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My Friend Sancho

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.



Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

26 March, 2015

The Answer is 42

This is the 38th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

The answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything, according to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is 42. The computer that came up with this took 7.5 million years to calculate it, though the question for this answer wasn’t known. Well, I have a guess as to what it was.

My guess is that Douglas Adams was a keen connoisseur of Pot Limit Omaha, and he got into the following hand with his friend Richard Dawkins. Adams had T985ds, spades and diamonds, and the flop came K67, one spade and two diamonds, giving him a humongous wrap, a flush draw and a backdoor flush draw. Dawkins potted, Adams repotted, Dawkins jammed, Adams called. Dawkins had AAKKds, clubs and hearts, for top set. ‘Ha,’ he exclaimed, ‘I have the nuts. Take a hitchhike, my friend!’

‘Now, now, calm down,’ said Adams. ‘It is in your genes to be excitable, I know, but I must inform you that your top set is not the best hand here. Indeed, I am actually the favourite to win here.’

‘You’re kidding me,’ said Dawkins, as he looked at Adams’s cards in growing horror. ‘So what percent of the time do I win this hand?’

And that’s the question, dear reader, to which the answer is 42.

As it happens, the turn gave Adams a straight flush, at which point Dawkins became a militant atheist, as indeed am I, but that is not a matter on which I shall dwell today. Instead, I wish to bring up the role of numbers in poker. I have written before on how poker is a numbers game, and to master the game, you must master the math. In my last column, I wrote about the hard work involved in teaching yourself the game, much of which involved number-crunching. In response, my friend Rajat, a keen player with a recent live tournament win under his belt, tweeted: ‘I’m an old-school player, terrified of numbers. What advice for me?’ This is a reaction many people would have, so here’s what I have to say.

The mathematical laws that govern poker, and indeed, the universe, are not ‘new-school’ inventions. Just as an old-school physicist before the time of Newton was subject to the laws of gravity, so is poker subject to mathematical laws, rewarding those who master them. Indeed, ‘old-school’ players knew their math, as you will note from the vintage of David Sklansky’s The Theory of Poker (1983), and the musings of Doyle Brunson, a man who knew his fold equity, in Super System (1979). Since the internet boom in poker, the math behind the game has been far better understood, to the extent that a talented player who ignores the numbers is like a prodigious swimmer trying to cross an ocean but just refusing to get on a bloody boat.

All decisions in poker come down to the math of estimating pot equity and fold equity and making the best decision possible. You may use your ‘reads’ and psychological insights to get a better sense of your opponent’s range, and how likely he might be to act in a particular way, but all these merely help you come up with the right inputs. The answer, in the end, lies in the math. And here’s the thing: if you ignore the math, that doesn’t mean the math goes away. No, it’s working away in the background, like the laws of nature, ensuring the survival of the fittest – or those who adapt the best, as Dawkins would say.

If you have been winning at poker without caring too much about the math, it is either because you’re playing really soft games, or you’ve been lucky. The way the game is growing in India, both of these are bound to change. So here’s a thought for you: It is a truism in poker we must not be results-oriented, and should just focus on making the right decisions so that we show a profit in the long run. But how do we know what the right decisions are? The answer lies in asking the right questions – as Dawkins did to Adams.

Posted at 10:05 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

17 March, 2015

The Bastards Whose Sisters We Must Screw

While reading Tapan Raychaudhuri’s memoir, The World In Our Time, I came across this most excellent Bengali “local ballad” of Barisal from the 19th century. Basically, Raychaudhuri’s great-great-grandfather, Rajkumar Sen, had once been “poisoned by his Brahmin guru and a co-conspirator, one Mr Mahalanabish (no relation of the famous statistician and progenitor of Indian planning).” Here’s a translation of the ballad that sprung up in response, which Raychaudhuri tells us is “still current in that area”:

In the village of Kirtipasha lived a famous Babu,
Rajkumar by name.
What can I say of his noble deeds
Wonderful to recall.
His Diwan, Mahalanobish,
A black sheep born of decent parents
Conspired with the guru
And put poison in his sherbet.
Oh, the bastard, the bastard whose sister must be screwed!
As for the sun-dried rice-eating Brahmin?
Cut open his arse
And take out the sugar, butter and ghee
The scoundrel had eaten all these years
Oh the bastards, the bastards whose sisters we must screw.

I suppose it could be said that this is an illustration of rape being an instrument of power more than a crime of lust—but that’s hardly a revelation. Funky song, though, isn’t it? Mahalanobish the bastard indeed!

Posted at 1:07 PM by Amit Varma in Miscellaneous

13 March, 2015

Keynes’s Honeymoon

Things I learned today: Wittgenstein went on Keynes’s honeymoon.

Posted at 10:16 AM by Amit Varma in Things I learned today

12 March, 2015

Marching For Salt

March 12 is a special day in India’s history. On this day 85 years ago Mohandas Gandhi set off on a walk from Sabarmati Ashram near Ahmedabad. His destination was 390km away: Dandi,  a coastal village near Navsari in Gujarat, where he intended to produce salt from the sea, in defiance of the salt tax levied by the British empire in India. Both the man and the cause were extraordinary.

I am writing a book that examines, in part, India’s intellectual history from 1857 to today. And Gandhi causes severe cognitive dissonance. The prominent 19th century figures in India’s freedom movement were all influenced by British liberalism, their ideas were shaped by Mill, Bentham, Morley, even Adam Smith. One can draw a straight line from Dadabhai Naoroji through Mahadev Govind Ranade and Gopal Ganesh Agarkar to the great Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who called himself “an intellectual grandson of Dadabhai Naoroji.”  These were the famed Moderates of the Congress party, aiming at incrementalism when it came to policy, seeking not to fight the empire but to be equal subjects within it. The Moderates dominated the Congress until the mid-1910s, despite skirmishes with the Extremists within the party, men like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal, whose preferred methods may have been different but whose aims weren’t all that different from that of the moderates. The Scottish statesman James Keir Hardie once described the Moderates as ‘extreme in moderation’ and the Extremists as ‘moderate in extremism’, and indeed, they weren’t really all that far apart.

Uptil this point, the narrative is coherent. Then comes Gandhi. It seems to me that Gandhi was a black swan event in the Indian independence movement: nothing that came before could explain his arrival; nothing that then existed seemed to demand his ascendance. Gandhi called Gokhale his political mentor, but ideologically the two men were poles apart.

Gandhi was not influenced by the British liberals who shaped Gokhale’s thinking, nor did his thinking have Indian antecedents. He arrived at non-violent non-cooperation through Tolstoy’s writings, later finding backup in Thoreau and the sermon on the mount. His luddite distrust of machinery and the idealisation of village life came from John Ruskin. He claimed the Bhagavad Gita as an influence, but some of this comes from finding post-facto validation of his prior beliefs in Indian texts. VS Naipaul once called him ‘the least Indian of Indian leaders’ – but his ideas weren’t part of the Western mainstream either. When a critic complained, in his South African years, that he was poorly read in modern philosophy, Gandhi responded, in the historian Ramachandra Guha’s words, that he “saw no reason to read more glosses of modern civilisation when he saw the thing itself unfold before his eyes.”

Shortly after Gandhi came back to India, his political patron Gokhale died, to be followed a few months later by another Moderate stalwart Pherozeshah Mehta. There was a tussle in the Congress between the Extremists, led by Tilak and Annie Besant, and the remaining moderates, men such as Motilal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Gandhi was a peripheral figure, considered somewhat eccentric by other Congress leaders, still on the margins and not yet a Mahatma. Indeed, in 1918 he spent some time trying to recruit soldiers to fight for the British in WW1, writing to the viceroy, Lord Chemsford, “I love the English nation, and I wish to evoke in every Indian the loyalty of the Englishman.” In this sentiment, he echoed the Moderates, and hardly presaged the uncompromising freedom fighter he would go on to become. A year later, as that decade came to an end, he shifted from the margins of the freedom struggle to its centre.

Gandhi’s first tactical masterstroke in domestic Indian politics was making common cause with the Khilafat movement. Muslim thinkers in India were often torn between loyalty to the qaum, the larger Muslim nation, and Indian nationalism. The Khilafat movement was an expression of the former, and was aimed at maintaining the supremacy of the caliph in Turkey in the aftermath of WW1, where Turkey was on the losing side and the British were the victors. Your enemy’s enemy must be your friend, and for Gandhi, this was as an opportunity in two ways: to reconcile the sometimes conflicting loyalties of the Muslims; and to widen the base of the somewhat elitist Congress.

Gandhi threw himself into the thick of things, turning the nominally transnational Khilafat movement into a nationalistic enterprise. “It is the duty of every non-Moslem Indian in every legitimate manner to assist his Mussulman brother, in his attempt to remove the religious calamity that has overtaken him,” he wrote in a resolution adapted by the Congress in a special session in Calcutta in 1920. His program of noncooperation was adopted by the Congress session later that year in Nagpur, from which Jinnah stormed out, never to return to the party he had expected to lead. “I part company with the Congress and Gandhi,” he said in an interview that year. “I do not believe in working up mass hysteria. Politics is a gentleman’s game.”

The coupling of Khilafat and Swaraj made no ideological sense – severe dissonance, again – but it was tactical genius. At a personal level, this support from a new constituency made Gandhi the undisputed leader of the Congress, and thus the Independence movement. At a national level, it helped make the Independence struggle a true mass movement. With the Congress under his sway, Gandhi launched a movement of noncooperation that animated the entire country. Satyagraha – the force of truth – was underway. The British had never seen anything like this in India – though Gandhi called it off in 1922 when protesters turned violent in the town of Chauri Chaura and killed 23 policemen, reportedly while shouting “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!” He even went on a fast, as penance for the crimes committed in his name. 30,000 people had already been imprisoned in the course of the movement, and the Khilafat leaders as well as his Congress colleagues did not take kindly to Gandhi’s unilateral decision to call off the Satyagraha. Soon, Gandhi was also arrested and sentenced to six years of prison – though he served only two, and the Khilafat movement wound up because, well, the Caliphate did. Swaraj was on hold.

Gandhi was on a hiatus for the middle years of that decade. “I am biding my time,” he wrote in a letter in 1928, “and you will find me leading the country in the field of politics when the country is ready. […] I have a plan for the country’s freedom.” When the Congress was next convened, it gave a deadline of a year to the British to grant India dominion status – failing which it would declare Independence. The year ended, the British ignored the demands of the natives, and on January 26, 1930, the Congress declared India’s Independence. But this alone was not enough. Another noncooperation movement, another satyagraha was required. What would be the focal point of this one?

*

In Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky relates a French folktale in which a princess tells her father “I love you like salt,” and is promptly banished by her father for insufficient adoration. But later, when he is denied salt, he realises “the depth of his daughter’s love” and repents. Salt is essential to humanity. Our bodies contain about 250gms of salt, but too many essential bodily functions rely on salt. “From the beginning of civilisation until about 100 years ago,” Kurlansky writes, “salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.”

The first war over salt was fought by Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor of China, around 2600 BC. Salt had geopolitical significance, and even gave impetus to empire building. The first of the great roads built by the Romans, the Via Salaria, was constructed for the express purpose of transporting salt. Mediaval trade routes were shaped by salt. Salt was even currency; Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt, and the worlds ‘salary’ and ‘soldier’ both evolved from sal, the Latin word for salt. Indeed, consider the origin of the phrase you must have heard in countless Hindi films, “Maine aapka namak khaaya hai.”

The first mention of a tax on salt dates back to the 20th century BC, in China. “During the Tang Dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907,” Kurlansky tells us, “half the revenue of the Chinese state was derived from salt.” Salt taxes were a certain way for any state to raise revenue, for even the poorest could not do without it. Salt was taxed in India from as far back as the reign of Chandragupta Maurya (340-298 BC), and the Mughals even charged differential salt taxes depending on religion. (Muslims paid 2.5%, Hindus paid 5%.) The British, starting with Robert Clive, the governor-general in 1765, raised it to unprecedented levels. To further compound matters, they killed off the domestic industry, and built a monopoly to the benefit of British salt manufacturers in Cheshire. By the early 1800s, only the British government could legally manufacture salt in India. A rebellion around salt in 1817 was quickly crushed, and by 1858, 10% of the British government’s revenues came from salt.

Gandhi wasn’t the first nationalist leader to protest about the tax on salt. SA Swaminath Iyer protested against it in the inaugural session of the Congress in 1885, as did Gopal Krishna Gokhale in 1890, and Dadabhai Naoroji called it “the most cruel Revenue imposed in any civilised country” in the House of Commons in 1894. The issue festered; the British ignored Indian fulminations; the salt tax was, in fact, doubled in 1923.

And so, Mohandas Gandhi’s Satyagraha hammer found a suitable nail in the salt tax.

*

Before the Satyagraha, Gandhi wrote in a letter to the Indian viceroy, Lord Irwin: “I regard this tax [on salt] to be the most iniquitous of all from the poor man’s standpoint. As the Independence movement is essentially for the poorest in the land, the beginning will be made with this evil. The wonder is that we have submitted to the cruel monopoly for so long.”

What happened in the Salt Satyagraha is common knowledge. Gandhi marched for 24 days and reached the coast of Dandi on April 6. C Rajagopalachari went on a similar march in Tamil Nadu. Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru had been arrested by the British, as was Gandhi shortly after the satyagraha. The British government made some minor concessions, but the salt tax remained in place until 1946. Gandhi had said that he would not return to Sabarmati Ashram until the tax was repealed. After March 12, when he set off on his walk, he never saw the Ashram again.

