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.

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Flaws in PTR Rake Comparison

(This is just a rough post that I’m writing up because of a quick aside in my previous post that wwants asked about it on twitter. You probably don’t care about this. But I don’t wanna ever be accused of missing an opportunity to nit pick, and I’m completely incapable of saying anything in 140 characters–or, frankly, 1400–so I wrote up a post.)

PTR had a pretty cool idea to compare the rake at various sites. I think that that’s wonderful.  The sites have slightly different ways of charging rake which makes comparison hard and obscures what are almost certainly legitimate differences.  Different sites divide the stakes and the number of players at the table differently, take rake at different increments, have different caps, etc. Some sites have BBJs, and Full Tilt even rakes run it twice pots differently to further confuse things.

However, this is actually a slightly deceptive problem because the obvious solution doesn’t really provide legitimate information. PTR just took the total rake generated in their database and divided by the number of hands (then multiplied by 100 to make the numbers look pretty). The really big problem with this is that all the sites charge rake only if you see a flop (except french sites…), and the amount depends on the size of the pot. So sites with more flops and larger pots–the type of site that almost everyone wants to play on–will tend to show higher rake by this metric, even if their rake structure is exactly equivalent.

This isn’t a trivial problem.  For example, Cake, Stars, Bodog and FTP have identical rake at NL2000 FR except that FTP charges $1 extra for run it twice ($0.05 per $1 capped at $3) . But in PTR’s table, Bodog charges over twice as much rake as Cake, and there’s pretty good variation in general (Cake = $11.51, FTP = $13.80, Stars = $17.96 and Bodog = $23.35). Since almost every pot that sees a flop at 10/20 is going to be capped at $3 rake, this almost certainly means that players see the flop about twice as often on Bodog as on Cake (about 70% and 35% respectively).  I don’t think that many players would consider that as a negative, and it’s certainly not Bodog’s fault. I’m sure that there are many similar examples.

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“The Poker Economy” and Why Your Bottom Line Isn’t a Moral Barometer

(It seems fitting that I make my debut in the blogosphere with a tl;dr rant that’ll probably piss some people off. I’ll probably be writing some less tl;dr rants that’ll piss fewer people off here fairly regularly, so if that’s the sorta thing that appeals to you, stay tuned or whatever. I’ll try to post on twitter when I make a new blog post.)

People in the online poker world are becoming increasingly obsessed with talking about “the poker economy”.  Lots of things are accused of being “bad for the poker economy”–Bumhunting, being a douche to casual players, cheating, and talking strategy at the poker table are pretty much universally considered problems for this noble cause, and some people also mention HUDs, training sites, various forms of legislation, running it twice, short stacking, PTR, public discussions of problems in the poker world like cheating and shady sites, various types of tournament structures, and a ridiculously long list of other things. But WTF is the poker economy?

I don’t really think most people who use the term know what it is–I think they’re more concerned with how they can protect it from the ridiculously long list of threats to its life than they are with knowing WTF it is in the first place.  That’s because it doesn’t really have a definition.  The poker economy is an undefined abstract concept that people use to justify their own opinions. Not coincidentally, people typically mention it when they’re trying to argue for something that would help their bottom line or to justify their own actions. It’s actually quite similar to a strategy that homophobic assholes use when they say weird nonsensical crap like “The strength of America is in its families and homosexuality threatens that”, or when racist assholes say that they’re “preserving their heritage” or something similarly stupid. Basically, it’s a cheap way to make it sound like there’s some moral imperative behind a position. I hope people will start pointing out these empty arguments more often.

But, just because people make terrible arguments doesn’t mean that their positions are wrong.  So, I wanted to discuss some of the specific things that people think “hurt the poker economy” and see which ones people are justified in complaining about. Obviously being a douche to casual players obviously isn’t ok–Not because it “hurts the poker economy” or “is bad for the game” but because being a douche is never ok. Similarly, cheating isn’t ok. It’s not that cheating isn’t ok because it scares fish away or disrupts the beautiful flow of money from fish to pro or anything like that; cheating is simply unethical all on its own. I’ll devote more time to some of the others:

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