Show your cards: academic players on poker’s draw

Serious academic players on what they’ve learned from life at the table

January 16, 2014

Source: Getty

Economists are ideally suited to poker since they can handle complex probabilities in milliseconds and understand/read people

It was at the poker table, author and lapsed academic Al Alvarez once claimed, that his “real education” began.

In his youth, he recalls in his 1979 introduction to Herbert O. Yardley’s classic The Education of a Poker Player, he had gone through “the most high-minded academic mill: a monastic public school, Oxford, Princeton, Harvard. I had read a vast number of books and written a couple of my own. Yet, in practice, I was naive to a degree which still, years later, makes me blush. I had a marriage I could not handle, a childish desire to be loved by the whole world, and an equally childish conviction that everything would turn out all right in the end. When it didn’t I was – simply and profoundly – outraged. I had lived my life as I played poker, recklessly and optimistically, with all my cards on the table and nothing in reserve…”

It wasn’t by reading his “literary heroes” Shakespeare or D. H. Lawrence but by starting to play poker properly that Alvarez discovered a vital truth: “what applied so cogently to money in a poker pot applied equally to the feelings I had invested so disastrously in my personal affairs: ‘Do the odds favour my playing regardless of what I have already contributed?’”

There was also the appeal of what gamblers call “action”, the adrenalin rush of putting one’s money (or oneself) on the line.

“For five or six days a week,” Alvarez noted, “I sit at my desk and try to get the sentences right. If I make a mistake, I can rewrite it the next day, or catch it in proof. And if I fail to do so, who cares? Who even notices? If I make a mistake…playing poker, the consequences are immediate, embarrassing and probably painful.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alvarez decided to trade a promising academic career for the riskier life of a freelance author, and has gone on to write acclaimed books about dreams, divorce, suicide, mountaineering and poker as well as poetry. But what of those who have chosen to remain within the academy but are still pretty serious poker players? Does the game provide them with any important life lessons, or is it simply a pleasant diversion, an exciting release from the constrictions of their day jobs? And how has the ultimate “boys’ game” adapted to changing gender norms?

Joey Power, professor of history at Ryerson University in Toronto, likes the fact that a session at the poker table is “the one time when you are not just forgiven for lying” but are absolutely required to do so.

“For a risk-averse academic, I get a serious charge out of laying it on the line,” she says.

Another Ryerson academic – Tammy Landau, professor of criminal justice – has found the total concentration required by those determined to win at poker the most effective distraction from “the fear and anxiety of treatment” for breast cancer: “it was usually so effective that I decided to make poker an ongoing part of my life if I survived cancer. And here I am!”

She adds: “It suits my personality in so many ways (thrill-seeking, intense, social and strategic), it challenges me to be better in other [ways] (more patient, more balanced) and I am driven to be a better player. Yet it causes such a roller coaster of emotions at the best of times.”

One scholar working in the humanities, who prefers to remain anonymous, suggests that poker can “teach you how to absorb destabilising information and unsettling aspects without, hopefully, giving too much away”.

Playing cards

The academic goes on: “Nobody likes players who shriek or slow-roll in smug victory – or those who mortify themselves at length after a hand has gone wrong. Becoming aware of how good you are is also tied to knowing how you can mess up in myriad ways.

“And then? Well, ‘Sumo’ – ‘shut up, move on’. A certain fatalistic acceptance and a willingness to cherish the game for what it is – a game – can bring perspective and stoicism, qualities that contemporary academics may have a greater need for than their predecessors.”

Other academics develop the case for poker as a tool for self-improvement or widening one’s perspective in greater detail.

Robert Elliott, professor of international economics at the University of Birmingham, is convinced that “economists are ideally suited to poker” since they are usually able to “handle complex probabilities in milliseconds” and “understand/read people” thanks to the discipline’s “social science aspect”.

As a former head of department, Elliott believes that “there are many lessons you can learn from poker on how to deal with difficult academics and to aid people-management skills”. The game can even “help harden you to unfortunate life events. I have had hands where I have had a 99 per cent chance of winning and still lost…The moral of the story is that ‘shit happens’ – rationalise it as a ‘bad beat’ and move on as new decisions are needed straight away.”

While everybody has to deal with setbacks, Elliott also sees particular lessons at a time when “the pressure to play safe and get the four REF papers in on time means that academics are taking fewer risks and grind out variations on previous work”. Yet if blue-sky and interdisciplinary research is now “riskier”, this means that “academic research will not move forward as quickly as it might. Poker can help academics take calculated risks.”