But here’s a thought, 85 years after that famous march to Dandi. There is a point of view that in 1947, all we did was replace a set of colonial rulers with a set of local rulers. We continued to be ruled; and we continued to be exploited. We gained political independence and the right to vote, but other freedoms, both in the economic and personal spheres, continue to be denied to us, just as the British denied them. Many of the laws that the British framed to suppress us, in the form of the Indian Penal Code, remain in place. If our freedom fighters, men like Naoroji and Gokhale and Rajaji and Patel were alive today, would they feel fulfilled at the India they saw around them? Would Gandhi?

When he reached Dandi, Gandhi picked up a fistful of salt in his hand as Sarojini Naidu, carried away by the moment, shouted “Hail deliverer!” She was right – and she was wrong: India still awaits deliverance.

Posted at 12:47 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India

Don’t Maro Ratta

This is the 37th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Imagine you’re seven years old and you’re sitting in a classroom where an old professor who scratches his ass constantly is teaching you poker. ‘Now children,’ he intones , as if a robotic app is speaking from inside his body and not an actual human, ‘Imagine you have 13 big blinds in the cutoff and the action folds to you. What is the bottom of your shoving range?’

Someone titters from the back benches. The teacher ignores him and continues: ‘I will tell you what your shoving range is. Now everybody write down what I am putting on the blackboard, and learn by heart for exams. Okay? Learn. By. Heart.’ He turns to the board and starts writing with his right hand and scratching his ass with his left. Someone throws a paper plane at him.

Wouldn’t you hate to learn poker like that? I bet it would kill your interest in the game forever. Maybe you could have been a recreational shark, emptying people’s bank balances in your spare time. But no, classroom happens to you, and you take up stamp collecting as a hobby instead, for the sheer adrenalin rush that gives you. What a shame.

Poker has never been taught in a classroom, of course. It is a recent science, and if anyone wants to learn poker, they have to put in the hard yards and learn it on their own. There’s no university course, no poker diploma you can get, no MOOCs on Coursera, and most instructional books are outdated. Friends may help you, you could even get some online coaching, but if you want to be really good, you’ll have to do most of the hard work yourself. And before you learn how to play poker, you’ll first have to learn how to learn.

One of the problems with Indian education is the emphasis it places on ratta maroing – or learning by heart. When I was a student, I would spend all night before an exam mugging up facts from a guidebook, only to forget them the day after the tests. I believe that every time I did this, a small part of my brain died. And I didn’t learn anything about the subject in question.

Why do I bring this up in the context of poker? It is because too many beginning players indulge in their old habits of ratta maaroing when it comes to learning this game. I know tournament players who will know their push-fold ranges quite precisely, but have never, ever, even once calculated the equity of a particular move. Indeed, some tournament coaches begin and end by teaching ranges for different spots, and while this is useful, it would make more sense to teach a beginner to figure out those ranges for himself. Get the calculator out, figure out fold equity against players left to act, pot equity against calling ranges, and so on.  It’s a lot of work, but at the end of it, such knowledge will be deeper than just mugged-up push-fold charts – and as the game evolves, you will have the tools to do so as well.

In cash games as well, where stacks are deeper, you need to work hard at understanding how to play in different spots. Poker is, ultimately, about nothing more than maximising EV. If you don’t spend lots of time fiddling around with tools like Odds Oracle by ProPokerTools, which helps you figure out equities against weighted ranges, and Flopzilla, which helps you understand how different ranges connect with different board textures, then you can’t improve beyond a certain point.

Let me sum it up: inside your brain there is an old teacher who scratches his ass and encourages you to take shortcuts and ratta maro. Expel him.

Posted at 9:14 AM by Amit Varma in Poker | Range Rover | Sport

07 March, 2015

Let Me Take You Far Away

This is the 14th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Yesterday was Holi. Of all the festivals in India, this is the one that vexes me the most. What is the worst that can happen during Diwali? Some misbehaved children, odes to contraception each one, could be playing with firecrackers on the road. One of them could explode (firecracker, not child, or maybe both) under my feet as I absentmindedly saunter down the boulevard singing a merry tune, and my left leg could get blown off. Big deal. We must not be attached to material things, and a left leg is a material thing, so what is there?

Ganpati is not so bad either. It is true that festivals of that sort provide social sanction for hooliganism, but what is the worst that can happen to me? I could get caught in a terrible traffic jam, unable to do Vipassana meditation because of the monstrous noise, and I could get out of my car and shout at a man trying his best to separate himself from his limbs as a holy hymm by Sri Sri Honey Singh plays in the background, at a volume I can only describe as one decibel for each resident of Mumbai. This man could stop gyrating, notice that his limbs are still with him, and decide to shoot the messenger. He and his friend could put their Ganesha idol in my car, and drag me to the beach and immerse me instead. And there I go, back into the ocean from whence humankind emerged, and that really can’t be all that bad.

No, Diwali and Ganpati are quite alright. Holi, now, that’s another matter.

Some people don’t like Holi because it is ok on that day to violate other people’s personal space. The gangly teenage boy from Jhumritalayya whose life’s greatest ambition is to be a spotboy in a Sunny Leone film, and who has never gathered up the courage to speak to a girl—he practises speaking to his hand instead—leave alone actually touch them, gathers up the courage on Holi to go around molesting all the women in his colony, with a gang of other gangly boys, under the pretext of revelry. Or, if he considers himself to have too much class to stoop to this, he positions himself on the terrace of his building and chucks water balloons at passersby like my humble, previously dapper self. Indian Sniper. But this is all in a day’s work for me. I spent a few years commuting in Mumbai’s local trains, which change your perspectives of personal space forever. The freedom fighter who said ‘We are one country, we are one people’ was frightfully prescient, for he foresaw the development of the Mumbai local decades before it existed. In developed countries they keep their meat in freezers, but, ah well, every day is a festival on the Virar Fast.

No, what really bothers me about Holi is not the invasion of personal space, but the color. Not the application of color, mind you, for even when a gangly boy is applying it you can always close your eyes and pretend it’s a nubile nymphet teasing you a trifle roughly, and who can fault her passion, for you are terribly handsome. Closing your eyes also stops the color from getting in, and is a practice I urge you to master even on non-Holi days. I frequently close my eyes these days, and it’s most pleasurable.

No, it’s not color in its material manifestation that bothers me, but the concept of it—and the ideological battles that spring forth over that ultimate hot button. Like what happened yesterday. My friends invited me over to celebrate the festival, and despite my misgivings about the festival, I went, for they are pleasant company. Besides, no one invites me to anything or wants to spend time with me, possibly because they are intimidated by my intellect and good looks, so I thought, might as well be a bit social. I carried two pichhkaris with me, one filled with blue water and the other with black, because I thought that would give me an opportunity, after spraying my targets playfully, to joke that I had beaten them black and blue, haha. So I sprayed my host , and unleashed my wisecrack. Nobody laughed. Then the host said:

‘What black and blue? This is white and gold.’

At first I thought he was joking. ‘What white and gold? What do you mean?’

‘The colours you just sprayed on me. They’re white and gold. Why would anyone spray white water on Holi. You’re whitewashing a house or something?’

I refrained from commenting on his bulk and need to lose weight, astonished as I was by his comment. ‘What are you smoking?’ I asked. ‘Or have you overdosed on bhang? That’s not white and gold, it’s black and blue. Back me up, someone.’

My other friend Narendra, who considers himself fashionable and keeps saying ‘I’m so modish, I’m so modish’, and who was dressed in white pinstriped breeches with saffron paint all over them, spoke up on my behalf. ‘That is indeed black and blue,’ he said, ‘in keeping with our heritage. We have always been a black and blue country. We have had blue gods. And India invented the colour black.’

Rahul, my host’s cute four-year-old nephew who insists that everyone calls him ‘Rahul Jee’, now piped up. ‘That’s white and gold,’ he said. ‘If Narendra uncle is saying that’s blue and black it must be white and gold. But if he changes his mind later, so will I.’ He now resumed sucking his thumb, despite the country-sized blister on it.

My old classmate Arnab, meanwhile, was taking a cellphone video of the host. ‘The nation wants to know what the colour of this paint is,’ he intoned grandly. ‘Amit, what did you say it was?’

‘Well, I think it is…’

‘Shut up!’ He cut me off. ‘But you asked me…’ I protested. ‘I know exactly what I asked you Mr Varma,’ he said, ‘and let me tell you once and for all, it’s white and gold.’

At this point the cook, Arvind, entered the room with a tray full of mangoes. So we asked him what he thought the colours were. He sprayed some water from one of my pichkaris on Narendra. Then from the other. Then he threw a bucket full of red paint on him, and then a bucket full of yellow paint. And then he gave us the final word on the subject: ‘Sab mile hue hai.

Posted at 8:03 AM by Amit Varma in India | Lighthouse

26 February, 2015

We Are All Sharks

This is the 36th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

A few days ago, I was shooting the breeze with a friend of mine when he told me about a couple of business ventures he was planning, and the investors he’d lined up for them. ‘You won’t believe how gullible they are,’ he said. ‘If there’s one thing I’ve learned from poker, it’s how to find fish and exploit them. And there are so many fish in the business world.’

It’s a good thing I was sipping lemonade at the time and not my usual hot Americano, or I’d have singed myself. Having recovered from the shock of his statement, I shook my head sadly. Poker is a beautiful game, and it can teach you a lot about life. But the lesson my friend had learned was entirely the wrong one.

Poker is a zero-sum game. (A negative-sum game, in fact, if you’re playing a raked game.) The only way you can win money is if someone else loses it. So it’s natural that the key skill in poker lies in exploiting the mistakes of others, sometimes after inducing those mistakes in the first place. It is a mathematical exercise that plays on the frailties of human nature. The game is played by consenting adults, and as your opponents are also trying to exploit you and take your money, they’re fair game. But the real world works differently.

Life is a positive-sum game. This is most eloquently illustrated by what the libertarian writer John Stossel once described, in an old column, as the Double Thank You Moment. When you buy a cup of coffee at a café, you say ‘thank you’ when you are handed the coffee, and the person behind the counter says ‘thank you’ on receiving your money. Both of you are better off. Indeed, the vast majority of human transaction, including all business transactions, are like this. Both people benefit – or they wouldn’t be transacting in the first place.

This amazing phenomenon, which we take for granted, is responsible for the remarkable economic and technological progress of the last three centuries. The economies of nations across the world have grown in consonance with the rise of free markets within them. Think about it: if every transaction leads to both parties benefiting, and a consequent increase of value in the world, then the more people are free to transact, in whatever form, the more we progress as an economy and a society. This is why libertarians such as myself consider it a crime to clamp down on any kind of freedom, be it economic or social.

The positive-sumness of things is unintuitive, and many people reflexively speak of the world in zero-sum terms. For example, socialists, with all their talk of ‘exploitation’, the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor and the need for redistribution. But that is not how the world works; it is not a game of poker. Just as in poker there is no possibility of a Double Thank You Moment, in life, we can all be sharks.

So much for learning the wrong lesson from poker. What does poker teach us about life that is useful to us? Well, the most important lesson I have learnt from poker is not to be results-oriented. Luck plays a huge role in the short term, you only get what you deserve in the long run, so just focus on doing the right thing and don’t worry about the fruits of your actions. The Bhagawad Gita teaches the exact same lesson. Lord Krishna would have crushed the games.

Posted at 10:31 AM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

25 February, 2015

An Economic Message from God

The editors of Okonomos, the economics journal of the Hansraj College in Delhi, asked me to write a guest article for the current issue of their magazine. Here it is.

Imagine one day God comes down to Earth. He’s an old man with a beard, hanging out in the clouds, and he latches onto the wing of a plane and sits there, cross-legged, until the flight lands. A communist man who took a reclining-emergency-row window seat for the legroom has to be taken off the plane on a stretcher, for he faints after seeing 1), a gentleman who is obviously God on the wing of the plane, and 2), the T-shirt God is wearing, which says, in fluorescent pink letters, ‘Free Markets Rule.’

God is instantly met by waiting paparazzi, and an impromptu press conference is convened. ‘Oh God,’ says an overwhelmed young lady, who appears to be on the brink of orgasm, or something equally divine, ‘Oh God, please tell us: why that T-shirt?’

‘I was hoping someone would ask me that,’ says God. ‘Or rather, I made you ask me that. This is why I have come down here. You should know that I’m a bit of an efficiency buff.  I made the universe, and then the earth, and then amoeba and fish and monkeys and all you folk, but the thing is, I was not much into micro-management. The universe is full of tons of shit, and fine-tuning every small aspect of each creation would take eternity. And while I do have that much time, why sweat the small stuff, so I decided to just put systems in place and take a nap.

‘When I went to sleep, there was primordial ooze. I put natural selection in place, and as I slept, evolution happened. I knew that something like you humans would eventually evolve, though I must confess I couldn’t have anticipated Honey Singh or Kim Kardashian. Wtf , really? Anyway, I put systems in place for you folk too, so you could reach reach your optimum levels as a species, in the pursuit of happiness. But when I wake up I find, hey, what’s going on here, the most beautiful, elegant aspect of my creation, which was meant to help you reach fulfilment, is being maligned. I’m talkin’ about free markets. So here I am, to put the record straight, and to set you on the right track as a species. So listen up carefully, because I won’t be back to repeat this: I have to rush after this to North-West Andromeda, and I could take quite a while there, a black hole has been acting up, keeps spitting galaxies out, wtf?’

‘Oh God,’ says the young lady we have already met, on the verge of rapture. ‘Tell us everything. Oh God!’

