Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Annals of Wasted Lives, I: The Poker King

The March 30 issue of The New Yorker carries Alec Wilkinson's article profiling Chris Ferguson (pictured), the first person to win a prize of more than $1 million in a poker tournament (the 2000 World Series of Poker), and the co-founder of one of the most profitable on-line poker sites ever launched. Ferguson is unusual even among poker grandmasters for his application of John Von Neumann's mathematical game theory to poker, which has allowed Ferguson to develop an "optimal strategy" for poker. Of course, Ferguson comes from an unusual background: his mother obtained a doctorate in mathematics, as did his father, who taught game theory and theoretical probability at UCLA; Ferguson himself holds a doctorate in computer science from UCLA.

Chris Ferguson, 46 next week, is a brilliant man. To date, he has won more than $7 million playing poker, and reportedly has earned even more than that just through his on-line poker business ventures. Financially, he is wildly successful--and he is wasting his life.

In Chris Ferguson, we have a certifiable hyper-genius, called "one of the more brilliant and creative young men that I've known in my career at U.C.L.A." by his doctoral thesis adviser. (That adviser knows brilliance when he sees it; he is Leonard Kleinrock, whose lab helped develop the Internet.) But to what is Ferguson applying this brilliance? He's playing cards.

We live in a world that faces problems, nasty problems, horrifying problems, human-species-extinction-scale problems. A short list: global terrorism, the threat of bioweapons and suitcase nukes in private hands, famine, weird weather (likely caused by global warming), worst-ever inequities between economic classes, religious extremism that foments suicide attacks and warfare, lack of intercultural understanding, illiteracy, innumeracy, the resurgence of antibiotic-resistant infections, lack of affordable healthcare, a global economy sliding towards a New Depression, kids dying from dysentery and other preventable diseases, by the thousands, daily--hey, asteroids from space. And what's this guy doing? Playing cards.

Yes, I can imagine what some readers are thinking: "If this is a way to waste your life--count me in!" However, before you sign up yourself or your kids for Poker Camp this summer, let me point out a few things.

Our lives are not our own. Every reputable philosophical, spiritual, or religious position holds that people have a responsibility to give back, to do something for the world with their talents. Ferguson--who has sometimes signed autographs as 'Jesus' because of his looks, although reportedly he is an atheist--would do well to consider the real Jesus' parable of the servants (Bible, New Testament, Luke chapter 12), which carries the memorable phrase, "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required" (Luke 12:48). Or, if you prefer, as the Spider-Man comic put it, "with great power comes great responsibility." Abraham Maslow, one of the greatest psychologists of the 20th century--himself an atheist--found that an even higher level of motivation than self-actualization (or expressing one's own talents) is self-transcendence, that is, furthering some cause or purpose beyond one's own needs. Few people are better equipped to make a contribution to society at large than Chris Ferguson. But he's playing cards.

I have to wonder what Ferguson's stunning intellect could accomplish in the world. Game theory applies to all sorts of behavior, such as negotiations between groups; in this globalized world, where mistrustful groups face one another left and right, perhaps game theory might help to promote better outcomes in cultural encounters and ethnic conflicts. One might use game theory to better understand the way the stock market melted down recently, to promote better social stability and prosperity for all. Going way out on a limb, I wonder about the application of game theory to evolutionary theory and, in turn, to theories about the development (and thus the treatment) of infectious diseases. (Do cells negotiate amongst themselves? Do species?) I cannot come up with all the ways that Chris Ferguson might apply his prodigious intelligence to the problems of the world--but apply them he certainly might. Nah--he's playing cards.

Perhaps I misunderstand Chris Ferguson. Perhaps he spends his free time working on the mathematics of innovative cures for cancer. If so, I beg his pardon. Based on the known facts, I don't think so.

Isn't this all terribly judgmental? You bet! That's social commentary--and life: applying standards and passing judgment. Working from a reflective perspective just means that I apply standards like "our lives are not our own." The point is not to beat up on Chris Ferguson, but to encourage a more thoughtful approach to life on everyone's part.

On that basis--the idea that one ought to use one's natural gifts for the good of humanity--I'm sorry to say that Chris Ferguson is NOT On The Mark.


Wilkinson, A. (2009, March 30). What would Jesus bet? The New Yorker, pp. 30-35.


  1. I love this posting. All I can say is TOUCHE!

  2. Bro. Mark,

    Have you read Bono's recent op-ed? It is on-point with this posting, and I particularly enjoyed his plumb-line reference.



  3. Jessica, Thank you for your comment. It's always good to know someone's reading this!

    Andy, As a matter of fact, I'd missed the Bono piece. It is magnificent, I now see--I've filed it in three places for different purposes. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  4. Bro. Mark,

    I have just finished taking part in a "40 Days of Purpose" event with my church. Rick Warren's book, "The Purpose Driven Life" begins in a way echoed by your blog: "It's not about you." The conclusion, of course, is the same -- that it is service that defines a life. Few people probably knew who Warren Buffett was until he had accumulated so much money that he kind of stood out. In the end, though, he simply gave it away. If he was smart enough to make that kind money, could he not also have been able to figure out how to invest, say, in companies producing renewable energy products? Yes, it's easier to give it away, and in some way, giving money away is a good thing -- charity. But, as in the old saying about giving someone a fish feeds him for a day, but teaching him how to fish feeds him for life, investment (aka Capitalism) is more helpful to society than welfare (provided the temptation of greed can be resisted). The current "Stimulus" bill is nothing more than a quick fix, an OD on the green stuff that produces a buzz, and may last only long enough to get the current crop of pols through the next election. Someone such as Chris Ferguson might be able to help, and maybe, in the fullness of time, he may ask himself, "Is that all there is," and seek a purpose that involves service. In the meantime, I can't fault him entirely: he is earning a living, as opposed to being on the dole, and he probably spends enough to stimulate at least a few businesses (hotels, bars, restaurants, etc). In the end, I'll just say that I don't have the same total perspective as the Great Architect, so I would not presume to know what purpose has been chosen for everyone else. Although, from what you have elicited from me, I would venture to say that yours involves providing food for thought. Thanks, Mark
    Bill V

  5. Brother Bill V,

    Thank you for your reflections here. The whole "Purpose-Driven Life" movement, and others like it in different traditions, is about considering one's life from the ultimate top-down perspective. One cannot get enough of that.

    As far as Mr. Ferguson goes, I do admit that he is doing the bare minimum in that regard: he supports himself and his family, rather than relying on the dole. If, in addition, he is sponsoring some foreign orphans through medical school, and spends time each week feeding soup to shut-ins, then I take everything back. However, if that last part isn't happening, I must say that doing the bare minimum--given that his intellect must be near the mortal human maximum--is not impressive.

    Yes, I know I'm being judgmental here. I'm not trying to beat up on him. However, someone has to point to examples and say 'good example' or 'bad example for life.' It's kind of you to let me think that perhaps that is a good thing to do.


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