Helping people through poker: A reply to Dan Colman

by Igor Kurganov and Adriano Mannino

After winning the One Drop, Dan Colman left the event without giving interviews and later explained some of his thoughts in a blog post:

«I’ve been fortunate enough to benefit financially from this game, but I have played it long enough to see the ugly side of this world. It is not a game where the pros are always happy and living a fulfilling life. To have a job where you are at the mercy of variance can be insanely stressful and can lead to a lot of unhealthy habits. I would never in a million years recommend for someone to try and make it as a poker pro.

It is also not a game where the amateurs are always happy to be losing their money for the sake of entertainment. The losers lose way more money at this game then winners are winning. A lot of this is money they cant afford to lose.»

1. The suffering of poker pros: What’s our stressless career alternative? 

Dan suggests that poker is net negative for the ones who play it – for the many who lose as well as for the few who win big time. A first thought that comes to mind here: What about the stress levels in alternative careers that earn you the power to have a positive impact on the world equivalent to millions of dollars? They’d likely be equally high. And for many poker pros it would probably be harder to win big time at these alternative careers. So poker is likely the most +EV career choice for us if we want to maximize our potential to have an influence on the world, particularly also to help others.

2. What about the many losers?

With regard to the many losers, we completely agree with Dan. Unfortunately, though, it’s hard to avoid harming people, whatever career path you choose. This is true of all competitive business and even of non-profit charity: Any charity that buys computers for its administration supports some working conditions that amount to slavery and thus violate human rights. Non-profits will also cause greenhouse gas emissions and thereby contribute to climate change and harm some people in expectation.

Does this make non-profit charity a net negative enterprise? Not at all. If you’re concerned about the well-being of others, including the ones who lose in poker, then the relevant question is whether your actions end up helping more people than they harm. If so, they are +EV for the world and should be pursued (unless there’s a set of actions that’s even higher EV).

If we wouldn’t doubt that charities are +EV for the world, then the same should probably also apply to the career option “professional poker + effective donation of winnings”:

For one thing, we need to take “replaceability” into account, i.e. the question of what would happen otherwise, if you did not win at poker. Well, someone else would. Therefore, much of the harm would probably occur anyway, which means that you’re causing considerably less counterfactual harm than you might think. Also, if someone else won the money, they would be less likely to donate it to cost-effective charity than a person who – like Dan – possesses an altruistic motivation.

Admittedly, one more person being part of the poker pro community will make it a bit more attractive to newcomers – which increases expected harm. But successful players also have the counterbalancing opportunity to point out poker’s dark sides and help steer it into better directions – which decreases expected harm.

3. How many people can we help with our winnings?

More generally speaking, how many people can be helped with the winnings, and to what degree? Evidence-based charity evaluators such as GiveWell have tackled just this question. They’ve scientifically examined hundreds of charities and come up with a few top recommendations. It turns out that with the most cost-effective ones (e.g. Deworm the World), you can protect 1000 kids against parasitic worm diseases for every annual $500 donation, which increases their basic health (and prevents some from dying) and demonstrably also increases their school attendance and later earnings. Phil Gruissem has visited highly cost-effective charity interventions in Uganda and came back with a very important insight:

«In Uganda, I can help 1,000 people with $500. In a rich country, this amount wouldn’t be enough to really help one person! To me, all humans are equal. This is why I support the projects which are most cost-effective.»

Take education, for instance: A few dollars buys an additional year of school in the poorest countries, who need education the most. In rich countries, one additional year of school costs hundreds or thousands of dollars. The rational choice is obvious. It also turns out that basic health interventions reduce children’s school absenteeism a lot and do better than other educational interventions, too. So we can maximize our altruistic EV by going for them.

The data shows that professional poker players are in a position to help an insane number of people in need (many of whom would otherwise even die). This number far outweighs the number of people we (less severely) harm by playing poker. Which puts us in a similar position to the effective NGO that buys computers.

4. What’s the most +EV strategy given Dan’s concerns?

In his post on the “Colman Controversy”, Daniel Negreanu says Dan told him he refused to give interviews because he doesn’t want to promote poker. But given the view that poker has (net) negative consequences, and given the goal of avoiding them, the most +EV strategy would be to seize all interview platforms in order to make a positive difference, and to donate money to effectively achieve this goal (and, again, to use public platforms to encourage many others to donate, too). As Negreanu puts it:

«…why not continue to do what you love, empower others, educate others about the dangers of this lifestyle, and use the money your talents allow you to earn, to make a difference in the world?»

