Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Life After Poker #2 -- Jason Strasser

I made it to two episodes, woohoo! That means this is officially a real thing. I think.

In show #2, I chat with Jason "strassa2" Strasser, one of the original young no limit hold'em superstars that burst on the scene in the early 2000s. Jason was making big money playing high-stakes NLHE from his college dorm room at Duke, and traded that career in for a lengthy and successful career as a trader for Morgan Stanley. But playing with the house money wasn't fulfilling enough, so he decided to start his own hedge fund. Jason joined me from his office in New York to talk about the time he spends on the 2+2 poker and investment forums, the fun of being in the financial markets, the pressures of managing the money of his friends and family, his attitudes towards poker today, what he misses about the poker lifestyle, and much more. Jason's is a true success story of how a player goes from beating the big poker games to making real money beating "the Street".

Here's where you can find it, and here's the direct download link. And iTunes here. Let me know in the comments what you liked, didn't like, or anything at all!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Introducing ... Life After Poker, a series of interviews

[Edit: On the September 3, 2014 edition of the 2+2 PokerCast, an edited version of the Matt Hawrilenko interview was played. If you got here through the PokerCast, you'll want to click through to the Life After Poker page to see what parts of the interview were excerpted.]

Like most people, I enjoy conversation with my favourite people. I've been fortunate enough in my life to find truly fascinating people, and I often wish that I could capture these conversations with people and present them to the world.

I've also been a big fan of audio content and podcasts for many years. I'm a huge fan of those who do it well. I've had some experience with podcasting including being an occasional co-host on the Two Plus Two PokerCast and had my own brief foray into hosting my own show with Under The Gun +1 at Ultimate Gaming when I interviewed some of my coworkers. But until now, I have never had a full creative outlet to have a candid conversation with personal friends and acquaintances, made for public consumption. I've also never had to manage all the other, non-talking aspects of content creation and putting it online. That changes today.

Today, I'm introducing "Life After Poker", a series (I hope) of interviews with former professional poker players who have moved on either partially or completely from playing pro poker. Many of the people I hope to talk to were big winners during the poker boom of the mid-2000s, but for some reason or another, decided to move on from full-time play. Given my own personal situation where I did the same (giving up pro poker to work for Ultimate Gaming) and then subsequently retired from that position, I feel that this is a great time for me to have some conversations with these individuals and explore the themes associated with a life after poker.

My reasons for doing this are to improve my own skills at speaking and interviewing, to learn about what people are doing in their lives after poker, and because I'm a self-obsessed egotist who likes hearing the sound of his own voice.

This first interview is with one of the people I know best in the entire poker world, Matt Hawrilenko. Matt is one of my best friends, which made my first outing into the solo interview world very easy. The interview went well and was a lot of fun mostly because Matt is an eloquent, thoughtful speaker. We cover a really wide range of topics including his academic career in clinical psychology, being on the mats in Brazilian Jiujitsu, optimizing utility in life, how to assess your own life decisions, and what Bill Chen thinks of him as a poker player.

I would really love to hear your comments on anything that pertains to the interview whether it's content, length, audio quality -- whatever! Specific is always better than general, but even if your only comment is "I loved it!" or "I hated it!" I'd still love to hear it. Also, if you have ideas for future guests (I have about 6-8 people in mind already), that'd be great too.

Links:
http://lifeafterpoker.libsyn.com is where all episodes will be.
And this is the link to the first (and presently, only) interview.
Finally, here's the iTunes link.

Thank you for listening!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

First-time float tank experience

I first heard about isolation tanks (aka float tanks or sensory-deprivation tanks) on the Joe Rogan podcast. I'll try nearly all non-injurious things once so when an offer showed up in my e-mail for Float House Vancouver, I was pretty excited to give it a try.

I'll skip the generic trip report that you can read about on every site: you watch a video, you get undressed, shower off, and get into the chamber which is filled with water heated to skin temperature and with so much salt in it that the density matches that of the human body. The chamber is completely black on the inside, there is minimal sound, a fairly neutral smell, and the only sensation you feel is the water on your body which again is very minimal and very comfortable. You can get out at any time, you can prop the door open, and they give you a foam pillow to support your neck if you want it.

