Poker's Tragedy of the Commons

The poker community, momentarily breaking character, has been reflective lately. It all started with Joe Hachem lamenting the decline of poker at the hands of new-school players. Phil Galfond then weighed in with his thoughts on how to bridge the gap between new and old-school. Finally, Daniel Negreanu went on 2p2 to chide new-school players for not preserving the fun of the game; he imagines “a world where players think about what’s best for everyone first, understanding that in the end they will benefit from that as well.”


These are all good and valid points. But for the most part, they are unlikely to lead to systemic change. The poker world undergoes such crises of conscience every so often, and this one doesn’t seem substantively different. These points have all been made before. And in spite of the open conversation, all of the key parties (old-school, new-school, amateurs, poker sites, and media producers) are still motivated by the same incentives. Acknowledging that the system isn’t working doesn’t yet incentivize any particular group to change it.

Phil Galfond makes compelling points about how old-school players should be more welcoming and understanding of new-school players, and how media producers should work harder to differentiate the narratives of “young genius” players. These are wise recommendations, but on their own, they won’t solve the problem. Indeed, Galfond, echoing Hachem, places the majority of the weight on the new generation to take the baton and rise to the occasion—be more entertaining! Make poker fun! Put down your headphones, come out from the hoodie, and give poker a more affable image!

One thing is for sure-the new-school players are the only ones who have the power to change the image of poker. Why? For one, old-school players are, clearly, a dwindling supply. Every new addition to the player pool is by almost by definition a new-school player or an amateur. The pool of old-school players is gradually dropping off, either due to unprofitability or age. Generally speaking, old-school players are much less adaptable, and poker has evolved rapidly in the last decade, leaving many of them in the dust. The narrative of “new-school players posing a challenge to the old guard” has become quaint and obsolete. We already know the ending. Of course new school players are better. They’re winning all the damn tournaments and cleaning up all the cash games.

New-school players are representing a larger and larger portion of the poker populace. They’re more malleable, more attuned to global conversations like the ones on 2p2, and hence are better able to uniformly respond to a cultural moment. The “old-school” is less coordinated, peppered throughout cardrooms and home games across the world. And Galfond is right, new-school players are more nerdy and introverted than old-school players. Poker no longer rewards animated, gregarious hustlers. Now, it breeds calculating tacticians. The type of personalities that succeed in today’s poker are markedly different, and that matters. So what’s holding the new-schoolers back from initiating Negreanu’s cultural revolution?

Staging the Tragedy

This is the simplest of all game theory dilemmas, known as a tragedy of the commons. All poker players want the state of the games to get better. But the EV of each individual player is maximized by doing all the stuff they want—seating scripts, listening to their iPod, playing slow and methodically, whatever. Each poker player maximizing their own EV leads to the group’s EV getting worse. This leads to overexploitation and the system on the whole degrading.

But this is particularly insidious in poker, because poker players are trained to be self-interested. It is continually impressed upon them—maximize your own bottom line, protect information, capitalize on every edge. Each player is expected to be the vigilant guardian of their own EV. And who can blame them? As games get tougher and tougher, every poker player is alone in fighting for their survival.

But as easy as it is to tell a large swath of players to get their act together, I don’t think it’s that simple. We shouldn’t be misled by archetypes. When we say old-school, we immediately think of Doyle Brunson or Eli Elezra; when we say new-school, we think of Isildur1 or ElkY. When using this sort of token-logic, we’re quick to admonish the entire group that they need to step up to the plate. But these pools are composed of many thousands of players, with varying levels of skill and security. It’s easy to say to a newly-minted TV tournament star, “hey, entertain the table more,” but what can you say to the $5/$10 regular who’s just barely eking out a living? Or the $10/$20 PLO player whose monthly swings dwarf his average EV? Is it really convincing to tell him, “hey, take off those sunglasses and start joking around more, for the sake of all your brethren!” In the end, we all know it’s players like these who compose the vast majority of the poker world.

How can we reverse overexploitation? And perhaps just as importantly, when we do that, who is going to actually benefit?

Think about it for a second. What does it really mean that the “state of poker” will be better? Imagine you’re an online 10/20 grinder, and your seating scripts are your only chance of landing you into good games. If you agree to give those up and return to the feast or famine free-for-all, who benefits? Well, a rising tide lifts all boats, right? But not yours—your ability to make a good living off 10/20 will likely seriously jeopardized. Even if everyone gave up their seating scripts and the state of poker marginally improved as a result, it probably won’t be nearly by enough to offset the amount that you lost in giving up your scripts, because the majority of the benefit will be captured by the people who currently aren’t using scripts. So, the state of poker isn’t better for you, even if it gets better on average, because it’s only gotten better for the people who aren’t doing what you’re doing.

