The Tao of Poker … Bruce Lee’s No Style

You know … be like water

Poker Fists

During the peak of my online poker grinding days, I embraced the philosophical teachings and fighting style of Bruce Lee. I know what you’re thinking … what the heck does the world’s most renowned kung fu action star know about philosophy? And how does Bruce Lee help me become a better poker player?

Bruce Lee’s unique fighting style was aggressive, but he referred to it as “no style.” Lee’s reaction time was ridiculously fast. He relied on his speed to literally beat his opponents to the punch. Instead of establishing a defensive position, Lee attacked the attacker often using the same exact move. Imagine trying to punch Lee in the face but before you let a fist fly, he already rings your bell. That’s one of the many reasons Lee was unbeatable.

Lee felt that in dire life-and-death situations, like getting jumped in an alley or being in the middle of bar fight, you didn’t have time to waste worrying about fighting in a traditional manner. The lack of any style allowed the capricious Lee to gain an advantage over his opponents, who were handcuffed using antiquated and clunky fighting styles.

Lee’s “no style” is something that always intrigued me. Lee felt it was the best strategy because it did not get you bogged down with one way of thinking, thereby freeing you up completely to a wider range of moves. It was important to learn all forms of fighting along with classic fighting strategy, but during the actual moment of conflict, Lee stressed the importance of avoiding a traditional fighting style. On the most basic premise, “no style” is completely unpredictable because your opponent is unable to quickly identify your plan of attack. On a higher level, no style fighting allows you to be completely in the moment and fight as the fight progresses. Most street fights often get out of hand and never last very long anyway. That’s why Lee sought a quick resolution with a minimal amount of moves. Hard, rapid strikes. As many as necessary to disable his opponent, but more often than not, Lee only needed a single blow to take out a foe.

I mirrored Lee’s no style at the poker tables, especially online tables. I tried to become a chameleon and learn multiple playing styles, but when it came down to an individual pot, I played the hand as it presented itself instead of forcing the action. Lee’s agro-attack mode was also welcomed because bullies hate to be bullied; the best way to combat aggressive opponents is to out-do their aggression. When you launch an attack … do it as quickly and hard as possible. No holding back. Mercy is for the weak.

When I lived in Seattle over 15 years ago, my neighbor Tom was studying Wing Chung Kung Fu and training for a black belt. I was curious about learning kung fu, but Tom suggested I read up on Bruce Lee before I took a training class. He turned me onto a book written by Jonathan Little titled “The Warrior Within: The Philosophies of Bruce Lee.” Tom wanted me to understand that some of the most important aspects of martial arts have nothing to do with actual combat. Martial arts, according to Bruce Lee, was more about developing discipline and sharpening your mind. Over the last decade, “The Warrior Within” was an integral part of my development as a poker player. Like everyone else, I relied on the Holy Bible of Poker (aka Doyle Brunson’s “Super System”) to develop sound strategy, but Bruce Lee helped me sharpen my mental skills.

I never knew about Lee’s other life as a poet and a philosopher. Most of us identify with Bruce Lee the movie star, but he was also a devout student of Eastern religions. Lee understood the difficulties of practicing Buddhism and Taoism and how it clashed with contemporary American society, which is why he did his best to adapt traditional Eastern philosophies to better fit in the modern age. Lee was particularly inspired by Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu and tried to pass along a modern interpretations of Lao Tzu’s teachings.

“The Warrior Within” helped me focus on the important things: self-discipline and self-awareness. According to Lee, once we achieve the highest levels of awareness (know thyself, as Shakespeare would phrase it), then you’re on the path to mastering the warrior within. Attaining knowledge in poker really means grasping and attaining self-knowledge. Part of being a professional poker player is accepting the consequences of your actions as well as taking responsibility for yourself.

The elite pros are well-versed in self-evaluation and scrutinizing their own play. It’s easy to whine about a bad beat, but it takes a lot of guts to be brutally honest with yourself in an echo chamber. Sounds easy, but you’d be surprised how many people surround themselves with sycophants and “yes men” instead of candid people who will call you out when you go off the rails. The more you deceive yourself, the more it’s going to hurt you and your loved ones in the future. If you are blinded with fame and glory at the poker tables and you’re not 100 percent honest with your ability, limitations, and weaknesses, then you’re setting yourself up to fail miserably. The first step is being honest with yourself. Then and only then can you begin the journey to figure out who you really are.

Japanese Zen masters often use the word “satori” to describe an awakening or full comprehension of a subject. To get a little more metaphysical, achieving satori is similar to tapping into the vast energy cycles that encircle life, which leads to total harmony of the mind and body that culminates in a great spiritual awakening. Musicians, painters and other creative people struggle to get to that place all the time, but when it syncs up, creativity flows right out of them. Professional athletes call it “the zone.” Wall Street traders and online poker players refer to it as being “locked in.”

Tapping into your energy cycle is not going to give you good cards. However, you will be able to harness the “warrior within.” Bruce Lee said the martial arts warrior is a symbol that represents that great inner energy force. But if that warrior force is mishandled and neglected, then we end up achieving far less than what we are capable of doing.

The fighting part or knowing proper strategy is the easy part. It’s the internal head stuff that most players of all levels struggle with the most, which prevents them from reaching the next level. Many of Lee’s own students were perplexed during their initial training sessions. Instead of sparring, they found themselves engaged in several hours of philosophical discourse. Little did they know that Lee was helping them strengthen their own minds. Anyone can learn how to fight, but not everyone has the mental toughness to survive the biggest fight of all … the ins and outs of daily life.

Your poker game is like a garden that needs to be maintained every single day. Sometimes strengthening your poker game has nothing to do with memorizing strategy books, watching training videos, peeking into the soul of your opponents, or finishing out a tournament. The first off-the-felt step to becoming a poker master is making sure your entire life is in harmony. You’d be surprised how many people stumble into a poker room as a means to escape their problems. If your life is in shambles, those personal problems will spill over to the poker table. If you’re not harnessing the power of the warrior within to maintain a healthy balance across the board, you’re setting yourself up to fail.

Conflict at the poker table is the ultimate test. You either have what it takes, or you’re road kill. Like Jeff Spicoli pontificated in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “You’ve got to decimate before you get decimated.”

In addition to “no style,” Lee felt that you needed to master the “Art of Dying” in order to succeed. The Art of Dying is a complete detachment from the notion of death. It’s similar to the mantra of successful tournament players — in order to live, you have to be willing to die. If you’re not willing to go busto, then you have no business being at the tables. Tentative neophytes are easy to exploit, especially on the bubble. If you’re afraid to die, then you’ll never win. The ultimate warrior does not fear their own mortality. As Lee put it, “To accept defeat — to learn to die — is to be liberated from it.”

May 2014