• August 31, 2015

What Poker Can Teach Us

What Poker Can Teach Us 1

Bruce Davidson, Magnum Photos

Wall Street kingpins unwind during their Sunday-night poker game.

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Bruce Davidson, Magnum Photos

Wall Street kingpins unwind during their Sunday-night poker game.

Since 1996 I've been teaching a course on the literature of poker at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The reading list varies but usually includes The Biggest Game in Town, by Al Alvarez; Big Deal, by Anthony Holden; David Mamet's American Buffalo; Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire; Oskar Morgenstern's "The Cold War Is Cold Poker"; Herbert O. Yardley's The Education of a Poker Player; Poker Faces: The Life and Work of Professional Card Players, by David M. Hayano; Poker Face, by Katy Lederer; and The Poker Face of Wall Street, by Aaron Brown. To keep textbook costs manageable, we read selections from primers by David Sklansky, Dan Harrington, Doyle Brunson, and Daniel Negreanu, and the anthology Read 'Em and Weep.

Talking points from outside the reading list include the role the game played in Barack Obama's early elective career. As a writer, professor, and community organizer, Obama was greeted coolly by some of his fellow legislators when he arrived in Springfield in 1998 to take a seat in the Illinois Senate. How was this ink-stained, poshly educated greenhorn supposed to get along with Chicago ward heelers and conservative downstate farmers? By playing poker with them, of course.

"When it turned out that I could sit down at [a bar] and have a beer and watch a game or go out for a round of golf or get a poker game going," Obama recalled, "I probably confounded some of their expectations." He was referring to the regular Wednesday night game, called the Committee Meeting, that he and another freshman Democrat started. While the stakes were kept low, the bottom line politically was that poker helped Obama break the ice with people he needed to work with in the legislature. His favorite physical games were basketball and golf, but he seems to have understood that, as a networking tool, poker is a more natural pastime.

Its tables have long served as less genteel clubs for students, teachers, soldiers, businessmen, and politicians of either sex and every rank and persuasion. Instead of walking down fairways 40 yards apart from each other, throwing elbows in the paint, or quietly hunting pheasant or muskie, poker buddies are elbow to elbow all night, competing and drinking and talking. In my class, we discuss how Obama's Committee Meeting continued a tradition going back to Henry Clay, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Sandra Day O'Connor, William H. Rehnquist, and scores of other generals, justices, and presidents.

Then there's the seminal influence of poker on Bill Gates during his four semesters at Harvard (1973-75). Twenty years later, in The Road Ahead, Gates recalled the marathon dorm sessions he believes were at least as productive and intellectually stimulating as his time spent in class. Dorm-mate Steve Ballmer calls Microsoft's early business plan "basically an extension of the all-night poker games Bill and I used to play back at Harvard." Gates put it this way: "In poker, a player collects different pieces of information—who's betting boldly, what cards are showing, what this guy's pattern of betting and bluffing is—and then crunches all that data together to devise a plan for his own hand. I got pretty good at this kind of information processing." Indeed, he won a substantial portion of Microsoft's start-up costs in those dorm games. But it wasn't just dollars reaped to be parlayed a millionfold; it was mainly, says Gates, that "the poker strategizing experience would prove helpful when I got into business."

That sort of strategizing is now being studied more formally at a few universities, and not just in M.B.A. programs. The Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society was founded in 2006 by the Harvard Law School professors Charles Nesson and Lawrence Lessig, the communications maven Jonathan Cohen, and Andrew Woods, a law student. Nesson had cofounded Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and Lessig had started the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University. Lessig was author of The Future of Ideas and Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace, while Cohen had built a variety of software and communications companies. Woods had graduated magna cum laude from the University of California at Los Angeles, where he started the Bruin Casino Gaming Society, the first officially recognized student organization devoted to the study and teaching of poker.

Even a quick browse of the society's Web page, at gpsts.org, makes clear poker's relevance to the ways we educate ourselves, make laws and contracts, and communicate online and in person. The society promotes it as "an exceptional game of skill that can be used as a powerful teaching tool at all levels of academia." The goal is "to create an open online curriculum centered on poker that will draw the brightest minds together, both from within and outside of the conventional university setting, to promote open education and Internet democracy."

