Episode 45: Mike Stein of Quantitative Poker

Mike Stein, author of the excellent Quantitative Poker blog, joins us to talk about skill vs luck in poker, how tax implications and the declining utility of money should affect your game selection, and game theoretically optimal bluffing strategy across multiple streets. You can follow Mike on Twitter , read his “sticky” about tax implications on 2+2, and see him quoted in BusinessWeek.


0:30 Interview: Mike Stein
50:38 Strategy: Optimal multi-street bluffing
69:23 Strategy: Hero-calling a four-flush river


Hero is on the button with $315, Villain is in SB with $225.

3 limps in MP, Hero raises to $16 with Ac 7c on the button, SB calls, limpers fold.

Flop 3d-6d-7d
Pot = $40
Hero = $299
Villain = $219

Villain checks, Hero bets $25. Villain calls.

Turn 2c
Pot = $90
Hero = $274
Villain = $184

Hero bets $50. Villain calls.

River Jd
Pot = $190
Hero = $225
Villain = $134

Villain shoves, Hero calls.

44 thoughts on “Episode 45: Mike Stein of Quantitative Poker

  1. We talked about a lot of different things in this podcast and only scratched the surface of some pretty deep areas, so if any listeners have any questions, I’m happy to continue the discussion here!

    Also I dumped a pile of math regarding the multi-street bluffing hand discussion on one of the older posts relating to that, so if you’re interested in seeing the full algebra of the game theory setup to generalized multi-street bluffing with a nuts/bluff range vs a nuts/bluff-catcher range, you can check that out here:

    • I’ve been thinking about the complication that unlike in the Sklansky article Villain can have the nuts in his range. To make things easier, I take the (unrelated) multi-street complication out and look at just one street. Even so, I find it still difficult so by no means am I certain about the statements I’m going to make.

      Admittely I haven’t studied closely your algebra in the comment you refer to, but to me it can’t be right since you seem to be saying that Hero’s bluffing frequency should remain the same as it was in the Sklansky case. But assume Hero indeed keeps the same frequency and Villain faces the bet. If Villain has the nuts himself then the probability, from his perspective, that Hero is bluffing goes up (to one) from what it was in the Sklansky case, and what it still is from an observer perspective. Correspondingly, if he doesn’t have the nuts then it goes down, so since he was indifferent in the Sklansky case he is now better off folding than calling.

      Thus Hero has to bluff more. But I agree with Andrew’s analysis that there is a cut-off point: if Villain has the nuts too often then Hero cannot bluff at all. (Which means in the algebra b should depend on n, so that can’t be right either.) Again, though, we have to be clear about which perspective we are taking. Assume Hero is betting 4 into 1, then he will be indifferent to bluffing if Villain calls 20 percent of the time. But if Hero himself has the nuts, say, 50 percent of the time then the aforementioned cut-off point, which is 20 percent from his perspective, is actually only 10 percent from the observer perspective.

      Maybe it’s clearer if we start from the latter. Hero has the nuts 50 percent of the time; Villain has it 10 percent of the time (always assuming they can’t both have it at the same time); the remaining 40 percent of the time neither has it. From Hero’s perspective however, if he doesn’t have the nuts himself then Villain will have it 20 percent of the time.

      • Zoltz, these are all very good observations/corrections.

        Villain’s perspective on the percentage of bluffs in Hero’s river range will increase, though possibly slightly, in the cases where Villain himself has a bluff-catcher (non-nut hand). The impact of this depends on how many combinations of the nuts are in Hero’s range to begin wtih. When the Hero has the nuts more often, this effect will be bigger. I believe the algebra, when fully worked out, would support this sort of conclusion.

        You’re also right that the algebra breaks down when Villain’s percentage of the nuts (n) is high enough. When this is the case, the expected value of Hero’s bluff, 3*(1-n)(1-2c) – 3n, will be negative for all values of c. There are a lot of hidden assumptions in the indifference setup, but essentially it assumes that we’re in a case where neither Hero nor Villain has so extremely high or low of a percentage of the nuts so as to completely dictate the strategies. The math only gets resorted to when the nut percentages are non-extreme.

        Your last paragraph shows that the nut percentages used in the algebra should actually be the modified range weights based on the observer’s holdings, i.e. the variable n for Villain’s nut percentage should actually be Villain’s nut percentage *given that* Hero holds a non-nut hand (the case in question for the equation), and vice versa. I think the setup still holds up, but this may bring about more tweaks later.

