Trust: Pedophiles, the Stranger Fallacy, and the Vouching System

(I plan to update this blog at least weekly for the next couple months or so. I’ll likely have another post out this week. If you’d like to know when I’ve updated my blog, you can subscribe to my RSS feed or follow me on twitter.)

Say a nine-year-old girl is walking home from school in a small rural town, and it starts to rain. A car pulls up, and a middle-aged man she’s never met offers her a ride home. This scenario makes a lot of people nervous. Because the girl doesn’t know this guy, she doesn’t know if he’s a pedophile, a kidnapper, or a murderer. So, the common wisdom that pretty much every kid was taught when I was little was to refuse the ride–even to just totally ignore the guy. If, however, the driver is the little girl’s neighbor or a friend of her parents or her friend’s dad or someone that she’s seen around town, then the guy’s not a stranger, so she can get into the car and feel perfectly safe.

Obviously, this system doesn’t pass a basic plausibility test. In the first scenario, while the guy was a stranger to her, he’s definitely somebody’s son, is almost certainly somebody’s neighbor, many other people’s friend, and somebody that lots of people see around town, and is pretty likely to be somebody’s dad as well. So, unless this nine-year-old girl has a uniquely gifted ability to pick good neighbors, parents’ friends, friends’ parents, and people she sees around town, then a stranger to her is roughly as likely to be some kind of “bad guy” as someone that she knows. (This is admittedly an oversimplification, but I’ve probably already talked more about this situation than I should on a poker blog. Attempts to find a decent discussion of the issue to link to for interested readers failed miserably. One may not even exist because obviously this is an issue that’s dominated by people who are rather zealous and irrational. If you’d like to talk more about it, bug me on twitter or 2p2 or in the comments or something.)

We use this same terrible logic in tons of situations; we treat strangers with unnecessary suspicion, and we trust people that we know to a remarkable degree. For example, people tend to be pretty guarded about flashing even small amounts of cash in public, but are perfectly willing to let friends of friends into their houses when they have a party–usually with plenty of valuable, stealable things around. This system always feels really natural and reasonable; strangers feel inhuman, and people that we’ve talked to or heard about from friends feel much more human and therefore much safer. But, it relies on the flawed assumption that either bad people don’t end up entering anybody’s social circle or that our social circles is somehow privileged. The first is empirically false, and the second obviously can’t be true for everybody.

The fact of the matter is that most people–strangers or not–have a lot of integrity. In fact, next time you’re walking down the street in a “bad” neighborhood with someone behind you, drop a $100 bill and pretend not to notice. The guy behind you is way way more likely to give it back than he is to take it. I know this from experience as a man who consistently drops and loses valuable things and gets them promptly, kindly, and awkwardly returned. (FWIW, he’s probably a bit more likely to pretend he didn’t see it and hope someone else deals with it than to return it himself.) So, we use an old-fashioned, instinctive system of completely trusting people that we know as a good approximation for the correct system: trusting everyone almost completely barring any direct evidence that we shouldn’t. In most scenarios, this leads people to be overly cautious around strangers and treat people that they know with about the right level of caution. That’s not a big deal, although it probably makes subway rides significantly less pleasant.

In the poker world, we basically use this same flawed system, and it fails tremendously, but in the opposite direction. We place tons of trust in people we know and use an informal vouching system to place tons of trust in friends of friends, and it repeatedly bites us in the ass. Perhaps the most blatant failure of this system was when one of the most respected men in poker, Barry Greenstein, defended the undisputed most hated man in poker, Russ Hamilton, in the face of tons of evidence that made it pretty clear that Russ was guilty and in spite of Russ’s shady past. More close to home, I’ve personally vouched for three different people who have later gone on to screw people over. (FWIW, one has made things right, one appears to be attempting to do so, and one has paid back everybody but me.) In fact, I bet that almost every single person that’s been caught scamming, cheating, or stealing in the poker world has had someone vouch for him in good faith.