Of course, to us as bystanders, the sacrifice sounds reasonable. It seems fair that non-script users should get a leveled playing field. But do the people who’re using scripts feel they owe something to those who aren’t? Why should they endanger their livelihood just to make things a little easier on other 10/20 regs? They’re not going to get any of the benefits, unless poker vastly improves (which it won’t). What should they care, and why should they be singled out to make that kind of sacrifice?

They’ve already found the optimal strategy, and now they’re being asked to deviate from it in order to benefit other poker players. In no small sense, poker morality can’t reasonably ask that of them. It’s simply not part of the social contract they had to sign to be part of the poker community. It’s understandable for us to get frustrated with how badly the games have now degraded, but to then suddenly act as though players owe us their edges, to demand an imaginary debt be called up—it doesn’t seem like the right answer. It might be self-satisfying rhetoric, but I don’t believe it’s actually going to convince anyone to give up their scripts or stop taking time during hands.

It ignores the massive impasse that the poker community is really facing.

The Warrior Culture

We all know that in the last few years, games have grown more scarce, edges smaller, and player pools tougher. I hear it from my clients all the time. Games don’t run, the community is shriveling, and people are scared for their livelihood. Of course, this is not a recent trend—as poker has evolved, money has slowly evaporated. It’s been happening continuously for the last ten years. This is nothing new.

But I do believe poker has become a fundamentally different experience. I don’t envy those players who are trying to come up in the game now. I started poker soon after the passage of the UIGEA, which was one of the first major blows to online poker. I missed what many of my predecessors called the “golden age.” But even then, the poker that I stumbled upon was something more beautiful and engaging than what it is now.

When I speak with guys who built their careers playing cash games, I often hear a similar refrain—”poker used to be so much fun.” It really did! Poker used to be so exciting, so vigorous, back when I was grinding and moving up in stakes.

As a 6-max player, is there any sweeter challenge than struggling to move up from a $1/$2 to $2/$4, trying to outwit your table nemesis, trying to figure out how to exploit his tendencies? Or, after I became a heads up pro, playing long 4-table heads up matches against guys like Alcohol4Life, Gunning4You, Nemuii, coming back day after day to continue the battle, playing and playing just to see who’d come out on top? Back in those days, people fought for their egos. To sit down at someone’s table was an affront. They would post and play you, just to see if they’d win. And, of course, they knew that even if they lost, they could always move down and build back up to wherever they were. Everyone was free in that way to play whomever they wanted. It was not money on the line, but hearts and minds.

It was a warrior culture. Poker was about the battle. It was about being the best, about stepping up onto that crest, at least for a moment. That poker was beautiful. And even more importantly, it was great goddamn fun.

Poker isn’t like that anymore.

This is inevitable though. We all knew, even five years ago, that things would eventually get worse. As with all markets, the market of poker must move toward efficiency, and that’s exactly what’s happened. Edges and loose money have been captured by more and more grinders. 100NL games now are more solid than 600NL games were just five years ago.

And we also know that this is no one’s fault. It’s a predictable systemic progression. The change has not been due to cultural failings, but due to economics. As money tightens up, edges get smaller, time investments get larger, variance goes up, and ego becomes displaced by safety. There is nothing surprising in this. The unavoidable fact is that poker won’t be as fun, enjoyable, or as inviting as it was in the past. The warrior culture won’t be coming back.

I lost my love for poker a long time ago. But when I reminisce of that gladiatorial game that I fell in love with all those years ago, it doesn’t make me want to play the game again. Because I know that what I loved about the game doesn’t really exist anymore.

(Of course, this is reductive to an extent. Yes, people have bumhunted and games have formed around fish for a long time. And the most dramatic of the changes that I’m talking about mostly apply to heads up and high stakes economies; 6-max games still run consistently at lower stakes, and the step-ladder of poker remains intact there. But even if it’s not as bad in most games, you still see some degradation across the entire span of poker.)

But I reminisce about all this not merely to be nostalgic, or pessimistic. True, I don’t believe that this trend can be ultimately reversed. It might be mitigated by a large change like legalizing online poker in the US, but the march toward efficiency will nevertheless continue. It has to.

And yet, my point is not to say that poker is therefore doomed. My point is simply this: economics precedes culture, not the other way around. A prosperous poker economy create a strong culture that encourages play and competitive spirit. A scarce economy encourages self-interested behavior and greedy strategies. So villainizing those kinds of players in a scarce economy isn’t an effective way of dealing with the status quo.


