Life as Poker
Much in life depends upon the luck of the draw.
Posted March 25, 2011
Next week I am presenting at a conference some research on perceptions of economic fairness and unfairness.
My presentation will focus on the fairness of wealth inequality and methods of acquiring wealth. As I thought about these issues it occurred to me that at the root of differences in acquiring and maintaining wealth are factors over which we have absolutely no control. In other words, it seems to me that poker is an excellent metaphor for life.
In poker you are dealt hands that are not of your choosing. Sometimes you are lucky and dealt a strong hand. This gives you a good chance of winning that round. Sometimes you are dealt an incredibly weak hand. In this case the wisest choice is usually to fold immediately. Then you have all of your in-between hands, where anything might happen, depending on the way you and others play their cards and on the luck of the draw. Your total winnings depend, of course, on the outcome of all of the rounds you play. The probability of receiving a weak, mediocre, or strong hand is the same in every round, and the strength of your hand is statistically independent of every other round. This means that even if you get some weak hands in the early rounds, this will not prevent you from being dealt stronger hands later.
In life, we are dealt a number of factors that are not of our choosing. We do not choose the genes we are born with. We do not choose to be male or female. We do not choose the characteristics of our parents and the way they treat us. We do not choose the country in which we were born, with its particular configuration of natural resources, economic system, and governing rules and regulations. So, life is a bit like poker. One difference, however, is that the events in our lives are not statistically independent from each other, as they are in poker. The strength of the early hands you are dealt in life influences later life events.
Some of us are lucky enough to be dealt strong hands at the beginning of the game of life. We are born with genes that predispose us toward traits that increase our chance of success in life: intelligence, energy, a cheerful disposition, self- discipline, composure and resiliency, and creativity. We are born to parents with the resources, interest, and ability to care for us and help us live up to our highest potential. We grow up in a neighborhood where most people are well-off and happy, crime and violence are almost non-existent, and the school systems are staffed by competent, caring teachers who help us to acquire accurate knowledge and to think rationally, critically, and creatively. We enter an economy in which we are relatively free to pursue any career that suits us and to make a good living. Even nature is good to us: we have great weather and no natural disasters.
Some of us are not so lucky. We are dealt crappy genetic hands that predispose us toward low intelligence, lethargy, antipathy, impulsiveness and attention deficits, irritability, and lack of imagination. Our parents fail to support us or actively abuse us. We live in a poor neighborhood, where crime, drug use, and other dangers run rampant. The primary goal of teachers is to get through each day without violence occurring. The information imparted by teachers is outdated and sometimes simply incorrect. Adherence to narrow, parochial thinking rather than critical, creative thinking is encouraged. Meaningful work opportunities are non-existent in a closed society where a tiny minority lives in opulence while the masses wallow in abject poverty. The land is ravaged by droughts, floods, earthquakes, or typhoons. The people cling to superstitions in an attempt to make sense out of their misery.
The German existentialist Heidegger used the word Geworfenheit to describe the "thrown-ness" of our existence. Every single one of us is thrown into an initial condition that is not of our choosing. The poker metaphor breaks down a little bit more here, because we can choose whether or not to play poker. None of us chose whether or not to be born. Now, many people feel uncomfortable with the idea that some people are dealt extremely fortunate or unfortunate hands when they were born. It strikes them as unfair that we are thrown into a world that is not of our choosing. So, people have devised emotional defense mechanisms to shield them from their distress about this unfairness. The doctrine of reincarnation conveniently explains that the fortunate or misfortunate nature of our dealt hand is a reward or punishment for choices made in a previous lifetime, and/or that people do actively choose the conditions of their birth in order to make spiritual progress. The doctrine of heaven and hell reassures people that birth into a difficult life is just an infinitely small inconvenience, because eternal bliss will compensate for the suffering in a person's mortal life.
Less metaphysically, some people want the game of life to be more like Monopoly, where everyone starts on the same square with the same amount of money. There are still people who deny that some of us are born with genetic advantages and others with genetic disadvantages. Their emotional defense mechanism makes them ignore the research that suggests otherwise. They wishfully believe that we all have the same potential to do anything. Any and all problems in life are assumed to be a function of the bad environmental hands some of us are dealt. In poker our total winnings depend on the sum total of all hands played in the game. We can salvage early losses with better hands and better play later in the game. Social progressives believe that we can rescue people from their lousy early hands by intervening and dealing them a lot of good hands to make up for their bad start. More ambitiously, they believe that they can decrease or even eliminate some of the early bad hands through economic and educational interventions that improve parenting, the school systems, the livability of neighborhoods, and employment opportunities. The more realistic reformers acknowledge that there are limits set by genetic constraints on our ability to improve people's lives. But, since nobody really knows what those limits are, we might as well try our best to give the unfortunate as many good poker hands as we can. At least until they have the personal resources to play the game of life without public assistance.
Now, most of us in the U.S. are probably dealt a hand somewhere in between the extremely fortunate and unfortunate hands described above. As in poker, we make the best of the hand we are dealt. We don't worry too much about the people who were dealt really good or really bad hands. We may grumble a bit about the people who were lucky enough to be born into wealthy and influential families, and we might support laws aimed at redistributing some of that wealth into the middle and lower classes. We might feel bad for those who were dealt a lousy hand and might support charities or even pursue a career aimed at helping the unfortunate. Whether or not we take an interest in those whose hands are much better or worse than our own, we have no choice but to do what we can with the hands that life continues to deal to us.