So why does this system that leads to people being a little overly suspicious in the larger world fail so spectacularly to protect us in the poker world? The obvious answer is simply that our community provides a rare opportunity for people to show their true colors. Most people can get away with trusting someone completely instead of trusting them with almost everything because they rarely come in contact with the few situations in which people can’t really be trusted. Usually they’re trusting people not to do things that almost nobody would want to do anyway, like hurt their children or steal relatively small amounts of money or hard-to-sell-valuables with a decent chance of getting caught. Poker players trust people in much more dangerous situations. Whenever we send first in a transfer, loan money, stake someone, make a prop bet without an escrow, play in poorly policed games, or simply accept a file transfer, we’re essentially leaving a pile of money outside someone’s door with just a sign that says “If you take this, you’re a bad person” to protect it. This obviously poses a problem, and it’s unquestionably at the root of all of the security problems in the poker world. But, it’s actually remarkable how small of an issue it is. In the vast majority of cases, the sign actually works! If it didn’t, we’d all be scammers, cheaters, thieves, or broke.

But of course, even though the vast majority of people are inherently good and ethical, a small minority are not. In other words, there are sociopaths and psychopaths and people who are otherwise inherently immoral. These people cause problems everywhere, but the poker world probably attracts more of these people for obvious reasons: It’s a weird world that attracts weird people in general, and as described above, it provides people without scruples with plenty of opportunities to profit. Russ Hamilton, for example, is almost certainly a sociopath. (It’s probably worth noting that many of these people are very good at coming off well to others, so there’s no obvious way to weed them out.)

Plus, “good” people sometimes do bad things. Nobody over the age of three goes a year without doing something significantly and undeniably wrong and a long list of things that are arguably wrong. I’m sure you know from experience this typically involves a lot of rationalizing. Poker of course sees a lot of this because there’s plenty of moral ambiguity to go around, which makes it easier for people to justify their actions to themselves. And, indeed, the poker world is full of examples of people who try to justify blatantly immoral actions. People with great reputation do this as well as those with no reputation. See ZeeJustin’s story from 2006, in which he entered multiple accounts into the same tournaments and used some silly justifications, or just look anywhere where someone who did something wrong in our community spoke out (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 etc). Or, read my first post, which was essentially an attack on a standard rationalization that poker players use to justify immoral behavior.

Last, though, is the elephant in the room: Gambling for significant amounts of money isn’t the healthiest activity. Almost every serious poker player with less than a $10M networth believes that he deserves to be much richer than he is. Many spent their money last year with the expectation of being much richer than they are this year. Some were much richer than they are now, and some are just broke. In other words, variance makes a lot of poker players feel entitled, wronged, angry, and desperate. That type of person is obviously very likely to scam, cheat, or steal, even if he was the most moral guy in the world when things were going well. Worse still, lots of people in the poker world pretend to have way more money than they have, so it’s pretty rare to know that someone is desperate until they’re caught robbing somebody. Before that, many of them are very well-respected members of the poker world with lots of friends willing to vouch for them and a whole community willing to trust them with tons of money. Indeed, the three people that I vouched for all screwed people over after they fell on hard times.

All of these effects are universal in poker, and (with the exception of the sociopath/psychopath thing) they’re just about as likely to get to a good friend or a well-known player as anybody else. This doesn’t mean not to trust anybody in the poker world with anything, since, as I said earlier, people tend to have remarkable integrity. But, it does mean that trusting people in the poker world with significant amounts of money is legitimately risky. It isn’t one of those ridiculously small and silly-to-point-out risks that you take when you cross the street or get on an airplane (or when a little girl accepts a ride from a stranger) that get overblown because of societal selective memory; this is a legitimate risk that screws over a pretty high percent of the people who take it. I also hope that I’ve highlighted two massive flaws in the vouching system: People tend to assume that their friends won’t do bad things with almost no evidence, and people tend to assume that past integrity will guarantee future integrity, though that’s often not the case.

