Bloch speaks out on poker benefits, ban

Andy Bloch

Anyone in the poker world who's seen a preview for the new Kevin Spacey movie 21, a fictionalized account of the infamous MIT Blackjack Team of the 1990s, has probably wondered if Andy Bloch had anything to do with its production.

Bloch, a former member of the team, sets the record straight on his Web site: He wasn't involved with the movie in any way, shape or form. He does admit to working on a blackjack script of his own with friend Jeremy Levin, but that project came to a halt when Bloch and Levin couldn't come up with a "creative, exciting, yet believable" conclusion for the story.

The writers of 21 solved the problem with an Ocean's 11-style plot twist that, according to Bloch, "reinforced the team ethic" and "ultimately won me over."

In a recent phone conversation, I asked Bloch how important that team ethic was to his and his fellow MIT card counters' success.

"It was very important that we trust each other," Bloch said.

"In most businesses you can pretty easily check up on your employees and figure out whether they're doing their jobs right and whether they're stealing from you. With (team) blackjack, we can test people and make sure that outside the casino they're playing well, but we can't watch everything that everybody does. So we really have to trust people. Feeling like you're part of a team really helps with that."

During his time with the team, Bloch only recalls the group having to discipline or ban two people because of trust issues.

"Given that there were dozens of people involved, that's a pretty low number. That says a lot."

Lessons from the games we play

Andy Bloch
Poker is now Bloch's game of choice.

These days Bloch's team is Full Tilt Poker, not MIT, and his main game is poker instead of blackjack. I asked him if there is any crossover in the skill sets required for success at each game. Bloch says there is, but the crossover is not so much in the specific skills as it is in good habits.

"The biggest thing you learn from blackjack is bankroll management," Bloch said.

"With the MIT team, we always figured out our bets in proportion to our bankroll at the time. In poker, you should always play according to your bankroll. You don't go jump into the biggest game in town where you might not have an edge and play against the toughest players. You want to know what your edge is and structure how much you risk."

So if we can take lessons from blackjack and apply them to poker, can we apply lessons from poker to other aspects of life? Could we even use poker as a teaching tool, in a manner such as that proposed by Harvard Law School professor Charles Nesson and his Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society?

"I think there's a lot of things you can learn from poker, and most of them aren't being taught in other ways," says Bloch. "Poker is a simple game, but you're constantly faced every hand with having to make decisions based on imperfect information. We teach people in math class or your other subjects by giving perfect information. What do you do in a world where you don't know everything? How do you figure out what to play and what not to play?"

And then, of course, there is the human element of the game.

"(In poker) you're playing against a specific opponent - you're not playing against nature or the computer," Bloch said. "If you want to play your best you have to figure out how they play and adapt yourself to that. So it's a game of reading people and not being readable yourself, and that's very important in the world."

"There's definitely hope"

Despite all of poker's positive aspects and potential as a learning tool, the game's opponents are hell-bent on making it illegal for the public to enjoy the game on the Internet. Poker enthusiasts prone to believing the sky is falling, especially in the wake of the UIGEA, might want to take note of Bloch's expert opinion.

"There's definitely hope," said the ever-analytical Bloch. "I think things are going to change."

First, he says that most people who enjoy online poker play for either play money or small stakes because for them poker is "like going to a movie - with the chance that you might actually make some money." Having the majority of online players playing for relatively tiny sums of money could make any further limitation of the people's rights seem absurd.

Andy Bloch
Most online players are there for entertainment, playing with nickels and dimes.

"There's 10¢ buy-in tournaments," says Bloch. "How can playing in a 10¢ tournament be a crime? That just seems to me completely ridiculous that that would be a crime. That's something the federal government or state governments shouldn't be involved in. We have better things to worry about."

Bloch's second reason for hope is that the arguments for regulations to protect American consumers are compelling.

"The major sites are very careful, and are trying to be as responsible as they can be," Bloch says. "But if they detect someone with a gambling problem, that person can go play on another site." If there were a regulation scheme in place, he says, a person who needed help with a gambling problem could exclude themselves from every licensed and regulated gambling site.

With the Poker Players Alliance now boasting a membership of nearly one million and implementing a new grassroots organizing campaign, Bloch feels good about the chances of having online poker regulated and licensed within the United States.

Bloch's final argument is more philosophical. A game of poker, he says, is essentially a contract with others over a somewhat uncertain event, and any contract that isn't harmful shouldn't be banned.

"To me it seems to be one of the most basic rights of contract or business that the government is not going to look in and say, hey, this contract you have isn't valid because we consider this too much an act of luck."

"There are no externalities involved, other than the amount of money you win or lose," Bloch said. "That's true with any contract. So if they can make gambling illegal, they can make anything illegal. And I thought we had a constitution that prevented that."

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