The allure of float tanks, as I understood it before my experience, is a tremendously deep meditative state. I've heard many people say they experience very deep thoughts, perceive the world in a different way, achieve some form of creative enlightenment, and so on. Perhaps comments like those overly raised my expectations. I would say the most adequate description of what occurred in my 90 minutes in the float tank was that it was just like the feeling that you have just before you fall asleep. One does think very thoughtfully about things in your life, in a way very different from what one's typical conscious mind thinks about them. But the thoughts are not absurd or dissonant with reality the way they are in a dream. Thus it seems to be in an "in-between state" where your consciousness is very aware of the rules of reality, but is perhaps willing to bend them. I'm not confident that's a great assessment, but it's about as close as I can elucidate.

So what did I actually think about?

For the first 15 (10? 25? 40? It's truly hard to say) minutes, I was simply getting used to the sensation and decreased sensory input. Unless you live near the Dead Sea, it is a very foreign feeling to be completely suspended in the water without any external resistance, and with minimal feeling on your skin. The complete darkness means that you get the sensation of movement, often rotating or drifting from side to side, and the tank was large enough that I wasn't constantly bumping into the walls, although it did happen. But for the most part, I thought about the same things I think about during my conscious day: martial arts, friends, work I want to do, and so on. I did not ponder the origins of the universe, the meaning of life, the key to enlightenment, or such thing.

At some point I'm pretty sure I did fall asleep, though I wouldn't be able to guess the duration. It could have been anywhere from 2-30 minutes. I do know that a few minutes after waking up, I started to become slightly antsy for the session to be done. I have a slightly pathological tendency to always want new experiences to be "as intended" so even though the intro video said specifically that it was fine to crack the door open or take a break, or do any of a number of comfort-increasing things, I didn't do any of them. But somewhere around probably the 70th minute, I started to become a bit anxious to quit or at least take a break. I stuck it out and waited, considering it a mental challenge and telling my brain to calm down, and it did not feel too long before the 90 minutes expired. I do suspect that being very awake, well-rested, or caffeinated would probably be a bad idea for the float tank. As one person on Yelp says:
don't go when you're super well-rested. I find that you need to be right in that Goldilocks zone of being not too sleepy, but not too awake either. If you're too well-rested, you tend to get a bit shifty and therefore unable to get comfortable in the experience.
I think that is a very accurate description.

Afterwards, I still felt slightly disoriented. It wasn't as bad as a typical "nap hangover", but I certainly did not feel in any hurry to move too quickly or use my brain too aggressively. I chatted with some girls in the waiting/recovery area and they seemed to feel the same way.

So, the obvious questions.

Do I recommend that other people do this? Absolutely yes. This is the kind of thing that I suspect has dramatically different results for different people. It's unique, reasonably priced, and available in most big cities. Some people will love it and think it's the greatest thing ever, others will absolutely hate it and quit in 10 minutes, others will likely be indifferent. But you don't know if you don't try. So you should do it.

Many people have expressed the idea that they would feel uncomfortable in complete blackness, or without any sound, or lying in an enclosed area that vaguely resembles a coffin. Sure, I'm sure this would cause some anxiety. I don't much like closed spaces myself, and my brain is super active all the time. But I would argue that this is more a reason in favour of doing it as opposed to against. People with fear of heights skydive. So suck it up.

Would I do it again? The answer to this is harder. I think I will probably do it again. I think it's unlikely that it needs to be a highly regular part of my life, or that it will be dramatically life-changing for me. And if it were the case that I never did this again, do I think that I would be tremendously disappointed? Probably not. But overall, I would say it was positive, and I think that doing it occasionally will provide value.

Happy floating!

Monday, August 18, 2014

Peer-based marketplaces are awesome!

I recently got back from visiting friends in Boston. Like almost every civilized city in North American now, Boston has Uber. Two major cities which don't have Uber? Las Vegas and Vancouver, the place I just moved from, and the place I'm in right now. The reason, naturally, is taxicab companies being dickheads and using their lawyers to protect their government-granted monopolies (VancouverVegas) . So until my trip to Boston, I'd never used Uber, but I was seriously impressed! It does seem that any consumer mentions Uber, it is with the most glowing of terms.

Is there any doubt that these peer-based marketplaces are the future? Uber and Airbnb seem like the biggest and most used ones so far. I also just hired someone off of Odesk.com to do some software work for me. It's not that it was cheaper (though it was), it's that I literally probably wouldn't have been able to find someone with the skills I was looking for without combing through my social network and asking everyone I know.

