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Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays.

(Friedrich Schiller)

***

I used to play cards for a living. For almost a decade, on the virtual tables of disreputable gambling outfits or celebrity-endorsed multinational behemoths; in glass-partitioned exclusive rooms in casinos in Las Vegas, Montecarlo, and Macau, and in mob-run back-alley joints in my hometown of Rome, Italy.

The game of poker dominated my twenties with the intensity of a first love. It played out, for the most part, against the expressionistic backdrop of the late aughts Great Financial Crisis. And like all first loves, it left me with a sense of acquired wisdom and a regrettable propensity to distill its lessons in story form. I long to tell the tale, to ransack the cupboard of my experience in search of meaning—to figure out just what the hell I was thinking.

Here’s the thing: at the beginning of 2008, Italy had a lukewarm center-left government, its young people dreamed of Europe and jobs, and I, at 21, was entering an M.A. in Comparative Literature at the University of Rome, fully convinced that I was headed for a rewarding career in Academia. By the end of 2009, the country had voted Silvio Berlusconi (and his grotesque confederacy of catatonic conservatives, free market libertarians, and outright fascists) back into power, Italian youth had traded its dreams for sleek-looking Facebook accounts, and I was a professional poker player. Something didn’t add up; and that was just the prologue.

There already exists a vast, qualitatively uneven literature by former poker players. What they’ll invariably tell you is that the game taught them some extremely valuable lessons about themselves and the world. To ignore the noise, consider the probabilistic nature of human existence, and approach life with an attentive, unbiased attitude toward risk, success, and failure. They’re better decision-makers now, they’ll tell you. Better at dealing with stress. The word “life-hack” might even come up.

And that’s okay, I mean, they’re not wrong. As life-lessons go, I guess you could certainly do worse.

Yet over time this message has come to sound to me awfully close to a Silicon Valley-like cult of human hyper-efficiency. The more I looked at this moral to the story, and heard it repeated to me by a thousand tweets, blog posts, books, and drunken rants by fellow pros, the more depressingly limited I found it. Was this really the only lesson I was to take away from my decadelong journey through the game, a measly technical guide to hacking my own personal brain into higher functionality?

In the first book of the Convivio (The Banquet, 1303-1308), Dante lays out some pretty strict rules for writers who should feel the unhealthy urge to prattle on about their story. It’s cool to talk about yourself, he says (and you might be shocked to find I’m paraphrasing here), so long as it serves one of two purposes: either to dispel an undeserved infamy and avoid danger, or to offer an edifying example for others to learn from.

My story, in and of itself, would be of no use to you, trust me. I have no reputation to defend, and no example to offer other than ways not to do things. And yet poker did teach me something. Something specific and, it now seems to me, valuable. I found it, in the end, less in my individual narrative than in the way it intertwined with the historical events taking place alongside it. Looking back at the parallel history of my poker career and the rise and decline of online poker in my home country, I discovered something surprisingly meaningful—a lesson, dare I say a message?—that I hadn’t known was there. So if you’ll follow me down this shamefully self- centered tale, I promise I’ll at least get around to sharing something about poker that you haven’t read before. I wonder if Dante would be okay with that.

PRIMITIVE ACCUMULATION (2003-2010)

When it all really started, I wasn’t there. I was underage, agitated by whatever agitates Italian high school boys, an ocean away from the epicenter. It happened, fittingly, in Las Vegas, at the Binion’s Horseshoe casino, in the summer of 2003. It was there that the nascent online poker business breached into the mainstream through the fairytale story of a humble comptroller from Atlanta, Georgia, who turned $40 deposited on PokerStars.com into a ticket for the fabled $10,000 Main Event at the annual World Series of Poker, and subsequently shocked the world by winning the whole thing for a dizzying $2,532,041. His name, his real actual name, was Chris Moneymaker (one cannot, as they say, make this shit up).