‘Right,’ says God. ‘Listen up, here come some basic truths about economics that are really just common sense, but you may consider them divine revelation if you wish.

One: Life is a Positive Sum game. Every time two people make a trade, they do so because both of them benefit. One of my blessed children, John Stossel, illustrated this by coining a phrase, ‘Double Thank You Moment.’ You buy a cup of coffee, and as you pay for it and take the cup, you say to the guy behind the counter, ‘Thank you,’ and he says the same thing to you. Two Thank Yous! And indeed, in every single transaction that takes place across the world, both people benefit, or they wouldn’t have entered into that transaction. This is how productivity goes up, how the amount of value in the world rises, how societies grow prosperous. For my sake, think about how drastic progress has been since the 18th century, when free markets started becoming common. Look at the two Koreas, identical once upon a time, and now so different because of the different paths they chose. And listen up, listen up, to what I say next:

‘Since every trade leads to both parties benefiting and value being created in the world, anyone who comes in the way of free trade anywhere is sinning. Yes, you heard me, it is a sin to get in the way of free enterprise. Tariffs and duties are evil, and regulations and license rajs are man’s way of trying to play God. Don’t you dare!

Two: Business is better than charity. Given what I told you above, how does a human being make money? Only by increasing the value in the lives of other people. Put another way, you can only enrich yourself by enriching others. That is exactly what business is. You make money by giving people what they want. The more value you create for others, the more value you create for yourself. Thus, it’s nonsensical to speak of a system where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In a free market, that’s not possible. The rich can only get richer if the poor also get richer.

‘And this is why I consider businesses better than charities. Both aim to help others, but the survival of businesses depends on their ability to do so, and I like those incentives better.

Three: Money Trickles Up, Not Down. No respectable economist has ever spoken of trickle-down economics. There is no such thing. It is a straw man. (You are all like straw to me, but never mind that.) In a free market, money trickles up, not down. In a business, it is the suppliers and the workers who get paid first, and the consumers who get served, and only then, right at the end, do the owners make any money. They are at the end of the chain. Ask anyone you know who runs a business how it works.

Four: Capitalists are among the biggest enemies of capitalism. Raghuram Rajan, a man I created in my own image (aren’t I handsome?), once co-wrote a book titled ‘Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists.’ Note that sentiment. People often think that defenders of free markets are defending the actions of evil capitalists and big businesses gaming the system. Wrong. Established capitalists are the ones who have the most to fear from competition, and they are the ones who lobby governments to manipulate markets in their favour. To take an example, look at India. When India gained Independence, a group of its top businessmen came up with something called the Bombay Plan, which was their vision of what the economy should be like. They wanted an interventionist state, with plenty of regulation and many curbs placed on free enterprise. Historians have presented this in support of the argument that hey, even capitalists wanted unfree markets, so free markets can’t be all that great, right? But think about it: of course the entrenched businesses would want government to keep out competition. Like, duh!

‘So beware of crony capitalists and the governments they partner with. And every time a new regulation or tax or tariff is introduced, consider who it is likely to benefit.

Five: Government is a false God. If offends me when people have blind faith in entities other than me. Like government. Governments came into being to serve the people and protect their rights, but instead, have ended up ruling the people and infringing their rights. Think about it, if any individual or group of people forced you to pay a third of your income every year to them, which effectively meant you were enslaved to them till April every year, you’d be pissed, and would correctly call them thieves. If they regulated all your activities, curtailed your freedom even when you were causing no harm to others, and took a cut of all your purchases, you’d feel that a mafia was running your life. But when an entity called government does all this, and sanctimoniously tells you that this is for your own good, and it’s your duty to obey it, you somehow accept it. And furthermore, you expect it to be the solution to all your problems, even when the biggest problems around you are caused by government itself. What a con job!

‘The biggest force in human progress over the last few centuries has been free enterprise. And the biggest enemy of free enterprise – indeed, a sinner in my books – is government. And yet, you worship this false God, while forgetting all about me and the beautiful, natural system I put in place for you, tailored perfectly to human nature. So here’s a commandment for you: Embrace freedom – and question everything that your governments do.’

God stops here, and the young lady we mentioned earlier takes advantage of the lull to shoot a quick selfie with Him. As soon as she clicks the button on her cellphone, God, having delivered His message, disappears. The communist man of the reclining-emergency-row disappears with him. And far away, in North-West Andromeda, an alumnus of JNU is hurled into a black hole and is promptly hurled back out, for it is a universal truth that all transactions should be voluntary.

Posted at 2:09 PM by Amit Varma in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics

12 February, 2015

It’s All a Gamble

This is the 35th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Some people, when I tell them I play poker, look at me kind of strange. They may not say it, but inside their heads they’re saying, ‘OMG, he’s a gambler!’ And because I am skilled at getting inside people’s heads and listening to them think, inside my head I’m sayin’, ‘Yeah, and guess what, OMG OMG, you’re a gambler too!’

What is it that gamblers do? They weigh up the odds of a particular situation or event, the risk-to-reward ratio, and make a bet. This is not something that just happens inside casinos; this is the stuff of life.

You walk up to someone you fancy and ask them out for a date: you are gambling. You buy a stock: you’re betting on it to go up. You sell a stock: you’re betting on it to go down. You buy real estate: gamble. You buy a book because you like the blurb and the cover is amazing: ditto.

Little in life is certain, and everything is scarce, because time itself is scarce. You have one life, and the smallest decision you take today could change the course of your life. Maybe you have to choose between the PHD abroad or the comfortable job at home. Maybe you have to decide whether to say ‘yes’ to your boyfriend’s proposal when you know he’s not the dream guy, and you’re settling, and he hit you once when he was angry, but who knows if you’ll ever do better because you’re chubby, and you do love him sometimes. Maybe you get a puppy, betting that the love you get for a decade or so will be worth the pain you feel when it dies, as is inevitable. Everything you do, big or trivial, may be worth it, or it may be a mistake. And the thing with real life is, you’ll never know where the road not taken would have led. But you have to gamble; you have to choose.

Poker is slightly different. Poker is also gambling but it involves repeated small decisions with relatively little on the line on any particular occasion. And importantly, you get to put in volume. Even though luck plays a greater role in poker than in other sports or mindgames, it is not gambling gambling: if you’re skillful, you will eventually make a profit. Good poker players keep making, on average, profitable decisions, and though luck (or variance, as we grizzled vets call it) may hit them hard in the short run, in the long run they will end up winners. In life, on the other hand, as Keynes said, in the long run we’re dead.

A poker player can play a million hands or 20,000 tournaments, and those sample sizes are pretty good. You don’t get those in real life. How many times will you enter a romantic relationship? How often can you switch jobs? You get the drift.

There are different types of gambling. There are casino games like roulette, baccarat and craps in which, in the long run, you’re guaranteed to lose. I disapprove of playing those; it’s just giving money away. Then there’s life itself. You’re forced to gamble by circumstance, but it’s okay, life’s a positive-sum game; though one could argue that since we all die in the end, the final sum is zero. At least until then the odds aren’t weighed against you. And then there’s poker, in which, unlike in life, we can put in volume and bring the long run close. So, you, who do not play poker, don’t make fun of us and call us gamblers. All of us are born in a casino, and will die in one.

Posted at 12:47 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

06 February, 2015

The Kim Kardashian Liberals

This is the 13th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

You can hold a currency note up against the light, if you have been trained well, and detect whether it is real or fake. Is there a similar test that can help catch and expose a counterfeit liberal? Yes,  there is. It is the ‘but’ test. A counterfeit liberal is one who will espouse a liberal principle but then, immediately, before putting a full stop on the sentence, add the word ‘but’. And there’s always a universe after that ‘but’.

For example, a faux-liberal will say, “I believe in free speech, but…” Or “I believe in free markets, but…” That ‘but’ invalidates all that comes before it. Anyone who says he believes in free speech “but…” is not a liberal but a hypocrite. (And he doesn’t believe in free speech, obviously.) I have a term for these kinds of people, who abound in the Indian intellectual space. I call them Kim Kardashian Liberals. Too much But.

What is a true liberal then? I consider myself a classical liberal, and it disturbs me that the term is used so loosely these days. Our discourse has become muddy, and words like ‘rights’ and ‘freedom’ are used in such nebulous ways that conversations around these concepts often involve people talking past each other, with plenty of Buts swinging here and there. So, in a further effort to help you identify counterfeit liberals, beyond the simple but useful heuristic of keeping an eye out for Buts, let me elaborate upon what classical liberalism precisely means. Specifically: the first principles from which we arise at our support for freedom.

Many classical liberals arrive at their liberalism through natural rights. Are there any rights that we are born with? According to the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, the most basic right of all is the right to self-ownership. “Every man has a property in his own person,” Locke wrote. “This no Body has any right to but himself.” This is, to borrow a term Thomas Jefferson used in the Declaration of Independence, self-evident. When we are born, we own ourselves – it doesn’t make any sense that anyone else does, or that everyone communally does. Our right to self-ownership, of course, is contingent upon our respecting the corresponding rights of others.

All other rights emerge from the right to self-ownership. Our right to life, to start with, is a direct corollary of the right to self-ownership. The right to free speech, for we own our thoughts and their expression. The right to the fruits of our labours – or, essentially, the right to property. The right to freely associate with anyone we wish to, whether that interaction is social or economic. And what does freedom mean? It means freedom from an infringement of these rights.

Talk of rights often gets muddy because a new class of counterfeit rights has come up in the last few decades (created by counterfeit liberals, as you’d expect.) These are not really rights, but entitlements. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin helpfully coined the terms negative and positive rights to demarcate the difference. Negative rights are all rights that emerge from the right to self-ownership – like the right to life, to property, to free speech, to free trade and suchlike. To respect these rights of yours, people simply have to not infringe them. So someone not killing you is respecting your right to life, a government not censoring you is respecting your rights to free speech, and so on. This why they’re called negative rights. Positive rights, on the other hand, are not rights at all, but entitlements disguised as rights. The right to food, the right to education, the right to broadband etc are all positive rights. To honor these rights, someone has to actively give something to you. And as money doesn’t fall from the sky – if it did, there would be inflation, and God would effectively be taxing you – the only way to honor a positive right is to infringe a negative right. You have to tax Peter to give Paul his free broadband.

To a classical liberal, negative rights, which arise from the right to self-ownership, are the only kind of legitimate rights. All these rights, in a manner of speaking, are property rights, as they arise from the fact that you own yourself to begin with. Thinking in this manner, from these first principles, can bring clarity on a host of issues. People who want to suppress free speech for the cliched reason that “you can’t shout fire in a crowded theatre” are using a flawed example: a person shouting fire in a crowded theatre, whether he be the owner defrauding his patrons or a patron creating a disturbance on someone else’s property, is infringing on the rights of someone or the other in any case. All our rights are contingent upon respecting the corresponding rights of others, which this particular miscreant is not doing. You do not need to limit free speech to punish this particular troublemaker. (As you’d have guessed by now, I’m a free speech absolutist. No Buts.)

Seen through a prism of first principles, most public intellectuals in India do not have a coherent worldview. For example, a few years ago, a prominent columnist wrote about how he supported free speech when it came to MF Husain, because he was an artist, but not when it came to the Danish cartoonists, because, according to him, they were out to provoke. (So what if they were?) This position makes no sense. What are the first principles of this person here? Don’t ask him – he might put those Buts to good use and twerk you.

The hypocrisy that really staggers me regards free speech and free markets. A classical liberal supports both. Those on the left support only the former. Those on the right do it the other way around. This is bewildering. Once you have decided that two consenting adults should be able to do whatever they want with each other as long as they are not infringing on anyone else’s rights, what does it matter whether they are fucking or trading? But no, our Kim Kardashian Liberals will find something to object to, and there will be no coherence to their arguments.

Many classical liberals arrive at their support for freedom from a utilitarian standpoint. Free markets lead to economic prosperity; freedom of expression results in cultural growth; so they support both, without reference to natural rights. This is also a coherent way of arriving at liberalism. Kim Kardashian Liberals don’t show this coherence, and are soon unclothed.

*  *  *

Recently I came across Jim’s Rule of Buts, a creation of the blogger Jim Henley. The rule goes: “In any charged conversation, find any statements containing the conjunction ‘but’ and reverse the clauses.” This usually changes the meaning of the sentence completely. One example Henley gives is “the classic apology:” ‘I’m sorry I yelled at you, but what you said made me really angry’ means a completely different thing from ‘What you said made me really angry, but I’m sorry I yelled at you.’ If our Kim Kardashian Liberals had to follow this rule, a statement like ‘I believe in free speech, but you should not offend anyone’ would transform itself to ‘You should not offend anyone, but I believe in free speech.’ Now that second But is most pleasing, and one I would gladly caress.

Posted at 1:21 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Media | Politics

29 January, 2015

Deep Thought

This is the 34th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

I discovered poker as a grown adult approaching middle age, but I was a hustler in college as well. I was a decent chess player, and used to offer a prop bet to people with the following terms: ‘I will play 10 games with you, and will win all ten. If you even draw one, you win the bet.’ I never made this bet with anyone I’d seen on the circuit, thus guaranteeing that all my customers were patzers, and unlike in poker, the quantum of luck in chess is low enough that I won this bet every time I made it. One of my early victims, dazzled by my magisterial play, asked me what the difference between me and him was. ‘How many moves ahead do you think?’ he asked. ‘The same as you,’ I replied.