This is some serious democratization of both the capital and labour markets, which is awesome. Uber reduces the cost of transportation, Airbnb reduces the cost of housing, Odesk reduces the cost of skilled freelance work. And in many ways, they're not just cheaper than the traditional model, they're better. I way prefer apartments to hotels. I want a fridge and a kitchen, not maid service and a lobby bar. Airbnb was freakin' made for me. Uber has your payment information pre-stored, so you don't have to carry around cash and cards. Odesk -- well, I don't even know where I would have found the person I was looking for if it weren't for Odesk.

There's others that I've heard of but never used like Etsy (arts and crafts), Prosper (loans), Taskrabbit (errands) that continue to break down commerce walls in unique ways to unite buyers and sellers. Of course, the traditional companies (taxi companies, hotels, b&m retail, banks) will try to use their corporate goons to prevent this, but it can't be stopped. It's too awesome.*

This is all exciting as hell to me, and makes me wonder what other peer-based marketplace companies I might not be aware of. Is there a complete list of these anywhere? Please tell me of ones you know of in the comments.



* The more I think about this, the more that I think that the Ubers, Airbnbs, etc of the world have the potential to unify people of differing political views. Left-wing folk often complain about the power of major corporations and that they leverage their size and economies of scale to such an extent that it is bad for the consumer or worker. Right-wing folk are theoretically supposed to be in favour of free markets and lack of government intervention, so it'd be pretty damn hypocritical of them to oppose this. In the end, getting an Uber off a random guy who owns a car and knows the city well is basically the transportation equivalent of buying your produce from the farmers market, instead of the supermarket.

Monday, July 21, 2014

“There’s nothing to eat” - the first-world problem with a real-world solution

Like many people, especially those people who claim to live a healthy lifestyle, I have opinions on what people should eat. I can never be sure my opinions are certifiably correct, but I make an effort to read and research things, experiment on myself, and attempt to draw conclusions based on a sample size of one. But I also realize that there is very little consensus on what one should eat, regardless of whether we are talking about the population of dieticians, doctors, scientists, or laypeople.

But I do think I can propose a concept in eating that fits regardless of whether the diet one follows is Paleo, Whole 9, Mediterranean, Zone, low-fat, low-carb, low-sodium, alkaline, vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or holds no label whatsoever. The proposal is: when there is no food that is good for you, you should not eat anything at all.

As I compose this post, I’m at 30000 feet. I’m presently in the midst of a 13-hour flight from Vancouver to Hong Kong, which door-to-door is closer to 17 hours. To help my circadian rhythm adjust to the new time zone, I requested that my dinner and breakfast be served together. I’ve eaten the fish, chicken, vegetables and fruits, but skipped the bread, rice and dessert. Without the “filler”, this really only constitutes one meal, especially for a big eater like me.

I will be hungry when I land. My hormones will surely express the desire for food by the end of this flight. I’ll be uncomfortably hungry.

But in the end, I will be fine. In fact, I would say I’ll be much better off than those filling up on the provided meals. Skipping the bread and the desserts means I’ll be operating on a short-term caloric deficit. But unless I hit the one-in-a-zillion parlay of: 1) this plane going down, 2) surviving the crash, and 3) ending up in a place where I do not have access to food, I won’t really miss those bread and dessert calories. In all likelihood, I’ll get them back when I land safely. (Spoiler alert: I landed safely.)

It may feel very “first-world” to have the luxury of casting aside the grains and sweets. I see it differently. I think the first-world attitude is the idea that people should never go hungry. I used to subscribe to the idea that people - especially athletes - would waste away if not constantly nourished; that muscular hypotrophy and fat storage would quickly ensue if a person did not get five small meals a day. But I think in the first world, the opposite is far more of a problem: the abundance and ease of food is too great.

We have food whenever we want it. If you are reading this and you have $10 in your pocket, I’ll bet you can get some kind of food within 15 minutes. But we don’t always have good food available. Sometimes we are on a plane and at the mercy of the airline. Perhaps it is 3am and the only thing open is McDonald's. Or we are at a restaurant that someone else chose, and absolutely nothing on the menu is conducive to what we think we should eat. Too frequently, I hear people rationalize their poor choices with, "well, I don't have time, and I have to eat something." I write this post to challenge that idea. You don't have to eat "something" at all.

