Amit Varma is a writer based in Mumbai. He worked in journalism for over a decade, and won the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2007. His bestselling novel, My Friend Sancho, was published in 2009. He is best known for his blog, India Uncut. His current project is a non-fiction book about the lack of personal and economic freedoms in post-Independence India.
My first book, My Friend Sancho, was published in May 2009, and went on to become the biggest selling debut novel released that year in India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and had earlier been longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.
If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho
Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.
My posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.
Once I had a fight with my nanny.
She said she could only hear ‘Yanny’.
I said, “No! I will fight!
Only ‘Laurel’ is right!
Your insistence is so uncanny.”
My best friend happens to be a horse.
He said, “I must say I find it coarse.
It is so degrading
What you call horse-trading.
Such slander should fill you with remorse.”
ONE MORE CHANCE
It’s a good week to be a Binny.
Walmart saved one from ignominy.
Rajasthan Royals came
And gave Stuart a game
So he could show he’s not a ninny.
SAME OLD, SAME OLD
Karnataka, my friends, has voted.
Will the Congress be now demoted?
Whoever wins the game,
Government will stay the same:
Inefficient and much too bloated.
In next year’s election, only Narendra Modi can beat Narendra Modi. And he might just do it.
I had a strange dream the other night. I dreamed that Narendra Modi was in a room, all alone, surrounded by full-length mirrors. Mirrors to the right of him, mirrors to the left of him, mirrors behind, in front, on the ceiling. He was in an ecstatic frenzy, turning hither, looking thither, admiring himself from every angle. And then, suddenly, he realised that these were not all just reflections. No, all these Narendra Modis in the mirrors were Narendra Modi all right – but they weren’t him. They were all different Narendra Modis, and at any moment, one of them could stride forward and attack him. He must keep an eye on all of them! A Narendra Modi could not be trusted!
Ok, so obviously I did not have that dream – or if I did, I don’t remember it. But I wonder if Modi feels like that sometimes. Surrounded by sycophants, does he feel he has nowhere to turn but to himself? And yet, after all these years of playing to different galleries, who is he really?
Enough metaphysics. The most remarkable thing about Indian politics in this decade is how suddenly and completely it shifted from revolving around one family to revolving around one man. The 2014 elections, like every elections before, was Congress versus Everyone Else – and the Congress is the fiefdom of one family. After 2014, Indian politics remained unipolar, though that pole shifted from being the Congress to being Narendra Modi. Just as all elections until now have been Congress vs Everyone Else, the 2019 elections will be Modi vs Everyone Else. Like him or hate him, you have to hand it to Modi: this is a phenomenal political achievement.
Modi has been helped by the lack of stature of the opposition leaders. I suspect he smiles every time he thinks of Rahul Gandhi. The young Gandhi – Rahul is 47, but still a toddler compared to the doddering dotards of Indian politics – is a shy, graceful man who is almost too nice to be in politics. He is also, despite much coaching and recent efforts to revamp his image, not the sharpest kid on the block.
While a new face of the party, he is also the old face of the party, and has no new vision to offer the country. He lashes out at Modi for all the right reasons, but all he promises is a return to the Congress of old, and he often defends even the disastrous economic policies of his grandmother, Indira. That Congress mindset kept India poor for decades, and it was partly a backlash to that that brought Modi to power. Gandhi does not seem to understand this, and so his party flounders.
But just as Gandhi is a gift to Modi, Modi is a gift to Gandhi. Young Rahul lacks the charisma or vision or political skill to become prime minister on his own, but he may yet get there because someone else might beat Modi for him. That someone else is Modi himself.
I predict that the 2019 elections will be decided entirely by Modi. There will be a fight between a positive vote for him and a negative vote against him. If the negative wins, then by default someone else will take charge. Despite the comic posturing of various regional leaders, it will probably be Gandhi. Lucky lad.
There are various reasons for this negative vote. Reason one: While he continues to excel in optics, he has failed in governance. Demonetisation crippled our economy, the botched implementation of GST hurt it further, and he has carried out no reforms. He has shown the command-and-control mindset of Nehru, who he no doubt has a man-crush on, going by how often he invokes him. And he is Indira’s true heir, both in terms of economics and that authoritarian streak. Law and order is also in bad shape, and the BJP state governments seem particularly clueless.
Reason two: In 2014, Modi put together a brilliant identity-based coalition that is now unsustainable. In UP, for example, the BJP cobbled together an unlikely coalition of the upper castes, non-Yadav OBCs and not-Jatav Dalits. After they won the state elections there, they’d all expect patronage gains, and there’s never enough to go around. Something has to give. The perfect storm that saw the BJP get 71 out of 80 seats in UP, 25 out of 25 in Rajasthan, 27 out of 29 in MP and all 26 in Gujarat cannot be repeated.
Reason 3: In 2014, as people fed up of the previous regime engaged in wishful thinking, Modi could be like a Rorschach test, all things to all people. But those who saw in him a reformer or a statesman should know better now. The ugly, petty venality of some of his electoral utterances – such as his recent jibe at Rahul Gandhi about his Italian roots – might please the converted, but are sure to repel others.
Reason 4: His shudh Hindi is impressive, but the South is fed up. You can’t condescend to Tamilians. You can’t tell Keralites not to eat beef. I don’t think the BJP think tank even understands South India.
When Modi came to power, someone in the know told me that Modi was boasting about being in power for at least 10 years. A couple of years ago, I would have thought it likely. 2019 seemed like a done deal. But nuh huh, not anymore. Modi might lose next year, struck down by the man in his mirror.
PEACE IN ASIA
I asked Donald, “Bro, what have you sown?
North Korea has changed its time zone.”