  2. Just downloaded this episode of the podcast, can’t wait to listen. Mike, your blog post from a couple years ago called “Levels of Randomness: Beyond G-Bucks” is one of my all-time favorite posts about poker and poker theory. Awesome stuff.

    • That’s great 🙂 Thanks a lot, Mike! Hope you liked the podcast. I’ll admit that I even gave *myself* a few headaches working through the Levels of Randomness post.

  3. Great podcast, as always.

    I find this deep theoretical stuff very interesting from an academic point of view. However, if you are predominantly a tournament player, how important is it from an EV perspective to get a handle on this kind of thing?

    What I’m getting at is that it’s not that difficult, I’d argue, to have a solid understanding of the most important tournament concepts, and a good long term winning record to go with it, but have little proper understanding of deeper theoretical considerations around bluffing frequencies such as those discussed.

    If you agree with that, then once a good winning tournament player does take the time to gain a deeper understanding of theoretical issues of this nature, how much can he/she stand to gain in terms of EV? My instinct is that the answer is “not all that much” (which isn’t to take away from either the importance or inherent interestingness of the question – and I have no doubt that to reach the very top of the game you have to understand these things).

    • Interesting question. Tournaments differ from cash games in some basic ways, e.g.:

      (1) Shorter stacks (often)
      (2) “Lose and go home” (except for rebuy situations)
      (3) Weaker players (often)
      (4) Inferior drink service (usually)

      Do these make it less important to understand “deep theoretical considerations,” and especially less-obvious bluffing frequencies? Well…

      (1): In a sense; the optimal plays with short stacks are often easier to deduce and less often involve pure bluffing (because you’re all-in well before the river).

      (2): Not really (IMO); while this changes the utilities, it doesn’t often turn a very hard math problem into an easy one, or vice versa.

      (3): This depends whether you think that knowing the GTO play is practically useful for figuring out the best exploitive play. IMO there are times when it is and times when it isn’t. Against the weakest players things get much simpler, as you can often figure out what they’ll do and then just optimize against that fixed strategy.

      (4): See (2).

      Perhaps I’ll write something longer about this someday… thanks for the comment!

    • I think digging deep into specific, unusual situations like playing a cold-floated 87 on 9969 falls along your instinct of “not all that much”, simply because the situations are rare. However, when they do come up, having a rough baseline for how to play them helps a lot.

      Sklansky has a toy example of an otherwise-great poker player who has the unusual quirk of always open-folding whenever he or she makes a royal flush. Is this player making a “big” mistake? In one sense, yes, as he’s losing a ton of value when he makes a royal flush (and his move in that situation is very easy to improve upon). In another sense, no, as this means so little in terms of $/hr.

      Mastering specific game theory spots like this is sort of like that. When it comes up, it’s very useful, but if you’re not already doing great in the more common spots and the other aspects of your game, studying time should be better spent elsewhere.

      Despite this, I think studying poker game theory more broadly has lots of more-commonly-occurring value to add to one’s game. E.g. just reading through Mathematics of Poker every few years… even if you don’t memorize the answers to specific toy subgames, there’s a lot of more general lessons to integrate into one’s background processes.

  4. Re: the strategy hand.

    Nate nailed this. Against this player and against most players, you are never good against their check-calling range OOP on a monotone board, regardless of their river action. Once the river card comes, you are overwhelmingly beat, and the shove does not alter that. FWIW, I believe it is much more likely that villain simply spazzed out and bet, rather than turned his hand into a bluff (or intentionally made a very thin value bet).

  5. Interesting episode – thanks!!

    Mike mentioned an essay he wrote to give non playing family / friends to help answer some questions. Like this idea, where their any particular points that really worked well in helping their understanding?

    • Hi Eleanor,

      My poker essay for friends & family had 5 main sections:
      1) How and why I got into poker, how it fit into my life, and how it’s a positive part of my life
      2) How poker works, explaining the lack of applicability of “house always wins” and the like, how it’s a multiplayer strategy game and similarities to other games, skill vs. luck and gambling vs. not gambling
      3) How internet poker works, mechanically
      4) Why playing internet poker isn’t illegal, impacts of UIGEA, how taxes work
      5) The morality of being a poker player, relating to existence of problem gamblers and social/religious perspectives on gambling

      It ended up being too long for the audience I was trying to reach (though the most interested people really enjoyed it). If I were writing it again today, it’d be cut down by quite a bit.

