On Winning the Bastiat Prize for Journalism

I was fortunate a few days ago to win the Bastiat Prize for Journalism for the second time. The prize is given annually to a writer whose work serves to “explain, promote and defend the principles of the free society.” I had also won it in 2007, and became the first person to win it twice.

Here’s the speech I delivered on receiving the award:

These are the pieces I won the award for:

The Kim Kardashian Liberals
The Great Redistribution
An Economic Message From God

And We’re Blogging Again

As the posts below (and above, as time goes by) would show, I’ve started blogging again. By that I mean, blogging blogging. Between 2004 and 2009, I wrote more than 8000 posts on India Uncut, at around five posts a day, and the readership was good—I got about 20k-pageviews-a-day when I tailed off. There were diminishing returns and all that, and I got into other things, and I subsequently used IU just for posting links to my columns.

Now that I’m back to writing full-time—even though I’m writing a book and not taking on too much media work—it makes sense to resume blogging—especially as I love the short format of the blog post so much. It’s perfectly suited to the pithy thought that packs in more than an ephemeral, shallow tweet could do, and yet should not be forced into a longer piece when that could be stretching it. The Age of the Blog is over, of course, and much of what blogs provided to people has been made redundant by Twitter and Facebook, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never get the kind of readership I used to have. Still, if only to indulge myself, I’m at it again.

March of the Candlesticks

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve been shortlisted for the 2015 Bastiat Prize for Journalism. This is an annual prize that aims to “honor the writing that best demonstrates the importance of individual liberty and free markets with originality, wit, and eloquence.” I had won this back in 2007. No one’s won it twice.

The pieces that got me onto the shortlist:

1. The Great Redistribution
2. The Kim Kardashian Liberals
3. An Economic Message From God

The trophy I most cherish having received is the beautiful candlestick I got when I won the Bastiat in 2007. (It’s inspired by this famous essay by Frédéric Bastiat.) Even if I don’t win another, that one sits on my mantelpiece reminding me that there is always, somewhere a light to be lit. I’ll keep lighting the fire.

Why I Loved and Left Poker

This is the 42nd and last installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

This is the 42nd and final installment of Range Rover, and I end this column at an appropriate time: after around five years of being a professional poker player, I have stopped playing fulltime, and am getting back to writing books. I am the first winning player i know to walk away from this game – but more than the money, I cherish the life lessons that poker has given me. As I sign off, let me share two of them: the first accounts, to some extent, for my love of the game; the second is the reason I am leaving it.

Poker is a game centred around the long term. The public image of poker is based around hands we see in movies or YouTube videos, and the beginner fantasizes about specific events, spectacular hands in which he pulls off a big bluff or deceives someone into stacking off to him. But once you go deeper into the game, you learn that short-term outcomes are largely determined by luck, and your skill only manifests itself in the long run. You learn to not be results-oriented but process-oriented, to just make the optimal move at every opportunity and ignore immediate outcomes. You learn, viscerally, for much money and pride is involved, the same lesson that the Bhagavad Gita teaches: Don’t worry about the fruits of your action, just do the right thing.

Needless to say, this applies to life as well. Luck plays a far bigger part in our lives than we realise: the very fact that you are literate enough to read this, presumably on a device you own, means you have already won the lottery of life. Much of what happens to us and around us is outside our control, and we would be foolish to ascribe meaning to these, or to let them affect us. Too many players I know let short-term wins and losses affect them, and become either arrogant or angry. This is folly. Equanimity is the key to being profitable in poker – and happy in life.

Why am I leaving a game that has given me so much? There are many reasons: Poker is all-consuming, and impacts one’s health and lifestyle; my real calling is to write, and I am pregnant with books that demand labour; but one key reason is that poker is a zero-sum game.

In life, you benefit when others do too. When two people transact a business deal, they do so because both gain value from it. When lovers kiss, the net happiness of both goes up. Life is a positive-sum game. But poker is not. You can only win if someone else loses, and the main skill in poker is exploiting the mistakes of others.

Now, all sport is zero-sum and consenting adults play this game, so this should not be a problem—except for the fact that poker lies on the intersection of sport and gambling. Gambling addiction destroys lives and families just as drug or alcohol addiction do, and i have seen this happen to people around me. I can sit at a poker table and calculate equities and figure out game-theoretically optimal ways of playing—but where is the nobility in this when my opponent is not doing likewise, but is a mindless slave to the dopamine rushes in his head? In the live games I played, I sometimes felt that there was no difference between me and a drug dealer: we were both exploiting someone else’s addiction.

