Andrew Barber on Poker, Economics and Ethics Pt. 4

Alex Weldon : August 12th, 2015


This is Part 1 of a four-part interview with Andrew Barber, winner of this year’s World Series of Poker Event #63: $10,000 H.O.R.S.E. Championship. In Part 1, we discussed Barber’s issues with the selling of action at a markup. In Part 2, we discussed possible solutions to the problem. In Part 3, we discussed the future of the poker economy. In this final instalment, we discuss the ethics of poker itself and whether or not poker can be a positive force in the world.

Alex Weldon (AW): Back on the subject of the ethics of poker itself, that’s something every winning, socially-minded player has to wrestle with: whenever you make a profit, the money is coming from others who are losing more than you’re winning. Where do you stand on the ethics of playing poker for profit, and why do you draw the line at marketing efforts to draw new players into the game?

Andrew Barber (AB): I struggled with this for a long time. I used to call myself a “self-loathing poker player” because I hated everything about the game. Since then, I’ve come around and tried to be a positive force in the poker world.

The most commonly-heard argument in favor of playing this zero-sum game is something along the lines of “people will always play poker, so one person not playing won’t change anything.” This class of arguments is sometimes called the “futility illusion,” indivisibility, or indifference. As the word “illusion” implies, it’s not an airtight argument and it shouldn’t be used for things like serving as executioner or war criminal, even if someone else will do those things in your absence.

However, I have recently been won over by a completely different ethical argument, one based on utilitarianism. The way this argument goes is as follows: If poker is going to be played regardless, then if I’m an effective altruist, I have a moral responsibility to win as much as I can so that I can ensure that the money is being directed to causes where it can do the most good.

For that reason, I am more inclined to accept efforts to market the game, but only to a point. I still have serious misgivings regarding attempts to reach the financially destitute with marketing ploys. I have a deep loathing for the lottery industry, which intentionally preys on the poor, so I’d hate to see poker fall into that pattern.

AW: So, for you, poker is acceptable as long as money is flowing from people who can afford it to people who will do altruistic things with some or all of their winnings. But what can be done to discourage problematic gambling by losing players and/or to encourage winning players to put their earnings to positive use?

AB: That’s the $64,000 question. Sometimes it feels like we’ll never figure it out with all of the broke hustlers and scammers that seem to exist in the poker community. I’m skeptical that we will ever truly fix problem gambling.

I guess a start would be to tackle income inequality and educate people? I wish I had a better answer. As far as encouraging people to be more “charitable” – I use quotation marks because effective altruists have some issues with that word – we need to start addressing the uncomfortable discussion of how not all charities are equal. Some are, in fact, much, much better than the rest in terms of their impact, measured in terms like number of lives saved or amount of suffering avoided.

In this world of scarce resources, I think we absolutely need to be more judicious in how we spend the considerable money that we as a society give to charity every year. If one charity saves an estimated 300 lives per $1,000,000 spent (for instance, the Against Malaria Foundation), while another saves only 1 for the same cost (for instance, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge), how do you justify giving to the latter?

AW: You’ve mentioned effective altruism a couple of times. What’s the movement about and what’s the objection to the word “charity”?

AB: Effective altruism is a philosophical movement that applies evidence and reason to determine the most effective ways to improve the world. We consider all possible causes and actions, using the latest evidence-based research available, then try to act in a way that brings about the greatest positive impact. In poker parlance, EA is all about getting “max value” from every donation.

That’s also where where we draw a distinction from “charity.” Traditional altruism or charity consists of helping whoever one feels like, without regard to the effectiveness of the organization in question, the marginal impact of the donation or alternative ways in which the money could be spent (the “opportunity cost” in economic terms). These are grievous mistakes to be making when you consider the stakes involved.

AW: Is there a significant EA community within the poker world?

AB: It’s growing. I would actually call myself late to the party since there are already 160 members of Raising for Effective Giving – REG for short – which is a group of poker players who pledge at least 2% of their gross earnings each quarter to effective altruist causes. It’s catching on like wildfire within the community. That seems inevitable to me, since effective altruism is a logical conclusion that all intelligent people should reach, and the poker world is saturated with intelligent people.

AW: How long has this been going on, and how did it start?

AB: It was founded in 2014 by several high stakes pros and members of a Swiss think tank for rationality and evolutionary humanism, so it has some great minds behind it. Thankfully, last summer REG was able to get Martin Jacobson and Jorryt van Hoof on board before their Main Event final table, so that was great for visibility and provided a big jump start for donations. I’m biased, of course, but I don’t think we are far off from getting to the point that a majority of important final tables will have REG contributors at them, and a significant number of players making donations quarterly.

AW: Of course, professional players aren’t the only ones making money off of poker. Is there anyone on the industry side of things involved in EA or REG that you know of?

AB: From what I have heard talking to REG’s board, it’s been tough because of the existing partnerships companies have. For example, the World Series of Poker has been working with One Drop for a couple of years now, but that deal precludes REG from being an “official charity.” I believe a similar problem exists with PokerStars.

AW: So I guess the big question is: Taking poker as a whole – industry and players alike – do you think it is, or could be, a net positive for the world?

AB: Can poker be a net positive? I’m glad to be answering this question now, because for most of the past 7-8 years, I would have answered “no.” These days, however, I’m as optimistic as I’ve ever been. Everyone in poker is getting smarter and better, and I think smart people should generally arrive at the same conclusions when presented with the same facts. It’s just a matter of getting those facts out there.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.

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