      The point that I found to be most helpful in creating a proper understanding was the personal (non-monetary) benefits of poker in my life. Almost everyone can appreciate those, and they can help to prompt reassessment of prejudices or misconceptions about gambling in those who have them. Since it was geared towards people who knew me personally, this made it easier for them to understand my interest and involvement.

      The second-best point was the broadly-accessible explanation of risk management and why poker is mechanically different than traditional gambling. It’s hard to teach this without being too technical, but if you strike a good balance and avoid jargon, it can be done in a way that reaches most (but not all) people.

      Everything else was probably less effective than I wanted it to be. I found that people were very uninterested in matters of legality and morality, and if they have preconceptions, it’s hard to change people’s opinions directly on these topics even with good arguments. The people I know who “felt” like internet poker was illegal generally continued to think so even in the face of the wealth of objective, factual information out there. From the audience’s perspective, of course the author would make these arguments as “justifications” even if they weren’t true, etc.

      Overall, as far as the failures of this sort of approach go, I think my biggest caution would be this: to someone with misconceptions about the game, a genuine passion for poker can often just look like an “obsession with gambling”.

      So I would encourage people to focus on as-simple-as-possible explanations of how poker is different from traditional gambling games, why this allows for risk management and stable returns (staying VERY nonmathematical), and the ways that poker has been a positive influence in one’s life. Don’t expect to lead anybody to as full an understanding of poker as a poker player would have, but do give them the chance to understand the most important aspects of how poker relates to your life.

      • I was going to respond to Eleanor’s comment as well, but I don’t see any need now. I’ll just second everything Mike said.

  6. I kept hoping that y’all would address GTO bet sizing!

    Any thoughts on optimal turn and bet sizes for the 9 9 6 9 hand?

    • Assuming you are playing a nuts/air range against a not-overly-nut-heavy range, I believe the conclusion from Math of Poker is that betting same % of pot with balanced range on turn and river maximizes profit. So here, it’s pot-pot, but with an SPR of 12, it would be 2x pot on turn and then 2x pot on river.

        • I’ve often wondered that myself. These may not actually explain it, but there are a few good reasons not to:

          1. You believe you can show a higher profit with a more exploitive line.

          2. You aren’t actually in a nuts/air situation or anything sufficiently similar to it.

          3. The possibility of your opponent raising the turn deters you. The Math of Poker example assumes Villain never raises turn, which would make sense if he has strictly bluff-catchers. But if your hand is behidn but has equity, you may not want to induce a raise/fold response which overbetting could do.

          • Yeah, that all sounds right to me. I’d also add that it’s entirely likely that perfect GTO NL play involves a lot more overbetting than most humans do.

          • 2) is the conclusion I came to regarding the scenario I was talking about in my comments to one of the other blogs on this subject. Once we get into a scenario where hand ranges are well defined as nuts/air versus bluff catcher, then the polarised range has a hugely powerful strategy available to it, but in order to reach that point we prefer to bet smaller to try to define ranges/control the path of the hand. (But (1) probably overrides this sort of thinking most of the time anyway).

  7. I have not read the quadjacks commentary on the skill versus luck debate, however, I think the debate/discussion with reference to potential legislation is somewhat myopic in that it only considers poker from the perspective of “winning” or strategic players.

    The fact that a small proportion of the total player pool can be winners isn’t in my opinion that pertinent, be it through luck or skill. Perhaps the issue for the general public really comes down to the expectation for the average player and their motivations for playing. On average of course the whole player pool’s win rate is negative by the size of the rake. Much like roulette, people don’t tend to sit down for a nice game of poker without playing for money, whereas thousands of people do for a game like scrabble or bridge. In aggregate the player pool is just as “irrational” playing poker as roulette.

    I happen to disagree with the idea that utilities are useful because they don’t tell you that much about the world. For a utility function to be useful it should be able to make predictions about your preferences by observing some data points, in reality that rarely works. A lot of financial models display huge sensitivity to tiny changes in the shape of an investors utility curve and when it comes down to the practice of trying to map even the most simple of situations into a curve one notices that it is highly dependent on the framing of the questions and displays many discontinuities.

    Intrinsically human preferences are non-linear and value so many factors not captured (as Andrew points out talking about the value of the experience of playing the main event), and leads to people labelling behaviour as ‘irrational’ when it is just a model misspecification.