Trump told me, “Look at Kim.
See what I’ve done to him.
I want a Nobel Prize of my own.”
PEACE IN INDIA
Modiji said to Trump, “Hey white knight,
Well done stopping that Korean fight.
Here’s a challenge for you,
What I need you to do.
Come make North and South India unite.”
A friend said, “Today is World Earth Day.
Do not eat too much at the buffet.”
I said, “Bro, take chill pill.
We will do what we will.
The earth will outlast us anyway.”
Yashwantji said to me, “Amit, bro,
Modiji threatens our tomorrow.
Hindutva gives me pain.”
I said, “Yo, please explain,
Did you protest sixteen years ago?”
Smriti Irani said, looking pale,
“Amit, editors should go to jail
If they fail a fact check.”
I said, “Hey, wait a sec,
Is it true that you have been to Yale?”
Salman said, “Amit, I have a flaw.
I am too soft inside. I am raw.
I killed an antelope,
But I give my fans hope.
Surely I should be above the law?”
Twenty-20 cricket is the best thing that happened to cricket. It will keep Test cricket alive – and make it better.
The next few weeks will be hard on cricket purists. They will sit in the dark, drink whisky and listen to ghazals by Ghulam Ali. After months of exciting Test cricket, the IPL will dominate the headlines. The wives of these purists—for they are almost always men—will dress in scanty clothes and wear make-up to try and cheer them up. But their husbands will think of coloured pajamas and Russian cheerleaders, and gloom will descend like a fog that no fast bowler can penetrate.
I am a cricket purist. I love Test cricket. But if God existed, I would thank Her for Her kindness in bringing about the IPL. T20 cricket is the best thing that happened to cricket – and if five-day cricket is still alive 30 years from now, it will be because of the four-hour version of the game. Lest you think I am yanking your chain—and there is a special joy to trolling purists of any kind—let me lay out the four reasons for my saying this.
One, T20 leagues like the IPL increased opportunities for players. Before they came along, cricket was a monopsony. A monopsony is a marketplace with only one buyer. If an Indian player wanted to play at the highest level, he would have only one buyer for his services: the Indian team, or the BCCI. And to get there, he would first have to perform for his state association, and so on down the line. If he was treated unfairly somewhere because of bias or politics or nepotism, he would have no options.
But within a league like the IPL, there are multiple buyers for your services. The more the number of buyers, the more empowered a seller is, and the greater the price for his services. No wonder so many cricketers make a good living today, as compared to the past.
Two, there is more efficient discovery of talent. Consider incentives. A BCCI babu’s job, at any level, depends on politics, and not on how well he finds or grooms talent. (In any case, what can you compare his performance with?) But in the IPL, the bottom line of all the teams depend on how well they perform. As a matter of survival, they have to find and groom the best talent. The incentives are right, which is why all the IPL sides have excellent talent scouts, and so many fine players have emerged from this league.
Three, T20 cricket has led to the development of new skills. The compressed format of the game—only 20 overs for 11 players—has led to the cost of the dot ball rising and the cost of a wicket falling. Batsmen need to bat faster, and have developed new skills as a result: consider the 360-degree game of AB deVilliers, for example. Fielding and fitness levels have taken a quantum leap upwards—and despite the false cliché about this being a batsman’s game, so has bowling. A list of players who have had the greatest impact in recent seasons of the IPL will be filled with the names of bowlers like Bhuvi, Bumrah, Unadkat and Narine.
These skills enhance the other forms of the game as well. Batsmen counter-attack more in Test cricket—and bowlers figure out more ways of keeping them quiet or getting them out. There’s an added element to the drama.
Four, T20 cricket has made the game financially viable. Through most of the last century, Indians had just two forms of entertainment: cricket and Bollywood. No wonder there was an audience for five-day epics. But there are so many ways to pass the time today. The opportunity cost of a Test match is five days, and even that of a one-day match is eight hours. People don’t have so much time to spend on a sport. Even my fellow purists don’t actually watch enough Test cricket to make it profitable.
If the eyeballs are not there, where will the money come from?
There are many good arguments for T20 cricket. It has given a better life to cricketers, expanded the talent pool, enhanced the skills in the game. But the most important one if that by bringing down a match to the length of a football or tennis game, it has expanded the audience for the game. Cricket would otherwise have died. Now it won’t. Earnings from T20 cricket will subsidize the other forms of the game – and Test cricket will survive only because of this.
So all you cricket purists, put away your cassettes of Ghulam Ali ghazals, and stream some party music instead. Life is good.
Earlier pieces by me on this subject:
Opportunity, choice and the IPL (2008)
The Lesson From This IPL: Frontload Your Innings (2014)
Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Lamborghini (2015)
The New Face of Cricket (2015)
What Cricket Can Learn From Economics (2016)
National Highway 420 (and the EV of Aggressive Batting) (2016)
The Winning Mantra for this IPL: Attack, Attack, Attack (2017)
A friend asked, “Amit, why do you groan?”
I said, “These days I am all alone.
I once had many friends.
Now I must make amends.
I uninstalled Facebook from my phone.”
I asked Steve Smith, “Hey, why such distress?”
He said, “Bro, I am in such a mess.
This is not as I planned.
Darren quit. I got banned.
The lesson here is Never Confess.”
I told Mark Zuckerberg, “I’m not sure
That my data is super secure.”
He said, “Bro, it’s your call.
You can just uninstall.
But what about Aadhaar? What’s your cure?”
Modiji said to his friend, Putin,
“Bro, tell me, how do you always win?”
Putin said, with a smile,
“My old friend, use your guile.
Once you get power, never give in.”
My wife said, “Stay away, no kisses.