A famous study by Adriaan de Groot published in 1946 showed that, contrary to what you might expect, novices and expert players think more or less the same number of moves ahead. The difference in quality arises because the experts think the right moves ahead. Their candidate moves for analysis, in other words, are better moves to begin with. Their skill lies not in depth of analysis, but in understanding the nature of a position, which, in turn, comes from better pattern recognition. A grandmaster will look at a position not as a conglomeration of individual pieces, but in chunks of pieces that form recognisable patterns. He will understand the positional vulnerabilities of different kinds of patterns, and the tactical motifs that recur in these spots. In a spot where a novice thinks ‘If I threaten this piece, he’ll move it here to counter me,’ the grandmaster may think, ‘His pawn structure has weakened his dark squares, let me exploit that weakness and exchange off my weak white-squared bishop for his strong knight on c6.’ Guess who is more likely to win.

Why do I write about chess in a poker column? Well, there is exactly the same difference between beginning poker players and experienced ones. Beginners think in terms of what hand they have and how it connects with the board, and graduate to this from thinking about their opponent’s hand, and from there to considering what hand the opponent puts them on. But good players think not in terms of hands but ranges. They never ask, in any spot, ‘Am I ahead here?’ but ‘What is my equity here?’ and ‘How can I maximise my EV?’ They have a better sense of how specific ranges interact with different board textures, and can plan for future streets.

For example, let’s say you call with KJ on the button after a nit raises UTG, and the flop comes 876 two-tone. A beginner may give up when the nit c-bets, but a pro will usually continue in the hand and take down the pot with either immediate or future aggression, because the flop texture is terrible for the UTG’s range of big pairs and high cards, and most turns and rivers are bad for him. Indeed, this will be practically a reflexive decision for the pro, requiring no thinking at all. He would play this hand better than the novice not because his reads are better or he has a better poker face or suchlike, but because he understands the underlying math better.

Here’s one thing common to both chess and poker: the bad player does not know what he does not know. So here’s a tip on how to get better at both games: play a hell of a lot, and stay humble. The day you stop learning, you will be the fish at the table.

Posted at 11:26 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

15 January, 2015

Poker at Lake Wobegon

This is the 33rd installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

One of the ironies of poker is that at a nine-handed poker table, all nine players believe that they are profitable, if not the best player at the table. This obviously cannot be the case. Poker is a negative-sum game: the rake takes a percentage of each pot or tournament, and winners win less than what losers lose. Also, easily more than 90% of players are long-term losers, and most of the winners are just marginal winners. So what’s going on here?

I have two answers for you: 1. The nature of poker as a game. 2. Human nature itself. Let’s get the easy one out of the way.

Every game contains differing elements of luck, and although poker is unquestionably a game of skill, the quantum of luck in it is far higher than in other games. A winning player’s edge translates into a profit only in the long-term. Over a short span of time, it is difficult to tell from results who is the fish and who the shark. Losers win their fair share of pots and tournaments, which fosters the belief that they are better than they really are. But their flawed self-assessment is a consequence not just of the nature of poker, but of human nature itself.

A few decades ago, the writer Garrison Keillor created a fictional town named Lake Wobegon, where, he wrote, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” This gave its name to the Lake Wobegon Effect, also known as Illusory Superiority, a tendency humans have of overestimating their abilities. This tendency crops ups across contexts: in studies, people have been known to overestimate their driving skills (everyone can’t be above average) and terminally ill cancer patients have also, poignantly, overestimated their chances of survival.

You will see the Lake Wobegon Effect in poker, as also its sister, the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Wikipedia defines the Dunning-Kruger Effect as ‘a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.’

In the context of poker, a player may think he is better than he is because he lacks understanding of the game, or the intellectual tools to perceive his own weaknesses. I see this around me in many players. They don’t understand the long-term nature of the game, focus only on their own hand and don’t think in terms of ranges or equities, are results-oriented rather than process-oriented, and consider pots they win to be a validation of their skill while attributing their losses to bad luck. Some of these guys avoid putting in the hard work to get better, and rationalise this sloth; some of them are simply not capable of improving. This is not a defect in character any more than being human is.

How can you guard against the Lake Wobegon Effect and the Dunning-Kruger Effect in yourself? Here are two things you can do. One, always ask yourself what your edge is in any game you go to. If you can’t define this precisely in terms of how you are exploiting the specific weaknesses of others, you don’t have an edge. Two, keep track of all your scores, and see how much money you make over a decent sample size of sessions. Your brain might deceive you—but the numbers won’t lie.

Posted at 9:22 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Science and Technology | Sport

02 January, 2015

Some Achhe Din Resolutions

This is the 12th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

I am fascinated by New Year’s resolutions. Everybody makes them, no one keeps them, but they’re still great fun because they give you a chance to laugh at others. So every New Year I call up everyone on my phone’s speed-dial to find out what their resolutions are. (They never ask about mine, because everyone just loves talking about themselves.) This year, I started with our venerable PM, Narendra Modi.

‘Modiji,’ I said, in that deep baritone that women find irresistable, ‘Happy New Year. I’m calling to ask about your New Year resolution. Is saal kya plan hai?

‘Amitbhai,’ he said, ‘this year it’s proving to be a bit of a problem coming up with resolutions. See, last year my resolution was to become PM. Been there, done that, got the kurta. Now, after that happens, what else is there? Maybe I could try a medium-rare steak, as you keep urging me to do, but beyond that it’s getting hard to think of something.’

‘What about fulfilling some of your promises to the people of India? Like, all that achhe din aayenge stuff and all that.’

‘Sigh. Amitbhai, aap tho poker khelte ho, you know what a bluff is. See, when I said achhe din aayenge, I didn’t specify for whom. Everybody can’t have achhe din, that’s just not possible. I have lived up to my promise in the sense that these are achhe din for me. I became PM, I have travelled across the world, and I’m having an incredible amount of fun trolling the people. Like, I trolled the nation by making a dropout education minister. Hahaha. You are like my bahu, I told Smriti, lol. I let the RSS and those other Hindutva nutjobs make whatever noises they want, which people actually think could become government policy. You see how worried the lefties are becoming, I’ve seen cctv footage of Prakash Karat praying at a temple, finally made a believer out of him, haha. But I have the most fun trolling my chaiboy at the office.’

‘Why, what do you do?’

‘Oh, I force him to make tea 40 times a day, and keep pouring it down the sink and telling him, “There, this tea is over. Now make another cup. And don’t look so sad, you could be prime minister one day. Look at me!” Hahahahaha!’

‘Erm, interesting. Modiji, I gotta hang up, there’s a herd of wild cows trying to break down my door. See you later.’

‘Bye, Amitbhai. Do come home one of these evenings, achha dine karenge.’

I hung up, went outside, chased the cows away by throwing Amul cheeseballs at them, and then came back indoors. Who should I call next? Who else but Rahul Gandhi.

‘Hey Rahul, this is Amit,’ I said, in that deep baritone he loves so much. (So much, in fact, that some times he calls me in the middle of the night and begs, ‘Say something, Amit. Anything. Just talk. Sigh.’)

‘Hi Amit, bro, what’s up?’ he said. ‘You called at a great time, I’m practising for an interview. Ask me something, anything. Go ahead?’

‘Ok. What day of the week is it?’

‘Well, um, it’s, ah, it’s the day to empower women. That day has come. We must empower the women. And also the youth, so that they get the escape velocity of Jupiter.’

‘Rahul wtf man,’ I said. ‘Did I not tell you specifically last year: No. More. Interviews. I even used my baritone, ffs, I would have squeaked if I’d known you’d ignore me.’

‘No, no, you misunderstand,’ he said. ‘This is not a media interview I’m preparing for. No more media interviews for me. Media interviews are like poverty, anyway, they’re a state of mind. No, what I’m preparing for is an entrance exam interview. I’m planning to do a correspondence diploma course on how to run a family business.’

‘Hmm, interesting. Best of luck. Anyway, why I called was to ask you, what’s your New Year resolution this year?’

‘What new year? Oh. Um, I don’t know, I’ll have to ask Mummy. But there’s a slight problem with that.’

‘What?’

‘I’ve forgotten her phone number,’ he admitted sheepishly.

The next person I called was Arvind Kejriwal. He has become a good friend over the years, and helps me file my income tax returns. He refuses to take any compensation for it, though I do fly him down to Mumbai in business class.

‘Hi Amit, such a pleasure to hear from you,’ he said. ‘I heard the phone ring and thought, dee yamm, it’s Anna again. He keeps calling me and asking, “Which train are you on, Arvind, which train are you on? I’m on a fast!” WTF man, WTF, he’s trolling me.’

‘Er, are you sure it’s him?’ I asked. ‘Anyway, the reason I called was, I’m writing a column on the New Year’s resolutions of my friends. What’s yours?’

‘You’ll have to file an RTI application to find out. Haha, just kidding. My resolution this year is to look inwards, not outwards. The nation, I have realised, doesn’t give a damn about me, despite all my efforts to convince them that I speak for the common man. They’d rather listen to that bloody chaiwallah. So anyway, I am moving from the political to the spiritual, in an effort to cleanse myself.’

‘That’s wonderful!’ I said. ‘I’m so happy for you. So how are you starting?’

‘Well, first up, I will examine all the negative emotions inside me. Greed, jealousy,  bitterness, a sense of entitlement and superiority, all of those. Sab mile hue hai. They are corrupting my personality, and you know how I am against corruption. So one by one, I will take a stand against them and eliminate them.’

‘Fantastic. I’m so happy to hear that.’

‘In fact, I want to throw a party to celebrate this new awakening of mine. I’m going to call it the Aam Aadmi Party. You’re invited! It’s today evening, please do come, you know how the girls love your baritone.’

‘I’ll try and drop in,’ I said, and made a resolution to go for his party. But then I didn’t.

Posted at 2:24 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics

01 January, 2015

The Myth of the Made Hand

This is the 32nd installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

There is no term in poker that is as dangerous for the novice player as ‘made hand.’ Newcomers to poker divide all hands into two categories: made hands and drawing hands. If they have hit a pair or better, they say they have a made hand. If they are drawing to a flush or a straight, they call it a drawing hand. This is a terrible way to think about poker, especially when it informs your decision-making. For example, some players I know find it hard to fold a made hand, and never raise with a drawing hand because they ‘haven’t gotten there yet.’ This is fundamentally flawed thinking.

To explain myself, let me present a couple of axioms to you.

One: Every Drawing Hand is a Made Hand: There is one term that should dominate your thinking all through the course of a hand: equity. On any street except the river, equity refers to your share of the pot if every possible combination of outcomes was accounted for. Beginners think of a made hand as one that is 100% there, and a drawing hand as one that isn’t there yet. But if you look at equities, most of the time a made hand just has a big share of the pot, and is sometimes even behind the drawing hand. Consider, for example, that on a board of A67 with the 67 being spades, 89ss will win a pot against AK 52.6% of the time. Which is the made hand, then? What does the term, ‘made hand’ even mean? How much equity does a hand need to qualify as a made hand?

If 89ss has more equity there than AK, is 89ss a made hand? If not, why is AK, which has less equity? Where do you draw the line? At AsTs, pair and flush draw (46% against AK)?  QJss, the bare flush draw (32%)? The gutty T8 (22%)? What about AQ (16%), an otherwise fine ‘made hand’ that is a ‘drawing hand’ against AK because there’s a better ‘made hand’ around. Consider, in fact, that AQ, which is 16% against AK, is 83% against AJ and 55% against a range of all sets, Ax hands, and plausible flush and straight draws. So how would you classify it?

Two: Every Made Hand is a Drawing Hand: Unless your opponent is drawing dead after you flop a royal flush or quads, every made hand is a drawing hand in the sense that it is drawing to bricks. Not just that, on the flop, against a drawing hand, it is drawing to runner-runner bricks. This is why AK is behind 89ss on that Ax6s7s flop. This is why, in PLO, a hand like AK45r is so shitty on a 367 two-tone board. You have flopped the nuts – the ultimate made hand, one would think –  but if you’re up against two guys, and one has a higher wrap-FD (T985ds) and the other has top set with backdoor FD, your equity in the hand is, sit down before you read this, 7.5%. That’s right, you flop the nuts, go all in joyfully, and win just 1 in 13 times because your runner-runner brick draw is just so unlikely. Your best made hand is actually the worst drawing hand here.

Made hands, drawing hands, these terms melt into one another and mean nothing anyway. When you play poker, you should think of nothing but equity. Whether you have 80% equity on the flop, or 49% or 23%, your aim is to have 100% by the time the hand ends. Sometimes you do this at showdown – but a lot of the time, you do this by making the other guy fold, so that his share of the pot becomes yours. To do this, you need to understand his range, your equity against his range, and your fold equity against him (ie, how likely he is to fold to your aggression). As James Hetfield famously said after a 22-hour cash-game session, nothing else matters.

Posted at 3:56 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

11 December, 2014

Turn it into a Bluff

This is the 31st installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

I played an interesting hand the other day that I would have played differently three years ago. The game was nine-handed, stacks were deep, and I had KTdd on the button. A loose player raised UTG +1, MP2 called, cutoff called, I called on the button and the blinds called. The flop came K72 with two spades and a club. (The king was a spade.) Original raiser checked, MP2 bet, cutoff folded, I called, small blind overcalled, the others folded. Both MP2 and SB are straightforward players, and MP2 check-calls flush draws in this spot, so he certainly had at least a King. Given position and his bet in a multiway pot, he probably a stronger king than mine. SB’s overcall disappointed me, because he is not the kind to mess around here with A7 or 99, and had either a king here or a flush draw. And if he had a king, it had to be stronger than mine.