    When we say someone is irrational for playing the lottery, really don’t we mean that we don’t share the same preferences. I can’t remember the source, but I recall that a large proportion of spending on gambling is substitution of alternative leisure. Is the substitution of beer and a meal out for a bit of skewed variance in your total wealth irrational? Extended warranties are probably more of a negative EV proposition than buying lottery tickets, yet receives far less opprobrium and scorn.

    Or maybe quadjacks is wrong, after all speculation is the pejorative for investing, maybe poker would benefit from a social reclassification. Personally I’m not convinced that gambling is such a terrible vice, but then that is easy for me to say.

    • BRaven,

      Lots of interesting stuff to think about there. It’s definitely important to look beyond the pure merits of skill games when it comes to social benefits and legal justifications. A game being a skill game doesn’t necessarily mean good for the world.

      I don’t know how one can really approach the question when considering aggregate player populations, though. Wouldn’t the characteristics of a small percentage of winners and an aggregate negative winrate be true for any strategy game, when for-money competition in it is offered by a business? This also creates a sensitivity to rake of the conclusion, which I feel gets a little messy — though if it were to convincingly lead to government-sponsored rake-free poker, that’d be pretty cool.

      I do think it’s important to separate poker from its historical treatment at least a little bit when it comes to theorizing on these matters. In particular, playing poker for play money in social settings, a la Scrabble or bridge, does happen reasonably often in some contexts and shouldn’t be ignored.

      As for utilities, you’ve pointed out a few of the legitimate, big issues with them. The sensitivity of financial models to curve parameters can be discouraging, and this does mean that getting a perfect fit in the real world is a futile effort. However, the perspective I take on it with respect to poker analysis is that declining to use any utility functions doesn’t actually avoid the choice of a utility function, it just chooses a trivial utility function of f(x)=x.

      Also, with poker tax situations, tax induces risk aversion even in a player with a pretty flat utility curve, and that, in my opinion, is the biggest reason to incorporate them, even if post-tax risk aversion is left pretty flat. This avoids the mislabeling of behavior as irrational when someone might actually have risk preferences that match it.

      A social reclassification would have to be good for poker. Indeed “speculation” is used as a pejorative for certain risky or less-socially-useful types of investment; “gambling” is also used in these contexts as well with respect to investing, perhaps when the public describes big options plays. But the conservative individual investor with a long-term index fund portfolio is never referred to as a “gambler”. My argument would be that poker, while it can be “gambling” in this sense if someone makes irresponsible risk management decisions, is not “gambling” in this sense in most cases.

  8. BRaven….

    Excellent points!

    I always wondered why “poker” was so bad as an industry at presenting itself to the public. (IMHO). PokerStars and Party had huge financial interests in calming various publics and governments down in the opposition to online poker yet never seemed to even think it was important. Perhaps they made an effort overseas and I did not notice, but in the US, any positive Publicity seemed non- existent.

    If you were involved in a multimillion dollar industry in its infancy would you not have lobbyists in every country available to push your cause and keep their ears to the ground for possible negative rumblings?

    One of most winning poker players’ weaknesses in my opinion is to misjudge the fears of the general population that opposes online poker. The opposition seems to be painted as “pro- religious , less intelligent” folks who are unable to understand variance and the skill debate. My take is that most of those opposing online poker are worried about people close to them becoming enmeshed in 1) an activity that is inherently anti-social 2). Has an attraction to males 16-25 who may see it in romanticized terms compared to reality ( much like chasing an acting / singing / modeling career ) 3). Has very little “plan B ” so that those 16-25 yr olds that chase the dream might have few options if they change their mind years later.

    Course it could just be that the Mormon kids in white shirts and black ties are getting better…..


    • Which,

      I suspect that Stars/Party and the like were pretty active behind the scenes (and in front of the scenes, with their heavy funding of the PPA).

      I agree that these other points are other important reasons that the public might have against poker. I do think that preconceptions about gambling, however, dominate these and likely conflate with them. Still, the best explanations can address both issues at once through discussions of poker’s uniqueness and personal benefits (moderation being key for the concerns you mention).

  9. Mike,
    I was going to ask some finance/utility questions, but I’ll leave it to this: Are you familiar with Eric Falkenstein’s work? Two books, Finding Alpha and The Missing Risk Premium.


      • He argues there is no risk premium, both theoretically and empirically. Part of his theory involves detailed work on utility functions. This is what prompted my question. You mention your work on utility functions in some of the pieces you have written. They are now on my reading list, so I’ll defer questions until I read them and then ask questions on your blog. You can get a quick check on Eric at falkenblog.blogspot.com. Thanks to BRaven for reminding me of that via twitter.

