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Steven Lubert


In poker, everybody loses sooner or later. Sometimes it’s just a few hands, and sometimes you lose for the whole night (or longer). Sometimes the losses are your own fault, and sometimes you can play perfectly and still go broke. The point is that losing is part of the game. No one is immune from it, and even the most skilled players cannot avoid it. In the long run, of course, there is no luck in poker, and the best players will eventually win. But as the card player and poet A. Alvarez explained, there is plenty of luck, both good and bad, in the short run, and “the short run is longer than most people know.” Managing losses, therefore, is one of the most important parts of the game. It is essential to keep them in perspective and, most of all, to prevent bad beats from influencing the way you play the next hand. It may seem counterintuitive, and it is certainly counterproductive, but there is a nearly universal tendency to play loosely in a misguided attempt to “get even” following a series of losses. Card players call it “going on tilt” or “steaming,” and journalist Andy Bellin describes it like this: “After losing a big hand, a player bets and raises with garbage because he is steamed over the last game. Then he loses more, and a cycle begins. Once you tilt, there’s almost no hope for recovery.” If anything, lawyers are even more susceptible to steaming when things go wrong and more likely to rationalize bad behavior. Losing your temper in negotiation, berating a judge for a bad ruling, snarling at a surprisingly unhelpful witness—these are all examples of going on tilt, turning a momentary disadvantage into a potential debacle. Needless to say, most decent lawyers understand the need to maintain their composure, especially in court. Nonetheless, even the calmest among us will occasionally snap, and the less disciplined will throw outright tantrums, later rationalized (though never excused) with the self-justification that “it had to be said.” Well, it almost certainly did not have to be said, especially if it was disrespectful, rude, crude, loud, or inconsiderate. Loutish outbursts might feel good (just like betting heavily on rag hands), but they almost never accomplish anything positive. But all of that is obvious. No one (well, almost no one) thinks it useful for lawyers to lose their tempers or behave badly. But there is also a more subtle lesson to be learned about steaming. Serious mistakes are more likely to happen when things are going wrong. Judgment becomes clouded when frustration sets in, and foolish temptations seem somehow irresistible.

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