What followed, in the US, was an unprecedented and characteristically unregulated market boom, which made a precious few execs Bond villain-wealthy, and a non-trivial number of young nerds smug, independent, and, yes, rather well-off too. Paradise Poker, Party Poker, Pokerstars, Full Tilt Poker, the money kept moving and moving and growing. These websites only profited through rake—a barely noticeable percentage of every pot that would be skimmed off the winner’s takings—which meant that, for the most part, online poker pitted player against player, wit against wit, as opposed to the traditional player-vs-House dynamic of casino games. Becoming a full-time pro was then entirely achievable: you didn’t need to beat the House, just the suckers. And, as it turned out, this only required the ability to grind countless hours in front of a screen (something most of the game’s young rising stars would have done regardless, for free). And maybe some intuition and mental discipline, and a dash of what at the time would pass for math.

What followed, in the US, was an unprecedented and characteristically unregulated market boom, which made a precious few execs Bond villain-wealthy, and a non-trivial number of young nerds smug, independent, and, yes, rather well-off too.

Back in Italy, these were years of rumors and trailblazing. Understanding of the game’s mechanics was fuzzy, and the legal landscape still presented vast unexplored gray areas. The first generation of Italian professionals were a unique mixture of computer nerds and card-sharps, transplants from games like Starcraft or Magic: The Gathering and cigar-smoking racetrack hustlers alike. In spite of iffy legality and strong moral opposition, by the second half of the millennium’s first decade, a movement was born. It was around this time, on shaky college library Wi-Fi, that I had my first encounter with the game, on now long-defunct poker sites of sketchy repute. I deposited $10, and played my first hands of this new (for me) game called Texas Hold’em. I lost, and, for all I knew, was done with virtual card games for good.

Meanwhile, while American laissez-faire let the new market run unbridled toward its inevitable doom, the Italian government showed unusual discernment. In September 2008, it entered the online gambling fray, selling gaming licenses to a handful of sites and imposing strict regulation on the business. Taxation was to be applied “at the source,” meaning a tiny percentage of every euro gambled at the virtual tables (minus the rake) would find its way into the country’s purse, invisible and, more importantly, unescapable. To appease the voices of moral outrage, a compromise was found in the legalization of the game only in its “tournament” mode (whereby players pay an entry fee and can’t lose more than what they initially pony up), thus keeping the much more risky (and, let’s be honest, interesting) “cash games” at the door. That’s how it began.

It was madness. It was a mania. It was collective, overnight hysteria over a simple, reasonably dumb card game played over the internet. Everyone was playing. It was in newspapers, on TV, and on the radio, discussed over morning espressos and late night wine, stunningly popular across age, gender, and class. At my small university cafeteria, I swear I’d see the same bearded philosophy students who only a few months earlier argued over Kropotkin and Proudhon play sit-and-go games using 20cent coins as chips. By the time Lehman Brothers folded, I was playing four hours online every day for literal pennies and meeting friends on Sundays for a €10 live tournament (motions to up the buy-in to €20 were shut down with disdain).

I got better. I discovered cliquey message boards where players like me analyzed hands in cryptic, self-referential jargon. I got much better. I collected dozens of Skype contacts of up-and-coming pros and spent nights on end dissecting hand after hand with them. I still studied a lot for school. Gradually, as the bottomline on my poker account grew, I upped the stakes to €1 a game, then €2, then €5. Finally, I won a €10 satellite tournament that granted me access to the big Sunday €100 event, and, in my own version of the Moneymaker fairytale, went on to make the final table and placed eight, for €1,200. I talked myself into believing I deserved it.

And therein was the crux of the matter, really. As the country plunged the depths of a ruthless financial crisis—which left an entire crop of starry-eyed new college graduates in a job market wasteland, and ravaged its working class with austerity—poker players lived in a land of opportunities. Opportunities, it felt, of their own making. Poker was a fair game, in which freethinking rational actors competed over money within the confines of a very basic set of rules. The smartest, the toughest, the most persistent inevitably prevailed. In this true meritocracy—this dotcom-meets-Las Vegas version of the libertarian dream—the rake that vampiric corporations leeched off our efforts felt like a negligible externality. And as for the losers—since poker remained, after all, a zero-sum-game—the generational divide was so self-evident it provided all the moral justification we needed: the young, jobless and extremely online, were winning; the old, greedy and irresponsible and at fault for everything that was wrong in the first place, were losing.

