The title of Brandon’s previous post “The Center Can Not Hold” is ripped from the end of the famous TS Elliot poem The Wasteland.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.…
The poem was written in the immediate aftermath of WWI when Europe was rendered a bloody mess as the various socio economic institutions and political alliances that had held Europe together since the fall of Napoleon were ripped apart.
Brandon uses the phrase to describe what he sees as happening to the poker world. Poker had experienced a renaissance of sorts ever since Chris Moneymaker won the WSOP in 2003. Moneymaker was an unknown who had learned to play poker by playing online. His success spurred the popularity of online poker websites. These websites not only helped pull in new players but helped as Brandon describes it pull the game away from the shadowy underworld that had previously operated it. In the new corporate world of poker, everyone from college kids to major Hollywood actors could play and they could do so in games kept far away from shadows. Now with the fall of some of these poker sites, this new world is being torn asunder and looks to be reverting to the old.
This development is unequivocally bad for professional poker players and Brandon is right for thinking so. If the games become harder to access then new money, dumb money will not access it and you are left staring at a bunch of wolves. However, what is bad for the pros; is good for the larger world. If there was a world that needed to be destroyed by the forces of otherworldly chaos summed up in The Wasteland, the world of poker was it.
On the surface, I should have no problem with poker. It is a zero sum game – for every winner there is a loser and vice versa. However, this is a deceptive monkier. Regardless of whether you win or lose, poker does subtract one thing and that is time. It subtracts time from people who are very talented who could be participating in positive sum games. The problem with poker over this past decade is that too much dumb money came in and too much intelligence arrived to capture that dumb money.
When guys who win the Hoopes prize for mathematics are giving up careers in mathematics to focus on poker, the world is a poorer place. And this is precisely what has been happening over the last several years. Poker went from being a fun hobby for the legions of smart people who play it to being their actual day job that they could do from home through online poker sites. They turned away from engineering, from teaching, from law and they spent their days trying to win $10,000 pots on Full Tilt while sipping coffee in their underwear. You couldn’t blame them either. The decision to play poker full time was by far the more rational economic choice and made many of them multi millionaires.
It is hard to look at poker and not draw parallels to the world of high finance. While finance arguably has greater social usefulness then poker, much of the activity in finance over the last decade – the high frequency trading funds, the engineering of esoteric mortgage products – had very little to negative societal value. Like poker, finance drained away some of the most intelligent people in society and the world was left a worse place.
Now both industries are under regulatory attack from the government and for different reasons. The charges that are being levied though have nothing to do the most serious crime that these industries committed, the crime of being too beautiful and alluring to too many of the best and the brightest. The government can’t arrest these industries for being too beautiful so the government is doing the next best thing by trying to throw acid on their faces. Whether it works or not to detract interest remains to be seen.