The turn was the ace of spades. The flush got there, as did an overcard to the king. Both of them checked. At this point, the novice in me from three years ago would have checked back, thinking I had showdown value. But my read here was that my hand simply could not be good against both these guys, and I needed to turn it into a bluff to win the pot. I bet big, and they both folded, saying that they had KQ, and MP2 whined about how I always get lucky on the turn. So of course I showed him my hand, putting him on tilt, and he later stacked off to me. Yum yum.

Well, here’s one of the most useful lessons I learnt through my journey in poker: showdown value is overrated. Too often, we take a passive line with medium-strength hands thinking we have showdown value, so why inflate the pot? But there are two circumstances where it might be profitable to take a different approach. One, when we can bet those hands for thin value and get called by worse often enough for it to be profitable. Two, when we can turn it into a bluff and profitably make better hands fold, like in the above instance.

Often, on an early street, we adopt a particular mindset for a hand and don’t modify it as the hand progresses. For example, we get into pot-control or bluff-catcher mode on the flop, where that might indeed be justified, but fail to shift gears on a later street when it becomes profitable to do so. There are all kinds of situations where it makes sense to turn our made hand into a bluff. Maybe we 3b in position with JTs, the flop comes QJ3r, we call a donk bet, turn K, call again, river T and villain checks. Our two pair is often beat here, and better hands can fold given we are plausibly repping the ace, and depending on the opponent it is sometimes correct to check back and often correct to bomb river. Similarly, in PLO, we could bang the river when a flush completes to get a straight to fold, even though we have showdown value with a set that didn’t fill up.

That said, you should be clear about your reasons in turning a made hand into a bluff, and not do so just because raising makes you feel macho. In the live games I play, I often see players make testosterone-laden raises in spots where no better hand folds and no worse hand calls. Do not burn money in this manner. Remember, it is better to be rich than manly.

Posted at 9:08 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

06 December, 2014

The Evil of Family Planning

This is the 11th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

It’s wonderful to live in the 21st century. I bought a new Android Phone the other day, and was fiddling with its apps, marvelling at how the world has advanced so much and we can hold in the palm of our hand wonders that would have been inconcievable just a decade ago, when I came across a news item on the internet which reminded me that, despite all you can pack into a mobile phone, the real world outside is a lumbering beast that’s hard to change. And much of India still lives in an earlier century.

The news item in question was about a group of women who died after a sterilization camp in Chhattisgarh. According to a Guardian report, “more than 80 women underwent surgery for laparoscopic tubectomies at a free government-run camp,” after which around 60 of them fell ill and at least 11 died. The doctors were suspended, a criminal complaint made, and compensation packages announced. (Consider the obscenity of that term. ‘Compensation package.’ Really?) But what came as a shock to me was not that the government botched something up, but that in 2014, there was something such as a ‘sterilisation camp’ in existence. I had assumed sterilisations as a government-organised activity ceased after the Emergency of the 1970s, in which the evil Indira and Sanjay Gandhi had made it state policy to forcibly sterilize their ‘subjects’, as it were. Three-and-a-half decades after that, why on earth is the government conducting tubectomies?

“Such camps,” the Guardian report informed us, “are held regularly across India as part of a long-running effort to control the emerging economic power’s booming population.” Indeed, the government sets sterilisation targets for their health departments, and offers financial incentives to both doctors and the women who come forward. (Anywhere from Rs 1400 to “cars and electrical goods” for the women.) In 2013-14 alone, 4 million such operations were conducted. The report says, “Authorities in eastern India came under fire last year after a news channel unearthed footage showing scores of women dumped unconscious in a field following a mass sterilisation.”

There are three things terribly wrong with this: One, the government has no business interfering with the private choices of its citizens. Whether a particular individual wishes to have no children or ten is no business of the government. And to spend taxpayers money to manipulate these choices is absurd.

Two, It is women who are victims here. Poor women. Manipulated women. Always women. It is never the man who hops over and says, ‘Chal bhai, nasbandi karva le.’ It is always the woman, because women in this country have a status somewhere between object and person, possession and loved one. This makes me ashamed. It is not something that fills me with patriotism and nationalistic gusto.

Three, all of this is based on a flawed premise. Right from school, Indians are taught that people are a problem. Or, to put it the conventional way, that ‘overpopulation’ is a great danger to our nation, and that family planning is its essential antidote, and individuals must sacrifice their desires for the nation. ‘Hum do, humaare do,’ and so on. But this is flat out wrong, and terribly outdated thinking. India’s growing population is not a problem, but a blessing. And the term ‘overpopulation’ makes no sense. Every human being is precious and wonderful, and there can never be too many of us.

Worrying about the population started becoming fashionable in the late 18th century, with the publication of Robert Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus made the seemingly sensible observation that population tended to grow exponentially while resources, in particular food supply, grew arithmetically. Thus, to prevent a catastrophe, population control was essential. A latter-day Malthusian, Harrison Brown, worried about the population growing unchecked “until the earth is covered completely and to a considerable depth with a writhing mass of human beings, much as a dead cow is covered with a pulsating mass of maggots.”

Well, we’re not maggots, and that hasn’t happened. Human beings are resourceful and ingenious, and the more of them you have, the more resourcefulness there is floating around. The economist Julian Simon, in his book The Ultimate Resource, pointed out that through history, spurts in population and productivity coincided with each other. (The ultimate resource the book’s title refers to is people, of course.) Had Malthus been correct, you’d expect to see that the places with greatest population would density would have the highest resource crunches. But the opposite is true. As Nicholas Eberstadt pointed out a few years ago in a study titled Too Many People?, there is no link between population density and poverty. Monaco has a population density 40 times that of Bangladesh. It’s doing fine. Ditto Bermuda and Bahrain, which are more packed than India.

Indeed, the story of humanity is a story of urbanisation. Why is land in a city sometimes 100 times more expensive than in a rural area? Because of demand, because everyone wants to be in cities, because that is where the opportunities are. People migrate to cities because of the economic and social networks they contain – and the more people there are, the more desirable it is to be part of these networks. Cities would not be such desirable destinations if Malthus was right.

Malthusian thinking is completely discredited today, and the last couple of centuries have been testimony to the folly of his thinking. (Indeed, ‘Malthusian’ is a pejorative today.) And yet India, the first country to take up ‘family planning’ in 1952, is one of the last to continue to use government machinery to promote something that is wrong on so many levels. (Coercion, pseudoscience etc etc.) Given the top-down, central-planning-kind-of thinking of Nehru and his socialist minions, it must have seemed that people were a problem, for the more of them there were, the harder it became to control them and to feed them. This attitude is condescending, and the consequences can be criminal, as we saw in Chhattisgarh. For 67 years, we have been tied down, mentally, to the concept of a mai-baap sarkar, at whose mercy we exist. It is about time we re-orient our thinking. Our government’s sole purpose should be to serve us, not to rule us; to empower us, not to enslave us; to protect our rights, not to strip them away. Abolishing this family planning nonsense would be an essential step in that direction.

Posted at 8:28 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | News | Politics

27 November, 2014

The Bird and the Elephant

This is the 30th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

One of the most important skills for a professional poker player, it is often said, is knowing when to get up. When exactly should we quit a session? Should we have a stop loss? Should we get up as soon as we reach a pre-decided profit? Should we play X number of hours, no more, no less? What are the factors that determine how long we sit at a particular table?

The rational answer to this is clear. We should continue in a game as long as it is +ev to do so, and get up as soon as we feel we’re no longer profitable on the table. How much we are up and down should not matter. We need to think of all poker games we play as being essentially one lifelong session, and the score on any one day should not affect our decision. At any given point, all we need to ask ourselves is: Is my staying on this table a +ev decision? Whether you are stuck 3 buyins or up 4 should not be a factor in that decision.

In practice, this advice is not that easy to carry out. For example, I have a tilt problem, and shift from my A-game to my C-game if I’m losing a lot and fatigued, playing recklessly and trying to recover. Tilt has perfect timing and usually comes towards the end of sessions, when stacks are deep and mistakes are costly. I am obviously not +ev when I tilt – but tilt not only shatters my emotional equilbrium, it also affects my judgement. I rationalise continuing in the game, though I really should be getting up.

To prevent this, I have set a stop-loss for myself. When I hit that stop-loss, I quit the game, regardless of how calm I feel, because tilt could be just around the corner. This is not something I recommend to you if tilt is not a factor in your play, and you make decisions with as much clarity 15 hours into a game and 10 buyins down as you do at the start of the session. But how many of us can manage that? If you do have a tilt issue, and tend to magnify your losses by chasing them, a stop-loss might be a handy tool.

When I am winning, on the other hand, I usually sit till the end of the session. There was a time when, at a particular game, I would play for six hours every day and then leave, because I’d begin to get tired. As I’d mostly win, I got a bit of a reputation for hitting and running, though this was not my intent. So, as a point of principle, I started sitting till the end of every session, and realised that this made a lot of sense because stacks are deepest at the tail end of sessions, many other players are tired and tilted and more prone to errors, and that is when my edge can really turn a hefty profit. If fatigue affects your play, of course, you should factor that in and leave before your edge dissipates and you’re the fish on the table. But tilt and fatigue aside, there are no good reasons to quit a juicy game.

One big mistake I see some players make is win small and lose big. They become taala-chaabi and book their profit as soon as they’re one or two buyins up, but continue buying in when they’re down, trying desperately to recover, and lose far more than they win in a winning session. In his book, Elements of Poker, Tommy Angelo quoted a friend of his named Cowboy Bill as describing one such player, ‘He eats like a bird and shits like an elephant.’ Make sure you do it the other way around.

Posted at 1:54 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

13 November, 2014

The Cigarette Case

This is the 29th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

One of my favourite stories about chess has a lesson in it for poker players. A few decades ago, the great Aron Nimzowitsch was playing in a chess tournament when his opponent took out a cigarette case and placed it on the table in front of him. Nimzowitsch, who couldn’t stand cigarette smoke, called the tournament director to complain.

‘He has not lit a cigarette and there is no smoke,’ said the TD. ‘So your complaint is noted, but it is not valid.’

‘I know,’ replied Nimzowitsch, ‘but he threatens to smoke, and you know as well as I do that in chess the threat is often stronger than the execution.’

In poker, too, the threat is stronger than the execution. The most obvious example of this this is the concept of Leverage. Let’s say you open from late position with KJs to 4bb. The button calls, with effective stacks of 150bb. The flop is a dry K74r. You bet 5.5bb into 9.5, your opponent raises to 16. You call. The turn is a Q. You check. Your opponent bets 30 into 41.5. What do you do here?

Unless your opponent is super-spazzy, it’s hard to continue. If this bet closed the action, you might consider calling this 30bb bet – but it doesn’t. This bet carries the threat of a further bet that involves the rest of your stack: 100bb more into a pot of 101.5. So you don’t just have to decide whether to commit 30bb more, but 130bb more. You are unlikely to want to play for stacks with just a single pair.

This is leverage: the threat of future bets in a pot that is growing exponentially bigger. In the above example, your opponent bet 30bb to put you at a decision for 130bb. Maybe had you called 30bb on the turn, he would have checked back the river, giving up on some random bluff he was trying. But maybe he wouldn’t have. It doesn’t matter whether or not he would have lit that cigarette – the cigarette case was on the table.

Leverage can apply at any street except the river, of course. A 3b from a good aggressive player in position who is likely to keep barrelling postflop. A check-raise on the flop. Most of the time, though, you really feel leverage on the turn, when pots are getting big, stack-to-pot ratios are dwindling, and you have to decide how far you want to go in a hand. In the deep-stacked games that I play, I have found that it is on the turn that players make the biggest mistakes: whether that involves calling, folding or just going nuts and spazzing.

The threat you represent does not even have to be a result of your betting in a particular hand; it can arise out of your reputation. If you have a reputation for check-raising rivers a lot, your opponents might give you easy showdowns in position. If the turn check-raise is known to be a part of your arsenal, your opponents, in position, might not bet for thin value or charge you to draw on the turn like they otherwise would. Of course, your threats have to be credible, and against thinking players, your ranges should be somewhat balanced. If every check-raise of yours on the river is with the nuts, then your opponent will know that he is not making a mistake by bet-folding there for thin value. You need to mix it up to induce errors. You want your opponent to throw his hands up and say, ‘Yeh kya khelta hai? Main tho baukhla gaya hoon?’

The bottomline: to constantly pose a threat to your opponents, and to thus unsettle them and induce mistakes, you have to be aggressive. A study a few years ago looked into 103 million hands on Pokerstars and found that more than 75% of them never reached showdown. Think about what this means – and put that cigarette case to use.

Posted at 3:11 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

07 November, 2014

It’s Only Words

This is the 10th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

A friend of mine posted an interesting cartoon on Facebook the other day. A man stood in front of a gigantic empty bookshelf at his friend’s house, peering at three small items on one corner and saying to his friend, ‘Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader… I say, Hardwick, this sure is an impressive library.’ His friend, presumably Hardwick, sat impassively on the sofa, smoking a pipe.

Many of my friends would relate to that. ‘I can never read a book on a screen,’ says one. ‘I need to hold the book in my hand.’ Another says: ‘I love the smell of paper. E-books can never replace the real thing.’ And so on. But these sentiments, noble as they seem, expressed with an air of superiority, as if one is taking a principled stand, are somewhat misplaced. The chief reason for this is a popular misundertanding of what a book really is.

