Why Poker?

While poker is a really simple game, beneath the surface it is rich and full of lessons for life. Cooped up, children and families can learn it quickly, but lessons it teaches you can last a lifetime. One expert wrote – you can “learn that sometimes bluffing works, but sometimes folding is wiser; and that a lost hand is not a lost game; that a lost game today does not say anything about a game tomorrow. You’ll quickly figure out how to read your opponents, how cockiness can be a cover for weakness and how reticence can be a trap to induce you into overconfidence.”

Indeed, Professor Nesson, of the Harvard University Law School, wrote, “I believe it’s time for [poker] to shake loose from the awful reputation it built up through its genesis as a gambling game. It has had an equally distinguished history as an academic pursuit… strategic thinking, taking risks based on limited information, empathizing with an opponent, and even showing strength from a position of weakness – are all skills vital for playing poker – and practising law.”

Professor Nesson has been on the faculty at Harvard Law School since 1966 and has brought the game of poker, and its higher-level reasoning skills, to countless Harvard Law Students. He says kids need to be taught how to take risks within their means, how to manage their stake in life, and how to keep from going bust.

And the game doesn’t need to be played for money to teach those lessons. Nesson said he’d like to see tournaments set up like any other sport, where participants are competing for sponsors’ money and not their own. And, he’d like to get the game added to the official roster of “mind sports” by the International Mind Sport Federation – a distinction currently reserved for Chess, Bridge, Go and Draughts.

First, Professor Nesson says, he wanted poker to be established as a game that can be played completely without the element of chance. To that end, Nesson and his students at Harvard Law tested Duplicate Poker, a concept first published by Bruce Altshuler and Dan Kleinman in 1993 [read their article here]. Nesson and his students played with teams of six players at six different tables with identically shuffled cards to diminish the role of luck. The game got its first big showcase in IFMP’s live tournament, held on the London Eye in 2011. This was the first official live game of what is, today, IFMP’s Match Poker.

Brian Koch, when he started law, had no doubt that poker is a game of skill. He’s played in the World Series of Poker and was a full-time professional poker player for two years before coming to law school. He says poker teaches replicable logical thinking that’s good for law… and life. “Sometimes you’re gonna have bad outcomes,” Koch explained. “If you keep taking the 51% chance over the 49% chance over a large enough sample over a long enough time, that’s going to come out in your favour and you’re going to end up better off.”

We’d love to hear your stories of what you have gained from skills you learned at poker. Write to us!