  10. The utility discussion only reinforces my belief that tournaments are a terrible form of poker. I was thinking that perhaps there is a tier of players who are so good that ultimately all the money flows to them, and that’s why staking emerges – their roll grows inexorably, and they feed some of it back to their friends and others in the second flight of good but not elite players. But in reality perhaps even without this sort of hierarchy in skill, the skew in payouts is sufficient to develop the sort of stratification.

    • Ian,

      Yeah, I think that’s a reasonably accurate perspective. Backing/staking markets can always mostly smooth out any utility issues that emerge from the skew for individual players, i.e. for any risk aversion and tax situation, if you sell off enough pieces, even a very high-variance tournament can be modified to a risk profile that benefits the player. In an ideal “rational” world where the tournament buyins and fields were fixed at where they’re at now for something like the WSOP, I think there would be a lot more piecing and backing. Though the trends seem to be moving towards this, I suspect there’s a lot further to go, but I’m also not totally in tune with the tournament scene, so I’m speculating here.

  11. Mike-

    I agree that once UIGEA hit Party and Stars probably DID realize what the stakes were. My point was more about before even netellerr was taken down. There should have already been a push for positive public as well as governmental influences. Sadly I heard many stories reported about the negative aspects of gambling/poker. But I never saw a single public relations style piece about “how poker saved my house” or “my kid has cancer, lucky for me I am a winning online poker player, or I could not afford the medical bills”.

    Am I mistaken in my views? Have any of y’all seen positive stories about online poker changing lives in a good way?

    On another note, you mentioned taxes in the podcast. What is your estimate of winning players online pre- black friday? And if legislation makes online legal again in the US, if taxes/regulation is strict, what % would be your estimate of profitable players?

    • Which,

      I do think the poker sites were involved in some of these pushes even pre-Neteller, and definitely pre-UIGEA. I remember PartyPoker having a bonus available for players who joined the PPA such that the PPA membership was effectively free for an active PartyPoker player.

      However, though a lot of this was likely behind-the-scenes, I think it was almost certainly way too little, at least until the UIGEA. It’s hard to blame them too much with how fast the industry was booming and how much attention was needed elsewhere in managing and growing their poker rooms. There’s also an argument that the sites were (perhaps rationally) just aiming to maximize short-term success over long-term growth, or that advocacy efforts, if successful, could actually hurt their market positions. E.g. if PokerStars created some hypothetical legal victory which made poker unquestionably legal on a federal level in the US, then PokerStars’ market position might be hurt by its new competitors.

      I agree that the balance between positive and negative aspects of poker has always been way out of proportion, especially in the earlier years. I recall a few semi-mainstream stories about online poker changing lives in a good way, but not many, and none of them were anywhere near as salient as the story of Greg Hogan Jr. halfheartedly robbing a bank and blaming online poker in the mid-2000s. The negative stories will always be remembered more.

      For percentage of winning players, I’ve always seen numbers in the 10-20% range thrown around, pre-tax. The negative impacts of the inappropriate treatment of the US tax code for poker are mostly on the losers or break-even players (who will owe money on their taxes). A few small winners will get nudged out, but the medium to big winners will still be winners, just for smaller amounts, so I don’t think this particular percentage changes too much. The bigger concerns are the rights of the 1,000,000+ losing or breakeven American players who would owe more than 100% tax on their expected winnings and the impact on the poker economy as these players furiously quit the game forever once they get their first compulsory tax bill for it.

      Another semi-related thought on the media treatment of online poker: The negative effects of online poker are usually of much larger magnitude than that of the positive effects. Online poker’s existence might directly or indirectly lead to this sort of impact on aggregate lives other than the flow of money, if I were to guess:

      1% of players have moderate to severe negative life impacts, be it from problem gambling issues or a significant misuse of their time on the game.

      1-5% of players have slight, occasional, net-negative impacts of this sort to a lesser degree.

      10-50% of players have a more casual interest in the game and derive entertainment and socialization value from it, but little of the benefits which accrue to more serious players.

      20-40% of players treat the game somewhat seriously and, in addition to entertainment and the value of having a competitive outlet, gain some self-improvement for their broader life through better understanding of probability and risk management techniques, discipline and improvement to personal habits (drugs, sleep, diet) so as to optimize mental performance, objective thinking skills, overall quantitative thinking skills, etc.