Above all, Nesson makes the case for using poker as a means to helping students understand the world from others' points of view. In his own classes, he trains lawyers "to see in the game a language for thinking about and an environment for experiencing the dynamics of strategy in dispute resolution." At the simplest level, he shows how the game can help middle-school students understand percentages and budget making, as well as how to "read" their opponents.

The larger—and perhaps more surprising—pedagogical fact is that while poker has gone hand in hand with pivotal aspects of our national experience for a couple of centuries now, you'd never guess it from the curricula of our history, anthropology, and English departments, or even from browsing most dictionaries. The latest edition of the New Oxford American, for example, fails to include flop (as a poker term), hold 'em, Omaha (as a game), and World Series of Poker. (Terms deemed fit to appear include floptical, holdall, Pokemon, and World Heritage Site.) Similar omissions occur in Merriam-Webster, thefreedictionary.com, encarta.msn.com, and other online lexicons. Such cultural blind spots persist in the face of poker's expanding global popularity, as well as abundant evidence that the game has helped not only ordinary citizens but numerous movers and shakers make their way in the world.

Humanities professors should recognize that the ways we've done battle and business, made art and literature have echoed, and been echoed by, poker's definitive tactics, as well as its rich lore and history. The long list of questions that students might ponder include: Why would poque, an 18th-century parlor game played by French and Persian aristocrats, take hold and flourish in kingless, democratic America? Why did poque evolve into our national card game, some say our national pastime, instead of piquet or cribbage or whist? How did poker inspire game theory, which in turn has helped our leaders think through every nuclear standoff? How is it useful in research into artificial intelligence? In what ways do its ethos and lingo underscore Stanley's brutality in A Streetcar Named Desire, or does its honor-among-thieves morality play out in American Buffalo? How much does our love for this game have to do with bluffing and cheating, or with the fact that money is its language, its leverage, its means of keeping score?

American DNA is a notoriously complex recipe for creating a body politic, but two strands in particular have always stood out in high contrast: the risk-averse Puritan work ethic and the entrepreneur's urge to seize the main chance. Proponents of neither m.o. like to credit the other with anything positive; huggers of the shore tend not to praise explorers, while gamblers remain unimpressed by those who husband savings accounts. Yet blended in much the same way that parents' genes are in their children, the two ways of operating have made us who we are as a country.

That's not just a metaphor, either. Geneticists have shown that there is literally such a thing as American DNA, not surprising when nearly all of us are descended from immigrants. We therefore carry an immigrant-specific genotype, a genetic marker expressing itself—in some environments, at least—as energetic risk-taking and competitive self-promotion. Even when famine, warfare, or another calamity strikes, most people stay in their homeland. The self-selecting group that migrates, seldom more than 2 percent, is disproportionally inclined to take chances. They also have above-average intelligence and are quicker decision makers. Something about their dopamine-receptor systems, the neural pathway associated with a taste for novelty and risk, sets them apart from those who stay put.

While the factors involved are numerous and complex, the migratory syndrome has been deftly summarized by the journalist Emily Bazelon: "It's not about where you come from, it's that you came at all." The migratory gene must have been even more dominant among those Americans who first moved west across the Appalachians, up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, then out to California during the gold rush. Their urge to strike it rich, often at the risk of their lives, made poker more appealing than point-based trick-taking games like whist, bridge, or cribbage.

The national card game still combines Puritan values—self-control, diligence, the slow accumulation of savings—with what might be called the open-market cowboy's desire to get very rich very quickly. The latter is the mind-set of the gold rush, the hedge fund, the lottery ticket of everyday wage-earners. Yet whenever the big-bet cowboy folds a weak hand, he submits to his Puritan side. As Walter Matthau drily put it, poker "exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made our country so great."

Sometimes outsiders can see our traits more clearly than we see them ourselves. The Budapest-born historian John Lukacs calls poker "the game closest to the Western conception of life … where men are considered moral agents, and where—at least in the short run—the important thing is not what happens but what people think happens." Another keen foreign observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote in Democracy in America: "Those living in the instability of a democracy have the constant image of chance before them, and, in the end, they come to like all those projects in which chance plays a part." This was true, he deduced, "not only because of the promise of profit but because they like the emotions evoked."

