BY PETER OSTROVSKI
This past Saturday, Harvard Law School hosted the first ever academic conference on poker’s strategic value. The conference, entitled “Innovative Thinking: The Educational Value of Poker,” brought together students, academics, businessmen, educators, and experts from around the country.
The event was sponsored by the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society (GPSTS), recently founded by Professor Charles Nesson and 3L Andrew Woods. Despite only being in its nascent stages, the organization has already been garnering national attention. After a brief introductory note from Professor Nesson, in which he lamented the falloff in mathematics education once students lose sight of practical applications, participants engaged in an active discussion of the potential benefits of using poker as a model for thought process.
The three experts made brief presentations that allowed the audience, which included students, writers, business people and professors in several disciplines, to interject and react. Poker player, writer, and author of the bestseller “Positively Fifth Street,” Jim McManus was the first to present, and shared an excerpt from his forthcoming book describing presidents, generals, and other luminaries who were poker players and used skills developed in the game to help them in various important situations.
McManus focused particularly on applications of poker skills, including risk assessment, high-pressure decision-making, and opponent analysis by key players in the Cold War.
Mike Sexton, poker champion, World Poker Tour commentator, and well-known face of the game, then discussed the rich history of the poker and its properly changing perception from a game played in smoky backrooms of pool halls to a respected competitive event played and broadcast worldwide.
Sexton also offered his personal poker story and described its parallels to the overall trend. In addition, he added an optimistic outlook for the future of poker, stating that he envisioned it continuing to grow, especially with the skills it teaches being increasingly recognized by the public.
Dr. Alan Schoonmaker, a psychologist with experience consulting and writing in the fields of business and poker, outlined why he saw the game as a teaching tool superior to sports, chess, and other metaphors. Among the reasons listed, it has fair and clear rules, provides quick feedback, teaches a person to manage risk and information, requires self-discipline and helps players learn to cope with losing, teaches how to handle good and bad luck, and offers repeated opportunities to experiment.
After a break for lunch, Nesson and Woods held an interactive workshop in which they taught newcomers how to play poker. In order to focus on the strategic, skill-based betting aspect of the game, each player was dealt one card face down and could then make bets with chocolates. After several introductory hands, players received an extra card, and the elements of Texas Hold ‘Em (five community cards with corresponding rounds of betting) were slowly introduced.
Walking around the tables throughout the exercise, Woods stopped players mid-hand and asked them to verbalize how they saw their position in the hand evolving. Based on the actions of the players before them, they were asked to guess how strong opponents’ cards seemed and even exactly what two cards others were holding. Players were then instructed to use this information to analyze the relative strength of their two cards and make intelligent betting decisions accordingly.
Afterwards, participants were introduced to an educational game called “Alpha-Bet,” which combines the structure of Texas Hold ‘Em with the premise of Scrabble. Players are dealt two cards face down, and there are community cards just as in Hold ‘Em, but the cards each contain a letter with a point value assigned. The goal of the game is for the players to make the best word (up to seven letters) with the available cards. By including an element of literacy, the game adds yet another potential educational aspect to a game of poker.
Nesson and Woods ended the workshop with a discussion of moving forward with integrating poker into educational curricula. While participants agreed that certain steps must be taken carefully, including recognizing the dangers of gaming addiction, the overall potential of poker as a strategic and educational tool was recognized as overwhelming.