Beyond the direct health benefits of intermittent fasting and consuming fewer empty calories/bad things, I think there are some second-order benefits to the “don’t eat when there’s no good food” approach as well.

1) You will make better meal-planning decisions. If you know that you will be “punished” for a failure to prepare your meal in advance (whether that means grocery shopping, cooking food in batches, or even intelligently planning your restaurant choices), then you will teach yourself to make better decisions.

2) You will appreciate food more. We in the first world are very fortunate to have access to very cheap and very available food. I am not a hippie liberal by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it is important for us to feel some gratitude towards the availability of our food.

To be clear, I don’t think that you need to do this often (especially athletes and active people). Once a week or a few times a month is likely enough to enjoy any health benefits.

If you live in the first world, then you should eat well. You should eat enough to satisfy your caloric requirements and to meet your physical goals. But you should also be choosy in what you eat. Being choosy doesn’t mean simply substituting the fries for the salad (and the ranch for the balsamic). It means throwing out the idea that you will eat something from the vending machine simply because you were too busy to eat lunch. If you didn’t eat lunch, too bad. You should have planned your day better. So you end up going from 1pm to 6pm (3% of your week, mathematically) feeling like you're "starving". Well, suck it up -- you'll live.

Actually, you'll live better.

Monday, June 30, 2014

moving on - saying goodbye to Ultimate Poker

Well, the post title is pretty self-explanatory: I'm saying goodbye to Ultimate Gaming and stepping down as Director of Player Operations.

Over the past 15 months I've had the wonderful opportunity to help with the launching of the regulated online poker era in the United States. I've built the well-received Ultimate Poker Player Care team, something I'm tremendously proud of. In certain ways, I'm even more proud of this customer service team than the PokerStars one, because of all the various challenges and difficulties that UP's service team has faced.  I am very confident that their service will continue to be best-in-breed in US poker after my departure.

I've met some wonderful people throughout the organization, people with whom I hope to continue relationships. That's what's made it hard to say goodbye to them.

I'm not going to go into detail at this time regarding the reasons for my departure, other than to say the move is mostly a personal one and the departure is one that has been in the works for a while. I gave this company my 100% and now I want to take some time for myself personally and see what the next challenge for me should be. I've been taking a lot of thoughtful walks and thinking about would bring me fulfillment and joy in life. I'd really like to find the next thing that gets me up in the morning and excited about my day. I haven't quite figured it out yet, but I'm sure I'll be blogging about it when I do.

Thanks to everyone who has been so supportive in this venture. On to the next!

Friday, June 13, 2014

Making home a computer-free zone

The last week, I've been experimenting with not having a personal computer at home on weekdays. Instead, I've simply been leaving both my work and personal computer at the office. Now that I work a day job (and try to go to the gym afterwards), I find there's no real strong reason to be online after dinner and before bed.

I've found that I have definitely improved sleep over this period. There's obviously a gigantic body of evidence that electronic screens before bed will harm your sleep quality. Even ignoring issues like blue light and melatonin production, I've simply had more relaxing evenings. I'm not too worried about the crisis du jour -- if it's a legitimate crisis, someone on my staff will phone me. Everything else which isn't a crisis, can wait until the morning, when I find that I am more productive anyway these days.

The biggest difference though, is that I waste *way* less time browsing random garbage on the internet. If I choose to watch a TV show or movie (actual cable, Netflix, Youtube), I'll actually watch it with intent. Since I still have my phone and tablet at home, I'm still not fully out of the habit of checking work e-mail -- but because phones and tablets are still largely onerous to type with, I don't feel nearly as tempted to make sure I respond immediately to that e-mail.

Additionally, the computer is no longer the first thing I check when I wake up in the morning. For my entire adult life, I have habitually gone straight from the bed to the computer. Now in the morning, I take one lap around my apartment complex to gather my thoughts and think about what things I want to accomplish for the day. When I get back, not having a computer means I get ready for work far faster with no procrastination. (I'm writing this at 6:50am.) My overall time spent being productive is actually the same number of hours and minutes, but the productivity itself is way higher because when I am actually at the computer now, I have focused, specific tasks.

Anyway, this is a small thing, and far from groundbreaking, but it has helped me a lot and I will continue with this experiment for a little while.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Why You Should Play Credit Card Roulette, Even If You Don't "Gamble"

(Alternative Title: The Value Of Being Uncomfortable, Part 3)

Ultimate Poker's Director of Poker Operations, Scott Yeates, sits in the office next to mine. In the hallway outside of our office sits our Data Analysis Manager, a very bright guy named Justin. Scott has come back from lunch at the excellent Vegas burger joint, Holstein's, bragging that he won at credit card roulette and didn't have to pay for his lunch.

