Poker, blacksmithery, and other activities that teach a way to see the world

18.57, Friday 26 Mar 2021

I don’t really play poker but I enjoy reading about it. It provides some fascinating strategic perspectives.

From this article about poker and artificial intelligence:

There’s a concept in game theory known as the trembling hand: There are branches of the game tree that, under an optimal strategy, one should theoretically never get to; but with some probability, your all-too-human opponent’s hand trembles, they take a wrong action, and you’re suddenly in a totally unmapped part of the game.

Stay in the game, even though you’re in a losing position, because something might turn up.

In particular your opponent is likely, at some point, to make an unforced error (that’s the tennis term). Some politicians seem particularly good at this. And it works! More effectively than I would have imagined.

I wonder how players differentiate between when to stubbornly keep playing, and when to fold. With statistics I guess. The benefit of a game you can play many times.

Annie Duke is a former pro poker player, and here she is in conversation with Tyler Cowen, economist:

It’s mainly about “thinking probabilistically” and there’s a fascinating section titled On how poker players would think about public policy.

My suspicion is that if only the top 500 poker players voted, people would be thinking a lot more about edge cases – where things could go wrong, for sure, because poker players just are obsessed with that. I think that there would be more long-termism as opposed to short-termism, again, because you have to be obsessed with that as a concept. I think that people would be thinking about “What are the unintended consequences? How does this look?”

Another thing that’s really important that poker players think about is, “If I put this policy in that looks like it’s awesome, how can someone come in and find the cracks in it so that it can turn into something bad?”

I mean, I don’t know whether these strategies work in life generally: play the game many times; protect your downside; keep going longer than anyone else. But interesting to think about what is transferable and what isn’t.

When I talked about bonsai recently, I suggested that I kinda want every child to be given one of these at the beginning of school – and it was this reason, because of what it teaches you.

My friend George Walkley got in touch to make the connection to CEOs. He said, There’s a strand of management research on how hobbies of CEOs correlate with org performance-classic examples are flying, skydiving which are about high skill, calculated risks. – and pointed me at a paper on that topic:

This study analyzes the relation between chief executive officer (CEO) personal risk-taking, corporate risk-taking, and total firm risk. We find evidence that CEOs who possess private pilot licenses (our proxy for personal risk-taking) are associated with riskier firms. Firms led by pilot CEOs have higher equity return volatility …

Amazing! Could you making money knowing that a portfolio of companies was exclusively run by pilots?

Then George suggested cultivating long-term thinking for CEOs deliberately. It would be highly desirable in context of long term challenges like decarbonizing. Give a bonsai to every first year Harvard Business School student…

I think it’s a really good question:

What hobbies could I take up to build up my muscles around abstract thinking, or team dynamics, or risk tolerance, etc? If you wanted to educate excellent startup founders, or to foster wonderful families and friends, what games in particular would you have them play at school?

I’m obsessed with how roles in society and individual people find each other, and how personalities match what we do. But I think we often think about it as culture – like “yuppies” in the 80s that had a particular culture in finance, or sometimes we think about the personality type as a requirement to do the job. Like surgeons have to have a certain kind of attitude because it is very, very weird on a deep human level to cut into people.

But maybe all that’s required from the personality is a predisposition, and it’s the actual practice, the ten thousand hours spent interacting with money, or with scalpels, or with computer code that develops a particular temperament.

So it fascinates me how you learn almost by osmosis from the non-humans you spend time with, and I use that to cover living non-humans (yeasts, sheep) but also material, like iron, and like spreadsheets. And I’m curious about how the two - humans and the other - form a “culture” of accepted norms.

Like, the colloidal culture of the blacksmith and the iron makes for a taciturn world where words are rare, but deftly spoken and with gruff precision.

Because if you spend your days swinging a hammer at hot metal, and every strike is effortful and has to count, then how would you not take that understanding of the world into your personal relationships and politics even once you’ve finished for the day?

Has anyone looked at this?

How humans and non-living material become peers in culture formation, neither preceding the other?

I know a founder who is a free climber, and once I discovered that I was like – oh ok, now it all makes sense.

He also plays chess. Which also makes sense.


Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was president of FIDE (chess’ main international governing body) from 1995 to 2018.

He is on record as believing that chess was brought to us by extraterrestrials: I do, indeed, consider chess a gift from extraterrestrial civilizations. (From an interview in the New York Times.)

Also: He has claimed on many occasions that in 1997 he was taken by aliens to a spaceship, where he chatted with them before returning to Earth.

There are many smart people who believe in extraterrestrials.

Also: He then explains why he believes sweetcorn was brought to Earth by a different civilization.



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