Imagine the harms caused by poker were the worst and most urgent the world currently faces. Then most of our private and public resources – including the ones gained through poker – should go towards mitigating them. But in a situation where about one billion people live on less than one dollar a day, and where about ten million children die as a result every year, it would be hard to defend such a view.

5. Forget self, gain wealth!

In his post, Dan adds:

«I realize I am conflicted. I capitalize off this game that targets peoples weaknesses.»

For the above reasons, by going for the option “professional poker + effective donation of winnings”, we don’t think poker pros are conflicted more than any charitable non-profit. Also, given that playing poker and donating causes fewer people to experience harm than the alternative, it seems we should feel more conflicted by not playing, not donating, and not encouraging others to do the same.

«If you get people to look up to someone and adhere to the “gain wealth, forget all but self” motto, then you can get them to ignore the social contract which is very good for power systems. Also it serves as a means of distraction to get people to not pay attention to the things that do matter.»

Couldn’t agree more! What matters most, we think, is preventing all the unnecessary suffering that people are experiencing in the world. That’s the best way to maximize the world’s EV, which is what we should ultimately shoot for. And it’s why we co-founded REG – and why a better motto might be:

Forget self, gain wealth!


18 thoughts on “Helping people through poker: A reply to Dan Colman

  • Hi Guys,

    I think this is an excellent response. Well thought out, easy to read and very informative.

    I repeatedly tell myself a story that writing about poker, and gambling, goes against my beliefs and values. I help people to quit alcohol, and sometimes I feel like a hypocrite by pushing other forms of addiction through the responsibility I wield with my pen. You have given me much to think about, especially how I could use my responsibility in a better way. I’m going to sleep on it, but thanks for getting the mind working.

    Lee

  • I’ve been thinking a fair bit about this since it happened, and I think Colman is getting a bad rap to a degree. He did more than he was “obligated to” and has given some interesting reasons for not doing “more.” But lets’ be clear … he’s being expectyed to do more because the media chose to make an issue of his actions. Had they simply written the article as “Colman left the Rio quickly after winning poker’s biggest tournament” then there is no controversy, really … the controversy was created by the LV Sun article, and the poker media harping on it the next day. So as much as poker media says it was Colman’s choice to not do interviews (he DID do an interview … just not as long of one as people would like) which caused the controversy, the truth is that the media’s choice to talk about it in the way they did was the TRUE cause of the controversy. Colman chose to cut his interviews and pictures short, but it was the media that chose to frame that as a controversy instead of a decision that he had every right to make.

    The other point that Colman made in all this that is being specifically ignored by the Negreanu’s of the world, because it targets them directly. One of the points Colman made in his “Defense” was that poker encourages young adults to ignore their education and move into poker. Negreanu himself, as a HS dropout who made it big in poker is a poster child for this, but it equally applies to 1000’s of online US pros who quite school then got hit with Black Friday, or to 1000’s of other pros who drop out of school only to end up broke, with no skill to fall back on. As long as we point at people like Negreanu as “examples” of the industry, we’ll be pointing and encouraging kids to drop out of school to play a high variance game.

    No other industry encourages young adults to forgo their education more than poker does. In other industries, when you find the guy who drops out and then goes on to still achieve success, they are almost always careful to say dropping out was a bad idea regardless of the “Results.” In other industries, people who succeed after dropping out generally remind the rest of the world that they “sucked out” and that we shouldn’t be results oriented by looking at their results after dropping out and assuming that makes it a good plat. Ironically, it’s the poker industry that seems happy to promote the “Results-oriented” thinking that if you drop out of school and become an online poker phenom, then that must have been the best move you could make. Yes, people like Daniel Negreanu made the drop out play and ended up still sucking out to win the pot. If there’s one thing we should, as an industry, take away from Colman’s “rant” its that we need to do a much better job of encouraging people not to follow the examples of people like Negreanu, and to, instead, make sure they only get into poker if they have a back-up plan and skills in the “real world.” If there was a single point Colman made that we need to listen to, it’s that poker often encourages high-variance plays and a “make or break” attitude that can be problematic. As an industry, we need to send out the message that, no matter how many examples to the contrary you see on TV like Negreanu, dropping out of school to pursue a career in poker is pretty much always a “bad move.” Sure, just like when you make a bad move on the poker table, you may still suck out and win the pot. On the poker table, winning the pot doesn’t mean your decision was correct, and the same applies to life. That’s a message the poker industry is pretty bad at sending, especially while we idolize players like Negreanu who, while clearly being great players, made very high-variance plays early in their careers by dropping out. We need to deliver the message that players like Negreanu are successful DESPITE the “bad move” of dropping out. Instead, the move to drop out is often portrayed either as a “Good thing” or a neutral thing … the truth is, we in the poker media should ALWAYS call it a “bad play” even when it does occasionally suck out to win.

