Sometimes the most illuminating conversations arise from the pit of the most unusual stomachs.
In Montenegro for the Triton Poker Series finding poker players to open up was like manhandling a trout. One person who kept slipping out of my grasp was Deitrich Fast.
“I don’t speak good English,” said Fast.
It sounded good enough to me.
Finally, after much persuasion, we sat down and began talking. Immediately, I knew, Fast was my type of guy. A filterless man. A confident man. Someone willing to share his thoughts on anything and everything.
The discussion turned towards the atmosphere at high stakes tournaments, and how it felt like a lovefest. Fast put me straight. Not everyone was in love.
“Steve O’Dwyer and I aren’t friends at all.” Fast told me before continuing, “His ego is so big, and if you see his game, it’s just awful. He still makes money, he proves it, but I just keep telling him that his game is really bad.”
Steve O’Dwyer has won more than $23m playing live tournaments. Only ten people in the history of the game have won more. Is it possible that O’Dwyer is that bad at the game, and his results are merely the effects of one part of poker’s yin and yang?
Is O’Dwyer a lucky player?
Name a high stakes poker player who isn’t lucky?
Nope, this issue transcends ‘luck’.
I think O’Dwyer is Wabi-Sabi.
Poker And Lean Principles
I waited for him to pour me a cup of tea. I leafed through the bookshelf, coughing each time a speck of dust climbed into my throat and began tickling my epiglottis.
I picked one out.
The Machine That Changed The World by James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones and Daniel Roos.
“That’s the book that will get you running your trains on time.”
It was 2008; the world was going through an economic crisis. I was responsible for all Port Talbot Steelworks rail exports. The man telling me that this book would help me run trains on time had called me to his office to tell me he had no steel for me to move.
The book was a mini-history of car manufacturing that focused on the rise in quality, and revenue, of Toyota. The authors defined the philosophy that undermined the Toyota Way as Lean Manufacturing. It was the process of identifying value and waste in the supply chain, removing as many forms as waste as possible to speed up throughput without affecting quality.
It fascinated me.
After I finished the book, not only was I confident that I could run trains on time, but I could use Lean Principles to improve my life. Within the next two-years, I quit my 19-year career in the rail industry and set about becoming a professional poker player to give me the freedom of time and money so I could create a company that would help people quit alcohol.
I had one goal.
To keep seeking perfection.
To eliminate all forms of waste, and to remove defects from my life.
Vorsprung Der Technik
South Korea defeated Germany today for the first time in the team’s FIFA World Cup history. Watch all the highlights from today’s match and create your own in the Highlight Machine. https://t.co/9dri0RitbT
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 28, 2018
When South Korea dumped Germany out of the World Cup, the first time this great footballing nation had failed to reach the knockout stages since 1938, world football celebrated.
There is something very ‘perfect’ about anything that Germany does, epitomised by their national football team. As an Englishman, Germany has broken my heart twice. During the 1990 World Cup in Italy, and Euro 96 on home soil. Both times, England were the better team, but the Germans had created a way to win that seemed flawless.
You can’t put your finger on it.
It just is.
If you were to single out a group of poker players who are killing the high stakes poker scene, it would be the Germans, of which Dietrich Fast is a valuable member.
This tribe is so vast there is one Skype group containing more than 35 German players, either competing in the high stakes tranche, or with the capability of one day joining those impressive ranks, and the one thing connecting them all is this singular pursuit of poker perfection.
Game Theory Optimal.
The perfect way to play poker.
How do you define perfect?
I can’t answer that in a way that would satisfy poker purists. But consider this. In 2017, Libratus, a poker-playing artificial intelligence (AI), created by the geniuses in white lab coats out of Carnegie Mellon University, beat some of the world’s top players in Heads-Up No-Limit Hold’em.
During the ensuing interviews with the world’s best players, it became apparent that Libratus beat them by playing in a way that was deemed ‘unusual’ to the top pros. If a smattering of the best players in the world believed there was a GTO way of playing poker, Libratus had them doubting.
There are many ways to define ‘perfect’.
The marketing genius, Seth Godin, has a podcast called Akimbo, and during one of his episodes, he talked about the myriad of ways you can define perfection and one of these involved ‘meeting spec’.
Godin mentioned that 150-years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find a nut that matched a bolt. The tolerances were too broad. Until recently, it made sense for manufacturers to create vast amounts of parts on the cheap, to keep that tolerance wide, in the belief that it was more efficient.
A man named Edward Deming had a different point of view.