When I write books, i have a shot at enriching myself by enriching others. This can never happen in poker. And so, my friends, goodbye.

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Addendum: You can read all the archives of my column on the Range Rover homepage. Here, briefly, are some I enjoyed writing.

My first column, The Bookshop Romeo, talks about the importance of thinking in terms of ranges, and its applicability to life. The Numbers Game and The Answer is 42 are about the importance of mathematics in poker. Make no Mistake, Finding Your Edge, The Colors of Money, The Cigarette Case and The Importance of Profiling deal with some basics of exploitive poker, while The Balancing Act, Miller’s Pyramid and Imagine You’re a Computer  talk about game-theory optimal (GTO) poker. Om Namah Volume is about the importance of putting volume.

I had great fun writing this series of pieces of probability, randomness and the nature of luck in poker and in life: Unlikely is Inevitable; Black Cats at the Poker Table; Running Good. I fed into my interest in cognitive psychology and behavioural economics for those pieces, as I did for these: The Interpreter; Poker at Lake Wobegon; Keep Calm and Carry On; The Endowment Effect; Steve Jobs and his Black Turtleneck.

Beast vs Human and The Zen Master Speaks deal with temperamental aspects of poker. The Game Outside the Game is about the politics of access, and Raking Bad about the ill effects of excessive rake. Sweet Dopamine talks about poker as an addiction, and The Dark Game and The Second Game of Dice expand upon this subject using personal experience.

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?

*  *  *

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.

*  *  *

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.

*  *  *

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.

The Dark Game

This is the 18th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

A few months ago, a friend of mine, J, wondered aloud how he would tell his prospective in-laws what he did for a living. An MBA by training, J was now a professional poker player. ‘Tell them you’re a game theorist,’ I said, ‘and are now engaged in the financially optimal application of your skills.’ My suggestion was glib and facetious: The skill involved in winning at poker is just half the story. The other half is disturbing and unpalatable.

J and I frequently play a game in New Bombay where we’re the only two long-term winners. The last time we played there, this is how the session ended: an affluent builder, many whiskeys down and possibly coked up as well, was raising and reraising every hand without looking at his cards. Stacks were 2000bb deep, the table was five-handed, and the rest of us were just waiting for hands with which to take the rest of his money. There wasn’t much mathematical calculation to be done, no equities to be worked out, no ranges to construct. Just wait to get a hand against the drunk guy. He did eventually stack himself, and J and I left big winners for the session.

I didn’t feel elated after my score, though. ‘We pride ourselves on studying the game, cracking the math, all that other shit,’ I said to J as we drove away, ‘but in the end this is what it comes down to. Sitting in a dark room waiting for a drunk builder to give his money away. Where is the nobility in this?’ J replied, ‘Yeah, we’re like drug dealers exploiting people’s addictions.’

I can give you all the counter-arguments to that, considering that I use them to rationalise what I do all the time. We play poker as an intellectual challenge; they are grown adults acting of their own free will; if we didn’t take their money someone else would. All this is the truth, but it’s not the whole truth. Poker is a unique game in the sense that it inhabits a twilight zone between sport and gambling. When J enters a hand against a drunk builder, they’re actually in parallel universes playing two different games. J approaches the game like a science and a competitive sport; the builder is basically gambling, like it’s teen patti or roulette, and he’s doing it because he is addicted to it. He’s a slave to dopamine. (This duality is within us as well, and J and the builder could easily switch universes once in a while.)

I have seen this addiction destroy lives around me. Businessmen have been ruined and gotten into heavy debt; marriages have broken down; previously respectable bankers have begged hosts of games, ‘Please give me one more buyin, just one more, I’ll pay you next week, promise.’ Sounds just like ‘one more hit’ or ‘one last peg’, doesn’t it?

The effects of rake make poker a negative-sum game. As the poker player Dan Colman put it in a post a month ago, ‘The losers lose way more money at this game than winners are winning. A lot of this is money they can’t afford to lose.’ Colman wrote this after winning US$15.3 million in a million-dollar tournament at the World Series of Poker this year. He refused to give interviews after his win, saying he didn’t want to promote poker. ‘I capitalize off this game that targets people’s weaknesses,’ he wrote. ‘I do enjoy it, I love the strategy part of it, but I do see it as a very dark game.’