Despite being an occasional gambler/poker player himself, Justin inquires why we would ever just gamble for the bill. It doesn't make sense to him. Keep in mind that Justin's occupation is very math-oriented, and he understands long-run expectation as well as any poker pro. He just doesn't see the value in gambling for gambling's sake.

I explain, to be an effective gambler, you have to embrace the sting of defeat. It has to hurt a little. It shouldn't hurt so much that it seriously damages you, but constantly exposing yourself to small financial pain is beneficial, in exactly the same way that getting regular exercise makes your body healthy. Exercise is a stressor that makes you perform better the next time you exercise. Losing money is a stressor that makes you more emotionally prepared to lose money.

Of course, many people will respond to this line of reasoning with, "I don't gamble". But, as anyone reading this blog knows, everyone gambles. They gamble on buying (or not buying) insurance, buying (or not buying) a home, having (or not having) children, crossing (or not crossing) the street, asking Alice or Mary out on a date, or vacationing in Hawaii instead of Paris.

Since everyone gambles, everyone should be exposed to losing at gambling.

So, tell your non-gambling friends: CCR makes you a better person.



(Bonus content: Here's a CCR blog post from 2006, when it wasn't nearly as big a thing as it is now.)


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Job satisfaction correlators -- my foray into HR metrics

I love measuring performance. When MMA training was my absolute #1 priority, I tracked my own physical performance metrics constantly.

These days I'm on the mats less and in the office more, overseeing Ultimate Poker's Player Care team in Nevada and New Jersey. Our team has performed very well, earning high grades for customer service from media and our own players.

The praise for that is not mine; it belongs to the professional men and women who make up the team and who show up to work with great attitudes. My job, in part, is to manage the people and the processes surrounding this team. Thus I need to know things like: Are they happy with their work? Do they understand why we do things the way they were?

It wasn't enough to be told by my superiors (or the media) that I was doing a good job, though that's obviously important. I wanted to know from the people who work for me whether they think that I and the rest of my management team are doing a good job. So I created a fully anonymous survey for them to fill out, and it asked these questions:

I like my job.
I feel empowered to do my job.
When I do very good work, it is recognized.
I have confidence in my manager.
I feel that my manager treats me fairly.
I have confidence in the department leadership.
I get helpful feedback on a regular basis.
I feel that I have been put in a position to learn and develop skills.
I feel that information is easily accessible and available.
I feel that communication within the team is good.
I like the people I work with.
I am happy with my compensation (salary/benefits).
I am confident about the future of this company.
If I have a problem, I feel there is someone I can go to.
I feel that as a team, we are continuously improving.
I understand the reasons behind our policies and procedures.
I am happy with the shift management of the shift leader I work with most frequently.
I feel I have the opportunity to grow in this company.
I didn't know what to expect, but the results turned out to be extremely enlightening. My original goal was, of course, to see how well we were doing in these various categories. And as expected, we ended up discovering that we were great in some areas, and also identified improvement opportunities in others.

But where the fun really started was when I started correlating the data. I decided I wanted to see how well "I like my job" correlated to all the other results. It was also the first question on the survey, so that the subsequent questions wouldn't bias that one. Here are the results of that correlation data (n=18):
I feel empowered to do my job. 0.95
When I do very good work, it is recognized. 0.54
I have confidence in my manager. 0.58
I feel that my manager treats me fairly. 0.62
I have confidence in the department leadership. 0.47
I get helpful feedback on a regular basis. 0.34
I feel that I have been put in a position to learn and develop skills. 0.79
I feel that information is easily accessible and available. 0.31
I feel that communication within the team is good. 0.46
I like the people I work with. 0.58
I am happy with my compensation (salary/benefits). 0.48
I am confident about the future of this company. 0.53
If I have a problem, I feel there is someone I can go to. 0.11
I feel that as a team, we are continuously improving. 0.45
I understand the reasons behind our policies and procedures. 0.82
I am happy with the shift management of the shift leader I work with most frequently. 0.34
I feel I have the opportunity to grow in this company. 0.66

All of the responses correlated positively, which at least suggests that I didn't ask any overly dumb questions. I was surprised that getting feedback and having confidence in management is not tremendously correlated with job happiness. On the other hand, I have always felt that empowerment was very important to job satisfaction, but never would have guessed a nearly 1-to-1 relationship. With the usual correlation =/= causation caveats in mind, it seems that it is at least conceivable that empowering employees -- or at least, my employees -- and doing a good job explaining our policies and procedures might go a long way towards improving job satisfaction.

