This top poker champion has a simple trick to figure out what risks to take—and avoid

Dan Cates attends the amfAR Cannes Gala 2021 at Villa Eilenroc on July 16, 2021 in Cap d'Antibes, France.
Daniele Venturelli/amfar | Getty Images

It's always important to know when you should take a risk and when you're better off playing it safe.

Poker champion Dan Cates has a simple tip for finding that balance: Take risks that push you a little outside your comfort zone, but avoid ones that make you extra uncomfortable. "You want to push yourself a little, but not too far," Cates tells CNBC Make It. "This is always true in everything."

Cates, 32, has more than $11.6 million in lifetime winnings over his 15-year professional career. In June he won his second straight Poker Players Championship title at the 2022 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. His moderation in risk-taking has been key to both his financial success and his career's longevity, he says.

"If you push yourself too hard, eventually you're gonna get burnt out or overextend yourself, [and] in the long run you'll actually end up not making progress," Cates says.

Poker players often excel at reading the people around them and staying mentally tough in the face of a losing streak, Cates says. The most successful ones push themselves to take risks when appropriate, but can pull back when necessary, he adds.

That balance and self-control is essential in such a volatile game. Cates made his first $1 million by the age of 19, only to lose more than half of that amount "almost immediately."

"Push yourself a moderate amount in all aspects," Cates says. "You want to pursue growth, but pursue it a moderate amount, basically."

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The same philosophy runs through yoga teachings, where practitioners push themselves to achieve difficult poses while pulling back at the brink of discomfort to avoid pain or injury, Cates says. Similarly, he notes that meditation — focusing your breathing to calm your nerves — can help you reset and refocus when you're racking up losses at the poker table or facing a streak of bad luck in your career.

"It's a variation of mental toughness, in that it just creates more discipline and more centeredness," he says.

If you ever start doubting yourself and your abilities, you probably need to "push yourself" to make some progress, Cates says. That doesn't always mean making yourself uncomfortable, he adds: Sometimes, the solution could be as simple as "making sure your mindset is OK. Taking a break for a second, if you have to."

You also need to know when to rein yourself in, because taking on too much risk can be disastrous.

"There are many examples of this in poker," Cates says. "One would be: You take too big of a shot [on a bet], because even if that shot works out, if you keep taking too big of a shot, eventually, that's going to screw you. Eventually, you'll hit this downturn."

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