So, obviously the best thing that you can do is avoid trusting people for large amounts of money: Don’t send first in transfers, don’t stake people, don’t loan money, don’t play in poorly policed games, etc. Of course, that’s completely impractical for most people in this community. So, when you do decide to take a risk, take all of the standard precautions (like the ones listed here), and do the following:

  1. Ignore vouches with no evidence to back them up. Remember that “He’s a good guy” translates roughly to “I’ve had at least one conversation with him in which he didn’t punch me.” Even “I’d trust him with $1M” doesn’t mean much more in our world. But, “I have trusted him with $1k before with no problems” probably actually does carry some weight. Of the three guys that I’ve vouched for that went on to screw people over, two had never had an opportunity to steal from me (and the third did steal from me), so my vouches for those two were essentially “I’ve done lots of transactions with him, but I’ve never actually trusted him with anything. He seems like a nice guy, though.” In the future, I’ll leave that last sentence out.
  2. Ignore old evidence. If someone has transferred $1k or paid a $1k bet or something similar in the past week, he’s probably less likely to steal your $1k. If he did it a month ago, that effect is probably much smaller. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people in the poker world who didn’t care at all about $1k a month ago, but are desperate today.
  3. Do transfers in pieces. This can be a PITA, but it’s worth it.
  4. Try to Verify that You’re Dealing with Someone Who Isn’t Desperate. Check PTR, OPR and sharkscope for recent results. Have them sit at a limit table with a decent amount of money relative to how much you’re trusting them with. Etc, etc.
  5. Have contracts when possible. There are lots of contracts for staking and prop bets out there that you can just copy. You can use a printer and scanner to get them signed or just be lazy and “sign them electronically” by e-mail. Gambling contracts are of questionable legality in many places, but the presence of the contract removes a lot of grey area, which helps a lot, and will give you a lot more avenues to recover your money if you do get screwed over.
  6. Never risk money that you can’t lose comfortably. This is true when gambling, and it’s true when opening yourself up to be robbed. Don’t do a transfer for a significant portion of your networth/bankroll. Don’t sell pieces of yourself with no money upfront if losing a few buyins and not getting paid would be a significant hit to your networth/bankroll. Etc, etc.


  1. Your article is generally right about trust, but the example of the kid in the rain isn’t quite perfect.

    It’s not perfect because the people who stop to pick kids up are not randomly selected: there’s a substantially higher risk of something being wrong if the driver stops to pick a kid up, compared with a kid (theoretically) forcibly stopping a random car.

    This is useful in that if you are going to extend trust, it is best for you to do the selection of who to extend trust to. If you’re at a coffee shop, and someone came up and asked to look after your laptop while you were at the bathroom, there’s a good chance they have a problem of some sort. By contrast, if you are at the coffee shop and need to go to the bathroom, asking whoever is sitting next to you to keep an eye on your stuff is likely to be safe. This is because the vast majority of people are honest (as you say) and you’d be unlucky to randomly choose a laptop thief.

  2. Great post again!

    I’ve vouched several times for bloggers, but only because a)I’ve met them and b) 100% get the money back. Doing this thru a community board (even 2+2) there’s a bigger chance of a deadbeat.

    Side note: you have listed PTR as a viable way of tracking wins/losses, I’ve looked myself up since I don’t keep very good records anymore and the stats were very lacking, as in almost non-existant. Sharkscope and OPR are very good with tournaments but is there a better cash game tracker out there?

  3. Your post is right on. I am not the type to take chances lending/transferring money to acquaintances but in poker it’s par for the course. It’s disturbing to think that people I’ve trusted my hard earned cash with are those I’ve met maybe once, but feel close to through the internet. Thus far no regrets. :)

  4. I’ve had players in a casino ask for money, and I’ve always said no. Why can’t he or she get it out of an ATM?

    I might load money to somebody to pay their rent, but never to gamble.

  5. Josem,
    I definitely agree that it’s a massive oversimplification. Maybe I shouldn’t have even bothered using the little girl and the stranger analogy without committing to fleshing it out, but I just felt like it’s the prototypical example.

    I considered mentioning the selection bias problem (and I even considered connecting it to some poker-world advice in a stupidly elaborate way), but meh. People should stop telling little girls that strangers are pedophiles because the vast majority aren’t. The fact that a guy who’s nice enough to pull over to give a little girl a ride home is more likely to want to harm her is just so insignificant when you consider just how small of a subset of the population wants to harm a little girl that they don’t know. (It’s sad to have to qualify that sentence with the phrase “that they don’t know” at the end of that, but the unfortunate truth is that a significant percentage of fathers abuse their daughters.) The fact that this keeps little girls from accepting favors from strangers sorta sucks, and the fact that it keeps strangers from offering those favors for fear of looking like a pedophile sorta sucks more.