By 2010 Italy was against the ropes, panting: news anchors wailed about the debt crisis, governments crumbled, and virtually all of my non-poker friends were unemployed. Injections of fairy-dust money were quantitatively eased into the country’s veins at a staggering clip. Yet in my online bubble, it was milk and honey all over. I had climbed out of the micros (small, amateur stakes), and up to where the real money was made. Serious, rent-and-food-and-car money. Finally, in order to make spring semester graduation at my M.A. and be done with school for good, I dropped my ambitious, multi-year dissertation project and whipped up a glorified book report in less than two months. I graduated. My thesis advisor, an American Literature adjunct who also worked the cash register at the mall’s H&M, did a double take when I told her I was going to be a poker pro. The dissertation I gave up on was an in depth analysis of the notion of shame.

THE GOLDEN AGE (2010-2013)

Golden Ages are tricky. They’re relative, for starters, highly subjective: individuals or groups may thrive while others around them get chewed up by the worst financial storm in generations. The same market can have its victory lap on one side of the Atlantic and its doomsday on the other. They’re fickle things. Most of the time they look and feel and suck just like any other age, but once we look back on them years later, they glow in fussy golden light, just so we can commiserate how much better things used to be. Honestly, we could do without them.

Yet at no point between 2010 and 2013 was there any semblance of a doubt that Italian online poker was living its Golden Age. We knew it, with full certainty, for every minute of it. And it felt amazing. As the countrywide fling with the game turned into something serious, we young pros jumped into the relationship with eager minds and open hearts. We played an exhilaratingly fun game for hours every day, made way more money than our parents did, and deposited it legally on our banks accounts, taxes already paid. What could possibly go wrong? Like in most newborn romances, the highs were so high, and the lows so far-between and easy to ignore, that we woke up each day with Panglossian conviction that things were as good as they could possibly be, and that they would stay like this forever.

There were, of course, some signs that the situation could not be long-term sustainable, if one had bothered to look. First of all, pros quickly started to realize that the ease with which they were making money might turn out to be deceptive. As for most games of chance, the results of every Texas Hold’em session were subject to pretty hefty amounts of mathematical variance (the expected deviation of a variable from its mean). Meaning, while poker remained very much a skill game, whenever the difference in skills between players wasn’t absolutely massive, the theoretically better player could still get unlucky and lose for a long, long time. Of course this didn’t really matter at the time, when our opponents barely understood the rules, but it should have been enough to make us feel a little uneasy about the future.

On top of that, enticed by easy profits and the siren-call of deregulation, the State had suddenly started to churn out online gaming licenses by the ream. New poker sites popped up pretty much every day, each new one seemingly able to manifest out of thin air a large enough user base to justify its existence. Soon enough, every online poker room had its own team of ridiculously overpaid sponsored pros, i.e. still just us kids, sent around the country and the world to play tens of thousands of dollars worth of live tournaments, just so that some journalist could take a picture of us wearing crummy shoulder- or chest-patches advertising our corporate overlords. The market was, as they say on Wall Street, palpably overextended. A child could have seen it.

Yet any possible doubt was trounced by the self-evident idyll that was our day-to-day life. At its highest tiers, the pro community was a coterie of hyper-intelligent, hyper-driven young Epicureans, who called on each other’s houses and luxury apartments all over the country for weeks like Henry James characters in flip-flops. There were dinners, supposedly ironic (yet suspiciously frequent) visits to amusement parks, deluges of top-shelf booze, and month-long spontaneous road trips across Europe. Unshackled by the self-conscious formality of the upwardly mobile, proud of our nerdy origins, and far enough from Silicon Valley to think ourselves original, we managed to actually have fun. A secret society of happy initiates while the world around us burned.