First link your Aadhaar to your Missus.”
I said, “Love, give your cheek.
Your plea, so very bleak,
Is one the Supreme Court dismisses.
Adityanath said, “I am the King.
In Gorakhpur, I am everything.”
Then he got his ass kicked.
The voters can be strict.
Could this be the start of a downswing?
Narendra Modi seems to have one answer for every attack on him. But Jawaharlal has been dead for 54 years.
The Candidates tournament for the World Chess Championship is going on right now. Eight of the best chess players in the world are playing each other twice for 14 rounds of gruelling action. The winner will take on World Champion Magnus Carlsen for the title later this year. It is a close tournament and anyone can win, but I am a chess nostalgic with a fondness for symmetry, and I’m rooting for Vladimir Kramnik.
Kramnik first won the title at the turn of the century, beating Garry Kasparov at his peak. His masterstroke in that match was reviving an old opening for black called the Berlin Defence. Kasparov could not breach that wall, and the Berlin has since become an impregnable cliché in grandmaster circles.
This tournament is being held in Berlin, and I write this column after the third round, in which Kramnik played the Berlin against pre-tournament favourite Levon Aronian and won a spectacular game to go into the lead. It is as if the fates gathered around and decided, He revived the Berlin. Now Berlin will revive him.
Back in India, on the political chess board, Narendra Modi has found a similar defence for all seasons. It’s called the Nehru Defence. No matter what attack is unveiled against him, he counters it with the Nehru defence. Economy’s doing badly? Nehru started it. Problems in Kashmir? Nehru, doh. Modi hugs foreign leaders too much? Nehru hugged Edwina.
Well, not the last, but you get the drift. The obvious response to the Nehru Defence this is to point out that Nehru died in 1964. What he may or may not have done is irrelevant to Modi’s performance now. Modi may not like many of the policies that exist today because of Nehru, but hey, he got a mandate in 2014 to overturn them. Why hasn’t he?
There were a host of reforms Modi could have carried out in the last four years to make India more free. He hasn’t implemented any of them. Indeed, he has shown the same command-and-control mindset that was Nehru’s great failing. He has combined it with the authoritarianism of Nehru’s daughter, Indira, who he most resembles. If he hates them, then he hates them so much that he loves them. His actions indicate that he wants to be them.
What irritates me more than the irrationality and dishonesty of the Nehru Defence is how the discourse has been shaped by it. Everybody is thinking in binaries. One side thinks Nehru was a monster who ravaged India. The other side thinks Nehru was a great statesman who built everything that is good about this country. Both these narratives hold some truth, but you’re not allowed to acknowledge both. Either Nehru was evil or he was a God. You are either a patriot or an anti-national, depending on which simplistic fairy tale you believe.
These binaries apply to everything today, not just Nehru. This is a form of historical revisionism. Nothing can be grey any more. Everything must be black or white. You must take sides. Any attempt at nuance is considered a cop-out, and both sides could come after you. So it makes sense to either be unflinchingly partisan – or to stay shut altogether. And when those who care about nuance withdraw from the conversation, we are left with Republic TV.
Think about what this does to the discourse. Let’s continue the chess analogy. Aronian, Kramnik’s hapless victim and a cultured, thoughtful man, once said that a game of chess was like a conversation. One player asks a question; the other replies, and asks one herself; and so on, in the mutual quest for truth. I found this analogy moving – and also heartbreaking, because there is no space for such a respectful conversation in Indian politics.
If they play chess at all, the two sides in our politics – and there are two now, because of the forced binaries – are playing not against each other, but against imaginary opponents on adjacent chess boards. They are talking past each other, and each is convinced of possession of the truth. One side repeatedly plays the Nehru Defence. The other side, on the other board, plays I-don’t-even-know-what, it’s not coherent.
Maybe the game in question is not chess at all. Maybe it is mud-wrestling. And maybe in some parallel universe, a man in a pinstripe suit with a name on it wrestles a man in a sherwani. The man in the sherwani has been dead for 54 years, so he keeps getting flung to the ground. Finally, unable to take the gratuitous posthumous humiliation, he springs back to life and catches the man in the pinstripe suit, and then something strikes his eye. He realises that the name on the pinstripe suit of his opponent is not ‘Narendra Modi’ but ‘Jawaharlal Nehru’. What kind of man wears a suit like that?
I know many movie fans who cried
When that great actress Sridevi died.
She brought us such magic.
It was also tragic
Watching the press commit suicide.
Isaac Newton said, “I’m sanskaari.
I saw an apple drop from a tree
And thought of a mantra
From the Panchatantra
That gave the concept of gravity.”
Justin Trudeau is handsome and woke.
He is a virtue-signalling bloke.
See his Khalistan mess.
He’s really that clueless.
Frankly the guy’s a bit of a joke.
One tendency that all netas share
Is one that should put you in dispair.
They love to advertise,
And all their sordid lies
Are funded by YOU, so please beware.
Nirav Modi told me, “This is nice.
Eleven thousand crores will suffice.
I love committing fraud.
I will now chill abroad
While taxpayers like you pay the price.”
Narendra Modi said, “This is great.
Why is always me you berate?
When will you understand?
All netas in this land
Are thieves looking to eat off your plate.”
Masterji said, sipping single malt,
“Bal Narendra’s committed assault.
He keeps using his force,
And he shows no remorse.
He says everything is Nehru’s fault.”
In case the stock market makes you frown,
If you think Dear Leader is a clown,
Don’t panic. Think it through.
Just take the long-term view.
Everything that goes up must come down.
Inequality and poverty are different problems, requiring different, even opposite, solutions. India’s problem is poverty.
