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Learning From The Game: Poker in Academia
It used to be if you were playing poker in college, you were probably dodging your studies or sitting around the fraternity house on an off-day. Maybe even both.
But more frequently these days, poker is being used as a teaching tool in the upper echelons of higher education to help students learn skills from the game that apply to more general life experiences.
Poker at Harvard Law
More than 20 universities scattered across the United States have active chapters of a group called the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society (GPSTS), an organization co-founded in 2006 by Harvard Law School professor Charles Nesson whose expressed goal is to promote the use of poker as an academic teaching tool.
Plus, you'll find schools like the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse, where students had the chance this January to take Professor Charles Swayne's Strategic Thinking Using Game Theory course, teaching them how to apply lessons from the poker table to their studies in other disciplines like physics, political science and mathematics.
It's no surprise that Nesson is one of the game's biggest proponents in academia.
At Harvard he has used the game to break his students out of limited views of what being a lawyer really means.
"A key issue for a lot of people in law school is a general timidity when approaching law," he told PokerListings. "They come to think of (training in the law) as merely becoming agents in knowing and applying the rules, which is an extraordinarily limited view of it. Poker is just a great game for that. The first thing you really learn is to be a player, that you're on your own and it's your own stack."
Also on board with the GPSTS agenda is James McManus, a former World Series of Poker Main Event final tablist and author of Positively Fifth Street and Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker.
McManus teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and penned a well-received article for the Chronicle of Higher Education last year titled What Poker Can Teach Us, in which he illuminated the course of American history since the Civil War by the light of poker.
The article put the message out to humanities professors across America that, "the ways we've done battle and business, made art and literature have echoed, and been echoed by, poker's definitive tactics, as well as its rich lore and history."
McManus says where chess was once considered the game countries used as a model for waging war and diplomats emulated when working out deals, the modern age has shown that poker is much better-suited for that task.
And poker's suitability for the task comes because, not in spite, of its gambling element.
"There are people who simply refuse to accept any game that has any gambling element, but poker has been a central part of the American social fabric for two centuries," he said. "If all the generals and presidents who played in the past were alive today, they would be playing online poker."
For now, despite a growing sense of their utility in education, courses in poker and seminars on how to use the game's lessons in decision-making are the exception rather than the rule.
According to Nesson, the key to poker becoming more accepted by academia is achieving recognition of the skill it takes to play well.
And while court cases resulting in rulings that poker is a game of skill are important to a degree, Nesson says poker must also become accepted as a skill game in a broader cultural sense.
"The public attitude toward poker is still infected with the negativity that's associated with gambling," he explained. "(Court cases) would actually not legitimize poker in and of themselves, but they would be a tremendous step and it almost seems like a necessary logical step towards moving the public mind away from poker as something to be feared rather than something to be taught.
"Take a look at any of the videos on DeucesCracked.com, for instance. If you just simply listen to them, you'll understand the level of expertise that has been generated around the game.
"And yet, I find it disappointing because, notwithstanding that, this whole idea of seeing it as something that is a very useful thing to teach to young people who want to gain control over their feelings of risk and aggression just seems to get swamped in the talk of casinos and gambling more broadly."
McManus concurs and believes the efforts of Anthony Holden and the International Poker Federation to have poker recognized as a mind sport will go a long way toward helping to change the public perception of the game.
And on the plus side, Nesson says there are a tremendous number of people in academia who would be capable of doing something with poker in an academic setting, if only they were exposed to it in a way that it "clicked" with them.
"It's the kind of thing that, if it ever caught on, could spread very fast," he said.
John Kunich, a professor at Charlotte Law School and author of the upcoming book Betting the Earth: How We Can Still Win The Biggest Gamble Of All Time, is the perfect example of just how poker can inspire a professor to help his students think outside the box.
A former student of Nesson's at Harvard Law in the 1980s, Kunich had never considered using poker in the classroom environment. But after attending the GPSTS' first symposium at Harvard with fellow law, math and physics professors, and professional poker players, Kunich came home energized to find a way to work poker thinking into his own teaching and research.
"It was the most stimulating experience you can imagine," he said. "Everybody and his brother is interested in poker these days, so it's a natural, practical tie-in that you can use to make things relatable.
"I teach law, and I think everyone knows that law has an element of precision and some things in common with math and science. But it also has a lot in common with politics and policy and philosophy. There's a lot of ambiguity, room for creativity, and uncertainties, and (using poker helps) these things resonate with folks."
Beyond the actual utility of the kind of thinking poker promotes, Kunich says there's another added benefit.
"Poker is something that can get students excited, sock them out of their lethargy and get them to look up from their laptops in class and actually pay attention instead of browsing their Facebook pages," he said.
"And the professor can be just as energized as the students. A lot of us just mail it in on a regular basis. When you're dealing with something new like this, it causes you to think for a change and wake up out of your routine, and that's really good for everybody."
By Professor Nesson's own admission, the GPSTS is just beginning the path toward its goal of developing an open, online curriculum centered on poker.
But the ball is rolling and with more and more smart, capable people in academia recognizing its utility, poker could become a mainstream subject of study after all.