If you’re wondering what was going through my mind around this time, the honest answer is: not much. As a dyed-in-the-wool product of one of those dangerous radical college campuses your uncle has been warning you about, you would think I would have been a very unlikely candidate to join this carefree gold rush without at least asking myself some questions. And I guess to some small extent I did, occasionally. But I always seemed able to rationalize. Fact: the young were winning and the old were losing. It wasn’t greed, I told myself, it was a recapturing of our stolen social mobility. We, as a generation, were stealing back from our selfish neoliberal parents the hopes and dreams they’d nasally inhaled in the 80s or mortgaged in the 90s.

It goes without saying that this didn’t fully stand up to scrutiny. But that was the whole point: there was no real scrutiny. It was just enough to turn off that part of my brain for a while and let the rest of me drink the libertarian Koolaid. No alarm bells going off. I kept reading my books, writing my mercifully unpublished fiction, and telling myself this was a quaint little detour in the story of my life. I moved into a shamelessly nice apartment and bought myself 30-year-old scotch as a housewarming gift. I was not yet twenty-four.

……

In 2010, the Italian government raked in 368 million Euros from online poker alone. In 2011, the pinnacle of the extravaganza, 373. Starting July 2011, cash games were finally allowed on every licensed online card room in the country, meaning we could now legally play the most intellectually challenging, complex, and, yes, amateur-fleecing form of poker out there.

There was some backlash, mostly of the inane, crowd-pleasing variety. First came the talk shows. The Sunday afternoon pundits lamenting the moral corruption of the youth. The news stories of pixelated faces who’d had to sell cars, homes, selves to fund their gambling addictions. Ludopathy (the chosen term) invaded the zeitgeist. Interestingly enough, while player-vs-player poker was now routinely thrashed on public television, the simultaneous all-out legalization of actual online casino games (meaning BlackJack, Roulette, Baccarat and the like, soon available in different areas of the very same sites where we made our living) was expedited amidst the eery, telling silence of the worried public.

And then there was the American clusterfuck, of course. On the heels of the shocking discovery that a completely unregulated market had become rife with illegality, tax evasion, and flat out fraud, the slumbering bear of the Department of Justice was jolted awake and, with the characteristic ill temper of large groggy mammals in the morning, whacked its paws around in confusion. On April 15th 2011 (a day known to poker players as Black Friday), the FBI shut down some of the major purveyors of what was now suddenly defined as illegal gambling. While most of these sites shrugged and contented themselves with the enormous market outside US jurisdiction (known to poker players as the rest of the world), one infamously popular company, Full Tilt Poker, went down in flames amid sudden revelations of complete insolvency and, crucially, a history of Ponzi-like handling of their players’ funds. It was a mess. An entire generation of (mostly, but by no means only) American pros saw their online bankrolls disappear overnight, a blow that to many signified immediate, complete bankruptcy. It would be easy, of course, to stay cynical and say they got what they deserved; but these were kids too, many of whom had quit jobs or schools to pour themselves into the game, grinding hundreds of hours every month, and sometimes putting together sums that could have lasted them a lifetime, had they not been stolen one April Friday. As for the culprits, after two years of proceedings and over $300 million defrauded from their players, one lone man was sentenced to minimal jail time and the surrendering of his assets. The rest of the management got a slap on the wrist and perpetual infamy within the poker community.

On April 15th 2011 (a day known to poker players as Black Friday), the FBI shut down some of the major purveyors of what was now suddenly defined as illegal gambling.

Ripples from the Black Friday/Full Tilt Poker storm made their way to Italy, giving Tvmoralizers plenty of ammunition to fire at their monster of the week, poker. Showing phenomenally poor understanding of the legal differences between the Italian system and the American, the media inaugurated a new, stronger anti-poker campaign, that once again curiously ignored the newborn casino games, by then all but rampant. As a result, for the first time since its inception, poker ended 2012 with a slight dip in numbers, while casino games saw an increase of 200% in their volumes and celebrated another year of blissful existence out of the public eye.

Did we know? Did we care? It was 2012, after all, and the games were still incredibly good, the money still very easy (maybe a little less than the year before, but nothing too noticeable), and the Golden Age still in full swing. America had its problems, but we were not American. We did things differently. And for us, the good times were never going to end.

