High stakes

Harvard puts an academic face on poker

Email|Print| Text size + By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / November 5, 2007

CAMBRIDGE - While politicians ponder the future of gambling in the state, maverick Harvard Law School professor Charles Nesson is bringing Texas Hold 'em into the classroom.

"I like poker because it's a way of thinking," said Nesson, whose classes examine the legal and ethical issues of the game. "People who are into poker have a lot of trouble holding on to absolutes. To me, it's a way of thinking liberally and seeing what the world looks like from another person's point of view."

Nesson, 68, who calls himself "Eon, dean of cyberspace" and also teaches in the virtual world Second Life, partnered with the student-led Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society last month to bring seminars such as "Poker: A Game of Truth in Life and Law" and "Law as Rhetorical Poker" to campus. The lectures along with guest speakers ranging from attorneys and professors to poker greats are part of a wider push to give the game a serious academic treatment.

Poker has exploded in popularity through televised tournaments and online gaming and has become a serious legal topic, whether it is a debate over how the game should be regulated, the threat of gambling addiction, online gaming's role in international trade, or poker as a proving ground for skills essential for business, law, and modern-day survival.

Last year, for example, Congress passed a law that prohib ited the use of credit cards and other types of financial transfers for online betting in games "predominantly subject to chance." That has given Nesson an opportunity to elevate poker into a serious academic discussion, using the Socratic Method to examine the purpose of such laws and probe the nature of the game.

In games such as craps, slots, or a lottery, the result is decided by chance. Poker, its proponents argue, is a game of skill. While luck determines whether a person is holding a pair of aces or a handful of duds, the game is really about betting and getting opponents to fold, so strategy, psychology, self-control, and risk-assessment mean a skilled player can win regardless of what cards she or he holds.

Harvard is home to the new Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society, a student-led organization that evangelizes on behalf of the game, with chapters at the University of California at Los Angeles, and Brown, Stanford, and Yale universities. Visiting professor Kevin Washburn is teaching gaming law at Harvard this semester.

This month, the Harvard chapter will host an all-day seminar on poker, focusing on the life lessons sown into each game and the role it may have played in shaping the minds of politicians and generals, from Ulysses S. Grant's battlefield tactics to the temperament of President Harry S. Truman.

"I've been trying to get someone's attention about this for years. Poker is a microcosm for life," said Crandell Addington, a Texas poker legend who founded the World Series of Poker and came to last month's seminar to discuss the game.

Addington retired from the game more than two decades ago and now works as chief executive and chairman of Phoenix Biotechnology, a life sciences company that focuses on cancer research. He credits poker with many of the skills that have propelled him to success in the business world.

In poker, as in life, "the first skill you must develop is discipline," he said. "Critical reasoning, money management, strategy building, tactical implementation of strategies - all are useful for entrepreneurs."

In business, as in poker, people must decide whether to make the first offer, or decide when to raise and when to fold. A poker face is an important skill during any high-stakes negotiation where a company may not want to signal its intentions to competitors.

The message resonated with some of the dozens of students and poker players who came to hear Addington speak. Andrew Brokos, 25, who makes money playing poker online 25 to 30 hours each week and teaches debate to Boston public school students, said that while he never hands out cards and chips to his students, the skills he teaches are similar to "no limit hold 'em."

Debaters must watch their opponents closely, play each argument strategically, and use "crystallized aggression" to win a debate - the same way they would try to win a high-stakes hand, he said.

Howard Lederer, a poker champ who joined Addington at the seminar, argued to a panel of law students that poker is a game of skill, not luck, since even the player holding the worst hand can win the game.

"There's no game that mimics life more," he said. Poker players make decisions under pressure with limited information, and the game teaches lessons about resilience and persistence.

Andrew Woods, executive director of the Global Strategic Poker Thinking Society, began playing poker in high school and says the skills he learned at the table helped propel him through the law school entrance exam - and into Harvard Law School.

Instead of getting lost in the details of each question on the LSAT, he used the skills he learned at the poker table - to try to find the intent behind questions.

"Poker is, at its core, an empathic game - you have to understand what the other person's" intent is, Woods said. "To beat any standardized test you have to understand what the tester is trying to draw out of you."

Just as archery, javelin, and fencing are games of skill rooted in activities that at one time helped people survive, he said he believes that poker helps hone the critical thinking, money management, and risk-taking strategies that people are not learning in school but which are essential for life.

Even online poker, he said, has its benefits because people are doing more and more of their business and negotiation online.

"I'm not suggesting we're starting a B.A. in poker - or maybe it would be a B.S. in poker," Woods said. Still, it has "tremendous benefits. . . . People you consider smart and good at life tend to be smart and good at poker."

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at

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