There’s been a lot of speculation about the psychology behind the folks who’ve been indicted in the Full Tilt Poker debacle.
A lot of the recent talk has been about the purported actions of Chris Ferguson and Howard Lederer, two of poker’s more respected long-time players.
Lederer is often referred to as “The Professor” because of his thoughtful manner and penchant for deep analysis and insightful questions. Chris is actually closer to this role in real life since he holds a Ph.D. and has spent more than a few hours in front of college classrooms.
Until now few have had anything but admiration and respect for them both.
Of course, we’re still in the classic “innocent until proven guilty” mode. I have no idea what the outcome will be. They may be found guilty; they may be exonerated. I am only interested here in the psychological issues.
The question raised most often is: How could these very smart dudes with position, money and prestige do the things they are accused of? It is a good question. It is also one that gets asked every time an odd-ball crime gets committed.
Perception is Skewed by Environment
Some Boy Scout that everyone likes and thinks of as a good kid goes into a school and shoots up the cafeteria. A respected businessman and pillar of the community is indicted for operating a billion-dollar Ponzi scheme. A trusted neighbor and father of two is arrested for running a child pornography ring.
Everybody scratches their heads and wonders how could this “wonderful young man,” “respected financier” or “valued member of the community” do such a thing – just like poker players are wondering about the folks at FTP.
Psychologists who've studied these cases have found that the context, the environment within which we live, is more compelling than we often realize.
We tend to label people based on the things we see them do. So our poker-playing friends at Full Tilt Poker get thought of as smart, caring and sensible because we see them doing smart, caring and sensible things – and we wonder how they could have been scamming us.
But making these attributions neglects the role of the environment -- the kid who seemed so nice, like a Boy Scout should be, turns out to have been bullied for years by school mates and decided to pay them back. The revered investor turns out to be a Bernie Madoff who was consumed with greed and the desire to play with the big boys. The father of two is discovered to have serious money problems and was peddling child-porn to get out of debt.
Corruption is Just an Opportunity Away
The message here was captured nicely by the famous "Prison" study carried out some years ago by Phil Zimbardo at Stanford University.
Students were divided into two groups, prisoners and guards and a mock jailhouse was set up. Zimbardo was stunned at how easily perfectly ordinary, caring kids who just happened to have been put in the role of guards could turn really ugly and sadistic when the setting was right for it.
So, maybe our very smart and sensible poker "friends" found temptation in large, unregulated stacks of cash. Maybe they just got notes from executives at FT asking them if they’re comfortable having a couple of million dollars shipped to their bank accounts from time to time. Who knows?
But it’s worth asking yourself what you would do in such a situation.
Everyone Has a Price
I’m sure that the vast majority of you are saying you wouldn’t be tempted, that you’re above board and honest. But the evidence is quite clear: Some would be and some would not. Greed does things to cloud the mind. Circumstances can be compelling.
There’s an apocryphal story about Abe Lincoln. He was apparently meeting with a wealthy businessman who offered him a hefty bribe to push for some legislation.
Lincoln just stared at him and stroked his beard. The businessman hesitated and then doubled the offer. Lincoln still looked at him, stroking his beard. So the guy doubled it again. At this, Lincoln got up, grabbed him by the collar and shoved him out the door.
Lincoln’s chief of staff smiled and said, “Mr. President, that was noble of you. That was a very substantial bribe.”
“Indeed,” replied Lincoln, “but nobility had nothing to do with it. Every man has his price and the son-of-a-bitch was getting awful close to mine.”
And so it goes. Remember, Lederer and Ferguson are innocent until proven guilty. But no matter what, their reps are in the toilet and that's gonna be forever. Just like another really smart guy we used to admire and respect, Russ Hamilton.
For ongoing updates Howard Lederer, Chris Ferguson and Full Tilt Poker keep an eye on our Black Friday Bulletin Board.
Arthur Reber has been a poker player and serious handicapper of thoroughbred horses for four decades. He is the author of 'The New Gambler's Bible and coauthor of Gambling for Dummies'.
His new book 'Poker, Life and Other Confusing Things' from ConJelCo Publishing was just released and is available on Amazon.com.
Formerly a regular columnist for Poker Pro Magazine and Fun 'N' Games magazine, he has also contributed to Card Player (with Lou Krieger), Poker Digest, Casino Player, Strictly Slots and Titan Poker. He outlined a new framework for evaluating the ethical and moral issues that emerge in gambling for an invited address to the International Conference of Gaming and Risk Taking.
Until recently he was the Broeklundian Professor of Psychology at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.
Among his various visiting professorships was a Fulbright fellowship at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. Now semi-retired, Reber is a visiting scholar at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.