Academic Careerism and Poker Strategy: WSOP Edition

One of my good friends from college, Andrew Brokos, is a professional poker player and poker coach (as Foucault82, follow him at @thinkingpoker on Twitter). He is playing this week in the World Series of Poker Main Event in Las Vegas right now, as he has done for a number of years now. Andrew and I had conversations about playing poker back when we worked together in Boston. Those conversations concluded (as I am sure many of my IR friends can attest) that I suck at poker unless I get to stack the deck. And you don’t get to do that in real poker. Thus I suck at poker. But I have enjoyed following his blog over the years – not least because its a great answer to the question of what you can do with a University of Chicago philosophy degree.

This week, I have been reading about Andrew’s early progress in the Main Event (he’s one of the most consistent finishers in this event over the last decade), and about professional development questions in International Relations (including a discussion with Dan Nexon on Facebook about a future post on the ISQ editors’ blog, Steve Saideman’s post on overthinking professional strategy, and Erin Jenne’s useful post on RelationsInternational on book publishing strategies for recent Ph.D.s. Reading them together, I wondered if I (and other IR academics) might benefit from using some of Andrew’s poker strategy tips to find balance in professional development.

Andrew’s coaching tips often focus around thinking about the situation you’re in, using game theory to assess your odds, and making the right play at the right time – but even Andrew has criticized overthinking. His analytical approach to poker and mine to academic careers have a lot in common – so I figured I’d play with the idea of academic careerism and poker strategy in honor of Andrew’s WSOP appearance this week. Caveat: of course, I know there’s more tournament poker and academic strategy lack in commonality than that they share. But I think that some comparison is sure to be fun, and might be helpful. So … here’s my poker-scholarship advice of the day: play the situation and the cards, but don’t overplay either. Below, I try to use humor and some of Andrew’s advice to make that case.

Andrew wrote an article now several years ago about “the myth of any two cards.”  He talks about the mantra in poker to “play the situation and not the cards,” and suggests that it is not unreserved good advice. While he notes that it is important to evaluate the quality of a hand in context (e.g., a pair of aces is a better hand pre-flop in a Texas Hold’em game than it is with a flop like JJT98 – because its likely to be the best hand pre-flop, but much less likely to be the best hand when others could have three jacks or a number of different configurations of a straight, at which point you’ve overvalued a pair by continuing to bet on a pair of aces), Andrew makes the argument that the cards are not irrelevant, and its a myth that a good player can manipulate the results to be profitable against any players, with any cards, at any time. Instead, Andrew’s understanding of poker strategy is that it is a complicated matrix of understanding when one can profit and when one cannot, from good cards and bad cards.

Assume that we are talking about gradations of quality of ‘cards’ on two levels – one level being the research output one can send to journals and book publishers, and the other level being the CV lines that one earns from those submissions and other professional activities. This is actually much like poker – where one has two assets to work with – the cards in front of one, and the chips in front of one. Andrew’s strategic advice has always focused on using both, in conjunction with reading the situation. In the use of both of these assets, Andrew suggests that knowing is only half the battle. He argues that knowing the cards is only part of the battle – knowing the situation, and knowing the correct call in the situation, matters too.

Reading that, and reading Andrew’s article about the 10 biggest mistakes that good players make (overvaluing one pair, overestimating implied odds, playing too many hands out of position, not defending the button, playing too straightforwardly, giving callers too much credit, betting to small, failing to plan for a pot commitment, slow playing, and protecting hands too much), I came to wonder if there’s a middle ground that one can use to think about strategizing for an academic career. Like Steve Saideman, I worry about accounts of academic results that do not focus on, or even mention, the quality of the work. At the same time, I have seen excellent scholars struggle for lack of basic professional socialization that would help them get their excellent work noticed and published.

So it seems to me that there’s a middle ground that works for academic careerism as well as for poker: its about the situation and about the cards, and neither can be neglected. At the same time, overplaying either (focusing on gaming the system to the neglect of the work, or hoping that the work will just work for itself) is a mistake as likely to decimate your chances of success as showing up late and letting the blinds take your stack (Phil Hellmuth is not a good example here). Overplaying often means that you spend too much time thinking about the situation or too much energy trying to manipulate the variables around your professional prospects. That seems to me to be a good balance between ‘ignorance is bliss’ and making a career out of planning careers.

That said, I can’t resist making academic ‘translations’ of some of Andrew’s ’10 biggest mistakes’ … 1) overvaluing one pair = putting all of your scholarly ‘eggs’ in the ‘basket’ of one project, such that the fate of your career is completely tied to the fate of that project – too much could go wrong to do that; 2) ‘overestimating implied odds’ = the idea, because your judgment and even others’ have rated a project good enough to be published by a particular outlet, it will be published by that outlet. Even if your judgment is correct, pathologies in the review process might mean that the project has a different fate. While most projects end up in a quality outlet that reflects the quality of the project eventually, some take a circuitous route, and some never end up there at all. This could be translated to the job market process as well; 3) ‘playing too many hands out of position’ = miscalculating the political, scholarly, or research capital you have in a particular professional situation, and/or that awkward moment when you do something stupid at a conference;

4) ‘not defending the button’ = the failure to do the scholarly self-promotion that would get your good, recently published work noticed and read; 5) ‘playing too straightforwardly’ = overplaying the work and underplaying the situation; 6) ‘giving callers too much credit’ = letting professional struggles like poor reviews and struggling with publication affect your self-confidence, which in turn affects your work and leads negative feedback to be self-fulfilling rather than a growth experience and context cue; 7) ‘betting too small’ = taking too few risks; 8) ‘failing to plan for a pot commitment’ = failing to realize the large amount of time and effort that is necessary before you see results (see post on being the CV you want to see); 9) ‘slow playing’ = overestimating the benefits of holding on to a manuscript until its perfect, and instead holding onto it until it is worthless; 10) ‘protecting hands’ = trying to ‘brand’ an idea to the exclusion of dialogue with people who can make the idea, and the research program, stronger in that dialogue. All of these, like their poker analogies, seem like bad ideas.

Now that I’ve probably bastardized everything Andrew has said about poker, I return to the one point in this post I’m sure is good advice: its about the work, and about the professional socialization – never about neither. At the same time, getting the two off-balance (especially in favor of the professional socialization), is a mistake – as is overthinking, over-playing, or over-relying on one to the exclusion of the other.