You’ll hear many people say that sailing is like chess on the water. I disagree. It’s much more like poker.
In chess, the better player is nearly always going to win. This doesn’t happen in sailing, and it’s due to the randomness that comes with racing. Wind shifts, gusts, competitors, there’s a lot of variables we can’t control.
When I first started playing poker, one of my goals was to see if the game could improve my mindset on the race course. It did that, and much more. Here’s some of the things I learnt.
Betting on the Race Course
Betting is a concept which doesn’t sit well with the human brain. Our brains are hardwired to believe that if we take the ‘correct’ action, we should always get the desired outcome. In poker, you could make a certain bet where you lose your money 99 times in a row. If however, on the 100th time, you win 110 x the amount of your bet, you were making an incredibly profitable bet (even on those 99 times you lost).
On the race course, every time you make a decision, you’re making a bet. Will the pin end be better than the boat end? Will I gain more by covering this competitor rather than continuing to the other side of the course?
If you make a decision on the course which doesn’t work out, you didn’t necessarily make a bad decision. Say you’re sailing in certain conditions, and you think that 6 times out of 10 the left side will pay off. If you go left and end up last at the top mark, it wasn’t the wrong decision. You simply got unlucky.
In sailing and in poker, you have to separate the outcome of a decision, and the decision itself. There’s always a range of outcomes to every decision we make, and a certain number of those are going to be negative.
Sometimes You Just Have to Risk It
Many of us are afraid of taking risk. It’s only natural. Whenever our caveman ancestors took unnecessary risk, it would often result in death.
In poker, the best players are usually those who play very aggressively, and know when they should put all of their money on the line. To many, it may seem like they are playing recklessly. But in reality, they are taking very calculated, high stakes risks.
There’s pretty much no walk of life where extreme outcomes don’t require large amounts of risk. The same is true in sailing. If you want to make the biggest gains on the race course, you’re going to have to take larger risks. This might be on the start line, in your strategy, or how hard you push the boat.
They're Not That Much Better Than You
Depending on the amount of money you have, there are different levels of poker games available for how much you buy in for. Think of it like an entry fee. In general, as soon as a player is winning at a certain ‘entry fee’ level over a long period of time, they’ll move up to the next one. This gives them the opportunity to earn (or lose) more money.
When moving up, one big mistake that many players make is overestimating the skill of the players at the level above them. This causes them to adjust their game plan, and they end up playing worse than they usually would.
You see this (and I’ve done this myself) constantly in the sailing world. You might be racing against sailors who you perceive to be better than you, and you get intimidated and let them off easy. You let them have buoy room at a mark which they probably weren’t entitled to, or let them have a good gap on the start line uncontested.
Stop that. You’re just as entitled to win the race, and backing down from battling the best sailors is only going to hold you back, and let them continue winning.
The best sailors are good, but they’re also human, have to sail the exact same boat, and have to follow the same rules. They might be good, but they’re not that much better than you. Stick to your game plan, race hard, and you might be surprised with the outcome.
Decision making and mindset are a crucial part of success on the race course. For me, using these lessons on the race course helped me become more rational in my decisions, and get less emotional when things weren’t going my way. Taking risks is a natural part of sailing well, and there are many times where you need to step up, take some risk and follow your game plan to get the best results.