That's of course if job satisfaction is a goal. Ironically, there is an indication that job satisfaction is not necessarily well correlated to job performance, especially for high-skill jobs. Nevertheless, I'm still of the opinion that it's good business, and simply the right thing, to have motivated, happy employees. This is far from rigourously scientific stuff and I'm sure many people much smarter and more experienced than me have dived into this more thoroughly, but it seems to me that companies who value employee satisfaction could still benefit from this sort of HR data analysis.

Monday, April 28, 2014

interview with me on FIGHTLAND

In case you missed on Twitter, here is an interview with me and UFC veteran (and aspiring poker player) Martin Kampmann. The interviewer, Eli Kurland, called me up and pretty much just let me ramble on, so it's fairly off-the-cuff and spontaneous responses on my part.

I'm a big fan of the FIGHTLAND blog overall, so check out some of the other stuff there. There's some excellent written and video content on topics as diverse as the training lifestyle in rural Thailand, to great technique breakdowns of big-name fighters as well as some beautiful documentaries about MMA in some of the last places you'd imagine.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Value of Being Uncomfortable, revisited

Not long ago, I made some hand-waving, decidedly unscientific comments on the value of acute discomfort.

Yesterday, on Tim Ferriss' very popular blog, there is a post discussing the science of sauna exposure and improved health and performance. Among the highlights of that post:
One study demonstrated that a 30-minute sauna session two times a week for three weeks POST-workout increased the time that it took for study participants to run until exhaustion by 32% compared to baseline.
and...
two 15-minute sauna sessions at 100°C (212°F) dry heat separated by a 30-minute cooling period resulted in a five-fold increase in growth hormone.
Fifteen minutes in a 100°C sauna is pretty rough, but the point is that the exposure has to be difficult or prolonged enough to be uncomfortable. It's supposed to be difficult. And so it goes with exercise, fasting, or any other kind of physical stressor. Suffer, endure, recover.

What I found most interesting was that there is actually a "discomfort chemical" produced in the body, dynorphin:
Beta-endorphins are endogenous (natural) opioids that are a part of the body’s natural painkiller system, known as the mu opioid system, which block pain messages from spreading from the body to the brain in a process called antinociception. What is lesser known is that the body also produces a peptide known as dynorphin (a “kappa opioid”), which is generally responsible for the sensation of dysphoria. The discomfort experienced during intense exercise, exposure to extreme heat (such as in a sauna), or eating spicy food (capsaicin) is due to the release of dynorphin. The release of dynorphin causes an upregulation and sensitization of mu opioid receptors, which interact with beta-endorphin.46 This process is what underlies the “runner’s high” and is directly precipitated by the discomfort of physical exercise. 
Anyway, it's certainly not a scientific be-all and end-all on the matter, but it's an interesting read and potentially one more point in favour of acute discomfort.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Bigger, Faster, Stronger - why I no longer believe in banning steroids in sport

Over the weekend, I watched and quite enjoyed the 2008 documentary  Bigger Stronger Faster* on Netflix. I found it an honest assessment and good treatment regarding the controversy of steroids in professional and amateur sports, and enjoyed the combination of the director's personal anecdotes and paneling of relevant experts. I recommend watching it regardless of what side of the steroid debate you are on.

My own opinion on steroids in sport has changed significantly in the last couple of years. Not long ago, I was staunchly against steroid users. I thought all users were cheaters, that enforcement needed to be stepped up, and punishment needed to be harsher. I read the book Numbers Rule Your World, which included a chapter on how it was probable that the vast majority of steroid users are not caught, because Type 1 errors (false positives) are far more rare than Type 2 errors (false negatives). In a nutshell, the author argued that almost no one claiming innocence after testing positive is actually innocent, and that there are numerous athletes who are not testing positive but really are on the juice.