      10-20% of the most serious players derive very significant benefits of that sort.

      Only the 1% could ever be expected to make the news, both because it’s the most interesting/extreme story and it’s the most visible story.

      Yet this overall profile of social returns is a net benefit for society, by many standards. I imagine the returns profile for alcohol usage is much worse than this, with a higher incidence of socially-destructive behavior and no real upper tier of personal growth potential, instead capping off at a wide middle tier of entertainment/socialization benefits.

    • FWIW I don’t think that “look what online poker did for this one person!” is really a very compelling argument at all or an adequate refutation of the claim that gambling destroys lives. Walter White started selling meth to pay his medical expenses, after all. Just because people derive much-needed income from something doesn’t mean that it should be legal or that it doesn’t cause more harm overall. I suppose these arguments serve as a counterweight to the equally silly “look at how online poker hurt this one person!” arguments. Really though I think the better arguments have to do with distinguishing poker qualitatively from other forms of gambling and then demonstrating that the stuff the anti-gambling people are worried about is related to the absence of skill in those games. Even non-winning players can learn a lot about strategic thinking from playing poker, and that’s obviously not true from slots etc. A lot of the danger of the pure gambling games, in my opinion, is that they actively encourage mindless, compulsive play in a way that poker generally does not.

      • Agreed, and very well said. While there are surely plenty of great stories out there about how the financial benefits of poker have helped people out of all sorts of interesting life situations, these stories likely are not resonant with people who think gambling is inherently bad, as they all know that gambling produces some winners (and can’t tell the difference between a stable grinder making $100k over a few years versus someone betting $100k on black and winning).

        The aggregate social benefits of poker, by definition, have to exist mostly independently from the zero-sum flow of money between players, modulo possible social wealth distribution effects.

        • “The aggregate social benefits of poker, by definition, have to exist mostly independently from the zero-sum flow of money between players, modulo possible social wealth distribution effects.”

          This claim (along many of Andrew’s) seems to flow from roughly utilitarian or at least consequentialist premises–the flow of money is almost always at least as bad in one direction as it is good in the other direction.

          But the implied line of argument here only applies to the transfer of money considered very narrowly. You might think it’s a very good thing that there’s this extra activity in the world whereby more skilled people (at the activity) tend to gain money from less skilled people. I often tell people about parents who turned to online poker so that they could make breakfast for their kids every morning; sick people who can make money from poker when they feel OK but would have a tough time doing that in other jobs; etc.

          The point is just that I don’t think these sorts of zero-sum arguments ultimately succeed unless you also import a lot of extra assumptions (or perhaps a whole Moorean/Benthamite/whatever metaphysics).

          Not that either Andrew or Mike means to be endorsing that sort of argument. Just that the “independently of” condition above has to be construed with a great deal of care.

          • Yeah, I agree with this followup. I didn’t have a firm idea in mind for my “mostly independently”, but it is definitely very hand-wavey and has plenty of subtleties. Still, regardless of whether or not the net social effect of poker’s money flow is positive or negative, I do like tending towards the non-monetary aspects of poker in most contexts. They’re more accessible in concise settings and more stable with respect to possible changes in poker’s demographics or marketing. The shape of the money flow in poker at any given time can be pretty dependent on consumer discretionary spending, for example.

          • Yeah I was sort of lumping together two different arguments, one of which actually has more cogency than the other. There are people, like our recent interviewee, for whom the ability to earn a living at home via computer/internet is, if not essential, a huge convenience and enhancement to quality of life. In the most extreme cases, ie a person who qualifies under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s often possible or required for certain types of jobs to allow this anyway. But yes, online poker can be somewhat uniquely advantageous in this way.

            Then there’s the argument that people do this for a living and without it they would be out of a job and some people are doing really nice things with the money like paying for a life-saving surgery or starting an after-school program for at-risk youth! These are really just reasons why money is good, and I think the flaw in the argument is exposed by replacing “playing online poker” with “murdering people”. You can make a lot of money doing the latter, but no matter how charitable you are with that money, it’s not something I’d advocate legalizing. I suppose, as Which points out, it does serve to refute the horror stories of “19-year-old loses college tuition at online poker!”

            • I pretty much agree with that, though I’m not sure that replacing poker with murder is as devastating to that argument as you seem to think it is. It’s a very common belief, even among people who are thinking carefully, that an activity’s providing a decent living for someone is a strong _prima facie_ argument for its being a good thing to society. (Only _prima facie_, of course; things like murder create exceptions.)

