The Good, The Bad, and The Neutral

Dear reader:

In this scene from Painless Poker, the discussion at the Painless Poker Clinic turns to neutralizing ourselves for profit, and that leads to the appearance of the chalkboard, and the first mention of mindfulness. 


Back at the poker table, before everyone was seated, I picked up where we left off. “Alfonzo, your expected happiness value concept works well with an idea I’ve been kicking around. I call it the good, the bad, and the neutral.”

Babs whistled the five famous notes from the Clint Eastwood movie. Alf was doing gum maintenance with a fuzzy toothpick. Charlie sat down, turned off his phone, and turned it over.

“You’re in a headsup pot,” I said. “On the flop, your opponent bets. At that moment, you have three actions available to you, and you must choose one. You will either raise, or call, or fold.

“Let’s say the EVs of your options are as follows: Raise has an expected value of +$100. Fold has an EV of $0. And calling has an EV of -$100.

“In this scenario, raise is obviously best. Also true is that folding is better than calling, because breaking even is better than losing.”

I did a quick scan. They were with me so far, except for Mr. Lee and Mick.

“It’s the same with our mental states,” I said. “At every instant, it’s as if the universe has just bet out on the flop, and from that point, one of three things will happen. We will experience joy, or pain, or we will be emotionally non-reactive. There’s the good, the bad, and the neutral.

“And don’t expect consistency. Waiting at a stoplight might be a time of joyous anticipation because you’re on your way to something fun and exciting, or it could be super stressful if you’re running late. And sometimes it’s neither one, if you are daydreaming, or listening to music or conversing or whatever.

“Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could neutralize yourself? Wouldn’t that have huge HEV?” I looked at Alf, then at everyone. “Picture yourself annoyed, or bored, or upset at someone, or yourself. Think about how often that happens every day. Now imagine if you were to convert many thousands of those bad moments to neutral moments, year after year. How does your future look now?”

Sonny lobbed his BS chip. It landed on edge and ran across the table, trying to get as far as it could before the collapse. But the chip never fell. When it got to Babs, she scooped it up and in one smooth move sent the chip on a shallow parabola back to Sonny who needed only open his palm to make the catch. Smack.

“I’m calling BS on that,” Sonny said. “What happened to pursuing happiness or whatever? How can you be so happy about settling for neutral?”

“Because I’m not trying to win every pot. All I’m after is happier than I was. This isn’t about obtaining peace of mind. It’s more like, upgrades of mind, in series, as needed. When I’m stuck in the bad, the neutral is a welcome upgrade. It’s the difference between painful and painless.”

I was talking fast. Alf said, “I never thought I would see someone so animated over ambivalence.”

“So how to do it?” said Mr. Lee. “How to upgrade?”

“Just think happy thoughts,” Mick said. “It’s all the rave.”

“Frankly, Tommy,” said Alf, “I find your attitude condescending. Only an idiot would endure the agonies of life if he could simply choose not to.”

“Two things,” I said. “First, I do think we’re all idiots. And second, I was planning to show you how to convert pain to painless, tomorrow, but what the hell. A sneak preview won’t hurt.”

I stood up and stepped back from the table, to behind the empty dealer chair, where everyone could see me. I felt resplendent in my favorite light-blue on light-gray plaid overshirt, and my only black jeans, that I bought for a cruise-ship drumming gig that never happened. For footwear, I was strutting my ankle-high white-and-gray Costco socks.

Next to me stood a well-lit chalkboard, four feet wide and three feet high, mottled and gray from old chalk. It hung on a sturdy wooden easel and had a two-inch wide wooden shelf that ran along the bottom. The shelf had two little parallel troughs in it, milled for one purpose: to provide me with chalk. So I picked up a piece and started writing.




“Charlie,” I said. “Define freeroll.”

“Freeroll is a term used in split-pot games. It’s when you are a lock to win half the pot, and you could win the whole thing.”

“Furthermore,” Alf said, “freeroll has a colloquial usage, referring to situations in which all outcomes are neutral or positive.”

“It means nothing bad can happen,” I said.

“It means things can’t get any worse,” Babs said.

“Not entirely,” Alf said. “When you consider that the—”

I interrupted. “If you hate your life because you hate your job, and you take a shot at professional poker, then that’s a freeroll, emotionally speaking, because if you hate the poker too, you’re right where you started.”


“I know that was thin, Alfonzo. My point is that mindfulness is a freeroll because there is no downside. And the literalists among us might like to know that it’s actually free. Mindfulness requires no money, and no time.”

I was nervous. I saw my hands moving so I held them still at my waist, my piano hands, that’s what they always said I had, and I smiled.

“Suppose you wanted to take some of the minutes that you spend doing repetitive, boring, difficult tasks—things you dread—like mowing your mom’s lawn, or filing your tax returns—and convert them from bad minutes to neutral minutes. Mindfulness does that, and sometimes more, because sometimes you will bypass neutral and go straight from bad to happy, right there on your mom’s lawn.”

“I can do that with one hit off my pipe,” said Sonny.

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