It remains uncertain which chancing games Tocqueville witnessed, but the perceptive Frenchman came to appreciate our allegiance to risky initiative and democratic opportunity while traveling in 1831 aboard the steamboat Louisville along the Mississippi, the original American mainstream, at the very moment poker was coming of age on those floating casinos. Mark Twain became a highly paid steamboat pilot just before the Civil War closed the river to commercial traffic. Forced to make his way as a writer instead, he produced numerous yarns and reports about the game, the most famous of which appeared in Life on the Mississippi. Another ex-riverman, Abraham Lincoln, used a yarn about poker sharps to explain to the public a controversial decision he made during the Trent Affair. Lincoln then watched the general he had preferred to lead the Union war effort, Robert E. Lee, use poker-based tactics to almost defeat his former country's superior troop strength and armaments.

In the 20th century, Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt called their most ambitious programs the Square Deal and the New Deal, respectively. Harry Truman played in the White House with chips embossed with the presidential seal and explained his decision to order an atomic strike on Hiroshima during a stud game with reporters. Even so, Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, by far the two best players among the presidents, refused to even mention the game in public, fearing voters would think it unsavory. John Kennedy shrewdly raised Nikita Khrushchev's bluff during the Cuban missile crisis, though it's been argued by Aaron Brown that Khrushchev's "strong laydown" is what spared us a nuclear holocaust.

In our own century, as the game's popularity booms across every inhabited continent and out into cyberspace, a subhead in The New York Times firmly declared: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn poker." Dictionary editors and curriculum planners might want to start taking note.

James McManus is a professor of writing and literature at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. This article is adapted from his most recent book, Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker, to be published next month by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Copyright © 2009 by James McManus.


1. tchesney - October 05, 2009 at 09:28 am

Great article to which I would add only that slight paraphrase of the NYT declaration: "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of academia had better learn poker." Accomplished poker (and I might add bridge) players have an edge over their non-playing colleagues in administrative meetings, planning sessions, and even social gatherings. The ability to read a bluff over a solid hand or a player 'on tilt' versus a cool-headed thinker can be invaluable whether you are heads-up with the CEO or in a 10-seat cabinet or department meeting.

2. 11232247 - October 05, 2009 at 11:07 am

Long before John Von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern thought to lable their notions of competitive decision-making as "game theory," there was poker. The game teaches us not only the cold and utterly rational logic of the cards, but also the sometimes completely irrational and highly dynamic world of individual temperament.

"Prudent Decision Making in an Imprudent World" requires participants to understand both the objective (statistical) and the subjective (qualitative) nature of both the game being played and the players themselves. In order to make better choices in poker (and in life), we need to possess a balance of these two perspectives.

Res ipsa loguitur

3. tribblek - October 06, 2009 at 09:42 am

I have played poker once or twice. I was in high school and understood it only as a game of chance. It seemed (and still seems) as confusing and useless a game as any (except maybe golf). I appreciate the author's attempt to equate the game's import with that of the momentum of the earth. However, the attraction of the game must reside within those who are competitive. I am someone who does not have one competitive bone in my body, and I would rather lose than have someone else have to bear a loss. I suppose that's why I'm in higher education and not the business world.

Why am I commenting? I guess, in a way, I wish I liked beating others at a game. I also wished I enjoyed eating mustard greens, yellow squash, and cooked broccolli. After reading this article, I feel like wanting to defeat another person is supposed to be good for you. But is it?

4. james_mcmanus - October 07, 2009 at 06:59 pm

Hi Tribblek. Jim McManus here. I'd never say that poker is necessarily good for anyone, though it can be. My point is that it has gone hand in hand with American history and culture for 200 years, and it's a mistake for the academy not to recognize this more fully.

5. 135711 - October 12, 2009 at 07:33 am

I like the lines drawn between cards, our history, and the way we act (and react). You don't have to be good at poker, or even like it, to appreciate the nuances of the game and its relation to who we are as Americans.

6. kluchman - October 13, 2009 at 03:35 am

I have read most of the items on the authors sylabus and find one glaring ommission, perhaps induced by modesty, that I feel compelled to point out: namely the Jim McManus's own previous work "Positively Fifth Street". Also, I would also recomend "The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King" by Michael Craig.

7. pokerplayer - October 13, 2009 at 04:07 am

I agree with kluchman James, Fifth Street needs to be in there, although I respect your choice to not self-promote.

I'm a business owner and an avid poker player. Two weeks ago, I won $1,100 in a 1-2 NL holdem game at a casino in Oklahoma. The next day I won $250. Those games were fun, and it's nice to walk to the cashier with a few racks. The following Friday, I lost $900 in a 2-5 game.