At some point, I started to change my mind on the issue. My position just didn't continue to make logical sense to me. It is definitely clear that steroid usage is in fact "cheating" in the sense that it is against the rules. But it's clear that not all forms of cheating are treated the same by sports fans. A basketball player who pushes the bounds of contact with his opponent but doesn't get whistled for a foul is not considered a cheater, he's considered a good defensive player. We have a culture of "it ain't cheating if you don't get caught", especially if you happen to be a fan of the individual committing the foul. And so it is with steroids. The most successful steroid users are those who are able to cycle off steroids in time, so that they don't get caught. What effectively is happening at this point with respect to steroids is that only the dumb, poor, or overly aggressive users are getting caught.

Difficulty in catching steroid users is not itself sufficient to argue that steroids should be legal, of course. Just because something is difficult to enforce does not mean you stop enforcing it, if it is deemed beneficial to do so.

The problem is that I no longer believe that it is beneficial to continue to try to ban steroids. The argument against steroids usually goes something like this:
  • Steroids create an unfair playing field between users and non-users.
  • As such, non-users would feel at a disadvantage; everyone would have to use, or risk being at a competitive disadvantage.
  • Steroids are dangerous/have dangerous side effects. If athletes feel compelled to use steroids, then you are encouraging these athletes to harm themselves.
  • Legalization would encourage children/teens to use them, since their idols would be known to use them.

The Unfair Playing Field

This argument is probably the most common, but the easiest to take apart. The playing field is not fair. Never has been, never will be. Some people were born with better genetics. Some people were born into a better socioeconomic path to athletic stardom. We like to think that with hard work, anyone can become a world champion in any sport, but the hard truth is it's bullshit. If you're not from a village in Kenya or Ethiopia, you're probably not going to be the best long distance runner in the world. Conversely if you *are* from a poor village in Africa, I don't much care for your chances of winning the America's Cup or the PGA Championship.

I find it hard to believe that there are still reasonable people who think that it's totally fair if you're genetically predisposed to having higher testosterone, red blood cell count, bone density, better body composition, and so on, but arbitrarily draw an ethical line at using technology to improve any of the above.

Additionally, I think it's worthwhile to explore the effects of non-steroid enhancement. No one thinks laser vision correction, or surgery to repair injured body parts is cheating.  Nick Diaz, an MMA fighter known for great striking but also famous for always getting cut (a marked disadvantage in a sport where a doctor can stop a fight if he thinks the cut is dangerous), had surgery to shave down some of his facial bones, making it less likely for him to get cut in the future. Absolutely no one in the MMA community thinks this is cheating, at least certainly not on the level that anabolic steroid usage is considered to be.

Even if we're just worried about hormone levels, there are many different ways to increase testosterone. Getting more sleep increases testosterone. Lifting weights increases testosterone. Having sex increases testosterone. Supplementing with Vitamin D increases testosterone. Same with creatine, zinc, and anecdotally, taking cold showers. And some people have genetics that lead to them having higher testosterone. You can't realistically ban these things, and you also can't provide universal access to these things.

It's Dangerous, So It's Unethical To Make People Feel Like They Have To Do It

I think this is the stronger argument. The side effects of anabolic steroid abuse are pretty well known, and they are real. What I find unfortunate about steroid education are the exaggerations and misinformation spread about it. I've never done steroids (nor even been tempted to), but from everything I understand, it's not like users immediately grow hair everywhere, get massive roid rage, grow breasts and have their testicles shrink. I think it's far more likely that if used under proper supervision from a qualified and ethical endocrinologist, steroids probably enhance performance with a small, but significant, amount of side effects.

Like we've seen with criminalization of other drugs like marijuana, exaggerating effects and providing misinformation about steroids inhibits what society really needs -- an open dialogue about the matter. "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" draws a parallel to "Reefer Madness", an absurd 1930s propaganda film which claimed that marijuana would turn users into violent sociopaths (as opposed to useless, lazy stoners). While there is likely more truth in claims of steroid damage, the point remains that providing exaggerations and misinformation prevents a useful dialogue.

Suppose that a given person has decided that he or she will use steroids, and you cannot talk him or her out of it. This person is committed to being the best football player, track and field competitor, powerlifter, bodybuilder, fighter, golfer, or whatever. This person rejects the idea that he cannot be the best, and is willing to go to whatever means necessary to do this. While we wouldn't want our son or daughter to be this person, what is the best situation for this person? The status quo, where this person orders a bunch of steroids over the internet, or perhaps makes a trip to Mexico to get it from a veterinarian? Or one where he or she can have an open dialogue with someone qualified to dispense the steroid; someone who can provide good, honest, ethical advice?