CLIMATE CHANGE (2013-2016)

The good times ended in 2013.

On January 1st, a new bill that heavily restricted the right to advertise for gambling corporations came into effect, ridding the airwaves of the increasingly tacky commercials of online card rooms and casinos. This was very reasonable, of course, yet the results turned out quite different from what one might have expected: their very survival threatened, gaming businesses pivoted hard away from poker, doubling down, as it were, on blackjack and roulette and the other casino games. If they could only save one thing, they thought, it may as well be the one that made them more money.

Allow me to explain. From a corporate standpoint, poker is a market inefficiency. Think about it: you mobilize a large, dumb, well-funded user-base on your platform, yet the vast majority of the money they lose gets syphoned off by a bunch of ungrateful twenty-somethings who insist on spending it on infuriating stuff like groceries. Bummer. If those same idiots chose to play blackjack or roulette instead i.e. play against you, the House—you would capture 100% of their hard-earned cash, fair and square. Incidentally, the same is true of brick-and-mortar casinos, who would gladly get rid of the stupid game altogether (and, in fact, several do) if their own clientele didn’t firmly demand it.

And so, when business had to decide what to bet its future on, it was poker that was thrown under the bus. With the Full Tilt scandal still reverberating in the news, TV talk shows still blaming the game for the nation’s moral corruption, and poker websites themselves offering fewer and fewer promotions, big tournaments, and prizes (all plentiful in the casino games areas of the very same sites), poker quickly lost its allure. Amateurs could see it: games that once used to be full of fun, unpredictable gamblers messing with each other on the table-chat, were now stalked by silent professionals playing a depressingly homogeneous style. Empty tables on the card room’s lobby had the same two or three players already sitting down, waiting like hyenas for a sucker to wander their way. A feeling seemed to spread around the country, at the bar-counters and college quads where the game used to monopolize conversations a year or two prior: poker was no longer fun.

When the numbers came, at the end of the year, they just confirmed what we already knew: casino games went up another 63% (after tripling their volume just the previous year), while poker fell by 40%. It wasn’t just that the Golden Age was over: the whole thing looked about to be over too.

And trouble didn’t come just from the outside. Things were getting bad within the pro community as well. For years we’d validated our career choices with friends and families by telling them that we did “math” to win at cards. It was a lie, we didn’t. We used logic and intuition to apply pre-set strategies to recurring situations, but there were barely any numbers involved. Sure, you were supposed to know your odds of, say, making a flush or a straight in order to decide whether it was worth chasing it, but the truth was these scenarios happened to you hundreds of times per day, and the numbers really didn’t change that much. Honestly, up until then, we’d relied of memory and past experience more than anything else.

Yet real math was essential to poker, we just didn’t know it yet. Along with everything else, that too came around in 2013 (though that’s impossible to say for sure, and a slow, gradual mathematical awakening must have been happening for years already, far from the mainstream). Suddenly someone somewhere realized that if one applied serious game theory to poker with some semblance of academic rigor, one stood to gain a lot of money from all the empirically-oriented pros out there. If, say, instead of just worrying about playing the two cards one was dealt, one could compute a perfectly balanced strategy to play all of the possible combinations of cards one might have in a specific hand, then there would be nothing our opponent could do to take advantage of us. We would be playing Game Theory Optimal poker—or GTO, the new, maddeningly elusive Holy Grail of an entire generation of players—and we would be unbeatable.

For the first time since its inception, the future of the movement looked bleak: tables getting fewer by the day, with what was left now infested with pros running equations and complex decision trees. The friendly hand analyses that used to take ten minutes and a dozen rofl emojis now took two hours and made your brain go numb. And there, looming in the distance, the sudden awareness that once human creativity and intuition were replaced by computational stamina and impeccable execution in the profile of the perfect poker player, then it was only a matter of time before a software would be coded to do it better than we ever could. What would happen then? How soon before online poker sites would be unable to stop bots from playing in our place? And, more importantly, how could any of this possibly be marketed to recreational players as fun anymore?