    • Lyle, I think dropping out usually being negative EV for one’s career and life is a perfect example of where poker pros could make a positive difference. Not by cutting interviews short, but by doing the very opposite! As they say in the blog post, the highest EV strategy for Dan Colman would be to take every opportunity for speaking to the public…and constantly and forcefully point out that people should only get into poker if they have a back-up plan.

      • Peter … I agree he had a chance to speak about these issues, but I think it’s disingenuous to expect him to have been prepared to take it. By all accounts, he is not a person who is comfortable in front of a camera to begin with. Given that, and the fact that the statement he wanted to make was long, complicated, and not generally suited to our modern “sound-bite” media, it seems to me that if he tried to make this complicated point, unprepared, in a quick ESPN interview after the tournament, it would have gone poorly, and now, rather than being criticized for saying nothing, he’d be criticized for saying the wrong thing, or for saying it badly.

        I also think that my point out drop-outs is especially relevant to THAT event, and the specific incident we are talking about, since people are suggesting Colman make these points on a stage where Daniel Negreanu was holding court about his 2nd place. How can Colman make a coherent statement about the dangers of poker players with no other skills when the guy who finished second to him and collected $8 million is one of those drop-outs? It’s Daniel who should be making these points, and for Colman to stand next to him on that stage and criticize people who “drop out to play poker” would have been a direct jab at Negeanu standing beside him, and seen by many as a “swipe” at Negreanu instead of a legitimate criticism of the example he sets for others.

        I frankly think people who expected him to say what he said in his 2+2 piece during an after-event interview on ESPN that he had no time to prepare for are naive about public speaking. It’s simply not reasonable to think that he could have made even CLOSE to as coherent a statement in his interview after the event as he made in the written 2+2 thread, and he knew that the statement he needed to make was complex enough that he HAD to make it “correctly” for it to have any hope of being understood.

  • Very good post! Great to read about choice poor countries to donate. Actually I`m in conflict about donate to brazilian kids or to country like $500 can help 1k kids…Probably is the patriotism, and live with kids so close to me that really need help !!
    Another problem its about bankroll, when u don`t have bankroll to play the highest tournaments, players use to play tournaments like satellites, wishing to play 10k buyins for 100%. My example, I play all online tournaments for myself and live tournaments 10k – buy in, but live tournaments 10k + buy in, I use to sell some action. So when I donate some money, feels strange, great about help, and sad about my LIVE TOURNAMENTS independence, u know what I mean???
    Congrats for this great charity and obv for crush poker tournaments!

  • Great post, the website is very informative, too. I have been reading through it the other day. Keep up the good work. Liba

  • Hi Lyle,

    I am a member of the poker media and have been fortunate to interview most people in the industry. I often ask the pros whether they would allow this children to play, and the answers fall into two bowls. The first is a “I will support them in anything they want to do” bowl, and the second is a “no way do I want them to play poker, because the numbers of players who make it are very minimal.”

    From my viewpoint unless players are sponsored (and have a duty to make poker seem attractive for newbies), most of the people I interview generally promote a very tough environment that they do not recommend as much of a life that youngsters should purse.

    Lee

    • I think that makes sense … I am a newer member of the media, and am yet to get the same evidence you have Lee, but what you say makes a lot of sense. From my own perspective, I would give my kid the same poker advice as I’d give sports advice … go ahead and play the game, but make sure you have other skills to fall back on. Even if you want to pursue poker (or hockey) as a career, it makes sense to have another skillset to fall back on.

      For the record, I totally support the ideas Phil and Igor have here … it makes a ton of sense that, when you do succeed, putting some of the money into good projects will improve your life EV. But I equally think more attention needs to be paid to encouraging people NOT to take up poker as their only occupation and only set of useful skills. Adding poker to other life skills is almost never a bad play, IMO, but ignoring other life skills to focus on poker will almost always be a bad play.

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