              Even in cases when we think that the transaction is zero-sum or worse–a teenager getting a first job at a candy shop, another firm entering a highly competitive market, a 40-year-old person costing $30K to employ and producing $29K of value but costing $5K to fire–many, many people (inc. professional economists) are happy to see the person at work.

              There are big economic literatures here that I’m not doing justice to. But one of the strongest strains in popular (and scholarly) academic thought includes various ways of defending the claim that a person’s making a living at something is actually quite a strong argument in its favor. Insofar as these theories / strains of thought are defensible, we have a good pro-poker argument; insofar as they exist (defensible or not), we have a rhetorically effective argument.

  12. I would agree that your arguments, and counters are all logical. But the debate was never about logic. Logically poker is a skill based game. The Unites States has collectively said “So what?”

    and trying to convince others to change their mind has in my experience been a waste of time concerning almost everything


  13. “Even non-winning players can learn a lot about strategic thinking from playing poker”

    Andrew, I see this argument made a lot (albeit w/o the ‘non-winning’ part). But couldn’t you make this argument about almost every situation that encourages logic? Boston Debate League, chess programs in the inner city, Science fairs, etc.

    If I was the opposing side, couldn’t I just counter that there are lots of other options to learn strategic thinking, including the internet nowadays?

    so “Why ‘Poker’ specifically, rather than some other means?”


    • Good points/questions. I agree w/ what you said about trying to persuade people logically, BTW. Non-cogent arguments and appeals to emotion are kind of pet peeves of mine, I guess, but practically you are probably right about what would work.

      I’d make the same argument about poker that I have many times about BDL: it motivates people to learn valuable skills because it is fun and competitive, and in this case (but definitely not in the case of debate!) it’s “cool”. Not everyone will be motivated by the same things, and I think there are quite a few people who will be motivated to learn valuable reasoning and life skills through poker who could but most likely would not acquire these skills elsewhere. They play because they enjoy, and they end up learning from it.

    • I agree with Andrew, the fact that poker is cool and popular is, in my opinion, a very good answer to the question of why to use it to teach certain skills when other options are available. For mathematics education in particular, a topic which I’ve always had an interest in, poker is an excellent way to teach young people probability and to develop a real grasp of rational decision-making under uncertainty, while the next-best alternatives are generally very boring or impractical. I’ve seen a few different groups of young people develop a much stronger interest in math as a result of getting into poker, as well as been part of a few organizations that teach poker for these reasons. And as far as attracting attention and popularity, math needs all the help it can get.

  14. Well,

    You bring up something that makes me wonder….

    Perhaps it is a “generational divide” galvanizing effect that we are missing? I mean, it has been almost ten years since Moneymaker effect takes hold, and the US is still at odds on the role of “poker” in our society. I saw “Bet Raise Fold” and one of the 3 mentions it being ironic that Americans have had such a long history of supporting many of the very traits it takes to succeed at poker (matching wits, relying on one’s self, independence,etc) , yet we have banned it online.

    I remember “The Hustler” with Paul Newman (billiards) or “Cincinnati Kid” with Steve McQueen (poker) , and the hero was the gambler/player in the story– NOT the old guys/government/folks in control.

    I wonder if you could draw a line age-wise and those older than that are more scared by poker whereas younger than that line would consider it ‘cool’ ??

    Maybe “online poker” is the ‘rock music’ of the ’60’s ? Only now its kids’ intelligence that is scaring us (I am old) rather than their creativity ? If online gaming became a “productive way of making a living, would that not turn a lot of older folks ideas of their place in society on its head? And maybe these old precepts are the reason so many poker players wrestle with the “What productive place in society do I have as a pro poker player?” Maybe they are just experiencing predjudices that have been imprinted on them?

    I mean my parents were almost ‘defined’ by what they did for a living, whereas nowadays few folks introduce themselves by their jobs (at least in my experience) — unless of course its a cool job. Pro poker player perhaps?


  15. I have trawled this site and others to find the music from this podcast with no luck…anyone please?



  16. Top episode as usual guys!


    At around 35 minutes in this episode you mention a series of notes that you wrote about what it means to be a serious poker player. I’ve searched on 2+2 but can’t find them. Would you mind posting a link to the relevant thread/posts if it’s not too much hassle? Cheers

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