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Show your cards: academic players on poker’s draw

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

Painting of men playing cards

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”.

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