Sunday, September 03, 2006

The Ethics of Losing

Poker night last night, and I pretty much cleaned up - which is unusual, to say the least. I play poker every other week or so with some guys here in town, and I think it's fair to say that I'm either the worst or second-worst player of the regulars. But last night I did really well - partly because of dumb luck with hands (hey, it happens), partly because I took it easy on the beer (which I usually don't), but mostly because I called some key bluffs. In other words, I think my winnings were mostly "earned." And that made a certain annoying habit two of my friends have just a little bit harder to take than normal.

Note to any readers who don't know me: I use the word "annoying" the way it was intended - to mean something that bothers you but not seriously, or not to the extent that it's worth doing much about it. I add this disclaimer because in lots of posts on other people's blogs other commenters have let me have it for "whining" about minor things - things that I called "annoying." My favorite example of this involved a discussion about liquor laws. Someone had said that religious people generally leave everyone else alone - and I responded that, in fact, they didn't, and gave an example of the law here in Indiana that prohibits (store) sales of alcohol on sundays. I called this law "pointless" and "annoying," and was roundly told by certain others that if it was such an inconvenience to wait a day to buy beer I could move to another state! (!!!) Of course, I hadn't said it was all that - just that it was "annoying," which it indisputably is. Nobody does anything so drastic like pick up in the middle of a PhD and move just because he doesn't like the local liquor laws. That's not the same thing, however, as saying he accepts them.

Just so that's clear - what these two friends do is "annoying." And that's that whenever they lose a hand they have a lot of money on, they procede to launch into a reasoned justification for why they bet the way they did. Nothing so wrong about that - but the way they phrase it (in terms of the odds of the winner getting what he got), the implication is always that the winner made a dumb call and just "got lucky."

It seems to me, though, that that's the kind of game poker is. The tension comes from just that fact: that a good hand is not a guaranteed win, and that the odds only accurately predict the outcome over a number of rounds and not on any single hand. Poker is very entrepreneurial that way. To be a big winner you have to be willing to take certain risks. Otherwise, it's all just blind chance. (Not being terribly willing to take risks is, in fact, one of the reasons I lose.)

This point is well-made by Matthew Hilger in his book Internet Texan Hold'em, which I bought two years ago hoping to improve my game but never actually read through:

Poker is a game of skill. This is not easy to explain to people who do not understand the game, but good poker players will win the money.

Good Poker Players = The MONEY

However, there is one huge caveat in this equation. That caveat is time. Good poker players will win the money given enough time.

Good Poker Players = The MONEY...given TIME

In any one hand, the odds are pretty even for everybody. Over an hour, the better players have a little advantage, but could easily lose a lot. In a session of eight hours, a good poker player will win the majority of the time, but not all the time. If a good poker player plays 100 hours of $20-40 limit Hold'em, he could win as much as $20,000, but once in a blue moon he might lose $10,000. A good poker player could only break even after 1400 hours of play. Given any time below that, he could possibly lose.

Well, that seems pretty much right to me. Poker is not a hand-by-hand game. There is no real skill in winning a single hand, nor lack of skill in losing it. Being good or bad at poker is measured entirely in terms of how you do over the long run.

And that's what's interesting about these two friends. Over the long run, they're kickin' my ass (one of them is, in fact, the undisputed best player in our groups and is therefore kickin' everyone's asses). Clearly they're both better players than I am - so why the need to hedge their losses with commentary?

I think there's a kind of tacit code to game playing - an "ethics of losing," if I can say that. There are certain terms that everyone accepts for maximal enjoyment, and one of them is that you don't get to make excuses for losing. Nothing ruins a good Chess game more than when your opponent sits down to the board and leads off with "You know, it's been a really long time since I've done this."

NO! Cop out!!!

Because then if he wins it's twice as cool as it should be (because he's "out of practice" but still managed), and if he doesn't, well, he has an out. BULLSHIT!!!

A contest isn't a contest if people hedge. If you have concerns about how long it's been since you last played Chess, maybe what you need to do is refuse the match and reschedule for a week later so you can have time to brush up a bit - by playing online or whatever. Well, putting everything over on your opponent's good luck is the Poker analogue.

Ditto debates. I can't stand it when people lead into a discussion by saying things like "I don't want to get into this, but ..." That's a wussy move. What they (generally) mean is "I'm gonna say this, and if you give me a good response, I'm gonna back down, but without losing any face or appearing in any way to have not thought through my position. Of course, if you give me an equally iffy response I'll be happy to continue." BULLSHIT!!!

Either you have an opinion you want to express or you don't. I can't stand people who have opinions but are only willing to defend them to people who already agree with them. As President Nixon famously said to Eisenhower over the phone when Ike gave him a noncommital answer on whether he was the VP candidate in '52, "Sir, sometimes you have to shit or get off the pot."

I saw an example of this at Noah's friend's house last weekend. We were there to eat grilled flesh and watch bloodsport on TV (though I left as the fight was starting) - and mine and Noah's (newly acquired, still tentative in his case) Libertarian political beliefs came up. Noah's friend - who was otherwise completely cool, glad I met him - said something once like "Ok, but what do you do about...(smirk)...well, I'm not going to get into this because I don't want to spend all night talking about it." Which struck me as a cock-sized copout. If you "don't want to spend all night" on something, then it seems to me that the ethics of these situations requires you to just keep your mouth shut. You don't get a free score. Expressing an opinion means - or should mean - that you're willing to defend it. People shouldn't hold - or at least shouldn't express - opinions that they are not willing and able to defend.

I think the all-time most egregious example of this I ever encountered was this otherwise-cool-but-hopelessly-anti-American New Zealander named Matt I knew in Japan. (Most New Zealanders I've met fit this description, as it turns out, which is why I have decided I generally hate New Zealand). We were at a Japanese friend's house, and he started up on a rant about how it irritated him that Japanese schools teach American English. But the rant died once it became clear that I was going to defend the policy. And of course he played the "I don't want to debate about this" card. Well, sorry, "mate," but once you imply that there's something wrong with American English, that British English is obviously better, you've GOT a debate on your hands. If you didn't want one, you shouldn't have brought up the subject in front of Americans.

A confident player doesn't mind losing a hand or two to dumb luck because, hey, that's the game we all agreed to play. A confident player knows that, given time, things will go his way as often as they go against - his current losses will be rectified in the end. A confident player knows that the skill of Poker is making the best of what you have, not always following a predictable formula.

This has been going on for over three years now, so there's no reason to expect it to change. And anyway, as I said, it's only "annoying," not any kind of serious problem. Last night, though, I felt like it had reached a critical mass. I don't take Poker all that seriously (hence not having read the book I bought on it), but sometimes I think it might be time to start.


At 7:07 PM, Blogger noahpoah said...

...and mine and Noah's (newly acquired, still tentative in his case) Libertarian political beliefs came up.

Hey. My libertarian beliefs are neither newoy acquired nor tentative. They are, how shall I say it, newly honed. I've had (at least some) libertarian beliefs for quite a long time. They just haven't always been as thoroughly thought through as they are (coming to be) now.


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