David Lappin: Poker Players Should Learn From Walter White and Break Bad

  • Due to his momento mori, Walter White displays an emboldened self that defies authority
  • Like Walter, players should control what they can and accept that some things are uncontrollable
  • Some players are adverse to risk, others take unnecessary risk as they assume they will bust
  • One group must stop being afraid like Walter, the other must take a lesson from his strategy focus
Walter White
Poker players should take a lesson from Breaking Bad anti-hero Walter White by adopting his fearless but strategy-focused persona.

Memento mori

My favorite TV show in recent years was ‘Better Call Saul,’ the prequel with a dash of sequel to ‘Breaking Bad.’ Its the origin story of the eponymous Saul Goodman, aka Jimmy Magill, which also thrust us forward in time to give that character’s story a fitting denouement.

Once it was over, like many others, I felt compelled to re-watch ‘Breaking Bad’ and once again engage with the character of Walter White, very much an anti-hero in the Shakespearian mold. As an early adopter to the hit AMC show back in 2008, I remember telling all my friends and family that they needed to check it out. However, my pitch to them at the time very much cast Walter as a bad ass living out a fantasy of sorts in the wake of a terminal diagnosis. 

an emboldened self that defied authority and took risks

Something that only became clear to me towards the end of Season 2 on first viewing was obvious to me from the start this time around – namely that Walter’s villainy was always there, lying dormant inside of him until the day he was diagnosed with lung cancer. This ultimate memento mori prompted a fundamental change not in him but rather in how willing he was to express his latent desires. It revealed a true self that was repressed through years of socialization and fear, an emboldened self that defied authority and took risks, a malignant Oedipal self that craved mastery and respect no matter what the cost.

Control what you can, accept what you can’t 

Walt’s transformation from sheep to lion actually takes place in the very first episode and, for five seasons, we watch that lion manipulate everyone around him and take reckless chances to defeat his competition.

But what does this all have to do with poker? 

Firstly, Walter moves up the stakes of the Albuquerque drug-world gradually, picking his spots along the way. In that sense, his career mirrors that of a player on the way up. Secondly, there are analogies between his experiences and tournament poker, a game that is seemingly about surviving, laddering and ultimately being the last person standing but is really about making correct tactical decisions.

many players succumb to insecurity and fear

The focus for tournament players should be on controlling what they can while always accepting that there are aspects of the game outside of their control. This is certainly not easy and those feelings of frustration and injustice that are part and parcel of the life of a multi-table tournament grinder can take their toll psychologically. Faced with the realities of variance, luck and the unpredictability of their opponents, many players succumb to insecurity and fear, emotional responses which can manifest themselves in one of two ways.

Two different responses, two different leaks

Good writers understand that they need to put their characters under pressure because that is how their authentic selves are revealed. Similarly, most tournament players revert to type under pressure. Some are so petrified of busting that they turn down too many ‘too good to refuse’ +EV opportunities. This policy guarantees their survival in the tournament but it badly hurts their chance of progressing in it. Waiting around for big hands only is the equivalent of taking that cushy, salaried, pensioned job that doesn’t really challenge you. It’s investing your money in low yield bonds. It’s deferring pain.

Other players are so petrified of busting that they desperately try to control that outcome. Deep down, they know that their demise is inevitable so instead of passively accepting that, they actively ‘own’ the event by inducing it, by taking unnecessary risks, by chancing that high-wire bluff, and by going to war at every available opportunity. Having no patience in this way is the equivalent of haphazardly chasing your dreams, looking for get-rich quick schemes, ripping off your plasters and reaching for a life beyond your grasp.

you’ll die on your sword having given yourself a chance

My advice to the first group is be more like Walter White and stop being afraid. He knows he’s going to die so he wants to achieve something in the interim. You’re probably going to bust so stop investing all your energy into avoiding that miserable moment and start re-directing that effort into accumulating. Speculate with a wider range. Bluff a bit. Be positive. You’ll still bust most of the time but at least you’ll die on your sword having given yourself a chance.

My advice to the second group is be more like Walter White and stop being an idiot. He understands that his brain is his biggest asset. He understands that if he is going to achieve his goal, he has to be strategic. Don’t be the soldier who runs maniacally into enemy fire. Tighten up. You cannot beat a good player with 8-4 offsuit out of position in the long run so cut that out. Be more patient. Be selective. You’ll still bust most of the time but at least when you do, you can console yourself with the fact that you didn’t bring about your own downfall.

Walter White: a paragon of poker virtues

Walter White is a tragic figure, a modern-day Macbeth who, as per the Shakespearian coda, had to die in the final episode. The success and universal acclaim of ‘Breaking Bad’ proved just how salient and vital the Jacobean tragedy is as a reflection of our culture 400 years on. 

Walter had cancer but he also was the cancer. He was vengeful against a world that had slighted him, emasculated him, failed to recognize his genius. Once his ambition was pricked and he felt as though he had nothing to lose, the shackles fell off. Devious and manipulative, he wreaked havoc and piled misery onto his family and everyone around him. While the audience vicariously enjoyed his early conquests, they eventually came to realize what an abominable character he really was. 

His ruthlessness and pathological need to win at all costs make him a terrible role model in real life but they do make him a compelling paragon of poker virtues. To some extent, poker players need to ‘break bad’ in order to be successful. Never was there a better piece of poker advice than those fateful words uttered by Lady Macbeth:

‘Look like the innocent flower

But be the serpent under it’