A book is the words a writer writes. Nothing less; nothing more. Everything else is packaging. Whether it’s printed on paper or written on rice, whether its paperback or hardback or a spectral presence in the Kindle app for Android, is irrelevant to the book itself. For centuries now, the dominant form of packaging has involved paper – but books existed before paper did. Media as diverse as clay, stone, bamboo, metal sheets and wood were used to carry the written word, as also was papyrus. Paper was the bold new technology that made all of them redundant; and now we have a newer technology that threatens to replace paper.

So all my friends who prefer printed books to ebooks are not showing a love for books per se, but just a nostalgia for a particular form of packaging. There’s nothing wrong with that – as long as you don’t imagine that feeling that way makes you some kind of connoisseur, like the wine snob who prefers Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Grand Cru to a mere Sula.

Indeed, imagine a novelist pausing in the middle of a paragraph and saying to himself, ‘Let me tweak this sentence structure a bit so that the paper smells better.’ That would be absurd – as absurd as pretending that you are somehow more refined than a guy who reads books on a Kindle because you can smell the paper. Are you a paper-fetishist or a book lover?

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I am writing this column from Turkey, where I’ve been spending much time in museums, forts, palaces, mosques, underground caves, hot-air balloons and Facebook. In a place called the Museum of Mosaics in Istanbul, I was amused to see people furiously clicking cellphone pictures of what I thought were pretty mediocre mosaics. (The ones in the Chora Church are better, partly because of their proximity to a marvellous restaurant called Asitane, which I highly recommend if you visit Istanbul, but I digress.) So here’s a thought experiment: if you had a time machine at your disposal, went back to the age when mosaics were being made, cornered a mosaic maker and showed him a 20-second cellphone video shot in these modern times, how do you think he’d react? My hypothesis is that he’d instantly go insane, right there. He would not be able to fathom what just happened. And even if he got over it somehow, he would never make a mosaic again in his life. He would not see in it the charm that we do now. All he would want, more than love, sex, happiness or lamb on a bed of aubergines, would be a cellphone. That’s all he’d want.

Well, we have that.

*

Mosaics are an old technology that is now redundant; will printed books go the same way? I own thousands of printed books myself, though I am also a Kindle power-user, and my prognosis is that within 30 years, printed books will be like LPs are today: mere artefacts. We love printed books because we love reading, have always read printed books, and associate the joy of reading with the habit of reading printed books. My generation, and the one after, will keep buying them. But the kids growing up in the post-App era, who slide their finger to turn a page, won’t have that same habit or association. For them, it’s a no-brainer: e-books will be both cheaper and more convenient. (Besides, reading devices will also evolve. Although I love my Kindle, the model I use will be fit for a museum in 2040.)

The publishing industry will also be transformed by then. Much of what traditional publishers do now – printing and packaging the book, and distributing it – will be redundant, and the nature of book marketing will also change. The curatorial and editing functions will remain important, but publishers, in whatever form they exist, will get a smaller cut of the price of a book. (Authors will get more.) Books will also be cheaper, though the processes of discovering them, and shaping our tastes, will change in ways we probably can’t imagine now. There’s a brave new world coming up, and there are a lot of trees in it that should dance a dance of woody celebration, for if it were not for technology, we’d be cutting them down for paper. Start the music.

Posted at 8:12 PM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse

29 October, 2014

The Importance of Profiling

This is the 28th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Poker at its heart is mathematical, I often argue, and everything else is secondary. You put your opponent on a range, calculate your pot equity against that range, estimate fold equity and then make the most profitable decision. But the math will get you nowhere if you input the wrong values. You first have to put your opponent on the correct range. And you have to accurately estimate your fold equity against him. To do this, you need to get inside his head, you need psychology. Although psychology without math is directionless, math without psychology is pointless, as you’ll end up with the wrong numbers.

This doesn’t apply if you’re playing Game Theory Optimal (GTO), of course, where your opponent’s tendencies are irrelevant as long as you’re playing balanced ranges, and the math is all that matters. But you’ll only ever need to play GTO at the highest levels of online cash games. In your everyday poker life, you’re best served playing exploitable poker, looking to make money from your opponents’ mistakes and avoiding making too many yourself. Player profiling is hugely important in this context. The better your powers of observation, recall and inference, the more money you will make in the game.

I’ve been running very good recently at a local online game, where PLO is all the rage. The key to my winnings is taking copious notes on every opponent I play. I note down practically every significant thing I see any opponent do. Every time I identify a tendency – any tendency – in an opponent’s play, I’ve caught a weakness I can exploit.

For example, Player A always bets pot on the river when he’s bluffing and 2/3 pot when he’s betting for value.  Player B almost always calls one barrel and almost never the second. Player C loves to float out of position with air and will donk-pot the turn if any scare card hits or any draw completes, and will barrel ¾ on the river if called. Player D goes pot-pot-pot when you check to him because he thinks you must be weak and who cares what he’s repping, maybe he’s not even looking at the board. Player E pot controls too much and never bets for thin value, even checks K-high backdoor flush on an unpaired board on the river, which polarises his range when he does make a river bet, and makes your decisions that much easier.

Once you start identifying these tendencies, they become easy to exploit. Against Player A, I once called a pot-sized river bet with 8766ss on a board of T94TA (two-tone on flop but flush not completing) and my sixes were good. I usually double-barrel against Player B, which is an insanely profitable play because of his warped frequencies.  Players C and D increase the variance of the game, but give you tons of value as long as you don’t get tempted to call them down too thin, which can be a leak in itself. And I make thinner river calls against Player E than against others, because while he may be polarised, he definitely isn’t balanced.

The last month has been unusual for me: my bread-and-butter game is live NLHE, where, again, profiling is everything, and most players don’t do it assiduously enough. The biggest mistake a live player can make is to switch off after he has folded a hand, and not keep observing the action and making mental notes. In poker, every nugget of information counts, so I’d advise you to always stay tuned in during a game. Remember, the most profitable seat at a poker table is inside your opponents’ heads.

Posted at 11:09 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

16 October, 2014

The Endowment Effect

This is the 27th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

There’s something strange that happens to me quite frequently. A friend will ask me for advice on a hand, and I’ll dispassionately tell him what I think is the correct course of action, and the reasons why. For example, while playing PLO he calls a raise in a 3-way pot from the big blind with 9876ds, with spades and hearts, and the flop comes JT2 with two spades and a heart, for a wrap and flush draw. My friend, huffing and puffing with excitement, bets, the next guy repots, the third guy further repots all in. What is my friend to do? It’s an easy fold, I say, because while he has a universe of outs, none of them make him the nuts. With so much action, the likely range of hands he’s up against include higher wraps and flush draws (like AKQ9ds), as well as sets, and against this range he’s crushed like Yokozuna sat on him. ‘Easy fold, you shouldn’t shame yourself by even thinking about it,’ I say, all clear and rational. And yet, I have found that while I give sound advice as an uninvolved observer, I do some incredibly stupid things when I myself am in a hand, especially when it comes to not folding. It’s like Amit the Player and Amit the Poker Thinker are two separate people. Why is this so?

Part of the reason, of course, is that we’re human, and humans crave action and dopamine, and that makes us rationalise doing silly things. Also, our brains are wired in a way that makes us reluctant to fold a hand – any hand. To be specific, we suffer from what behavioural economists term ‘The Endowment Effect.’

The term, first coined by the economist Richard Thaler in 1980, refers to the phenomenon where we value something we own more than we would if we did not own it. For example, in a 1984 study by Jack Knetsch and JA Sinden, participants were randomly given either a lottery ticket or US$ 2. After a while, they were given the option to trade their ticket for the money or the other way around. Most of them refused the switch, having come to value their randomly allotted gift more than the alternative. A famous 1990 study by Daniel Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler offered a similar demonstration. In Kahneman’s words: “Mugs were distributed randomly to half the participants. The Sellers had their mug in front of them, and the Buyers were invited to look at their neighbour’s mug: all indicated the price at which they would trade. […] The results were dramatic: the average selling price was about double the average buying price.”

You can see illustrations of this all around you. Ask anyone which car to buy and they’ll recommend the model they own. I suspect that many Apple fans who rave about iPhones and diss Android are displaying the Endowment Effect – besides rationalising and validating their own purchasing decisions, of course. (Vice versa also, though I use Android and it really is better.) I have seen it at the poker table when, after the cards are dealt, a player absent-mindedly reaches out for his neighbour’s cards. Nonononono, goes the neighbour, those are mine, thereby displaying an irrational attachment to them even though the distribution is random and he doesn’t even know what they are yet.

More commonly, you see the Endowment Effect in action when a player, to use an old cliché, ‘gets married to his hand’. The most common leak in the world of poker, by far, is that people don’t fold enough. This is understandable; we’re programmed not to let go. That is our endowment –  and we must fight it.

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 9:09 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

11 October, 2014

The Shame Game

This is the 9th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

One of the finest graphic novels I’ve read recently is Paying For It, a ‘comic strip memoir about being a john’ by the Canadian writer Chester Brown. In 1996 Brown’s girlfriend informed him that she had fallen in love with someone else. Brown took it well, and they even continued living together for a while, till eventually Brown moved on. But he saw no sense in seeking conventional relationships that involved ‘possessive monogamy’, and instead started seeing prostitutes. Paying For It is an account of more than a decade spent eschewing romantic love and instead satisfying his sexual needs with a series of paid encounters.

Brown treats his encounters in a matter-of-fact way, right down to his chapter titles (‘Carla’, ‘Anne’, ‘Angelina’, ‘Back to Anne’, ‘Edith’ etc). There are no seedy, cheap thrills to be had here, and Paying For It is more about the internal workings of Brown’s mind through these years than anything that actually happens.  He doesn’t try to sentimentalise or glamorise the lives of the women he sleeps with, and there isn’t much of their back story in the book.

The book would be worth your time for the appendices alone. In a series of clear, nuanced arguments, Brown lays down why prostitution should be decriminalised. He is a libertarian (as am I), and the basic premise of that argument is simple enough: what consenting adults do with one another is no one’s business but their own, as long as they do not infringe on anyone else’s rights while doing so. When a john sees a prostitute, it is fundamentally an economic transaction, with one party paying the other for services rendered. That’s it. There is no moral dimension to it.

One can argue, especially in a third-world context, that many prostitutes are forced into that line of work, and that there is always coercion involved. This is exactly why prostitution should be legal. Whenever the state outlaws victimless crimes, such as prostitution or sports betting, the underworld fills the resultant vacuum, and things get shady. Human trafficking thrives not because prostitution exists, but because it is illegal and we’ve left it to the mafia. (Ditto match-fixing in the context of sports betting in India.) If it was legal and transparent, trafficking and coercion would be vastly reduced, and easier to counter when they did happen.

There are those who hold that prostitution necessarily involves implicit coercion, because which woman would choose it willingly? This is just plain disrespectful to the women who make that choice. If someone deems it the best option open to them, who are we to pass judgment on their choices? Also, why is it frowned upon if you sell sexual services for money, but not if you sell other parts of yourself? One of my marketable assets, for example, is my writing ability, and I’ve sold my services to dozens of publications over the years. (Indeed, at the moment I write columns for both Hindu Business Line and the Economic Times.)  Am I a slut then? Do I become a slut if I sell my physical labour? If I work as a construction worker or a massage therapist? Why do we stigmatise sex?

You could look at that last question as either a rhetorical question or as an anthropological one. But here’s my point: if we look down upon sex workers for the kind of work they do, then that reflects badly on us, not on them. People who use the terms ‘whore’ or ‘slut’ as pejoratives are demeaning themselves.

That brings me to the sad, sad story of Shweta Basu Prasad, who was caught a few weeks ago in a ‘prostitution racket.’ Prasad is an accomplished national-award winning actress, who has also made a documentary on Indian classical music, and decided, at some point, to look at other ways of earning money. She was arrested during a raid at a five-star hotel in Hyderabad where she was, we are salaciously informed, ‘caught in the act’. She was sent to a government rehabilitation home for ‘rescued’ women. (She had no say in this.) And of course, she was named and shamed in the media.

Some of the people who spoke out in her defence were outraged that she was put in the spotlight and humiliated, and not the businessmen on the other side of the transaction. But why should even they be named and shamed? In my view, both Prasad and the businessmen were doing nothing wrong – there was clearly no coercion involved, just consenting adults getting together. Nor did the pimp involved do anything wrong in bringing them together. The people who should be ashamed here are the police, who spend time and effort busting victimless crimes instead of focussing on so many of the other duties they fail to perform. And it’s obvious why. Why do you think the raids happened in the first place and the businessmen weren’t named?

The police across the country act like a mafia engaged in extortion of those unfairly criminalised by our antiquated penal system, such as homosexuals, prostitutes and their customers, gamblers and so on. They are the ones who should be shamed, who should not be able to look at themselves in the mirror in the morning, whose families should feel embarrassed by them. And yet, poor Shweta Basu Prasad is treated like a criminal and humiliated in this manner. It’s a disgrace. She did absolutely nothing wrong, and is the victim here, not of the clients she was working with, but of the police, and of our hypocritical, repressed Indian society.

The last chapter of Brown’s book is titled ‘Back to Monogamy’. But unlike what that might indicate, he doesn’t realise the error of his ways and goes off and find a conventional girlfriend. Instead, he finds his comfort zone with one of the women he has had paid sex with, and decides to be monogamous with her while continuing their financial arrangement. This might seem unusual to you, but on reading the book, you’ll see why it makes perfect sense for Brown. We all stumble through life, trying to understand what makes us happy, making compromises, negotiating with our destinies. Whatever works, works. There is no right or wrong in this.

