Call, Raise, or Fold

Let me share one of my favorite techniques for simplifying complicated decisions.

There’s a popular form of poker called Texas Hold’em, and in this game (as well as in many other poker variants), you just really just have three possible decisions on each turn: call, raise, or fold.

So you can call – or match – the current bet. You can raise – or increase – the current bet. Or you can fold by quitting the hand.

Note that I’m simplifying this a bit more by considering checking to be a form of calling because when you check you’re keeping a zero bet at zero. And I’m also considering making an opening bet to be a form of raising since you’re going from a zero bet to a positive bet. And furthermore, let’s assume for the sake of simplicity that we’re playing what’s called limit poker, so the bet size is fixed. In a spread limit or no limit game, you’d also have to decide the size of your bets when you raise. So I’m deliberately constraining this analogy because it’s meant to be a simple tool, not a crazy complicated one.

Now if you’re a poker nerd, it’s easy to get caught up in thinking that there are more decisions to be made, like figuring out whether to bluff or trying to assess how strong an opponent’s hand may be. But to an outside observer watching you play, all that any player actually does in terms of what’s actionable and involves an outcome-based choice is to call a bet, raise a bet, or fold. In any situation there are really just those three options.

I often like to think in terms of these three options when I have a big decision to make.

I can call. I can maintain the status quo and keep my energy investment the same as before. I can raise. I can escalate the situation and put more energy into it. Or I can fold by exiting the situation.

Suppose you’re at a career crossroads. You can call by maintaining your current path as-is. You can raise by seeking to bet even bigger on your current path, such as by going for a promotion. Or you can fold by exiting that career and doing something else for a change.

In tricky relationship situations, you have the same three basic options. Invest the same. Invest more. Or invest less.

Reducing any decision to three options is an oversimplification of course, so don’t consider this tool to be your one ring to rule them all, but in some situations it works really well because it gets you to the core of the decision quickly, so you aren’t drowning in noncritical details and spinning yourself in circles.

In fact, we can usually apply this tool in an even simpler way.

Maybe you’ve heard the expression Go big or go home. To go big is to raise. And to go home is to fold or to give up. There is a third option though – calling – which is basically akin to staying put.

However, in many tricky poker situations, professional players will advise that calling is rarely the right choice. Most of the time you should be thinking: raise or fold. This is because when a choice seems difficult, it’s usually because the best option is to raise or fold, and you’re not sure which is best.

So if you find yourself at a crossroads, consider that you may really have just two viable options: raise or fold. Go big or go home.

And here’s a way we can compress the options even further. If you’re able to rule out calling, and you’re convinced that you’re in a situation where raise or fold are your two best options, then if you can rule out either one of those options as clearly being an incorrect choice, then in a pseudo-Sherlock Holmesian style, we can know that the other option is your best bet.

For instance, if maintaining your current path just isn’t working for you, then you’re down to a classic raise or fold situation. Now if it’s also pretty obvious to you that there’s no way in hell you’d want to raise by betting even bigger on that path and investing even more energy into it, then your decision is clear: it’s time to fold.

Or consider a tricky relationship situation where maintaining the current level of investment and engagement isn’t making you and your partner happy. You know it’s never going to improve if you both keep calling the way you’ve been doing. That’s another classic raise or fold situation. Now suppose that in this case, you just couldn’t see you and your partner ever breaking up. Deep down you still believe that you’re kindred spirits and that you’re meant to be together, and you have compelling reasons for believing that. You couldn’t stomach the possibility of folding; it just doesn’t make sense. Your choice is clear then: it’s time to raise. It’s time to recommit to the relationship in a much bigger way. It’s time to heal what needs healing and fix what isn’t working. It’s time to raise the level of truth, love, and power in the relationship to a whole new level. Get some deeply honest communication flowing again. Express your appreciation for each other, and do more of what makes you feel in love. Have more sexy time. Find new ways to empower, encourage, and uplift each other. You may know that it’s going to be hard, but you’ve got to do it. It’s time.

Folding or raising in real life is more complicated than pushing your chips a few inches forward or tossing your cards into the muck. The consequences will likely be trickier to deal with… unless maybe you’re playing a hand with a lot of money in the pot.

Let me gently remind you here to be careful not to confuse the truth and power aspects of a tough decision. We can overcomplicate such decisions by weaving in all kinds of extraneous details to keep ourselves stuck in analysis paralysis on the truth side, when the actual decision may be a no-brainer if we cut to the core of it – like of course you need to fold, or of course you need to raise. But damn… now there’s a lot of crap to deal with either way once the decision is made.

When you’ve decided that it’s time to fold, you may have a tendency to keep asking yourself, But if I fold this hand, then what will I have left? If I fold my job, how will I pay my bills? If I fold my relationship, then who will love me again?

And the answer is simple. Just get back into the game, and you’ll be dealt a fresh hand. A fresh hand brings fresh hope. A weak hand doesn’t.

You may need to step away from the table to regain your composure sometimes, and that’s totally fine. Now and then you’re going to get rivered by that nutter who hit their improbable inside straight draw. Bad beats are part of life. You take your licks, and you get back in the game when you’re ready.

Try not to worry so much about the next hand when you know it’s time to fold your current hand. Go ahead and grieve the loss as your cracked aces going down in flames, and then let that hand go and release that energy. It’s fine to think about the future, but the game is played one hand at a time. Have you finished playing your current hand yet? If not, then finish that hand before you worry about the next one. Otherwise you’ll split your energy between past, present, and future, and that’s only going to weaken you. Focus your energy on the present challenge, the present situation, the present decision.

Call, raise, or fold – it’s a simple tool, but it’s really good for freeing up stuck energy and getting back into the flow again. In 2004 when I felt out of alignment with my computer games business, and I’d been calling for years, I finally decided to fold. And I decided to bet big (or to raise) on blogging and speaking that same year. In 2009 I folded one relationship, and a few months later I raised on a new one. And then some years after that, I re-raised by getting married again. With each transition came a burst of fresh energy and this delightful feeling of flow.

When we get stuck, it’s often because we’re calling too much when we should be raising or folding more. Calling is the choice to maintain the status quo. That may seem okay for a while, but life will eventually destabilize the status quo if we don’t consciously do it ourselves.

The big transitions in life are usually raise or fold decisions. Put more energy in, or withdraw your energy so you can invest it elsewhere. We only have so much energy to invest, so it’s wise to make sure that our investments are continuing to create good value for ourselves and others and that we aren’t wasting energy chasing our losses. We have to make decisions based on how the energy is flowing right now, not on where it’s been. It’s the same with poker. We have to look at the current pot odds of each bet anew.

When you’re not in the flow, raising and folding can help you grow beyond the stuckness. Calling? Not so much. Calling makes sense when you’re in the flow.

So what’s a tricky decision you’re facing right now? And what happens if you view that decision through the simple lens of call, raise, or fold?

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