Sunday, August 13, 2006

Leaks in Your Game

I'M SLOWLY COMPOSING MY Las Vegas adventures, but I've had some thoughts in the back of my head that I don't want to let slip away.

In poker, the term leak refers to a chronic flow of money due to unprofitable plays. For example, in no-limit hold'em, calling raises with suited connectors in a shorthanded ring game with aggressive flop betting is a leak. With few players seeing the flop, and the strong likelihood of a large flop bet destroying the pot odds, the right play (after having made the wrong play of staying in) on any flop that does not offer a four-flush with a gutshot straight or a made straight or flush is to fold. The fact that this player is still venturing capital into this situation, which rarely is going to give him or her the right price to continue with the hand, is a leak.

Online poker players often run software called PokerTracker during play. PokerTracker analyzes the hand histories (textfiles saved to the player's computer with all the details of the hands he or she plays) to reveal patterns of winning and losing plays, both by street and by individual starting hand. So for example, one can chart whether calling with T9 of hearts has been making or costing money, and from which positions on the table it's been doing the best.

For the disciplined player, this is a powerful tool that can eliminate leaks and raise one's profit. But what about leaks in life? Not just holes in one's financial boat, but other places where effort, energy, or talent is dissipated needlessly?

It's easiest to apply this analogy to money flow in life. I see this every day. You can buy a bag of perfectly serviceable coffee for anywhere from $6 to $10 per pound, grind the beans yourself in a gadget that sets you back $15 or so as a one-time expense, and brew yourself a tall one in a machine that could be as cheap as $30 or $40. Yet when I pass the Starbucks in my building in the morning, there's a line nearly to the door. In the afternoon too, I see coworkers walking slowly back to their desks with some $4 or $5 whipped-cream-topped concoction from Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts.

This brings up another point in the health realm. Jeremy Zawodny, a programmer, amateur pilot, and blogger posted a series on how he lost 50 pounds with the assistance of an Excel table in which he tracked everything he ate. Like PokerTracker, this rigorous recordkeeping can help one isolate those bad food habits that, over time, add up to excess body fat. It's very simple math. With drinks that can add up, with whipped cream, to nearly 700 empty calories for the largest size, drinking Starbucks's fancier offerings over time without exercise or other limitations of intake, will make you obese. Minor leaks like this, when run together over days or months, add up to significant health problems.

For another exacta of behavioral leaks, consider smoking. A pack of butts will set you back at least $6 in New York City, with not much price relief in the rest of the state or in Jersey. Smokers rarely figure the monthly or even weekly cost of their habit, as long as prices remain stable — and even then, after a flurry of grousing over a hike in costs, they settle down and pay the increase. Even more neglected is the eventual health cost, both in physical performance and capital. Smokers pay a penalty for health insurance, lose workplace productivity or (for self-employed smokers) direct income from respiratory ailments made more frequent or worse in impact due to damaged lungs, suffer cardiac problems earlier in life, and often run afoul of long-term illnesses like cancer, emphysema, and congestive heart failure that sap their money for years.

Getting back to financial leaks, there are other areas where money flows pointlessly out of our pockets because of neglect or "convenience." Habitually patronizing ATMs outside of one's network. Buying the highest grade of gasoline for an old car. Getting the most inclusive cable package but failing to watch the vast majority of the channels. Loading up on books through Amazon rather than patronizing one's local used book store or library. Perceived in isolation, these don't seem like major diversions of cash. But it's like observing a single raindrop. Enough of them in one place can result in a devastating flood.

Although I have isolated my most costly leaks at the poker table, I am not free from leaks of lifestyle or habit. When short on time or foul in mood, I eat nonnutritious convenience or junk food. I have a three-can-a-day Diet Coke habit. The Internet is a seductive time-sink into which I frequently fall. And my sleep schedule varies wildly from one week to the next, which kills my productivity on the weekends when I sleep off the debt. Small leaks add up over time, but so do small efforts to plug these leaks and make the vessel, so to speak, even more leak resistant. I could plot a week's worth of meals over the weekend, even cooking or prepping a bunch of it ahead of time. I could replace one Diet Coke a day with tea, or — and this would be a Herculean effort — cut the habit completely, and watch the money I spent on soda flow into my coffers. I could set a literal timer for my recreational Web browsing, or find better things to do on the Net, like research investments or study poker strategy . . . or even post here! And that would directly influence my sleep habits.

Every massive cave system begins with dripping water, which over millennia erodes deep shafts and grand galleries of space and decorates it with intricate columns of mineral deposits. The Grand Canyon was sliced from the North American landmass by the rain and snowmelt that fueled the Colorado River millions of years ago. Each beach was once a balustrate of stone, which fought a slow, losing battle against relentless waves, yielding itself to sand. Over time, even the smallest leak can destroy a bankroll, a waistline, a talented soul's productivity. Leave the leaks to geology and make yourself watertight.

What are your leaks?

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