Toward the end of 2013, the Italian poker scene was starting to resemble a large game of musical chairs: an entire generation of professionals running around looking for ways to keep the dream going, finding a niche, some forgotten, unexplored way to make money in spite of the coming crisis. Tournament poker was a popular escape hatch, as its heavily luck-based formula prevented a really rigorous mathematical examination (or at the very least, still afforded a fighting chance to the players unwilling or unable to perform it). Someone else went on a hunt for small, semi-deserted websites where the action was still good, the money, it seemed, still easy. Others would swear that if you only ever played between 2am and 6am every night, you could still make a living, though not quite as much as you used to. Finally, a chosen few decided to keep up with the game, face the math head on, and became undisputed top-dogs of the dwindling market. Soon, the games became too few and too shitty even for them, and they escaped to Austria, Malta, and Slovenia, where they could play on the still existing big transnational websites and compete against the tough, but plentiful pool of international online poker.

The vast majority, though, just flat out gave up. A curious parade of personal re-inventions and edifying parables took shape, with a surprising number of former online stars, no longer able to beat the games that once paid for their extravagant lifestyles, claiming they were tired of poker and wanted to “look for new challenges,” or “avoid complacency,” or even “get back in touch with the people, you know? Give back to the community.” If you had a few friends in the poker world, Facebook circa 2013/2014 must have been a lot of fun indeed.

As for me, I got lucky again. Along with a small group of players significantly more talented than I was, I studied the math seriously for a while, but still decided to abandon the online fray before things got really bad. We reacted quicker than most. By the time everybody started itching for new solutions, we already were accomplished pros in the live cash games of casinos all over the world. The second half of my career had started.

AFTERMATH (LESSONS)

At its heart, Las Vegas is a pretty literal place. There just isn’t a lot of room for metaphor in a town where the most common human interaction is the back-and-forth trading of color-coded tokens of monetary value. It’s not exactly subtle, I mean. Yet at some point, early in my live-pro years in Vegas, something happened that was so shamelessly symbolic (and completely coincidental) that it felt as if life’s frustrated screenwriter was spelling out the meaning in the third act so that even someone as dumb as me would finally get it. And in the end, it was in Las Vegas, where it all had started, that the parable of poker finally started making sense to me.

What happened was that the Nevada Gaming Commission banned the use of real currency at the tables, as an anti-money laundering policy. Up until then, middle and high-stakes poker games had featured literal stacks of hundred-dollar bills, commonly used as chips in the game (again, not subtle). And as I remember it, it was also around this time that a large number of Purell sanitizer stations started to appear in every corner of the Vegas poker rooms I frequented (this was a prepandemic world, mind you), for players to use. The coincidence was striking. Right there in Las Vegas, just in front of me, the money in play started to disappear into a fantasy, while the players competing over it developed a sudden urge to wash their hands constantly, almost compulsively. I had played the game for almost a decade by that point, but this was the first time I saw what poker was really trying to tell me, the missing link between the game, my story, and the story of my country and of the world during the financial crisis that defined a generation.

Games are vital. Never mind the pretentious Schiller quote above, this is self-evident. In many ways our brains struggle with the chaotic nature of the world—the shapeless, instruction-less landscape we were thrown in. Our mind adapts to it, guides us through it to the best of its abilities, but it can never get rid of a sense of uncertainty, a looming dread of fucking up. Games, on the other hand, provide our intelligence with the contained, measurable environments in which it can really relax, and shine. In this way, play is as much about exploring and interpreting the human condition as it is about controlling an external reality, mapping it out, taming it. I mean I guess you might as well read the Schiller quote after all, it’s right there.

But what I found is that the stubbornly undefinable thing we call conscience turns out to have a whole lot to do with that niggling sense of uncertainty and fear of fucking up that our chaotic, non-gaming everyday experience brings. We doubt and second-guess ourselves and our motives because we have no rulebook validating our conduct for us. Remove that fear, and your propensity to ask yourself questions like “wait, why am I actually doing this?” is guaranteed to decrease awfully quickly. Or in other words, put a young idealist in a generational tragedy of market greed and social injustice, and the comforting structure of a game is all it takes to win him over to the capitalist cause.

