Poker Players Need to Stop Gambling Behind the Wheel

Alex Weldon : September 23rd, 2016


I got insta-blocked on Twitter by Sorel Mizzi this morning. He did it because I called him a scumbag, which I suppose is a predictable enough response, though it’s a thing he’s been called enough times by enough people that you’d think he’d be desensitized to it by now. Usually when one hears that word in relation to him, it’s because of some cheating allegation, whether that be multi-accounting online, rigging the deck in Open-Face Chinese, or what have you.

I’m not in a position to pass judgment on the veracity of any of those accusations, but my objection to Mizzi has nothing to do with poker, but with his driving. Specifically, with a photo he posted proudly to Twitter, showing himself playing Pokémon Go while driving in what appears to be Las Vegas.

Gambling with others’ safety

Several experiments have shown that texting while driving may be as bad as or worse than drunk driving in terms of situational awareness and reaction time. Of course, Pokémon Go isn’t exactly the same thing as texting, but it still means having one hand off the wheel to hold the phone, and dividing one’s eyeballs and attention between the screen and the road. I suspect, in fact, that it may be worse than texting, in that most major modern digital gaming companies employ psychologists for the express purpose of making sure their products capture and hold as much of the user’s attention as possible.

Despite that fact, this may seem like a trivial matter to some readers, compared to the other, poker-related allegations. After all, no harm was done here, whereas cheating people at poker is morally equivalent to theft. And no, Mizzi did not get into an accident or hurt anyone as far as I know, but that’s results-oriented thinking, which we know to be a cognitive trap. I would expect that the poker community, of all groups, would understand that we have to look at these things probabilistically.

Whatever form it takes, criminal irresponsibility behind the wheel is, in a sense, fractional murder (well, manslaughter anyway). Our justice systems, for the most part, do not see it that way, and apply much more severe punishments to people whose dangerous driving does in fact claim lives than to those who perform similar acts which happen not to have any harmful consequences. But if a given call is incorrect, it’s incorrect regardless of whether you draw out on the river or not; likewise, the ethical, if not legal, responsibility for deaths caused by dangerous driving is shared between everyone who engages in it, regardless of who gets lucky and who gets unlucky.

Thinking about life like a poker game

Perhaps this is an odd piece for a poker site, since it has more to do with driving culture than anything else, and the only direct connection to poker is the person involved. However, taking risks – whether with one’s own safety or that of others – is inherently an exercise in probabilistic decision-making. In the case of using one’s device behind the wheel, there’s a small, guaranteed benefit, in the form of entertainment or time savings, depending on what one is using it for. On the other hand, there are numerous possible downsides with varying probabilities, from the semi-likely scenario of receiving a ticket, to the less likely but far more impactful possibility of seriously injuring or killing oneself or others.

A simplified version of this calculation is as follows. The decision to drive dangerously makes sense if, in one’s assessment, the following formula holds true:

B – pH > 0

Where B is the fixed personal benefit one receives by using the device, p is the increase in probability of getting into an accident due to distraction, and H is the statistical harm to oneself and others that one expects from getting into an accident.

Risk assessment and the ‘poker personality’

The reason I want to bring this up and lay it out in that manner is that Mizzi isn’t the first poker person I’ve seen post such a photo. And, considering the demographics of poker professionals these days, it wouldn’t be surprising if they form a group that is particularly at risk for misevaluating the above inequality.

Looking first at the probability p, there are numerous demographic factors that correlate with people overestimating their own competence. High on the list are being male, being young, and being wealthy and/or successful, and the majority of professional poker players are at least two of those three things.

Meanwhile, raked poker is a negative-sum game. Money may change hands, but the total amount of money in the system can only decrease. This means that, unless one considers it a social good to generate profit for casinos, playing poker only makes sense if one weights benefits to oneself more heavily than harms to others. Everyone does that to some extent, of course, but to play poker for a living on a daily basis requires making a habit of it. Success at poker requires ruthlessness, which requires forgetting – at least while in the game – what impact the other players’ losses may have on them.

As I’ve observed in the past, while it’s theoretically possible that one can compartmentalize so as to behave selfishly at the table and altruistically away from it, in practice, people who spend enough time immersed in poker start to find the same narcissistic patterns creeping into their behaviour off the felt. The time-is-money equation is also more literally true in poker than in most other fields – success is measured in dollars per hand, or per hour.

All of this together leads to a situation where poker players are more likely than the average person to overestimate B, because they see their time as important and are used to considering their own interests first, and to underestimate H, because they’ve been conditioned not to think about harm to others, at least not reflexively. In other words, the decision to text and drive (or Pokémon and drive) is more likely to seem reasonable, because the person’s time is very valuable, they consider their odds of an accident to be tiny even when distracted, and because they’re used to thinking that everyone is responsible for their own wellbeing, not that of others.

And yet, based on my observation, most poker players desperately want to think of themselves as good people, and many of them in fact are. But because poker trains selfishness and self-assurance to be a reflex, being good away from the table requires a conscious effort to switch one’s mode of thought, to acknowledge one’s capacity for mistakes and consider the safety and wellbeing of others.

So, if you’re a poker player, and are in the habit of using your phone or tablet while driving, think of it this way: You remember Vanessa Selbst’s 180-1 bracelet bet with Jason Mercier this summer, and how she came to regret it? The way it was described at the time was “picking up pennies in front of a steamroller.” When you’re staring at a screen while piloting a vehicle, that’s exactly what you’re doing to… except it’s not pennies, it’s fucking Pokémons, and it’s not only you at risk of being squished.

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

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