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Also read:

Laws Against Victimless Crimes Should Be Scrapped
The Matunga Racket

Posted at 8:11 AM by Amit Varma in Arts and entertainment | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Media

02 October, 2014

The Tournament Lottery

This is the 26th installment of my now fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

I write these words at the end of a three-week period in which 100,000 dreams have been crushed. The World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP), a three-week festival of poker on Pokerstars, has drawn to a close. It featured 66 tournaments, with a total prize pool of almost US$62 million. The Main Event, which just got over, had a buyin of US$5200, with the winner getting US$1.3 million. That’s a cool Rs 8 crore. It’s the stuff of dreams – but most of the over 120,000 people who played the WCOOP were net losers. Just a handful of people won big.

The poker boom was kickstarted 11 years ago when Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event in Las Vegas for US$2.5 million. He’d won his way into the tournament via an online US$39 satellite, and this fairy-tale story riveted the world. Combined with a glut of televised poker tournaments, like the World Poker Tour, featuring hole cards and taking viewers straight into the heart of the action, it led to poker becoming one of the most popular games on the planet. Online poker exploded, home games sprouted up in every city in the world, and millions of people play the game today. The common dream: to finish first in one of the marquee events, like the WSOP or WCOOP main events, and make lifechanging money. (The WSOP main event winner this year gets a cool US$10 million.)

Beginning players tend to be more drawn to tournaments than cash games, despite the success of the cash game show High Stakes Poker. I usually advise recreational players to play mainly tournaments, because this restricts their possible losses while allowing them to indulge in the game they love. And I advise serious students of the game to study cash games, which require greater skill because of deeper stacks, and also feature less variance. Indeed, variance is the key reason why playing professional tournament poker is a hazardous line of work. Tourney variance is off the charts.

To begin with, the rake in a tourney is between 7% to 10%, which accumulates over time and bleeds you dry. Around 15% of the players make it to the money (and top players cash around 15% of the time), but the big money only starts at the final table, and especially the top 3. Winning a tourney has even been described as the biggest bad beat in poker, because you outlast every other player who played but just get between 15% to 25% of the money. And no matter how skillful you are, to go deep in a field of 1000 people requires a lot of luck: winning more flips than is your due, evading coolers, hitting cards at the right time, again and again and again. If you have an edge that’s big enough to beat the rake, it only manifests itself in the long term. Indeed, a sample size required to accurately judge a player’s skill could run into the tens of thousands of tournaments.
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The modus operandi of the online tourney pro is to put in volume to counter the variance and bring the long run closer. (Note that live players simply cannot put in meaningful volume.) The typical rhythm of a tourney player’s life is to lose a lot, get a big score, rinse and repeat. And when those scores don’t come, they go broke. This is also why most pros are part of large staking stables. Collectively, the greater the volume, the more likely those big scores become.

Many of my friends are tourney grinders, and it’s a frustrating life. Unlike for cash game pros, most sessions are losing sessions. With relatively shallow stacks, everything is standard, and most pros play the same way. Once you reach a certain level of competence, you just sit and wait to get lucky. Every tournament, seen on its own, is a lottery. And the wheel, it spins round and round.

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 8:53 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

24 September, 2014

The Second Game of Dice

This is the 25th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

The Mahabharata is an amazing piece of storytelling. It was written at least 2400 years ago and it still resonates today in India. One story that speaks to me strongly is of the time when Duryodhana and Shakuni invited Yudhishthira to a game of dice.

Accepting an invitation to play dice with an opponent, using his dice, surely has negative expected value. (One version has it that the dice were made out of the bones of Shakuni’s father, whose spirit resided in the dice and did as he wished. That’s a marked deck if there ever was one.) Yudhishthira gave some spiel about how it was the dharma of a Kshatriya to accept all challenges, but this sounds like rationalisation to me. I think he had a gambling problem. He craved dopamine.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that the brain releases every time an addict gets a dose of anything he’s addicted to: a hit of cocaine, a peg of alcohol, a throw of the dice. This makes gambling addiction similar to drug addiction or alcohol addiction. Basically, you become a slave to brain chemistry. You might know, at a rational level, that you should get up and leave, but you can’t stop yourself. And so it was for Yudhishthira. He lost his kingdom, his brothers, his own self, and finally he lost Draupadi. (The misogyny in the Mahabharata is staggering, but leave that aside for now.) He must have been devastated at this point, and you’d expect him to lose all respect for himself.

Somehow, in a turn of events that involved a never-ending saree, a blind king and no dice, Yudhishthira got lucky, and everything he lost was returned to him. At this point you’d imagine that this man, held up as a paragon of wisdom and virtue, would realise that he had a weakness for the game, which was his strategic vulnerability, and resolve never to play again. But no. Duryodhana, upset by the reprieve his father Dhritarashtra had given the Pandavas, invited Yudhishthira for another game. Yudhishithira accepted the invitation. The stakes were that the losers would go into exile, and so off went the Pandavas.

It is that second game of dice that astonishes me. Yudhishthira’s behaviour during the first game was appalling, but understandable: he was a slave to dopamine, and too weak to stop the unravelling. But when that session was over, you’d expect him to introspect and never play again. However, rationalising furiously, he went for that second game. The force of his addiction took his family down with him and, eventually, in the events that unfolded,  all the characters of the Mahabharata. (The bloodshed in that book makes Game of Thrones seem like a Rajshri production.)

I see Yudhishthira every day at the poker table. On one hand, poker is a complex game that requires analytical rigour and psychological acuity; on the other, it is a game of dice that can destroy lives. Most players I meet lose money over the long run; but most of them are recreational players who can take the hit, and can control their losses. Many, however, are addicts. I’ve seen fortunes wiped out, marriages destroyed, once-proud men become shadows of themselves, helpless, needy, pathetic. Even as you sit across the table trying to take their money, you sometimes grow to like them. I have, at different times, counselled a couple of them over breakfast and coffee to give up the game, stop throwing good money after bad, to put their lives together. ‘You are addicted,’ I say. ‘Go cold turkey. Give your wife all control of finances, your ATM cards, your cheque books, so even if you want to play, you can’t.’

Both of them agreed with me and nodded their heads. They knew they were addicts. But they could not fight it, and they have both gone back to gambling, for that second game of dice. I feel helpless writing this, but there’s only one way this story can end: as it did with Yudhishthira, in epic sadness.

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Also read:

The Dark Game
The Game Outside the Game
Sweet Dopamine

Posted at 7:22 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

17 September, 2014

The Interpreter

This is the 24th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

If there is one quality that distinguishes humans from other species, it is our arrogance. We think we are masters of the universe – but really, we are not even masters of our own selves.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, the cognitive neuroscientists Michael Gazzaniga and Roger Sperry carried out a series of studies on split-brain patients that are now legendary in the field. One of the treatments for severe epilepsy is to cut the corpus callosum, the collection of neural fibres that connects the two hemispheres of the brain. This results in what is known as a split brain, when the two halves of the brain cannot communicate with each other. (In popular psychology, the left brain is considered to control rational thought while the right brain is more intuitive and creative. This is a simplification, but a useful one.) Gazzaniga and Sperry’s experiments aimed to find out what consequence this had on behaviour, and what it revealed about the brain.

The good doctors separated the visual fields of the two hemispheres, and flashed an instruction to the right hemisphere. In one example: “Walk”. The subject got up and started walking. When asked why he suddenly got up and started walking, he replied, “To get a Coke,” – and here’s the remarkable thing: he actually believed that was the reason. Time after time, across instructions, across split-brain subjects, the docs found that the right hemisphere responded to one thing and the left hemisphere, having no way of knowing what the right brain was responding to, would rationalise the actions the person took.

Steven Pinker, in his influential book The Blank Slate, referred to these experiments and called the conscious mind “a spin doctor, not the commander in chief.” Gazzaniga himself referred to the left brain as merely “the interpreter.” VS Ramachandran wrote in Phantoms in the Brain, “[t]he left hemisphere’s job is to create a belief system or model and to fold new experiences into that belief system. If confronted with some new information that doesn’t fit the model, it relies on Freudian defence mechanisms to deny, repress or confabulate – anything to preserve the status quo.”

Consider this possibility: we do many things, some would even argue all things, driven by forces we can’t control. We are slaves of our wiring, our brain chemistry, of impulses and drives we may not even be aware of. Our left brain, our ‘spin doctor’, our ‘interpreter’, neatly rationalises all this and comes up with reasons for everything we do. Why are we walking? Because we want a Coke. There’s a reason for everything we do; but it’s not necessarily the real reason, even if we believe it to be so.

This brings up the obvious question of the existence of free will, and Gazzaniga actually wrote a fascinating book about this, Who’s in Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. (Contrary to what you might expect, he actually makes a case for free will.) But that is a complex philosophical subject that is beyond the ambit of this column, which, after all, is about poker.

All the time, on the poker table, I see players articulate reasons for actions that sound just like the bullshitting of the left hemisphere. I see addicts, chasing one more dopamine rush, playing every hand, but rationalising any particular call. (“I was in position.” “I thought I’ll outplay him postflop.” “What if I hit?”) I see them making terrible calls because they’ve gotten attached to their hands and can’t let go, and give silly reasons after the fact. (“He was polarised there.” “He often bluffs, I have history with him.”) I see them unable to get up from sessions when they should book their hefty profits, and ditto when they should just book their losses. (“The table was so juicy, I thought I will clean it up/recover.”) I see players not in control of themselves, and with reasons for everything.

So when you play poker, or do anything at all in your life for that matter, watch out for the interpreter at work. Always ask yourself hard questions, and remember, the easy answers are usually wrong.

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 11:03 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Science and Technology | Sport

10 September, 2014

Magnus Carlsen’s Weakness

This is the 23rd installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Last week was an extraordinary one in the world of chess. The strongest tournament of all time, the Sinquefield Cup, the first ever with an average rating of 2800, came to an end. Six of the top ten players in the world, including the top 3, played each other in a double round robin. The young Italian-American Fabiano Caruana destroyed the field with an incredible score of 8.5 out of 10 rounds, including wins in his first seven games, which is a ridiculous streak in a tournament of this strength.  He finished three whole points ahead of second-placed Magnus Carlsen, the World Champion.

Carlsen, still World No. 1 and the highest ranked player of all time, didn’t take it well. Through the tournament, whenever he was asked about Caruana’s streak, he made the requisite graceful noises but added caveats. For example: “What he’s done here is absolutely incredible. But we shouldn’t completely forget what’s happened the last four years.” When asked before their round 8 encounter if he now felt he was the underdog – Caruana was 7 out of 7 at that pointCarlsen said he didn’t see himself as an underdog, “because I’m a better player.” Caruana’s streak came to an end in that game, but Carlsen just about managed to hold on to a draw.

To add to this, Carlsen played well below his usual clinical best, which augurs well for Viswanathan Anand, who plays him in a World Championship rematch in November. Carlsen is an impeccable technician, in terms of ability probably the greatest chess player who has ever lived, and certainly the favourite in the rematch. But Anand’s greatest opportunity lies not in Carlsen faltering on the board, but in disintegrating inside his own head. I think we saw Carlsen’s weak spot during the Sinquefield Cup. To use poker terminology, he has tilt issues.

In his landmark book, The Mental Game of Poker, sports psychologist Jared Tendler defines ‘tilt’ as “anger + bad play.” In short, you lose your mental equilibrium and start playing below your best, often making big mistakes. Tilt is caused by many different factors, and Tendler defines seven types of tilt. The one that I believe Carlsen suffers from is called ‘Entitlement Tilt.’

Entitlement tilt comes about when you believe that you should be winning more than you are, and you start tilting because you are being denied your due. In Tendler’s words, “Winning is a possession and you tilt when someone undeserving takes it from you.” So you could be at a game where you are clearly the best player, but the run of the cards leaves you five buyins down while the two biggest donkeys at the table are up 10 buyins each, and even though you know, rationally, that in the long run you will all get what you deserve, you are still upset about the situation. So you tilt, start playing badly, and suddenly you are the fish at the table.

My sense, from watching Carlsen over the last week, is that he’s been hit by entitlement tilt. It was hard for him to watch Caruana dominate the field in a manner that Carlsen believes only he should, and this affected both his emotional equilibrium and his play. This is where Anand’s opportunity lies in November. If he can hit Carlsen early and take the lead, Carlsen might go on entitlement tilt. Rather than stay calm and just play every game optimally, he might let his emotions affect his play. Poker players, when on tilt, move from their A-game to their C-game. Anand cannot match Carlsen’s A-game – but he can crush his C-game.

So come November, you might just see Anand, unlike in the first match, eschew the kind of quiet positional lines that Carlsen thrives in and go for high-risk-high-reward tactical lines to get Carlsen out of his comfort zone. If he manages to strike the opening blow, the gap in ratings and ability will not matter. In the normal course of things, Anand is unlikely to beat Carlsen. But he can help Carlsen beat himself.


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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 8:50 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

05 September, 2014

The Stranger at the Next Table

This is the 8th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

I have a coffeeshop question for you. You are sitting in a café with a friend, talking about this and that, and a stranger comes and sits at the next table. It could be anyone: a gorgeous girl, a Bollywood celebrity, a gym-toned hunk. There is a moment’s pause, while you and your friend take in the presence of this new person, and then you continue talking. But you are aware that this stranger, who is alone, can hear every word you say. You and your friend are not talking about anything private; maybe you are talking about a new film you saw, or a book you read, or a friend’s divorce. Will the presence of the stranger at the next table affect the content and tone of your conversation?