Let me begin this column with a question, dear reader, which I urge you to read carefully and answer before reading on:
In which of these two countries would you rather be poor: the USA or Bangladesh?
Most people I ask this to go, Duh, of course I’d rather be poor in the US than in Bangladesh. Well, here’s something I’d like you to consider: the USA has far greater inequality than Bangladesh does. A measure called the Gini Index measures inequality across the world, and the USA, Hong Kong, Singapore and the United Kingdom all have greater inequality than Bangladesh, Liberia, Pakistan and Sierra Leone. And yet, that second group of countries is by far poorer than the first group
It has become fashionable these days, especially in elite, privileged circles, to agitate about inequality. But as my question and the data above make clear, inequality and poverty are very different things. Some of the poorest countries in the world are among the most equal. (Some Communist countries of the last century came close to achieving equality in poverty.)
So here’s my contention, in three propositions:
One: India’s big problem is poverty.
Two: The more we reduce poverty, the more we are likely to increase inequality.
Three: It is perverse, therefore, to worry about inequality. We should only keep our eye on poverty, and not worry if inequality goes up.
There is a fundamental fallacy at the root of the obsession with inequality. We think of the world in zero-sum ways. That is, we behave as if there is a fixed pie, and the rich can only become richer if the poor become poorer. In this vision of the world, the more inequality increases, the more abject the suffering of the poor. Redistribution is the only solution.
And yet, this narrative is wrong. The world is not zero-sum but positive-sum. The size of the pie increases with every voluntary transaction. Every time I buy a cup of coffee from a café, both the café and I are better off – otherwise we would not have transacted to begin with. The amount of value in the world has gone up.
The more you allow and enable such voluntary exchange, the more people trade to mutual benefit, and we all become better off. And the larger these economic networks of voluntary exchange, the greater the scope for such mutual enrichment. That is why people migrate to cities from villages, and rarely the other way around.
In fact, within a country, cities are far more unequal than villages are. If inequality was such a bad thing, why would so many poor people vote with their feet by migrating to cities? They embrace this greater inequality because they want to escape poverty.
The reason India remained a poor country for so many decades after Independence is that, with the zero-sum vision of our leaders, we frowned upon free markets. While the rest of Asia shot ahead, we restrained the natural ingenuity and enterprise of our people with our mai-baap vision of politics. We did reform a bit in 1991, but too little and too late. Our poverty levels did go down a bit, though, even as we grew more unequal, illustrating the fact that there is no correlation at all between poverty and inequality.
I don’t want to talk only in terms of abstract ideas, so let me illustrate one way in which reducing poverty would raise inequality. There is consensus among economists today, even left-wing ones, that we have crippled our manufacturing sector for decades with a series of bad laws, such as our labour laws, which don’t allow small businesses to grow, and force much of our nation into the informal sector. These regulations stopped us from becoming a manufacturing superpower like China. What would happen if these restrictions were to magically disappear one day?
You would have growth in the manufacturing industry. There is no question that there would be far more employment generated, which would reduce poverty. You would also have some of these businesses achieving scale and becoming behemoths. Poverty would go down and our per-capita income would go up; but because of the winners at the top, inequality would also go up. Would this be a bad thing? I don’t think so.
The zero-sum instinct is ingrained in us: we evolved in prehistoric times when we lived in small tribes amid scarcity, and the positive-sum view of the world would have been unintuitive. It is also natural to resent the super-rich among us, especially when they behave in ostentatious, obnoxious ways, and game the system with their money, which happens a lot in our crony socialist state. Maybe a country that has eliminated poverty can have the luxury to think about Inequality. But not us.
It is a moral shame that seven decades after Independence, we still have millions of people living in poverty. We need to fight this. We should not be distracted by false metrics.
My finances were in such a mess.
I said, “I demand an Amit cess.”
A gentleman named Shah
Said, “Arre bhaiyya, wah.
Super idea, I must confess.”
Tom Friedman has defended Aadhaar.
He said, “Facebook has your data, yaar.”
Oh, what a clueless gent.
Facebook has our consent,
And consent must be our guiding star.
My finances were in such a mess.
I said, “I demand an Amit cess.”
A gentleman named Shah
Said, “Arre bhaiyya, wah.
Super idea, I must confess.”
Tom Friedman has defended Aadhaar.
He said, “Facebook has your data, yaar.”
Oh, what a clueless gent.
Facebook has our consent,
And consent must be our guiding star.
The Karni Sena kicked up a fuss.
Their boss said, “No one listens to us.
Our protests were a flop.
But now we cannot stop.
Let us go and attack a school bus.”
Jaitley told Modiji, with much dread,
“A massive jobs crisis lies ahead.
There’ll be no bread to eat.”
Modiji said, “That’s neat.
Just let them eat pakodas instead.”
Modiji found himself in full flow.
Netanyahu said, “Please take it slow.
You are a handsome man.
I am a massive fan,
But please don’t give me more jhappis, bro.”
Donald Trump hooked up with a porn star.
There was much outrage in the bazaar.
The Karni Sena said,
“We demand Stormy’s head
And that Donald should commit Jauhar.”
I told the bartender, with a wink,
“One Old Monk.” Now he began to think.
He looked me up and down,
And told me, with a frown,
“I can see that, but what will you drink?”
Four Supreme Court judges met the press.
They said, “Everything is such a mess.
We just don’t understand
What that Virat has planned.
Cricket is causing us so much stress!”
I can’t afford to buy an old car.
I’m filled with envy at the bazaar.
However much that sucks,
I have 500 bucks,
Which means I can buy all of Aadhaar.
Rajinikanth authored the Dead Sea Scrolls.
He completes marathons on his strolls.
He can do anything.