    As I said, I’d love to be able to link to a decent discussion on this issue, but that seems to be pretty hard to find. That sucks too.

    I don’t know of anything more accurate than PTR for cash game results. I’ve found it to be pretty accurate, but it certainly varies by stakes, game type, site, and date. It’s certainly better than nothing for this purpose.

  6. He seems like a smart guy, but I think he’s doing what I’m doing–using this as a (perhaps unnecessary) analogy. I don’t know if that post actually reflects his views on how children should interact with strangers, but if it does, I strongly disagree with him.

  7. Sort of going along w/ the little girl/trusting of strangers thing. I think when most people think of rape or sexual assault, they picture some creepy guy jumping out of the bushes and attacking some innocent woman. This obviously happens, but nowhere nearly as often as people think.

    So there’s “stranger rape” and “acquaintance rape.” Pretty self explanatory I think but I’ll say it anyway..acquaintance rape is when the perpetrator is someone you know (i.e. boyfriend, coworker, family member etc). What I think a lot of people would find shocking is that acquaintance rape is FOUR times as likely as stranger rape!

    Here’s the link where I got that statistic

  8. Noah,

    great to see one of the best posters on 2p2 having his own blog now.
    Just like Josem, i feel like youre off with you girl/ stranger analogy.
    You say “that it keeps strangers from offering those favors for fear of looking like a pedophile” is the most important argument why the probability of someone randomly offering a little girl a ride (ok, the rain) being malicious is way higher than you think it is.
    Were (unfortunately) conditioned to think that offering such a favor to an unknown child is seen as creepy, weird or straightout malicious. Thats why were not offering it in the first place.
    Maybe im way off but i would guess that most people without malicious intentions would think that way, leaving a high relative amount of malicious dudes actually offering the ride.

  9. Hey Noah,

    first of all, great post. I like how you cover the “fear of stranger fallacy”. Penn and Teller had a series on their “bullshit” show as well.

    I´d like to throw in something.

    For example,

    1) People are less likely to hurt people they know. People are waaay less likely to screw a friend. I think this is self-evident and 99,9% of us feel & act this way. If anybody disagrees, i´ll go into detail and post studies

    2) We usually share similar values with our friends.
    So lets say you´re a devoted Baptist Christian in the South. Most of the time a very high % of your friends are also devoted Baptist Christians as well. You will not agree on everything, but on a lot of things.

    Most likely you will vote Republicans, moste likely you will think pre-marital sex is not desireable.


    People that share similar values with you are less likely to act against those values than a stranger/random person. This is stating the obvious.

    I completely agree that most fear of strangers is irrational.

    However, in terms of likelyhood, its still very rational to trust a friend more than a stranger.
    How much more ? I don´t know. A study would be needed to quantify this number. But i´d bet a lot that it will be significant (higher than 5%)

    My solution to the “little girl in the rain” – problem:

    The correct solution for parents would be to tell their kids the circle of people they are allowed to drive with.
    Lol, ironically just came into my mind that my parents taught me this when i was in kindergarden…

  10. Hi Nate,
    Yeah. I agree that the problem is a lot messier than how I presented it.

  11. Nate, your solution is actually part of the problem…

  12. Also generally agree and have thought about these concepts many times. But another flaw in the little girl example is the reason the stranger/friend stops her and offers the ride. The friend of dad’s etc is more likely to offer the girl a ride because he KNOWS HER AS WELL (even though he has the same % with a stranger to be a rapist etc.) He has like 99% chance to stop a little girl he KNOWS and offer a ride cause its raining while his chance of stopping a random girl he doesnt know for the same reason I think is really close to zero (has any of you ever been driving in the rain an see a total stranger with no umbrella and stopped to offer a ride?)
    So a guy stopping a random girl he doesnt know and offer a ride is way more likely to have another motive because (as i think most people would agree) people don’t just offer to help a stranger girl just cause it’s raining.

    Your views on the poker world and trust with money etc. are dead on, I have seen it happen time after time with my friends.