A Gambler’s Odyssey: The Beginning

Many people dream of breaking free of the 9-5 rat race, e.g. by acquiring an income stream – or a “muse,” as Tim Ferriss calls it – that is independent of bosses, location, and schedules. For most it remains just a dream. But for some it comes from creating an Internet business, a profitable patent, or a good play on the financial markets. A few realize it through professional gambling.

Of course, to do this sustainably you need to maintain a positive rate of expected winnings, which is impossible with most casino games. For instance, even under optimal play, the house will always a retain a wafer-thin advantage in blackjack (unless you count cards, but casinos have caught on to that nowadays). The biggest exception is poker. Though luck is very significant for the first few hundreds of hands, the effects of skill begin to predominate after c.15,000 hands in Texas Holdem No-Limit.

My experience of poker, until recently, came from the odd home game and the one or two times I bought in at a casino table. I was pretty crap at it. I limped in with hands like K7 offsuit and went all-in chasing straight draws. But a few months ago, one of my net buddies pointed me to a thread in a forum he used to frequent, in which a Las Vegas hustler recounts how he started playing online poker and ended up making $100/hour by the end of the month. Then soon after I came across Tim Ferriss’ concept of the 4 hour workweek, and exploiting geoarbitrage – the art of earning money in high-income countries and spending it in cheap, low-income ones where one can live like a king on a US minimum wage. I added two and two, realizing that online poker has potential for a great synthesis of these principles; if you earn $200 in a day playing online poker, then you could spend the rest of the week lolling on the Thai beach in style and comfort. All you need are skills and a reliable Internet connection. I had all the Internet I wanted, but acquiring the poker skills was going to take a lot more work.

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Poker And Capitalism

waterloo“[Poker] exemplifies the worst aspects of capitalism that have made [the United States] so great.” Just consider the array of similarities:

1. Though there are rules and etiquette loosely associated with it, otherwise everything goes: in other words, its fundamental nature is profoundly amoral. (This is contrary to the ideologues who claim that capitalism is either A) “moral” / God-sanctioned / Rand-sanctioned / etc or B) “immoral” / “imperialist” / etc; newsflash, it’s NEITHER).

2. Players governed by emotions that cloud out calculation lose out in the long run. Blocking out emotions is harder than it sounds, because as in real economies, even able and rational poker players are sometimes overcome by the “animal spirits” of the moment.

3. It is important to maintain a good reputation: for instance, if you become known for bluffing too much (or not bluffing at all), you are going to get called out on it and lose money. Under advanced capitalism every major corporation maintains a PR department.

4. The majority of people in many capitalist societies such as the US believe that they are good enough to get well ahead, whereas in practice that is rarely the case (e.g. median household incomes have been more or less stagnant since 1973). Likewise in poker, most players believe they’re really good at it – ask around and you’ll find that 75%+ of people who play poker say they win on average, despite the mathematical impossibility – but in real life, only <10% end up corralling most of the gains.

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