Along the lines of your theme, what the game can teach us, I learned more about myself in that $900 loss than I have in the last year running my business.

There's something about the self-analysis one undertakes after a poker loss that is truly, brutally honest. Your faults and weaknesses as a human being are amplified in a poker game, and your strengths are multiplied as well. It's a microcosm of life, and for those of us who study the game, we know we're really studying ourselves. Once you get the math of poker figured out, which is pretty simple, all that's left is our own inherent levels of patience, control, and emotional stability. Improve those, you improve your game...and your life.

What you wrote about American DNA is profound James, and makes sense. There must be a common genetic trait that brought our immigrant fathers here to the US, and that American hunger for risk and reward is probably what defines us most, for good or ill. It's only natural that we're a nation of card players.

Great article, James.

8. james_mcmanus - October 13, 2009 at 09:29 am

Kluchman and Pokerplayer: thanks for your very kind words about Positively Fifth Street. I decided it wouldn't be cool to assign my own book (Fifth Street), but if and when I teach the History of Poker, I think I'll have to assign Cowboys Full.

Speaking of understanding ourselves via poker, especially when we lose, I assume you've read David Mamet's "The Things Poker Teaches."

9. timlavalli - October 13, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Jim should indeed include his early book in the syllabus. In addition I would also agree that Michael Craig's book has merit in this discussion. Furthermore, the dark side of poker and gaming needs some reflection, just as the downside of Wall Street or government. I, of course, would recommend Mike Matusow's autobiography Check-Raising the Devil.

10. james_mcmanus - October 13, 2009 at 01:19 pm

Hi Tim. How's your road trip going? I use Michael Craig's book when we discuss the Andy Beal game, and Michael is quoted about a dozen times, often at length, in Cowboys Full. Matusow's book is a marvel of self-revelation, with the most interesting passages having little if anything to do with poker; rather, they fiercely illuminate his issues with drugs, prison and mental illness. I couldn't put it down. Even better, you can control the "volume" as you read, as you cannot do when forced to listen to him in person.

11. lefthook - October 13, 2009 at 09:14 pm

One excellent account of an obsessive poker player's juggling his passion and the academic life is Jim Guetti's novel Action, published in the 70s. He was teaching English at Rutgers New Brunsick while writing it. I have no idea what he is doing or where he is now. I hope he came out ahead.

12. pokerplayer - October 14, 2009 at 04:29 am

No, I haven't read that James (Mamet - The Things Poker Teaches), but you can bet (haha) that I'll be on Amazon in about five minutes looking for it.

Your class sounds like a blast...there wouldn't happen to be an online curriculum summary, would there?

13. james_mcmanus - October 14, 2009 at 11:17 am

I'll try to find the Guetti novel, though Amazon has only one used copy for $80. The Mamet essay is in both his Writing in Restaurants and John Stravinsky's anthology Read 'Em and Weep. I heartily recommend both of those books. My syllabus is posted on the 2+2 Forum under Cowboys Full, but let me try to post it here.... If there's not enough space, please email me at Jim.McManus@FullTiltPoker.com.

14. johndmaskedfinancier - October 14, 2009 at 04:09 pm

A fantastic article James.
I am an avid proponent of using Texas Holdem Poker as a way to teach people to invest. There are lots of good investing tools, but few (if any) of them involve putting money at risk so Texas Holdem is the ultimate "flight simulator" for investors.
I write about the subject at my Texas Holdem Investing site, and any feedback from yourself or your commenters would be greatly appreciated.
Your article is fascinating and has given me much food for thought.
As an Irishman who is a student of US history the pieces on the presidents and the Civil war are particularly interesting.
Keep up the good work.

15. james_mcmanus - October 14, 2009 at 04:44 pm

Lots more poker-inflected history in Cowboys Full about both the World Wars, as well as the cold war and Vietnam. You will also probably like Chapter 40, in which the 1999 WSOP final table is discussed. Three of the final seven hailed from Dublin, including the winner, J.J. Furlong, and Padraig Parkinson, who finished, as he put it, "t'ird."

16. quidnunc - October 14, 2009 at 06:40 pm

But which American president ruled most like a poker player? Why, it was George W. Bush, of course.

