A few months ago, I was invited to a meeting at Harvard Law School where a group of academics, journalists, medical professionals, and poker players discussed whether and how to go about legitimizing the game of poker in the United States. Here’s the trip report from that meeting.
A few weeks ago, one of the coordinators of that meeting informed me of a follow-up luncheon in Las Vegas. I invited a few 2p2’ers I thought would be interested and interesting, and while LearnedFromTV accepted, Jurollo elected to play the $2K NLHE event that was starting at the same time. What a degenerate.
Anyway, I ended up having a pretty interesting lunch with LFTV, Howard Lederer, Andy Bloch, and Andrew Woods, who was representing Harvard Law School and specifically Professor Nesson, who was the force behind this whole thing. The focus of this meeting was on the creation of what Nesson et al are calling a “Poker University”. Something alone these lines was brought up at the first meeting, but I didn’t really understand what was meant at the time and kind of dismissed it. Listening to Andrew talk about it, though, I now think it sounds like a very good way to go about legitimizing the game of poker.
The germ of the idea was formed from the observation that poker seems to have strong appeal among university students, from undergraduates and law students. Professor Nesson was curious to know why this game held such strong appeal for the extremely bright students he knew from Harvard Law School.
The idea now is turn the legitimacy of the academic eye on the game by focusing on its relationship to mathematics, business negotiations, computer science, wall street, venture capitalism, and even FBI hostage negotiation. With the help of Full Tilt Poker, Harvard Law School is going to start a small student organization dedicated to using poker as a teaching tool.
Teams of three or so students will play each other heads up on FTP. In different rooms, they will discuss each decision out loud, with microphone running to record their conversations and decision-making processes. FTP will provide large time banks to allow for extended discussion. After the session, a transcript and/or recording will be made available to a panel of academics or other experts from the fields listed above, who will comment on how the thinking parallels elements of their fields.
Andrew identified three objectives for this initiative:
1. To separate poker, in the mind of the general public, from the pathologies of gambling. The goal here would be to demonstrate all of the skills that go into playing the game of poker and highlight their applications in both the academic and “real” worlds. Certainly, starting the first of these clubs at one of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions will be a big step towards that goal, but ultimately the intent is to create a kit that would enable such clubs to be replicated at colleges and universities around the world. Then, there could be inter-scholastic and even inter-continental competition.
2. To get the academic community involved in poker. There was a consensus that Chen and Ankenman’s book, “The Mathematics of Poker”, could easily be the focus of a graduate-level mathematics course for students with no intrinsic interest in poker. That is, the most advanced mathematic concepts are sufficiently interesting to be worthy of study as an end in themselves rather than a means of improving one’s poker game. There was also talk of developing a poker-based elective course, but concern that this would meet overwhelming institutional resistance in the current climate.
3. To generate a body of academic evidence supporting the predominance of skill over luck for use in future litigation. Howard said that Full Tilt Poker has given celebrity economist Steven Levitt access to a random sample of unbiased, anonamized hand histories from their records and that he has already begun the number crunching. Although Levitt had already been collecting data from voluntarily submitted hand histories, these were inevitably going to be biased towards the results of winning players.
This led to a more general discussion of current litigation strategies and the familiar long-term versus single hand debate. The lawyers and would-be lawyers at the table suggested that, since poker player is a viable profession vis-a-vis the IRS, one could argue in court that playing more than one of poker is a common business practice. Thus, courts would need to consider whether skill predominates in the long term rather than in a single hand.
Howard was not convinced, and claimed there was confusion created by conflating ‘skill’ and ‘edge’. Skill is the cause of an edge, but they are not the same thing. As he puts it, skill is the betting, while luck is the cards. He argues that since so few hands go to showdown, and often the hand that would have won at showdown ends up folding at some point during the hand, the skill (betting) is predominating over the luck (cards). He credits Sklansky with developing a hypothetical game, dubbed ‘lucker’ by Levitt, in which there is no folding. The divergence of results between the same hands played in lucker versus poker would be owing to skill.
I like the idea of using academia as a diving off point for legitimizing the game, both because poker really does seem to hold such tremendous appeal for many students, and because the corruption of these youth seems to be a concern for poker’s opponents. Focusing on the benefits of learning the game might help to neutralize that argument and give legitimacy to the common (but flawed, in my opinion) belief that the majority of losing poker players are knowingly engaging in an exchange of cash for entertainment. I know people tend to get all up in arms about ‘educating the fish’, but personally I would find the profession of poker player less ethically questionable if the fish were a bit better educated, at least about the extent to which there really is a skill element to the game.
And if any American academic institution carries legitimacy, it’s Harvard University, so where better to get something like this off the ground?
Oh, and for those who don’t know, Jurollo went on to chop the $2K NLHE event three ways for something like $350K!