Deming believed it was more prudent to narrow the tolerance as he thought this was a better way to raise standards of excellence. He took his idea to Ford. They laughed him off the plant. Deming jumped on a jet plane and headed to Japan to see if he could influence the car manufacturing industry in the East. At the same time, a young man named Taiich Ohno was having similar thoughts at a car plant called Toyota.
Lean Principles was born.
Back to my conversation with Fast, and he defined the German philosophy as coming from the ‘fundamental side’ of the game. He didn’t use the words ‘GTO’ or ‘perfection’, but I am sure this is the way the Germans approach the game. I remember asking Dominik Nitsche who was the best player in the world.
The Germans are like Toyota, developing Lean Principles to identify wasteful plays or activities and to eliminate them to provide more value. They are continually raising standards and making tolerance more specific.
Back in the days of Henry Ford, there must have been boxes and boxes of parts. Taiichi Ohno and Deming reduced this to a small number. They placed the factory floor worker in charge of the line. Each time there was a discrepancy, the line stopped, and another wasteful activity changed through meetings known as kaizen.
The Germans do the same.
They have done their homework, often using AI to define the perfect play given each situation. Through experience, they can choose the best move in minutes. They continue to refine this process, by holding kaizen style discussions via Skype and in person.
They are the ultimate poker machines when it comes to eliminating waste and delivering value. They have a few critical plays in limited boxes, and this allows them to make quicker decisions than the people dithering over every decision because they have too many boxes to find the right part.
They are as close to poker perfection as you can get.
But they’re not winning all of the money.
Steve O’Dwyer has $23m of it.
The Wabi-Sabi of Poker
Moments before writing this article, I read a series of poems from Charles Bukowski on my Kindle. Bukowski is one of my favourite authors. Like Fast, there is no filter making him my kind of man.
As a writer, I don’t come from the belly of the purist. I make mistakes. I don’t know the difference between a noun and a pronoun. I don’t know where to stick the perfect comma. But I know how to tell a story. Bukowski was the same. He was imperfectly perfect.
Leonard Koren once wrote a book called Wabi Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers. Like Lean Principles the term Wabi-Sabi also comes from Japan. It’s an ambiguous term to translate, but it goes something like this:
Wabi – nature, breath, loneliness.
Sabi – rust, sadness, withered.
In more recent times, Arielle Ford wrote a book called Wabi Sabi Love: The Ancient Art of Finding Perfect Love in Imperfect Relationships.
I think both Koren and Ford define Wabi-Sabi through these two quotes:
“Beauty can be coaxed out of ugliness.” Leonard Koren – Wabi-Sabi: For Artists, Designers, Poets and Philosophers.
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” – Arielle Ford Wabi Sabi Love: The Ancient Art of Finding Perfect Love in Imperfect Relationships.
I read my Bukowski poems on the Kindle, a machine that perfectly delivers a book within seconds of me ordering it. It’s the by-product of Lean Principles adopted by the service world.
But every book looks the same.
Last year, the data crunchers at Neilsen showed ebook sales in the UK had declined by 4%, while at the same time, bookstore sales had increased by 7%.
But it’s flimsy, easily marked and damaged, and inconvenient to cart around your person.
It seems sometimes; human beings don’t want to be the perfect cog in the high-quality system thrust upon us through 5,000 ads per day.
And it’s not just our books.
The iPod gave us 1,000 songs in our pocket, and yet vinyl sales are on the rise.
Can you get anymore imperfect than an analogue vinyl record; its needle picking up dead skin, as it hops, skips and jumps across the bend in the grooves.
It seems some parts of the human race believe Lean Principles have gotten out of hand. Maybe we have had enough of quality. Perhaps we don’t want to fit in.
Steve O’Dwyer doesn’t want to meet spec ‘perfectly.’ He doesn’t want to be part of someone else’s API. He is never going to be a cog in an ever perfecting machine.
O’Dwyer brings Wabi-Sabi to the table. The American will be the first to admit that the way he plays poker has its flaws, that he doesn’t spend hours upon hours playing with computer models looking for the perfect way to play a hand.
O’Dwyer doesn’t promise anyone that what he does will be better than you. Instead, he promises to bring Wabi-Sabi rust and imperfectness. A promise that whatever play he makes, it will be unique.
In a race for ever more gilded status, it’s refreshing to see a proponent of Wabi-Sabi poker sparring with the perfect poker purists. It’s what makes poker so beautiful. It’s what makes poker so broadly accessible.
Poker is imperfect.
Imperfection is a form of freedom.
And isn’t that what every professional poker player desires?