So here is something crucial that I learned from being a professional poker player: that once you turn a real-world scenario into a game, morality gets side-stepped very easily. This notion, readily apparent to anyone who’s ever played a game of Risk, is trickier than it looks to really come to terms with. You have to have seen yourself get completely swept up in a money-based game for years; you have to have watched your peers Purell-sanitize away the filthy residue of pretendmoney from their hands. Then you’ll get it.

Now, let me be clear, I actually have no problem with poker. In fact, I quite like it. I still play sometimes, it’s fun. And morally speaking, poker is small potatoes. For all my penchant for self-flagellation, I couldn’t quite count professional poker players among the heartless capitalists burning the world at the altar of their greed. They are hustlers at the most, small time grifters who devote an inordinate amount of time and energy to the dream of making a living outside the social trap. They don’t really hurt anyone, especially at the high stakes, where it’s all rich people anyway—although I guess they are instrumental to the damage perpetrated by gaming corporations and Vegas billionaires. Ultimately, they are no more than a contemporary form of what Marx would have called lumpenproletariat. Like I said, small potatoes.

And yet for all their undeniable social marginality, poker players are afforded a unique vantage point on the inner workings of the system. They get to witness, provided that they pay attention, a small scale replica of the mechanisms that allowed finance to take over the world: the gamification of monetary transactions between humans.

That, at least, is what I saw. After a long time in the perhaps not altogether representative world of poker, my understanding is that the financial predators of the world are not all (and maybe not even predominantly) of the Gordon Gekko crazy-libertarian variety. They don’t all deep-down think greed is good. That’s the point, really, they just don’t think. I mean I definitely didn’t. And they don’t think because the monetary transactions that allow them to skim a great living off the top are disguised as a game. And within the game, the competitive, merciless nature of finance is not hidden or forgotten, it’s celebrated. It’s how you play the game.

That is why the efficiency-parable that so much poker-related writing ends up weaving always makes me a bit uncomfortable. Because for all its obvious practical value, it still subscribes to a gamified vision of the world. It still teaches you to approach life as a game, and a zero-sumgame at that, where for every winner there is inevitably a loser.

The fact is, the Great Financial Crisis that pushed me toward poker in the first place, was in and of itself a product of gamified finance run amok: it was the product of bankers selling packages of piled-up mortgages, good and bad, so far removed from the actual families struggling to make rent on the houses those represented that they became nothing more than poker hands on which to bet or fold. (I wonder if they sanitized with Purell after.) It’s the candlestick charts, the leverage, and the futures, that operate on our brain in the same way that removing the hundred-dollar bills from the Vegas tables in favor of bright colored chips does. Playing professional poker in my twenties made me understand the gamification of the finance world in a way I couldn’t have grasped on Wall Street. It made me understand the people who work there, who may not always be, deep down, the soulless ghouls we assume they are (though they’re still awful anyway), but may just be operating on such a level of game-fostered distance from the real thing, that morality disappears completely. They’re just playing the game.

Poker was a lot of fun, and I don’t regret the years I spent playing. It coincided with my twenties, and with the largest financial crisis my country had gone through in generations. Like I said, I’m not Dante—I’m not trying to absolve myself. I chose to play, I chose to make a comfortable and fun living winning money off of other people, and I chose to avoid asking myself questions about it for several years.

But in the end, the biggest lesson I learned—and one that runs counter to all poker-derived wisdom you’ll find out there—is not to take life lessons from poker. The more we approach life as a zero-sum-game, and the more we allow game-mentality to expand to new areas of our collective psyche, the easier we make it for markets to rule the world. Efficiency and hyper-rational goaldrivenness are very good if you’re playing cards, but self-doubt and moral uncertainty are much more useful in the uncharted, day-to-day trenches of our lives. And as preachy and suitably Dantean this conclusion might look, it’s the one I’ve finally landed on, for better or worse, after millions of hands and years of mistakes.

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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Stephen King's War on Plot







An Algonkian Success Story










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