Poker and giving: REG-Fest at the WSOP

I signed up for REG in time to win poker training at the WSOP with German high-rollers Phil Grussiem and Igor Kurganov. REG, which stands for "Raising for Effective Giving" is a non-profit that Team PokerStars Pro Liv Boeree, Phil and Igor founded. REG encourages poker players to pledge 2% of their gross earnings to the most effective charities in the world, using the critical thinking they apply in poker to maximize impact.

Phil, Liv, and Igor (photo courtesy: Daniel Meyrom)

Poker and effective giving fit together in a few ways that compelled me to join REG.

1. Visualizing

Three REG members won the WSOP poker training, including my friend, Alexis Gilbard. Igor talked to us about how he visually narrows his range during a hand like with Equilab (a program we were playing around with to analyze a hand, see screenshot.) He sees combos disappear as others crystallize, allowing for quicker and clearer decision making. I love the idea of thinking more efficiently in poker by visualizing a range rather than using math and words to figure things out. In the first game I studied, chess, watching the pieces move around in your brain is not just one way to get good, it's the only way to get good.

When I first started teaching chess to mathematician and WSOP bracelet winner Bill Chen poker, his mind approached chess more like a child than an adult. In a world where eight year olds make national master and adults find it very difficult to improve significantly, that is a compliment. Instead of using language to describe moves, Bill moved the pieces around in his head.

Philosopher & writer Peter Singer uses visualization in forming some of the theoretical framework behind effective giving. Singer presents ethical thought experiments combining mobility and inequality. A typical Singer visual is "you just bought \$200 jeans, you see a child drowning in a lake, would you ruin your jeans in order to save the child?" Singer then argues that \$200 can be used at any time to save lives, due to effective charities in areas where a dollar goes far. There are counters to Singer's logic, but his persuasion relies on imagination.

2. Time is Money

I spend about three months each year in Saint Louis, the capital of chess in America. The benefactor and president of the club, Rex Sinquefield, developed the first index fund. Rex is also my chess student, so in between rook endings, I've had a chance to ask him for some basic financial advice. Luckily, his wisdom was not too complicated: Invest in the market and then forget about it, don't try to beat the market.

Every hour I save from reading about investing online could be used to actually make money in stuff that I know more about. Even if I theoretically lost some small amount from not investing perfectly, I'd likely make it back with the extra time I'd have to work.

Similarly, REG and the concept of effective giving allows you to "stand on the shoulders of giants", and entrust in research on effective giving. The idea is to save time to do what you do best (poker perhaps?) so you have more money to spend and give anyway. As Phil tweeted:

3. Freedom

Give Directly is the highest ranked charity on the rigorous non-profit evaluation site, Give Well, and also a top pick of REG. I first heard about Give Directly on NPR, where I learned that so far, giving money directly to those in most need has provided more value on the dollar than providing or building something more specific (like schools or wells). I found this surprising and inspiring.

Poker players are often attracted to the game because of the free lifestyle. But till I heard of Give Directly, it never occurred to me that freedom could be a guiding principle of donating.

4. Multi-Tabling

Liv, Igor and Phil's impact reaches beyond their own personal donations, which is a tenet of REG: "In order to get the highest impact per amount of money donated, it is crucial to look for ways to go "meta"...By motivating many others to donate as well, one can multiply the impact of one's personal donations."

As Daniel Negreanu pointed out in a recent blog post, this public approach counters old fashioned manners to give quietly.

After busting the Main Event, I ran into Igor and told him about a hand that I played differently because of the lesson. Though I lost the hand, I was still happy about my decisions in it, that I was progressing at the end of a tough summer. As he went off to the next meeting or tournament, proudly wearing his REG patch, he said: "That's the spirit."