How to Deal ... With Life

Vice is alive and well in the dorm. Now a group originating at Harvard Law School seeks to bring it into the teaching realm. Is poker a winning academic bet?
October 11, 2007

It should come as no surprise that a new group of poker enthusiasts is quickly gaining popularity at Harvard Law School and elsewhere. Playing cards online -- a campus staple for years -- has attracted Congressional attention to online gambling and concerns about the game's addictive qualities. But a growing coalition of law professors, students and aspiring poker champs isn't looking to blow off finals for a quick buck. Instead, they hope to turn the game's intricacies into a learning tool.

That's clear from the outset with a quick glance at the club's name: the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Societies. Part training camp for card sharks, part educational outreach project, the venture was spearheaded by the Harvard law professor Charles Nesson, founder of the school's Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

“I don’t play poker online anymore. I did for quite a while," said Andrew Woods, a law student who is executive director and one of the founders of the group. “I stopped playing online poker before I came to law school so that I could graduate from law school.”

The group -- which has already seen chapters sprout up at Yale, Brown, Stanford and the University of California at Los Angeles, among other universities, law schools and business schools -- hopes to turn students' enthusiasm for a popular card game into an opportunity to teach cognitive skills, probability and risk assessment. The idea would be to set up after-school programs at high schools, for example, and tie some of the club's lessons into the curriculum of existing courses, such as statistics.

Transforming what is often seen as a vice into a classroom learning tool probably won't be a cakewalk, but there is already plenty of interest -- not least among academics, for whom even a field known as game theory is a topic of utmost seriousness. The University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt, the author of Freakonomics, has already embarked on a project to track the hands, play by play, of thousands of online games in an attempt to formulate a definitive analysis.

Nesson, who reportedly has a longstanding interest in poker, has also expressed a desire to initiate academic study on the subject. A major goal of the project is to hold seminars and conferences on the topic to bring together scholars from various disciplines (not to mention the practitioners themselves) to study the dynamics of the game and apply its principles to other areas. In November, the organization will explore the intersection of poker and education in a conference that will feature the poker historian Jim McManus and the poker superstar Mike Sexton.

These high-profile poker proponents, as well as the prospect of bringing gambling into the classroom, are sure to inspire criticisms -- and the idea is enough to give pause to anyone who's known students with an extreme commitment to online poker. Some colleges have gone as far as banning gambling outright, with the exception of authorized fund raising activities.

"There are risks in everything we do in life. Frankly, I think that the risks in poker are very overstated," Woods said.

He and Nesson had begun talking about their mutual love for the game early this year, which resulted in a small conference in April that brought together poker players, statisticians and addiction researchers. The global umbrella group launched in earnest this August at a conference in Singapore.

"[M]ore than anything else, poker’s just fun. It’s gotten popular for a reason," Woods said.

One of the group's first initiatives was a poker workshop, an introductory class of sorts in which groups learn the basics of the game. When Nesson and Woods were in Singapore for the conference, they organized a workshop with high school students that they hope to adapt for a charter school in Dorcester, Mass., next year.

The idea will sound familiar to viewers of HBO's The Wire, in which a teacher at an inner-city public school, desperate to reach out to his disengaged pupils last season, lets them play poker in his classroom during lunch break to teach them basic math. Despite the prospect of students "gambling" in class, the show portrays the attempt as a successful way to present topics that otherwise didn't inspire them to want to learn.

“I fundamentally believe that right now our education system is serving a portion of our population incredibly well, and I think that it’s losing a large portion of our population,” said Woods, who is also active in human rights and other social causes. That's all the more reason to emphasize critical thinking and thinking outside the box, skills which he said are too often abandoned by teachers in favor of "regurgitating information for tests."

Woods said he feels strongly about the cognitive and practical benefits of playing the game regularly. "Poker offers an immediate positive reinforcement for making good decisions," he said. Good players have to integrate divergent cognitive stimuli and make quick decisions based on limited information.

"That’s very analogous to life," he said. "You never know what somebody’s actually thinking ... until they show you.”


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