And I was winning some. But there was a disconnect. He wasn’t just trying to teach me how to play poker, he was also trying to teach me why to play poker, and he wanted me to play to win. I was losing what I was winning, and he thought it was because he hadn’t taught me when to walk away.

The problem was, we didn’t define winning the same way. And what winning looks like for you? Well, that changes everything about how you play the game.

It’s not always about what you take home. Sometimes it’s about what you leave on the table.

Sometimes it’s about showing your cards instead of hiding them.

Sometimes it’s all about staying in the game, not because you don’t think you can lose — you can lose everything. But because that one game is worth everything.

Sometimes winning means you just keep playing as long as you can.

I don’t know if I’ll ever play poker again. Really play. I mess around online sometimes with real people but pretend cards and pretend money. I try to learn playing there the way he taught me — or tried. But it’s not the same. It’s just a game, and he taught me more than he knew, even if I didn’t quite learn exactly what he wanted me to.

The real game is about something else entirely. It’s about knowing who you are and what you want and what it’s all worth to you. I put it all on the table and I walked away with the game of a lifetime. And I don’t know that I ever want to play the real thing any other way.