On the screen, he’s the king.
I wonder how he’ll do at the polls.
There’s no Rhyme & Reason this week as ToI had a special year-end issue, but hey, you still want your fix and I’m still here. So, bonus limericks this week.
They asked Vishy, “When will you retire?”
He said, “When the sun runs out of fire.
All these years, I shone bright.
I can still spread the light.
I can kick young ass when I require.”
Once, a member of the Babu tribe
Told me, “I am upset, mighty scribe.
There has been a fire.
Things have become dire.
Will they punish me for that old bribe?”
Jignesh Mevani said, excited,
“Modi should retire. He is blighted.”
Modi said, “I know why
Jignesh is jealous guy.
I’m the one Virushka invited.”
Sri Lanka lost yet another game.
Their captain said, “We deserve acclaim.
You see, we lost by less,
Exactly like Congress.
It’s a moral victory, not a shame.”
I was eating ice-cream from a bowl.
My wife said, “You are so gol-matol.”
I replied, “Don’t tell lies.
The fault lies in your eyes.
They are as flawed as an exit poll.”
A friend said to me, “Mister Varma,
We have entered the age of Sharma.
Virat-bhai married one.
Rohit got double ton.
You must really have some bad karma.”
Alpha Zero’s achievement in chess is staggering. It showcases a quantum leap for Artificial Intelligence.
If there is one thing that sets human beings apart from other species, it is this: we think too much of ourselves. Just because we lucked upon opposable thumbs and a powerful brain, both of which allowed us to dominate other species, we behave as if we are masters of the universe. It’s pathetic. We’re bawling babies in front of a bacterial onslaught, and we will soon find ourselves inadequate in front of machines that we ourselves will make. It is time for humility.
A few days ago, Alpha Zero beat Stockfish. We humans talk about Ali-Foreman and Federer-Nadal and Fischer-Spassky, but the most momentous match in human history might well have been the chess match between these two machines. But first, some context.
Here’s the Artificial Intelligence context. In 1950, when AI was in the realm of science fiction, Alan Turing came up with the Turing Test. Wikipedia defines this as “a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.” So if you’re having a text conversation with a party you cannot see, a machine would pass the Turing Test if you do not realise that it is a machine. I would hold that AI has achieved this easily, although many humans would probably fail. (Check out Donald Trump’s Twitter feed.)
Here’s the chess context. Until the early 1990s, the thought of a computer beating a human in chess was laughable. But technology progressed quickly, and in 1997 a machine called Deep Blue beat the then-World Champion, Garry Kasparov. Computers soon left humans far behind. Today, a program on your smartphone can thrash the best player in the world.
Now, you’d imagine that this would mean the end of chess. Everyone would use computers in their analysis and pedagogy, and we’d all start playing like machines. But exactly the opposite happened, and chess was instead enriched.
There was once a study that aimed to see how many moves a grandmaster and a novice could think ahead in a game of chess. The answer was that they saw the same number of moves ahead, but the GM saw the right ones. Learning chess is less about calculation and more about pattern recognition and heuristics. The more you play, the more patterns you learn to instinctively recognise, with an understanding of how they interact with other patterns. A strong player can glance at a position on the board and understand its salient aspects.
And then, the heuristics. Heuristics are simple rules that allow people to make decisions. For example, a chess player will be taught that it is important to occupy the center early, to take her king to safety by castling, to develop her pieces as much as she can, and so on. Now, humans cannot possibly calculate everything on the chess board. (The number of possible positions in a 40-move game is greater than the number of electrons in the observable universe.) So they use shortcuts – or these heuristics.
All humans learn chess by learning heuristics. These have evolved over centuries, and are a common body of knowledge that every player has to learn to reach a certain level. The famous Soviet School of Chess was the embodiment of this. Given this common body of knowledge, chess players actually played in a similar way, with individual style appearing on the margins.
Computers did not need heuristics, because they had the computing power to actually calculate every move and every position. (This is called ‘brute force’.) This did not make chess more homogenous, but less, as computers looked beyond the set of heuristics that were instinctive for players. This meant that the new generation of players who used chess programs as an analytical tool were no longer bound to the dogmas of the past, useful as they were. All the principles earlier generations had learned had exceptions, and all the exceptions could be explored using these programs.
As a result, the current generation of players has more stylistic variation than ones before. Younger players think about the game in unique ways that older ones can’t fathom, and is outside their playbook. And while all top players use programs like Stockfish for analysis, none of them plays games against it because Stockfish would thrash them, and it would be too demoralising. It’s like trying to race a car.
So what did Alpha Zero do? Well, Alpha Zero was built by Deep Mind, an AI division of Google. It is a self-learning program, and the rules of chess were fed into it, but nothing else. No opening databases, no heuristics. It played against itself for four hours to learn the game. Then it played Stockfish in a 100-game match. Alpha Zero won 28 games, and the rest were drawn. After four hours of learning, it beat a chess program into which years of development had gone.
Astonishingly, Alpha Zero achieved this by playing like a human. While Stockfish examined 70 million positions per second, Alpha Zero looked at only 80,000. While teaching itself chess, it discovered, developed and then used heuristics that seem to go beyond the ones humans discovered. For example, human are taught not to move the same piece multiple times in the opening when others lie undeveloped. Alpha Zero did this again and again, favouring activity over development. It also made long-term positional sacrifices, with no immediate gain, which machines otherwise do not do.
The games released by Alpha Zero are spectacular. Alpha Zero plays like a human, but an enhanced human. The grandmaster Peter Heine Nielsen, Magnus Carlsen’s coach, told chess.com: “After reading the paper but especially seeing the games I thought, well, I always wondered how it would be if a superior species landed on earth and showed us how they play chess. I feel now I know.”
