Sunday Thoughts – Going All In On Fear

So, we were heads up – 30 players down to the two of us.

Across the table sat Cindy, seven-time winner of our little home game poker league. Again and again, she’d won first place while I was lucky to take second once in a while.

Without getting too much into poker jargon, let’s just say that we were pretty even at this point chip-wise, or our stacks were nearly even.

So, anything could still happen. And, as anyone who follows the much higher stakes WSOP games on ESPN knows, it often does.

But this was just a semi-friendly (although fiercely competitive) home league. Buy-in’s were $10, but the first place winner often took home more than a $100. Still, there was enough at stake that we took pride in winning.

“I’m all in,” declared Cindy. So, now I was left to decide – do I call and risk nearly three quarters of my chips? Or do I fold.

If I won, I could basically take it all. Then and there.

But if I was wrong, I’d be crippled. And probably just left with struggling to stay in a little longer.

Closing my eyes, I breathed and checked myself. “I call.”

Both Cindy and I were surprised at my call. I had enough respect for her game to know that she didn’t push all her chips into the middle lightly.

Yet, there I was calling her.

Turning over 6-3 off-suit, Cindy half-sheepishly chuckled. She often said that it was one of her favorite hands, even though it’s basically a rag hand (having little inherent value, unlike big poker pairs like Aces or Kings, or even Ace King). Poker players tend to have a semi-superstitious tendency to favor personal “garbage hands.” I had caught her hand in the proverbial cookie jar.

What led me to make that call? Even though my hand (Ace Ten off-suit) wasn’t too bad, it was still a gamble to call an all-in. Normally, I would struggle to make such a call. Yet, this time I made it with little hesitation. Something had changed in my game. I had changed.


“Fear is the mind killer.” This is one of my favorite lines from Dune by Frank Herbert. It’s the destroyer of possibility and for an artist, bane of creativity.

I’ve faced many forms and many shapes of fear in my life. Some advocate living fearlessly. Others say just ignore it.

But I say embrace fear, because only then can you really be free.

No, I’m not saying live your life in fear. Nor am I saying being too comfortable or complacent with fear. That’s how accidents happen – that’s just plain carelessness.
Years ago, I was more active in practicing aikido. Unlike other martial arts that profess to be a “mind over matter” form of self-defense but quickly end up being just another use of force against force, this practice stems from the founder’s philosophy.

While other martial art traditions are often hundreds of years old, aikido drew from some of these traditions and in reality is still less than a century old.

Morihei Ueshiba, also known by his followers as “O Sensei,” believed that aikido should be a path to harmony and peace, and its practice embodied this not only in the philosophy but the very technique itself.

For example, unlike judo, karate or kung fu, nothing happens until an attacker attacks. After receiving the energy of the attacker and redirecting it to neutralize the attack, only the force necessary to suppress further aggression is used.

How much is enough? Ah, that’s the art – and the lifetime of practice that come with this art.

But to my moment of truth.. aikido teaches us to resist our “natural” fight or flight instincts. It was the belief of O Sensei that many of our societal woes come from this lack of control over our fear.

If we harness this energy, we embrace the true power that is our very core – love. The opposite of love isn’t hate; it’s fear – the absence of love.

I know this sounds very touchy feely for a martial art. And at first even I was very skeptical. But once you see the power and beauty of the techniques, it’s unmistakable that you’re seeing something different than brute force.

At the very heart of this art aikido asks you, “What are you afraid of?” and “How can you embrace this?”

In that moment I realized that I was afraid of making a foolish mistake. I wasn’t worried that Cindy actually had a good hand. If I was wrong, so be it.

So, what “clicked”? Realizing that my fear was getting in the way of me making the best decision in that moment. Once I acknowledged this, my inner wisdom – that all-knowing little voice – said to call. And I did.

The hand played out, and somehow I don’t think either of us connected with the board – the rest of the cards which make up your hand in Texas hold’em. Ace high was good enough to win the hand, and thus allow me to win first place for the first time.


going all in

going all in

Funny thing – after breaking that personal poker “4 minute mile,” I went on to win first several times. And some other players in the league as well. Maybe I’m being overly philosophical but I like to believe that once we face our fears we give others the permission to do so also.

What about you? How is fear holding you back from making the right call?

Here is more on How Poker Helps Us to Face Our Fears in Business.

How Life is a Poker Tournament

Why Sometimes We Need to Go All In on Fear