The vast majority of players are long-term losers, but they are not the only victims of this addiction. Poker has a corrosive impact on the lives of even the winners. You achieve excellence at the game by playing a lot; and then need to put in volume for your edge to manifest itself in profits. As a result, your life can get consumed by the game, with everything else in it a backdrop for your obsession with poker. It isn’t healthy, and in at least one sense, the consummate professional and the drunk builder are in the same boat.

*  *  *

Also Read:

Colman’s post after his WSOP win.
Daniel Negreanu’s response to Colman.
‘Helping People Through Poker’ by Igor Kurganov and Adriano Mannino.
‘A solution to Dan Colman’s dilemma’ by Phil Gruissem.

*  *  *

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

A Godless Congregation

I have just started a monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line, called Lighthouse. This is the first installment.

A few days ago, a curious thing happened at a friend’s place. Seven of us were sitting around a dining table enjoying the postprandial bliss that inevitably follows copious consumption of Coorg Dry Pork and Hanumantu Mutton Pulao, when somebody asked the question, ‘So, when did you first realise you were an atheist?’ We traded stories, and realised at the end of it that every one of us was a non-believer, thus making us surely the most godless dinner congregation that evening in Mumbai. A full table, and not one deity between us. How unusual – and how very strange that in the second decade of the 21st century, such a gathering should be unusual to begin with.

Let’s not talk about science and modernity – we still live in primitive times. There are 13 countries where people who admit to atheism face execution under the law – and even in the supposedly modern USA, being an atheist pretty much finishes your prospects as a politician. The Huffington Post recently reported that there are no self-declared atheists in the US Congress, and a study by the Universities of British Columbia and Oregon found that ‘atheists are among society’s most distrusted groups, comparable even to rapists in certain circumstances.’ This is no doubt true of India as well, where Arvind Kejriwal, once an atheist, rediscovered religion as he ran for public office, and breathlessly thanked ‘the Supreme Father, Ishwar, Allah, Waheguru’ when he became chief minister of Delhi. I will give him the benefit of the doubt and put those ravings down to cynical roleplay rather than to genuine self-delusion.

I was an atheist long before I knew I was one. Back in the day, I shared the common misconception that atheists are people who believe that there is no god. But this is a faulty definition. The dictionary will tell you that atheists are actually people who do not believe that there is a god. Consider the subtle difference: atheism is the absence of belief. Until something has been proven to exist, it is rational not to believe in it – and the burden of proof always lies with the believer. An absence of belief does not always correspond to a belief in absence, which explains why most nonbelievers are non-militant about their nonbelief. As a correspondent to the Economist put it a few years ago, atheism is no more a belief system or a religion than not collecting stamps is a hobby.

When I realised this, it struck me that I had never collected stamps. And as I grew older, the nonbelief that existed perhaps out of laziness was reinforced by learning about science and examining my own deepest fears. All these millennia, god had needed to exist for two reasons: one, to explain everything about the world that we cannot. (The God of the Gaps.) Two, to provide consolation for our deepest existential fears. Over time, and especially in the last century-and-a-half, the gaps in our knowledge have shrunk drastically, and we no longer need a divine explanation for natural phenomena. As Douglas Adams once said about the theory of evolution, ‘The awe it inspired in me made the awe that people talk about in respect of religious experience seem, frankly, silly beside it. I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day.’

A deeper reason for why god must exist, however, is to mask our own cosmic insignificance. We are tiny, temporary fragments of a universe far larger than our inadequate brains are capable of imagining – and we’re too scared and arrogant to accept this simple fact. No, we must build narratives of our centrality to the universe, and devise potential afterlives that help us stay in denial of the one simple fact that we will be dead one day, with no greater meaning or purpose to it all. It is said that humans are set apart from other species by our self-awareness – you could also call it self-delusion, perhaps?

It is easy to be a fount of rationality and say these things, of course – but beyond the chatter, we actually have to come to terms with it. It eats me up, knowing that I am just a speck of dust in the larger scheme of things, and that soon I’ll be gone, poof, just like that. What good is my existence if I won’t be around after the fact to reflect on it? As loved ones die and I grow older, I can’t help but envy those around me for their false consolations, their anesthesia: they cope, they thrive, they manufacture meaning in their lives. Our job is harder.

But that is a private matter, and I overstate the angst. Atheists don’t live their lives tormented by the absence of a man in the sky with a beard – and most of us, if I may use the collective noun for non-stamp collectors with little else in common, aren’t even militant about our atheism. Why, then, are atheists held in such poor regard by believers everywhere?