The implications of the Deep Learning that Alpha Zero demonstrates are fantastic and unfathomable, and not just for chess. AI is already embedded in our lives – your smartphone would have seemed like science fiction in 1990 – and will become more so. It has become fashionable to be worried about AI, but I am optimistic. Technology will make us all better versions of ourselves – and that journey begins by accepting that we aren’t all that awesome to begin with.
This op-ed of mine was published in the Hindu today.
Politicians like Trump and Modi play to our worst impulses as people believe what they want to believe.
The most surprising thing about these Gujarat elections is that people are so surprised at our prime minister’s rhetoric. Narendra Modi has eschewed all talk of development, and has played to the worst impulses of the Gujarati people. His main tool is Hindu-Muslim polarisation, which is reflected in the crude language he uses for his opponents. The Congress has a ‘Mughlai’ mentality, they are ushering in an ‘Aurangzeb Raj’, and their top leaders are conspiring with Pakistan to make sure Modi loses. A BJP spokesperson has called Rahul Gandhi a ‘Babar Bhakt’ and ‘Kin of Khilji.’ None of this is new.
Modi’s rhetoric in the heat of campaigning has always come from the gutter. From his references to ‘Mian Musharraf’ over a decade ago to the ‘kabristan-shamshaan’ comments of the recent UP elections, it has been clear that the Otherness of Muslims is central to the BJP playbook. Hate drives more people to the polling booth than warm, fuzzy feelings of pluralism. But, the question is, are the Congress leaders really conspiring with Pakistan to make sure the BJP lose?
Answer: It doesn’t matter.
A Disregard for Truth
In 1986, the philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote an essay named ‘On Bullshit’, which was published as a book on 2005 and became a surprise bestseller. The book attempts to arrive at “a theoretical understanding of bullshit.” The key difference between a liar and a bullshitter, Frankfurt tells us, is that the liar knows the truth and aims to deceive. The bullshitter, on the other hand, doesn’t care about the truth. He is “neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false,” in Frankfurt’s words. “His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says.”
The bullshitter is wise, for he has cottoned on to an important truth that has become more and more glaring in these modern times: that facts don’t matter. And to understand why, I ask you to go back with me in time to another seminal book, this one published in 1922.
The first chapter of Public Opinion, by the American journalist Walter Lippmann, is titled ‘The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads.’ In it, Lippmann makes the point that all of us have a version of the world inside our heads that resembles, but is not identical to, the world as it is. “The real environment,” he writes, “is altogether too big, too complex, and too fleeting for direct acquaintance.”
We construct a version of the world in our heads, and feed that version, for modifying it too much will require too much effort. If facts conflict with it, we ignore those facts, and accept only those that conform to our worldview. (Cognitive psychologists call this the ‘Confirmation Bias’.)
Lippmann sees this as a challenge for democracy, for how are we to elect our leaders if we cannot comprehend the impact they will have on the world?
A Fragmented Media
I would argue that this is a far greater problem today than it was in Lippmann’s time. Back then, and until a couple of decades ago, there was a broad consensus on the truth. There were gatekeepers to information and knowledge. Even accounting for biases, the mainstream media agreed on some basic facts. That has changed. The media is fragmented, there are no barriers to entry, and the mainstream media no longer has a monopoly of the dissemination of information. This is a good thing, with one worrying side effect: whatever beliefs or impulses we might have – the earth is flat, the Jews carried out 9/11, India is a Hindu nation – we can find plenty of ‘evidence’ for it online, and connect with likeminded people. Finding others who share our beliefs makes us more strident, and soon we form multiple echo chambers that become more and more extreme. Polarisation increases. The space in the middle disappears. And the world inside our heads, shared by so many other, becomes impervious to facts.
This also means that impulses we would otherwise not express in polite society find validation, and a voice. Here’s another book you should read: in 1997, the sociologist Timur Kuran wrote Private Truths, Public Lies in which he coined the term ‘Preference Falsification’. There are many things we feel or believe but do not express because we fear social opprobrium. But as soon as we realise that others share our views, we are emboldened to express ourselves. This leads to a ‘Preference Cascade’: Kuran gives the example of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but an equally apt modern illustration is the rise of right-wing populists everywhere. I believe – and I apologize if this is too depressing to contemplate – that the majority of us are bigots, misogynists, racists, and tribal in our thinking. We have always been this way, but because liberal elites ran the media, and a liberal consensus seemed to prevail, we did not express these feelings. Social media showed us that we were not alone, and gave us the courage to express ourselves.
That’s where Donald Trump comes from. That’s where Modi comes from. Our masses vote for these fine gentlemen not in spite of their bigotry and misogyny, but because of it. Trump and Modi provide them a narrative that feeds the world inside their heads. Mexicans are rapists, foreigners are bad, Muslims are stealing our girls, gaumutra cures cancer – and so on. The truth is irrelevant. Facts. Don’t. Matter.
Think about the implication of this. This means that the men and women who wrote our constitution were an out-of-touch elite, and the values they embedded in it were not shared by most of the nation. (As a libertarian, I think our constitution was deeply flawed because it did not do enough to protect individual rights, but our society’s consensus would probably be that it did too much.) The ‘Idea of India’ that these elites spoke of was never India’s Idea of India. These ‘liberal’ values were imposed on an unwilling nation – and is such imposition, ironically, not deeply illiberal itself? This is what I call The Liberal Paradox.
All the ugliness in our politics today is the ugliness of the human condition. This is how we are. This is not a perversion of democracy but an expression of it. Those of us who are saddened by it – the liberal elites, libertarians like me – have to stop feeling entitled, and get down to work. The alt-right guru Andrew Breitbart once said something I never get tired of quoting: “Politics is downstream of Culture.” A political victory will now not come until there is a social revolution. Where will it begin?