17. edifyingpoker - October 15, 2009 at 09:24 am

Great stuff, James. The thought of a migration gene has some appeal to be sure, and its connection to US dominance in poker is really fascinating. It builds on pretty sound reasoning, it would seem.

I took the liberty to refer to your article in an admittedly more easy-going blog post:



18. jddouglass - October 15, 2009 at 11:45 pm

Really enjoyed your essay. I recommend your "Positively Fifth Street" to all my students, and keep copies in my office to loan out. "Poker 101" might never appear in a B-school catalog, but the students who wish to succeed will ignore the game at their peril. I'm not bluffing.

J.D. Douglass
Dept of Economics and Business Administration
Framingham State College
Framingham, MA

19. ericstoner - October 16, 2009 at 01:19 pm

When I started playing poker, I faced resistance from many people about why I would play such a game, and when I sat down at my local casino, I looked around and thought they were right. I wondered then, what am I doing here?

Then, I realized that poker is a metaphor for life and the better I dealt with the issues at the table, the better I dealt with them in other situations as well. It also helped me deal with the myriad of personalities I would interact with on a daily basis. I explained the life metaphor to those who didn't understand - very few (maybe one or two) realized where I came from with my example.

Thanks for thinking and writing about what the other aspects of the game of poker teaches us (and what we can learn from it). Postivively Fifth Street was one of the first books I read and I look forward to reading your new one.

20. savvycowboy - October 16, 2009 at 01:43 pm

Poker as a BUSINESS?? You bet! Play poker (for fun) and make money. Send me an e-mail: dave@daveschnaidt.com or go to daveschnaidt.com and see what I mean.

21. james_mcmanus - October 16, 2009 at 04:15 pm

Thanks for your kind words about my work, Eric. The new book addresses at length the game's outlaw cachet, as well as its stink in some of our more puritanical noses. Jim

22. uhuru - October 21, 2009 at 06:53 pm

Jim, You should read this blog that responds to your essay,"An Education in Poker":


23. azssunrise - November 16, 2009 at 06:21 pm

I agree with the comments as posted in "Marksinthemargin.blogspot.com".
I teach English classes and find the overwhelming majority of poker books to be poorly written but good reading. I have a problem with poker being considered a metaphor for life. Most of our lives don't deal with two unkown cards that could bankrupt us or trying to bluff ourselfs through life only for others to find out we were being less than honest.
Most poker players loose money in the long run because they play badly or have other vices. I would hope that in their careers they are more successful than their poker efforts.
Poker is a game and I respect the game but life if far more complicated and the skills of poker do not always transfer successfully. For Poker to emulate life it would have to show more cooperative skills, leadership skills, research skills, etc.
Would you want to be like Stu Unger who's last moments were in a dead in a cheap hotel? Or bankrupt like so many others? Hopefully, in life (not poker) you can talk to other people and listen to their advice.
Poker does some skills which can transfer to life but the variables are too great. If you were a rated golfer or tennis player, you would be assured of making the final round. If you are a top poker player, you may not make it past the first round. How often in life does an amateur beat a professional? Not very often but in poker the margin is very narrow and an amateur can beat a pro. Mr. JcManus if proof of that.
Now having said all of this. I did enjoy his book and all of the other poker books I've read but I don't know about the use of poker as a lesson in behavior or literature.

24. beauright - November 28, 2009 at 07:29 am

I was going to respond to your remarks, but then I realized that an English teacher should NEVER write this way.

In short, you have completely missed the idea of poker as a life metaphor. It seems that you have simply categorically created a misunderstanding of poker players based upon Stu Unger (a drug addict, poker does not involve the use of drugs, drugs cause failure in all jobs and the causal link is a bit of a stretch to say the least) and so-called bankrupt people (again, bankruptcy happens in all kinds of industries, people control how much they risk, not the game!).

Like many Americans, your understanding of 'amateur' and 'pro' is likely based on being 'well-known' or famous. In the short run, a novice player may beat the experienced player. BUT once the short-term luck element is taken from the equation, the experienced player will ALWAYS come out on top!

25. azssunrise - December 07, 2009 at 12:39 pm

My observations are from being around the gaming industry for over 20 years and watching the end effects on people. Addicts of any nature will go to great lengths to justify their point of view.
I do play poker. I have an endless amount of books and videos. It is a game of sort term luck and long term skill. However, there are a great number of skilled and famous players who are broke.

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