One possible reason is that this has nothing to do with religion per se, and more to do with how we construct our identities with the belief systems we follow. Liberals abhor conservatives and vice versa, and clashes of ideology can get deeply personal. Perhaps it is the same with believers and nonbelievers. Every atheist is, in a sense, a personified slap on the face of all believers, a walking, talking reminder of their weakness and their delusions. It is natural to react viscerally to this, is it not?

Believers sometimes rationalise their distaste for atheists by arguing that religion is the source of morality, and that atheists can’t possible have any incentive to behave ethically. Let’s leave aside the historical issue of the staggering amount of violence committed in the name of religion – there is also a case to be made that codes of conduct existed before religions did, and that religions merely codified what already existed, and might even have been hardwired into us. Ultimately, we behave the way we behave, do the things we do, out of regard for our fellow human beings, and for our own humanity. And if that is all we ever believe in, well, it’s good enough.


Previous posts on atheism: 1, 2, 3.


A Dog with Spiky Hair

So the other day, a friend asked me if I was a fox or a hedgehog. And I replied, ‘Neither.’

A Tree Falls in a Forest

It has been 364 days since I last blogged. I cannot let a year pass. Hence this post. But I assume that by now, this blog has lost all its regular readers. If there is no one to read this, does this post exist?

If not, I suppose a year has passed. But if there is no blog, can it pass?

*  *  *

ps. The plan is to get back to regular blogging, just for my own sake. So I will starting now. (Which is when?)

Elephant in Kerala

So it’s about 10.45pm, and we’re headed in a tourist taxi to Siena Village, a resort a few kilometres from Munnar. We’ve already driven about three hours from Kochi airport, I haven’t slept in 48 hours, the fast, winding journey through the ghats has made me feel a little sick, and I’m kind of testy. Our overly talkative driver tells me that road from Munnar to Siena winds through a hilly jungle, and ‘sometimes at night, elephants attack cars.’ We begin that leg of the journey.

Halfway through, we find that an autorickshaw and another car have stopped in the middle of the road, and the rickshaw guy is gesticulating wildly at us to stop. He babbles something in Malayalam, and I assume his auto has broken down and he wants help or suchlike. I’m desperate to get to the hotel and crash. ‘Just drive, dude,’ I tell my driver. ‘Let’s get going.’

‘We can’t go,’ he says. ‘There are elephants charging down the road.’

Along with the rickshaw and the other car, we park our car at a clearing at the side of the road. ‘So what do we do now?’ I ask. ‘Elephant, elephant,’ the driver mumbles, and jumps out of the car to join the others to peer down the road. I’m about to get off when he comes back, gets in the car, and drives about 30 meters back down the road, towards Munnar. There he stops and waits, as we turn around to see what’s happening. The other car also moves away. The rickshaw remains.

Then the elephant lumbers in.

This massive grey beast saunters down the road, stops at the clearing, and stares at the auto, right besides where we had been a minute ago. Then it goes over and gives us a masterclass of how to obliterate an autorickshaw in 40 seconds flat. It uses its trunk to swing it around in the air and bash it on the ground. It uses its legs. It uses its fury. In less than a minute, what was once a vehicle is now mangled bits of metal and plastic. Satisfied at a job well done, the elephant gets back on the road, and looks at us. Or rather, I am sure of it, at me. Our eyes meet.

All this time, our driver is telling us, ‘Take picture, take picture. Get off and take picture.’ We’ve already told him to get on back to Munnar, obviously we’ll find a hotel there for the night. But he doesn’t listen. ‘Take picture, take picture.’

‘Drive,’ I tell him again. ‘Let’s go to Munnar.’

He doesn’t budge. The elephant takes a step towards us. It maintains eye contact. I think it knows my name.


The driver doesn’t budge. The elephant does.

‘Drive boss, drive us back to fuckin’ Munnar, what are you waiting for?’

He snaps to life and starts driving. Then he says, ‘Sir, no need to be rude. I have studied engineering, you know.’

The simultaneous urges to sleep, puke and get away from an elephant have made me lose it by now. ‘So why are you driving a tourist taxi then?’ I ask.

‘Because this is Kerala.’

Update: The elephant’s name is Padiappa. It turns out that he had a traumatised childhood, and has killed eight people in the last few years. He’s undergoing counselling treatment, and was apparently given an injection three months ago after which he calmed down somewhat. However, he got restless again a couple of days ago. He destroyed some crops two nights ago, and then the auto last night.

All this was told to me by the Mallu driver Bipin, who is no longer mad at me. I can’t be sure about Padiappa, though, and am avoiding casual social encounters with him.