Mani said to RaGa, “You are neech.
You used to say in every speech,
Democracy should grow.
Well, your ‘election’ shows
That you do not practise what you preach.”
I just hate this political game.
All these parties are devoid of shame.
If you should call them out,
They just say, “What about… ?”
It just shows that they are all the same.
A Supreme Court judge remarked to me,
“You think we abolished slavery?
Well, let me tell you, mate,
You belong to the state.
Your rights mean nothing. You are not free.”
Ivanka told NaMo, “I am glad,
Even though your report card is bad,
You manage to muster
Such a lot of bluster.
You remind me so much of my dad!”
A couple of weeks ago, I took part in the Match IPL, playing for Goa Kings. The IPL here stands for Indian Poker League, and it follows a similar franchisee model as cricket’s IPL. I don’t play poker these days, having retired a couple of years ago, but a good friend, who was the mentor of this team, asked me to join, and I thought it would be fun.
Also, one important reason I joined was because this was a new format of poker, and I wanted to set myself the intellectual challenge of understanding it and optimising for it. When I was active, I was mainly a live cash game player, with decent tournament results in the Asian circuit. But this format of poker was different in key ways from both cash games and tournament poker.
Match Poker is a format played by teams. It’s explained here, but I’ll sum it up briefly. Let’s say there are seven teams with seven players each. They play each other on seven tables, with one player from each team on every table. Also, there’s one player from each team on every seat. So if you are on seat 1 on table 1, all the other tables with have players from other teams on seat 1. So every team will have a player on every table and every seat.
The idea is that the same hand is then dealt across tables. So all teams play the same hand from every position. At the end of every hand, a team’s chips across positions are added. The team with the best chip count gets 7 points, the next team gets 6, and so on down to 1. The chip count is reset, and all teams start the next hand equal in chips. At the end of a certain number of hands – 200 in the case of Match IPL – the team with the highest points (not chips) wins.
The Question of Luck
According to the guys who thought this up, this format ensures that “the luck element in conventional poker via the ‘random draw of cards’ has been removed.” In fact, the Match Poker guys claim that because this removes the element of luck, that makes poker a true sport. They are using this rationale to get Match Poker into the Olympics.
This claim is both moot and false. It is moot because of two reasons, one small and one big. The small reason is that all sports do have an element of luck, and that’s doesn’t make them less of a sport. The big reason is that even though poker has a greater quantum of luck than other sports, it is still a game of skill in the long run. What happens in any one hand is largely luck, but given a large enough sample size, skill will make the difference.
Also, the format doesn’t eliminate luck entirely because there is still much variance in the game. Let’s say you are the best player in the best team. You hit a set, and maximise pot size to get your opponent with top pair all in. No other team manages this. But then your opponent hits a runner-runner full house, as he will 2% of the time. Your team played the best here – but you will come last, and the team will get just one point. This is luck, and it doesn’t matter in the long run because it all evens out. But you need a decent sample size of hands for the skill to show. 200 hands – or even 2000, or perhaps 20,000 – is not enough.
How Match Poker is Different from Poker
Although Match Poker is set up like a deep-stack cash game, it is different in two fundamental ways. One, the unit of measurement here is not chips, but hands won. Two, you are not playing against your table, but against all the other players sitting on your seat (and dealt the same hand) at the other tables.
Let’s start with point one: chips don’t matter. Teams are not ranked according to how many chips they win in a session, but how many hands they win. This is the opposite of regular poker. A study on online sites showed years ago that the players who win the most hands lose the most money. A good cash game player will lose more hands than he wins, but will win more when he wins than when he loses, and be overall profitable.
An illustration of this is set-mining. I will always play 44 preflop, if there is just one raise, and I will hit my set only one in eight times. Seven times I don’t hit the set – but the one time I do, I make enough money to compensate for the times I folded. But in Match Poker, that doesn’t matter. Point two explains why.
Point two: You are not playing against the table, but against other players on your seat. Let me illustrate this with the set-mining example. Let’s say you get 44. You fold preflop, while you know all the other players on your seat will call. Seven out of eight times, they will fold on the flop, and because you saved that preflop call, you are first on your seat. One time you are last. Assuming ceteris paribus (all other teams and players get equal results in other seats), your team gets seven points seven times and 1 point once, for a total of 50 points in eight hands. All other teams get 24.3, splitting the remaining points. Thus, while set-mining with small pairs is profitable in regular poker, folding them preflop is profitable in Match Poker. It is +EV in this format, or as I’d call it, +MPEV.
The same logic holds for speculative hands like suited connectors. If other teams are likely to play those hands, and they lose more than 50% of the time, your profitable move is to fold. Ditto for chasing flush draws on a flop. Remember, pot odds and chip EV don’t matter, because this is not traditional poker. So a lot of moves that +EV in regular poker are -MPEV.
With this thinking in mind, I formulated three thoughts that I wanted my teammates to think before every hand.
1. I am not playing this hand against the table. I am playing it against other players on this seat.
2. What are the players on this seat likely to do with this hand?
3. Will I win this 50% of the time?
If you have a speculative hand that your opponents (the players on your seat) are likely to call, and that hand will lose more than 50% of the time, then it is +MPEV to fold it right away.
So here’s what the points system means. Teams get from seven to one points for every hand. The average is four. It’s all zero-sum, so teams win what other teams lose, and the amount won is equal to the amount lost. You might have one team winning chips on a given hand and six teams losing, in which case the team that lost the least gets six valuable points. You might have one team losing and six winning. But generally, if you fold every hand, you should get around 4 points per hand. (Simulations validate this, FWIW, with the limited data I had from a previous event.) The team that won Match IPL won with 821 points from 200 hands, or 4.1 per hand. Three out of seven teams finished above the mean (800).