Predictably, some are more sceptical about the wisdom that can be acquired through late nights at the card table.

As another anonymous humanities scholar puts it: “Today, I am submitting a book to a publisher that’s taken me years to write, and that feels to me like a situation where quite a lot is at stake. Is poker really providing me with a sense of risk that I’m missing?

“Poker is fun and exciting, but I am pretty resistant to the idea that even my biggest won or lost pot has ever introduced me to the thrill of immediate consequences, or other life lessons…I really like it, but it’s not filling a gap in my life!”

A rather different argument for how poker can enrich academic lives comes from James McManus, professor in the writing programme at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. As well as running a pioneering course on the literature of poker since 1996, he has managed to carve out a life playing, teaching and writing about the game.

His 2009 book, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, sees the game as the archetypal American pastime, which (in the words of actor Walter Matthau) “exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great”. It considers poker-playing presidents and entrepreneurs, and the way that poker metaphors fed into game theory, Cold War brinkmanship and research on artificial intelligence. Perhaps most remarkably, Harry Truman “explained his decision to order an atomic strike on Hiroshima during a stud game with reporters”.

Playing cards

I am pretty resistant to the idea that even my biggest won or lost pot has ever introduced me to the thrill of immediate consequences

Far more hands-on, however, is McManus’ Positively Fifth Street (2003), a book that arose out of a commission from Harper’s magazine to cover the 2000 World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. More specifically, he says now, he wanted to explore women’s progress in the game and the trial of Sandy Murphy, “the stripper accused of murdering the tournament’s host, Ted Binion”. He decided (without telling his wife) to use the fee that he had not yet earned to take part in a satellite tournament. Winning that secured him a place in the main event – and, to his great surprise, he ended up finishing fifth.

Whether or not any lessons from poker can be applied to academic life, McManus does make it sound as though the game can give scholars a range of experiences they are unlikely to find in the seminar room.

He enthusiastically confirms that he “can’t imagine any game, any activity really, that functions as a more multifarious melting pot”.

Random seating in tournaments, he explains, “puts you next to folks from 18 to 80, well or poorly educated, taxi drivers and billionaires, people who bathe regularly and apparently not at all, and from every inhabited continent. Playing poker, I’ve met some of the most debonair humans and slimiest dirtbags, movie stars and federal judges, atheists and priests, sober moms and drunk teenagers (and vice versa), quadriplegics and professional athletes.”

Poker has traditionally been a “boys’ game”, although the rise of high-profile female stars such as Victoria Coren – who won the main event on the 2006 European Poker Tour – has rather changed that. (Nonetheless, she observes in her 2011 memoir For Richer, For Poorer: Confessions of a Player, on her home turf at the Grosvenor Victoria Casino “there are rarely any women in the card room but me and ‘the other Vicky’…We often have little chats in the ladies’ loo, the most peaceful place in the Vic…”)

So how do gender issues play out in the experience of academic poker enthusiasts?

Although they no doubt exist, no men interviewed were willing to go on the record and defend the idea of all-male poker games as an essential testosterone-drenched refuge from the rest of their lives.

McManus reports that he has “played in home games with and without women, and the former are consistently more civilised and stimulating”. For Josh Cohen, professor of modern literary theory at Goldsmiths, University of London, it was precisely the macho competitiveness of some of his fellow players that persuaded him to give up the game. Although he didn’t mind losing to “opponents whose mathematical-deductive capacities and speed of processing calculations were much stronger than mine”, he got fed up with “a couple of guys whom I otherwise quite liked. They bullied opponents out of the game with wild raises they knew people like me, on an academic salary with a family, were never going to see, even with a decent hand…”

Power has been playing poker for about five years and is used to cash tables where “it is usually a ‘man’s world’ in that I am often the only woman or one of two” and tournaments where “we are still much in the minority”. At 53, she is also “usually in the higher age range” for a game “dominated by young, aggressive male players”.

Yet these factors, according to Power, have proved to be “a considerable advantage overall. The guys really think that women play conservatively and so you can get away with a lot more bluffing in such a setting. Being middle-aged is also an advantage with the preponderance of young guys – maybe they think their moms wouldn’t lie! It is often very helpful until they start to catch on.”

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