- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Poker lovers are anything but poker-faced when it comes to talking about their favorite game.

It’s a game of skill, not chance, says Harvard law professor Charles Nesson, who got the ball rolling with a blaze of publicity and personal appearances earlier this year talking about poker as a tool valuable for teaching basic life skills, strategic thinking, risk assessment and even money management.

The founder and president of the Harvard-based Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society (GPSTS), he also campaigns to legitimatize poker’s social status, which he says is under attack in various quarters despite its worldwide appeal.

After all, he reasons in an interview, some U.S. Supreme Court justices have been part of an informal poker club for years, and a great many American presidents played the game.

“Truman and Nixon were both huge [enthusiasts],” he says. “Nixon apparently made his stake to get into politics [playing poker] when he was in the military.”

In what may be an attempt to defeat his opponents at their own game, Mr. Nesson is in the process of establishing what he expects to be a full-scale academic curriculum on the Internet.

In cooperation with what he calls “a community of poker players associated with pokerstrategy.com” — a poker school offering free lessons online — he would teach strategic games, starting with tic-tac-toe and progressing to “connecting lines and dots,” then checkers, chess and poker.

Turning game theory into strategies for conducting business isn’t a new concept, he acknowledges, but Mr. Nesson extends it to challenges in everyday life — especially professional life.

“It’s so instinctive in what lawyers do,” he says. “I teach it in my class.” (He is known for a course called ”Evidence.”)

“Poker introduces the idea of uncertain, incomplete information,” he explains. “The strategic situation with uncertain, incomplete information is very close to life — the business of having to assess your resources and being called upon to make a move or not in an environment in which you have to make a choice.”

He cites the example of a woman being left out of a high-level meeting who feels her boss has insulted her by doing so.

“The question is: How does she respond? The first thing is by dealing with her anger. First rule: You don’t respond while you are angry,” he says. “You look at it like you would in poker — to figure out what play you will make, in which you reveal as little as possible about your position.”

The solution is for the woman to send the boss an e-mail asking if she is invited, “which puts the play to him. He has to say either ‘you are invited’ or has the burden of saying ‘you are not’ and then deal with that, which he may not want to do, possibly for legal ramifications.”

Through his work as founder of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Mr. Nesson also has explored applying the strategies of poker as a rehabilitation method for inmates in Jamaican prisons.

GPSTS Executive Director Andrew Woods, 24, a third-year Harvard law student, teaches game theory using a lot of poker analogies in an undergraduate economics course and keeps busy with new GPSTS chapters at colleges around the country.

“Chapters are less directed [from the top] to be more grass roots, pursuing whatever they are interested in. We help them find speakers,” he says.

George Washington University undergraduate Paul Marcinkowski has taken the lead there and expects a club to receive official sanction — recognition by the student association — this fall.

To date, Mr. Woods reports, there are 15 campus chapters — enough to organize a national intercollegiate poker tournament in Boston later this month that he hopes to turn into an annual event similar to the NCAA playoffs. A panel at New York University Business School recently explored how a 24-year-old business entrepreneur parlayed poker strategies into building a business.

“It’s about properly understanding risk,” Mr. Woods says. “About when is it good to take chances in a business sense.”

Poker strategies have even been useful in what he calls “modeling domestic relations. A group in Alaska works with a psychologist there helping young men understand the importance of emotional control. The main thing we are interested in is how to disseminate game theory and make it more interactive.”

As for his own talent, “I’m not a real good poker player,” Mr. Woods says. “I’m a teacher and theorist.”

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