Now, obviously, folding every hand does not win you the whole thing. What I considered the optimal strategy was to fold all speculative hands and medium-strength hands, and push all value hands hard, but to define these value hands tightly. Also, profit in poker comes not just from value hands but value spots. Position matters, and there is much value to be had if you can outplay people in a button-vs-blinds dynamic. I’ll come back to this later: our initial strategy was based on not thinking too hard about spots and focussing on hands.
Instead of playing 20% of hands, as we otherwise might, we decided to play 5%, fold 95% and see how it goes. We would fold all speculative hands, all medium-strength hands (like KJs in early position) and we would also fold strong hands in multiway pots where our chances of winning are less than 50%. (Remember, in this format, pot odds don’t matter. 50% is the magic number.) We even made a hand-chart by position for our players to memorise. This was a new format and we were all beginners here, so that made sense.
We started the tournament disastrously. There were 8 sessions of 25 hands each, and in our first session, we were hit by variance. The problem was Seat 1. Our man in Seat 1 made a series of correct folds, (correct in terms of MPEV), and those hands kept hitting. Sets hit. Random hands hit trips. Connectors hit straights. Hands that would win one in eight or 15 or 25 times kept hitting. And other teams played those hands, and got points for them. We got on the wrong side of variance, which happens. But with just 175 hands left in the session, could we recover?
We remained in the bottom half of teams through that first of two days, though I was topping the individual charts at the end of day 1. In fact, I topped the individual charts at the end of 5 sessions out of the eight, but fell short of winning the MPV at the end of it. And this brings me to the problem of the individual leaderboard.
I assumed that the individual leaderboard would be calculated the same way as the team leaderboard: they’d see how you did against the players on your seat, and assign between 7 to 1 points for each hand. I assumed I led for so long because I was playing optimally. But I later found that this was actually being decided on total chip counts – ie, just like normal poker. (They were assigning differential points based on how you outplayed guys on your seat, but it was still looking at overall chips, not hands won.) Thus, doing well in the individual charts had no correlation to how well you played for your team. One was calculated as per chips, the other was as per hands won.
So given our strategy, how the hell was I leading for so long? Well, this brings me to the issue of value spots. You not only have to play value hands strongly, but also keep your eyes peeled for value spots. When everyone folds to you on the button, that could be a value spot if the blinds are passive. If you are in the small blind against a button open, that could be a value spot if you get him to fold. These are also high-variance spots, but spots you could win more than 50% of the time, so you have to use your judgement. (In this format, btw, I’d define a Value Spot as a spot where you can win the hand more than 50% of the time, regardless of the actual hand you have.)
I took the liberty of searching for such spots against the guy on my left, an excellent cash game reg who would attack my button from his small-blind. I couldn’t simply fold all my buttons, because players on my seat would probably win there a fair bit. So I had to play back at this guy. We had a 3b-4b dynamic going on, and in one hand I stacked him with Q7s against 96. (It went raise-3b-4b-flat, flop came Q96, with 7 on the river. Standard spot.) In another hand on the second day, in another 3b-4b spot, I took an all-in call on the river with A-high, in a spot where he would check-call all showdown hands because I was guaranteed to bluff. His range was polarised, as I thought, but he happened to be bluffing with bottom pair and I lost. The call was correct anyway, because once I have put in enough chips to ensure that I am last on my seat, there is nothing to be lost going all the way. (Ceretis Paribus, again.)
Again, the key rule with value spots is simply whether you’ll win more than 50% of the time, and what your opponents do doesn’t even matter here, because you’ll either get 7 points or 1. You beat the average by winning more than 50%.
So, the optimal strategy is to fold a lot, including all speculative and medium-strength hands, push all value hands hard (if you get coolered, so will everyone on your seat) and use your judgement for value spots. We started off unlucky, some panic set in, and we ended fifth. I slipped off first place in the individual leaderboard, ending 11th, but that was a chip-count thing. (If they calculated that the same way as team points, I’m sure I’d be higher.)
What was worse was that the winning team, after getting lucky on day 1, followed my strategy on day 2 and were thus uncatchable. One of them mentioned that they looked at my hand histories at the end of day 1 as I was leading the individual leaderboard, and their chief strategist is a close friend to whom I had boasted that I had cracked the optimal strategy. They didn’t necessarily get it from me, and this stuff isn’t rocket science to figure out. The fact that they shifted to my strategy on day 2 (one of them folded 24 out of 25 hands in one session, I heard) is intellectual validation that my ideas were correct – though I would have preferred monetary validation. SAD!
(No other team seemed to have figured out the strategy, by the way, with the team that came second playing a LAG style that is perfect for deep-stack cash games but sub-optimal for this format.)
For what it’s worth, I don’t intend to play this again, which is why I am being free with my thoughts here. I expect all the teams to read this, though, thus adding a metagame element, and making their subsequent search for value spots that much more fascinating.
The event was glitzy, with drone cams and so on, so watch it on MTV if you can. I haven’t seen it yet, and I am sure that if I do, I’ll be even more determined to resume my Keto diet.
The archives of Range Rover, my old poker column for the Economic Times.
The Five Commandments of Poker, an episode of the podcast Mera Kaam Poker that features me.
Sita Sings the Blues: The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told
Dev.D doesn't flinch from depicting the individual’s downward spiral
9 across: Van Morrison classic from Moondance (7)
6 down: Order beginning with ‘A’ (12)