Elite Level Sports Performance Itself Is (Probably) Inherently Unhealthy

To get to an elite level in professional sports, you have to be willing to sacrifice your health. I think this statement comes as a surprise to people, because there is often an association between health and fitness. These two are not the same thing, even though they are so often used together. Elite level professional athletes are almost always very fit. They are stronger, faster, more flexible, and have better endurance than most people. But that does not mean they are healthy.

Elite professional athletes play through pain, injury, and illness. Those are bad things to do. The training required to reach the elite level in most pro sports is unhealthy, or at the very least, it is far from optimizing health. Optimal health for humans probably looks something like: walk a few miles every day, get some more intense exercise 3-4 times a week, and eat regularly while fasting intermittently. But elite level athletes train at a high intensity 5-6 days a week, often two or three times a day. They constantly eat a tremendous amount of calories to fuel that training, and when they are not training they are most likely sleeping, because they are exhausted. The level of fatigue and strain accumulated on an elite level athlete is hard for the average person to fathom, and it likely goes well beyond what is actually healthy in most circumstances. When you think of that way, it's very little wonder why so many athletes die prematurely.

The Maude Flanders Argument


 (I'll take any excuse to use this image.)

Even if it's not expressly stated, a lot of people feel that it's important to villify steroid users because if we don't, we are implicitly saying to children that it's okay to use them. We want our kids to eat their vegetables, so Popeye gulps down a canful of spinach; he doesn't jab a needleful of Winstrol in his ass.

And no, I don't think kids should be using steroids for athletic performance enhancement. But here again, I think it's far better to be able to have a healthy dialogue about steroids than it is to misrepresent and scare children and teenagers. Kids aren't stupid. If you treat them like intelligent, autonomous beings capable of making reasonable decisions, they're actually less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. I see no reason that steroids wouldn't be different.

In "Bigger, Stronger, Faster", one of the protagonists is a steroid user as well as a high school football coach. The coach has clearly lied to his teenaged students about the fact that he uses. You're left to wonder what those kids are supposed to think if they ever get their hands on the documentary that they appear in.

If Steroids Are So Great, Why Don't You Do Them?

Well, quite simply, I don't want to.

I don't want to use steroids simply because of the cost-benefit analysis. From a legal perspective, I'm unwilling to get arrested or otherwise get in trouble with the law to get the performance gains that steroids could potentially provide me.  From a health perspective, I'm not sufficiently knowledgeable about them to feel like I can use them correctly without screwing up my health. I also feel there is a lack of long-term evidence that anabolic steroids can be used safely without significant negative consequences. I'd like to have kids one day, and have no desire to risk infertility. In summary, I don't care so much about being elite that I'm willing to risk the associated health and legal issues.

Every serious athlete has to, at some point, make a choice about how far they are willing to go. Usually, the ones who make it to the top 0.001% of their sport are the ones that are willing to risk everything. They risk concussions, spinal cord injuries, knee surgeries, heart attacks, and more. That elite level athletes are willing to do damage to their bodies is nothing new to sports, but while we lionize the athlete who risks his brain, neck, back, or knees for his sport, we demonize the athlete who risks his endocrine system. This is not logically consistent.

The fact is, I'll never be an elite level athlete in my chosen sport. But I like watching sports, and I'll continue to watch elite level athletes do amazing things. I'll know the lengths they have gone to do these amazing things. They will have likely trained since a very young age, possibly being pressured or even abused by a parent or coach. They will likely have sacrificed academic pursuits in favour of time in the gym or on the field. They will sacrifice time with friends, staying out late, or their favourite foods. They will have pushed their bodies to the limit of failure in both training and competition. They will train and compete through cuts, bruises, aches, sprains, broken bones, and concussions. And I realize that quite possibly, they will have used exogenous hormones to get through all of these things.

Would it be cooler if I knew for certain that those athletes were able to do these things solely through their genetically-granted gifts and their hard work and discipline? Perhaps. To be sure, I think as long as steroids continue to be against the rules, sports organizations should continue to seek out and punish those who use them. But as a society, it grows increasingly hypocritical to demand that our athletes sacrifice their brains, bones, and joints while simultaneously demanding that they keep off the steroids that so many of their rivals are using.