Ending it All

There are only a few ways to resolve a tragedy of the commons: renewed resources, externally-imposed regulation, or cultural change. Renewed resources are not happening—the golden days of poker won’t be coming back. So we have external regulation and cultural change.

External regulation, such as rules imposed by poker sites, are great for solving many tragedy of the commons situations. HUDs, grimming, and intentional time-wasting are good examples of problems largely solved by regulation. Once poker sites adopt new rules and shake up the incentive structure, they are able to incentivize the entire economy against overexploitation. The state of the game improves, while everybody is still doing what’s now in their best interest.

Poker sites have enormous power in this equation, and it’s clear that they need to be more proactive in orchestrating the poker economy so it doesn’t degrade further. Seating scripts may be difficult for sites to detect on a software level, but surely there are telltale behavioral signs of script users (we all know what it looks like). If poker sites announced a week in advance that suspected script usage would start to lead to escalating temporary bans from sitting at any tables (1 day, then 3 days, then 7 days, etc.), or perhaps a simple 3rd strike permaban policy, and especially if they were tracking this behaviorally rather than through software, most script users would stop. Software is easy to get around. But if it were behavioral, nobody would really be sure what would be enough to tip off the poker sites. Pretty soon, most people wouldn’t want to risk it.

Poker sites have already become more proactive in this role, introducing stuff like Zoom, anonymous tables, various “amateur-friendly” games, and so on. But clearly they need to go further, especially when it comes to the high-stakes games. Transparency and projecting an image of legitimacy is essential for online poker’s well-being (and for being taken seriously when the inevitable fight over its legalization begins).

Externally-imposed regulation is a powerful force. But unfortunately, it has social limitations. It can’t stop bumhunting; that’s too socially murky. And of course, when it comes to live games or TV poker, brick and mortar poker rooms can’t force you to be friendly, or not listen to headphones. Notably, some private games do force you to be friendly, by simply not inviting you back if you aren’t. This is a splendid example of a tragedy of the commons being solved by external regulation—whoever’s controlling the guest list controls the incentives. But I suspect that socially, we wouldn’t be okay with brick-and-mortar poker rooms outright banning players who weren’t very friendly.

If we want these behaviors to change, then we must acknowledge that externally-imposed regulation can’t reach them. We have to create cultural change. And note, I don’t say hope for cultural change, because simply hoping doesn’t do anything. For significant cultural change this late in the game, it must be actively created, enacted, and pushed forward.

Cultural changes affect our direct moral and social incentives. For example, the environmentalism movement, which made green companies “sexy,” reshaped the cultural landscape and incentive structure. Companies that once couldn’t give a shit about using recycled paper or sustainable energy sources, now have direct incentives from their customers. Could we do the same sort of thing in poker?

To make a cultural change in the poker world, we’d have to make it not cool that people discuss strategy at the tables. It’d have to become taboo to berate a fish. We’d have to stigmatize people who recede into their headphones and hoodies during poker sessions. There would need to be an orchestrated cultural push, starting from the movers and shakers (big-name players like Negreanu and Galfond), and trickling down into the foot-soldiers. But rather than being merely a lament, a cry of frustration, it would have to be an announcement of change. That the cultural landscape of poker had shifted. This announcement would have to be clear, coordinated, and unambiguous.

What if that did happen? What if there were specific, clear directives that people pledged to follow—”the next time someone plays excessively slow, or the next time someone discusses strategy at the table, I am going to clearly and explicitly tell them off for making the game less fun.” What if people anywhere, everywhere, in card rooms around the country, started actively talking about how to make their poker games more fun? What if this became the dominant conversation?

It’s not a ground-breaking conclusion, certainly. But that, I think, is the best chance there is at making a real dent in these issues. Wherever poker sites can solve the problem by regulation and reshuffling incentives, we should leave it up to them. But where they cannot, it’s up to the big name characters of poker to step up to the plate and help stimulate that cultural movement.

And for the sake of those who are now trying to come up in this game, I hope that it happens.

Please share this if you dig it!

Update on the audiobook: How to Be a Poker Player: The Philosophy of Poker went up for sale last night, available on Amazon and for FREE if you sign up, and also available on iTunes!

February 22 2014
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Managing Partner at Dragonfly Capital. Effective Altruist. Airbnb, (acquired by Coinbase) alum. Instructor @ Bradfield. Writer. Former poker pro. Donate 33% of my income to charity.

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