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There is a YouTube clip floating around on the interwebs that has been linked to a lot recently. It features Robin Williams and Stephen Fry chatting with Michael Parkinson. In it, Fry, who had just written a book on bears, comments on how animals are different from humans. “‘When you wake up in the morning, a bear does not say, ‘Oh god, I was a very bad bear yesterday. I’m guilty.’ They don’t feel guilty that they possess organs of sexual generation. They don’t feel they should wear clothes. They just spend 100% of every minute of every hour of every day being a bear. And a treefrog spends all its time being a treefrog. We spend a lot of time trying to be somebody else. You know, trying to be like the person next door, the person on television, the person in the movies… we’re trying to be somebody else. Animals, supremely, are themselves.”

(If I may add to this, it could be said that animals are Buddhist. They are always living in the moment. They are mindful. I know people who go to Vipassana courses to attain just this quality. I did once, many years ago, and for the last eight days of the 10-day course, I basically thought about sex. But the first meal I had after the course, at an Italian restaurant, was the best I’ve had in my life. The restaurant had nothing to do with it. My ten days of focusing on the senses were responsible. My taste buds took in every damn nuance of the dish I ate. I was in the moment – though I suppose in a different way from a bear having a meal, which probably just goes through the routine motions programmed into it. Also, bears are vegetarian, which puts a limit on prandial pleasure. And this is precisely the kind of pointless parenthetical digression that humans, and not bears or treefrogs, indulge in too much.)

Fry’s point, I suppose, was that what sets humans apart from other creatures is that we are social animals in such a way that we allow other people to define our self-image. We care too much about what they think of us. This is absurd.

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The stranger at the next table. Would you speak differently, or say different things, because someone you had never met before and would never meet again was listening? Does the approval or admiration of strangers matter to you?

I reached middle age recently – it is a mental state more than an age, I know, but I got there anyway – and got down to thinking about all the things I didn’t like about myself. At 20, I had been an obnoxious, insufferable, arrogant fool, but I wouldn’t dislike that guy so much if I hadn’t changed in many ways, so that’s okay. But there is one quality I still have and don’t like and would love to discard : the anxiety about how other people perceive me. This damn anxiety is common to us all; it’s probably the most prominent part of the human condition. We dress up before going to social gatherings, comb our hair, put make up or shave or suchlike, preen preen preen – and then spend all our time at these gatherings behaving like the person we’d like others to believe us to be. Everything we say or do in public is, at some level, for the consumption of others. When we are truly ourselves, whatever that is, if such a thing is even possible, it is because we are fatigued from the pretence, and let our guard down.

So my middle-age resolution, which I have the rest of my life to break repeatedly, is that I want to be comfortable in my own skin. I don’t want to care about what others think of me. And if I am in a café chatting with a friend, I don’t want that conversation to be affected by a stranger at the next table. Even if my friend is an imaginary friend.

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The Stephen Fry video. The reason people have been linking to it is that Robin Williams killed himself recently, and this is one of the YouTube clips where he is at his funniest. I also found it incredibly sad. In the first part of this interview, Williams speaks alone with Parkinson, and brings the house down. In the second part, Fry joins Williams, and you’d expect this half to be mainly about Fry and the book he’s promoting. But Williams keeps interrupting him, wisecracking constantly, not letting Fry complete many of his thoughts. It’s almost like at some level he is saying, “Look at me. I’m here too. I’m so funny. Don’t you love me?” Fry is graceful about this, and even jokes about Williams’s ‘logorrhea’, and Williams has the wit to laugh at himself. You sense his self-awareness here, and also his sadness. (This interview was in 2002.) I think Williams knew, as most comedians must, that humour is an anesthetic. That’s all it is. And there must be times when it isn’t enough.

Posted at 2:58 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Personal

03 September, 2014

Keep Calm and Carry On

This is the 22nd installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Writers like watching other people – part of our job description is to understand human nature – and there are few better places to do that than at a poker table. We have captive subjects, sitting in one place for many hours at a time, subject to massive emotional swings, and mostly with their guard down except, once in a while, when they are in a big hand and try to be stoic and impenetrable. Watching a poker game is like watching a reality show, except that the participants don’t display the occasional self-consciousness that a camera might provoke.

One of the things that most fascinates me in long sessions is how people behave differently depending on their stack sizes. If they’re winning and stacked up, they tend to be talkative and cocky and in a generally merry mood. When they’re losing, they can be upset, irritable, silent, sometimes even angry. Although short-term swings in poker are largely determined by luck, winners can be arrogant and advise others on how to play hands, as if their immediate good fortune is related to their skills, and losers can be sullen, diffident and negative. Comically, all this can be inverted within seconds. You could have a 4000bb pot at the end of which the guy who was winning is suddenly stuck for the day, and the erstwhile loser has recovered and made a profit. And snap, their demeanour changes as well, and the arrogant prick from a few minutes ago is now sitting with his shoulders slumped and his lips pouted, and you almost want to ruffle his hair and give him a bone.

This is how it is in the real world as well, for the poker table is a microcosm of life. The psychologist Paul Piff from UC Berkeley recently gave a TEDx talk about a number of social experiments he and his colleagues carried out. In one, they got 100 participants in their lab to play a rigged game of monopoly. Players were randomly assigned the roles of ‘rich player’ and ‘poor player’, and the rich player got “two times as much money,” “twice the salary” when they passed Go, and “got to roll two dice instead of one.” As you’d expect, the rich players started crushing the poor ones, purely due to the luck of the draw at the start. And their behaviour changed.

In Piff’s words, “One person clearly has a lot more money than the other person, and yet, as the game unfolded, we saw very notable differences and dramatic differences begin to emerge between the two players. The rich player started to move around the board louder, literally smacking the board with their piece as he went around. We were more likely to see signs of dominance and nonverbal signs, displays of power and celebration among the rich players. […] One of the really interesting and dramatic patterns that we observed begin to emerge was that the rich players actually started to become ruder toward the other person, less and less sensitive to the plight of those poor, poor players, and more and more demonstrative of their material success.”

At the end of the game, when interviewed, these rich players “talked about what they’d done to buy those different properties and earn their success in the game, and they became far less attuned to all those different features of the situation, including that flip of a coin that had randomly gotten them into that privileged position in the first place.”

Déjà vu, some? This is exactly how people behave in the real world, allowing privilege to give them a sense of superiority and entitlement. The consummate poker professional is immune to this, and does not allow himself to be affected by temporary swings, whether they last a few hours or a few sessions. He is always in the moment, trying to simply do the right thing. This is how he gets the most out of poker. And this is how we can get the most out of life. Don’t let success get to your head or failure get you down. Keep calm and carry on.

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 8:01 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

27 August, 2014

The Five Commandments of Pot Limit Omaha

This is the 21st installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Four years ago, when I started playing poker seriously, the games in India were incredibly soft. If I knew then what I know now, I would have made a fortune. Most players had either discovered poker on Zynga, or transitioned from teen patti. They either gambled it up, or played ABC poker. If you knew just the fundamentals, you could beat the game. I’m talking about No Limit Hold ‘Em (NLHE), of course.  That game has moved on a bit since then—but the new NLHE in India is PLO, or Pot Limit Omaha. Everyone’s just learning this variant of poker, the standard of play is low, and you can crush the tables by getting the basics right.

Last week, I spoke about the first key insight I learnt about PLO: that you need to be selective about the hands you play, keeping in mind their post-flop playability. This week, I bring you five essential tips that should help you beat the easy PLO games spread in India, where most pots are multiway and many players play 70% to 100% of hands. (Yum yum.) Here are the Five Commandments of Pot Limit Omaha.

One: Draw to the nuts. The biggest pots in PLO are nut full house vs smaller fullhouse. You have A987ds, the board comes K997A, and you stack off to KKxx. Similarly, set-over-set, flush-over-flush and nut straight vs sucker straight are also common situations where you can win and lose big pots. Therefore, it is foolish to play small pairs for their own sake, and smaller rundowns also make sucker straights too often. And when you draw, be aware of how many of your outs are to the nuts. You don’t want to chase a draw, hit the draw, and get stacked. So understand hand structures: T986, with a gap at the bottom, will have far more nut wraps than T876, with the gap at the top. And JT98 will hit six times as many wraps as JT92, with a dangler. Do some homework, study these structures and play accordingly. (I recommend Jeff Hwang’s books and Vanessa Selbst’s videos on Deuces Cracked.)

Two: Respect Position. People play way more straightforward in PLO than in NLHE, and lead out for protection much more, so the information you get in position is more reliable. Even when you bet after being checked to and get check-raised, you are far less likely to get check-raised in PLO with air. This is a post-flop game, and position is paramount. Respect it, and be super-tight out of position (OOP). An illustration: if you have 76xx rainbow and hit the nuts on a two-tone flop of 985, you are in deep trouble OOP. Opponents who continue will have wraps to higher straights, flush draws and sets. Most turn and river cards are bad for you, with offsuit A to 4 being the only bricks, and you need runner-runner brick. In position, you could pot control, and value-bet thin on the river even when the nuts change. Out of position, you’re all set up to make a mistake on a future street.

Three: Respect suitedness. PLO is all about redraws, and even backdoor flush draws add important equity to your hand. For example, let’s say on a board of QJTr, you have AK98ds with two backdoor flush draws. Your opponent also holds AK98, but he’s offsuit. You will win the pot 9% of the time, and the rest of the time it will be chopped. That’s a huge edge in the long run. Every backdoor flush adds around 4% equity to your hand, and in a game where one often sees set vs wrap-and-flush-draw all in on the flop, suitedness matters. On the same note, avoid offsuit hands, and don’t stack off with wraps on two-tone boards without a flush draw.

Four: Be aggressive. There are two ways to win in poker: by reaching showdown and letting your equity manifest itself; and by making the other guy fold and avoiding showdown. The key to winning big in PLO is being aggressive. Every time you jam a draw and make two pair or bottom set fold, you make money. Add fold equity to your pot equity, and your profits will shoot up, as long as you don’t overestimate either. Don’t go buckwild and raise-reraise every hand – you need significant pot equity to begin with, in PLO, and the first commandment about nut draws applies.

Five: Manage your bankroll. PLO is a high-variance game, and downswings, which are statistically inevitable, can be much more brutal than in NLHE. You’re playing a long-term game of percentages, so don’t enter a game you’re not adequately rolled for. There’s no point being the best player at a game where a downswing can wipe you out, leaving you without the funds to re-enter the game. You’ll just be banging your head on the sidelines, moaning about bad beats as donkeys gamble it up with each other.

These fundamental principles apply to easy games filled with beginners, which is what you’ll get in India right now. Keep doing your homework, and you’ll find yourself falling in love with this elegant, complex game. As a Chinese friend once told me, “Two cards good. Four cards better.”

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 10:08 AM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

20 August, 2014

The Four-Card Game

This is the 20th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

A marriage with two people can be complicated enough. Imagine then a marriage involving four, all of them bisexual. Instead of one couple, you don’t have two couples, but six, for each of them makes a pair with each of the others. The possibilities for drama are endless. It is a big difference, not a small one. It is the difference between Texas Hold ‘Em and Pot Limit Omaha (PLO).

In PLO, you get four cards dealt to you, not two. So basically, you get dealt the equivalent of six Texas hands, not two, and the possibilities grow exponentially. It’s an action game, and for that reason, is slowly picking up in India. And most newcomers to the game play it badly, because they play it like Texas when it it is hugely different, another game entirely, like baseball and cricket. Imagine if every ball Virat Kohli played was a full toss.

So if you happen to get into a home game where people are playing PLO, because it’s so much fun and ‘chaar patte milte hai, haha,’ what should you do to make money in that game? Well, given the state of Omaha games in India, there is exactly one thing you need to do to immediately give yourself a huge advantage. I will reveal that at the end of this column: first, here’s something fundamental about Omaha you need to understand.

The first thing newcomers learn about Omaha is that there isn’t much difference in preflop equity between the best and worst Omaha hands. (AA is an 88% favourite over KQo in Texas, but AA98ds is only 60% against 6543ds.) Inspired by this, they decide that any four cards can make a good hand on the flop, and they play nearly every hand. But this is the wrong way to think about the game. PLO is a postflop game, and the most important factor thing about any hand you have is not it’s preflop all-in equity, but its postflop playability.

Much more so than in Texas, every hand you play can call for the commitment of your entire stack. And when you choose a hand to play preflop, you want to pick one with which you are comfortable playing for stacks. You need to consider which hands connect with flops well enough that when you have a hand, you don’t mind putting in 300bb with it. Specifically, therefore, you want hands that can a) make the nuts and b) have redraws to the nuts.

Common ways in which people lose big pots is by hitting a lower set, straight or flush than their opponents. For this reason, hands like 77xx and 6543ds are basically garbage. Hands that win you big pots or lose you small ones in Texas – small pairs and medium suited connectors – do the exact opposite in PLO. Plus, subtle structural differences make a huge difference to hands: JT98ds is better than 9876ds, which will make sucker straights and wraps more often, and JT97ds is better than J987ds, because it will flop more nutted straights and wraps. Also, AAxx and KKxx hands are over-rated, as are offsuit hands like AKQJr. Getting a handle on the postflop playability of different types of hands is key, because they affect equities and profits and your bankroll.

I’ll write more about the structure of hands in next week’s column, where I’ll also give you a few specific tips on how to beat the kind of soft games you are likely to encounter. Until then, here’s the one thing you can do to make yourself an immediate favourite in your games: play tight preflop. Most beginners play too many hands, and by playing tight, choosing hands with good structures, you ensure that you have a stronger range in every postflop situation, more nutted and with more redraws. If your cards lie in happy matrimony with each other, all will be well.

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted at 12:50 PM by Amit Varma in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

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