Debate at the Poker Table
by Andrew Brokos
I was heavily involved in debate in high school and college, and as an adult I continue to volunteer with debate-related organizations. Professionally, though, I did not pursue a traditional “debater career” in a field such as law or politics. In fact, there’s nothing traditional at all about my career: I’m a professional poker player.
The connection between debating and playing poker is certainly less obvious than between debating and running for office, but the truth is that I credit a lot of my success in poker to the skills that I learned from debating, skills like critical thinking, considering all sides of an argument, and weighing advantages and disadvantages.
Many people consider poker a gambling game, because there’s money involved, but it really has more in common with chess than blackjack. It’s a heavily strategic game that requires thinking ahead, comparing various options, and predicting how an opponent will respond to each. Perhaps now you are starting to see the connections to debating?
Debating gave me a very useful process for attacking any problem. It taught me first to lay out all (or at least several) of the possible solutions, and then to consider each in comparison to the others. Once I convince myself that a given option is best, I must prepare to advocate for it. This doesn’t usually mean denying that it has any drawbacks or imperfections but rather arguing that my chosen option is best despite those drawbacks.
For example, suppose your US history teacher assigns you to debate President Truman’s decision to use nuclear weapons during World War II. The debate might be as simple as “should he or shouldn’t he?”, but it might also feature more nuanced questions such as how many bombs should be dropped, which cities should be targeted, should he allow time between the first and second bombs for the Japanese to surrender, etc.
Finding the best option requires considering all of these choices side by side and assessing their various advantages and disadvantages. It’s not enough to say, “a nuclear bomb will cause significant civilian casualties and therefore should not be used,” because a prolonged ground war and an invasion of Japan might well cause even more civilian (and certainly more American) casualties. If the use of the bomb could bring the war to a quick end, then it might actually save more lives in the long run, despite the casualties it causes. Then again, if bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki would set a precedent for the use of nuclear weapons in future conflicts, then a prolonged war, with all of its horrors, might still be the less gruesome outcome.
Debating questions like these helped me to cultivate skills that I use every day to make tough decisions at the poker table. For example, there is $20 in the pot, my opponent bets another $20, and I have a weak hand. Some people will simply say, “I have a weak hand that could easily be beaten. If I call, I might lose $20. I don’t want to lose $20, so I’ll fold.”
However, that bet could be a bluff. If I fold the best hand, I’ll lose not only the $20 bet that I would have won but also the other $20 that was already in the pot. Just as in a debate, there’s often no perfect, risk-free choice, and you won’t make the right decision by considering one factor to the exclusion of all others.
Poker is also like debating in that it rewards you for thinking outside of the box and considering all of your options. Sometimes, when you have a weak hand and your opponent bets, the best option is the least obvious one: raise, and try to make him fold the winning hand.
All of the debating I did as a high school and college student taught me a rational, logical decision-making process. When the stakes are high and the pressure is on, I’m grateful to have that skill at my disposal.
Andrew Brokos was a nationally competitive debater in high school and college. He is the founder and former director of the Boston Debate League and a member of the Bay Area Urban Debate League’s Board of Directors. He blogs about poker (and occasionally debate) at ThinkingPoker.Net and co-hosts the Thinking Poker Podcast.