Thursday, January 17, 2013

Nit or risk-taker?

"Have you ever had an MRI?" she asked, seemingly out of the blue.

"Yes," I answered, with what surely was a look of great confusion. This seemed like an abrupt change of topic because I'm pretty sure the previous question had been something about poker.

"Do you happen to know the size of your prefrontal lobe?"

"Well, no...I had it done on my knee."

I'd only met Jennifer a couple hours earlier, but we found ourselves seated next to each other at dinner. A pretty Chinese-American woman in her mid-20s (of course, the "you can never tell how old Asians are" point of conversation had already been covered), Jennifer was a mutual friend of Bill Chen, who had organized our dinner. The setting was Greycliff restaurant, the well-known 5-star Bahamian fine dining restaurant converted from a centuries-old colonial house. Jennifer's dress and style indicated to me that she was very familiar with such fancy establishments. So I certainly would have forgiven her if she'd largely ignored this poker player, who'd arrived in the fanciest clothes he'd brought on this trip: a Roots zip-up sweater, moderately dressy jeans, and a pair of New Balance Minimus trail shoes.

But if she passed judgment on my attire, it was unapparent to me. She had too many questions to ask. Her curiosity about the size of my prefrontal lobe (that's what she said?) stemmed from her formal education in neuroscience. Apparently, individuals with larger prefrontal lobes are more inclined towards risk-taking behaviours, like perhaps participating in cage fights or quitting one's job to play poker for a living. Hence the inquiry.

I went on to explain that while something like playing professional poker does seem like a risky activity, it was a decision that I deliberated on for quite a long time before acting on it. I further noted that I no longer play the biggest games online, and prefer more medium-stakes games and tournaments in an effort to reduce my stress level. And while I can't argue that MMA isn't risky, I generally don't participate in other risky or thrill-seeking behaviour. I've never been one for alcohol or drugs, I am pretty good about wearing my seatbelt, and I don't really have a particularly strong urge to try skydiving.

Just one day earlier, I was sitting in a side event and playing at a table of mostly young pros. The table chatter on this occasion was also about risk-taking and life. A Swedish player named Ramzi Jelassi was being talkative and splashing around in a lot of pots, at one point late in the day raising on the button, c-betting into three opponents and showing 93o after they all folded. The same man also admitted to being "a total life nit."  Ramzi said he basically takes as few risks in life as possible, saying with a smile, "I'm too good at life, so I can't risk it." Not long after that comment, he called off a large 3-bet shove with A7 from middle position and lost a big chunk of his stack.

At the party on the final night of the PCA, I once again heard the words "life nit" used in a self-descriptive manner, this time from the mouth of British pro Max Silver. I've only played with Max once, but most of it was heads-up. It was the second table of the shootout event of the WSOP Europe in 2011, and Max had gotten most of his chips by 5-betting Vanessa Selbst with 64s, flopping trips and turning quads to smash her KK. I don't know Max well enough to know whether or not he's a life nit, but I faced enough of his 3-barrels on that day to confidently say that he's no poker nit.

The word "nit", in the poker world, is used as a near-antonym of "gambler" (alternatively, "degen", "sicko", "LAG", etc). Whom do we consider nits? The ultra-tight, conservative players who never play above their bankrolls and often even play below it. We picture these guys walking instead of taking a cab to save a few bucks, scrounging around for buffet comps before the dinner break, and eyeing the money bubble of any tournament they play. But is this an accurate depiction? What of the Max Silvers and the Ramzi Jelassis? And what am I? Is Terrence Chan some adrenaline-junkie MMA fighter, or a guy who leaves 10 minutes early on dinner break to make sure there's no possibility he'll miss a big blind? Consider the old adage, "lucky in cards, unlucky in love." Should we add to it, "sicko at cards, nit at life?"

For most regular folks, the idea that there are people even walking around with $1000, $10000, or $100000 of cash on a regular basis strikes them as incredibly risky, much less gambling it in a poker tournament with less than a 15% chance of getting any of it back. But I'm not convinced that poker players are that much more risk-seeking than the rest of the population; rather, they have simply become very good at compartmentalizing that risk. What else would explain all the self-proclaimed life nits in the poker world?

I dislike it when people not in the poker world say, "I could never do that; I'm not much of a gambler." Everyone gambles, because everything is a gamble. Crossing the street is a gamble, and so is driving to your destination. The gamble is simply that you will pick up enough value by getting to your destination (whether it's your office, the gym, the grocery store, or your grandmother's house) that you are willing to fade the possibility of being hit by a bus. To limit the idea of gambling to wagers involving dollars and cents is to misunderstand the nature of human existence.

So just how big are the prefrontal lobes of the poker world? The Jennifers of the world are dying to know.


  1. I hear Bill Chen's prefrontal lobe doesn't hit the back of his skull, but it tears up the sides.

    If you tell someone you're going to invest a chunk of your time and net worth into something that you can reasonably expect to be enjoyable and have a good rate of return, they'll probably cut you off before you're finished and tell you how boring you are.

    If it turns out that thing is poker, you're a crazy gamble-monkey risk taker, because poker is gambling and gambling is risky. People judge risk based on preconceived ideas about an activity, and not on chance of success vs. possible outcomes.

    Buying a house without a secure income may have a significantly higher risk of ruin than becoming a poker player. But buying a house is a "responsible thing to do."

    The point is that Jennifer might as well ask a random person on the street about their prefrontal lobe as ask a poker player - she doesn't know how big of a risk each person is taking without analyzing their situation.

    I hope that when neuroscientists study "risk" by analyzing people in occupations or with hobbies they feel are risk-prone, they make at least some effort to determine the actual level of risk that is being taken, and whether the subject understands that risk. Take a drug-addicted poker player who throws every dollar he owns into poker because he had two good sessions at the local casino vs. a smart player who invests a percentage of his net worth commensurate to his expected outcome based on a significant sample of results. Do they weight those two players the same way in their studies? I suspect they do, and it makes me think those studies must be pretty badly flawed.

  2. Hey man, been a long time follower of your blog and a fellow MMA enthusiast as well. But your entry really struck a chord and i totally agree with you having played poker i've started seeing a lot of life decisions from the prism of EV. Everything has risk, even the safest careers entail risk (inflation, lack of mobility, compartmentalized pathways etc, political risk). Also, i think prefontal lobe sizes, if the correlation exists, would as a general population be bigger in poker players BUT, smaller in winning poker players (at least that's my hypothesis). And I'm curious, with the online fixed limit games drying up (i'm still a huge fixed limit fan!) have you made the transition to no limit, would you suggest to do so, or do you think there will be a resurgence in fixed limit Holdem? Thanks and keep up the great writing!