Category Archives: Malcolm Gladwell

What Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History Taught me About Poker


August 26, 2016

What Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History Taught me About Poker

As Malcolm Gladwell’s first season of Revisionist History ends, Lee Davy remembers a lung-bursting run through the streets of LA listening to the great man and what he learned about poker.

I walk outside; the sun hits me, and I feel like a battery on charge. I pick some of the spuds from my ears, plug in the earphones and start running. I don’t get far. The Korean woman is running towards me with her sunglasses on, pink towel wedged under a Lakers baseball cap and a bottle of water in her hand.

I pull my phone out of my fanny pack (as my American brethren call it), and press pause.

“What’s your poison?” She asks.

“Malcolm Gladwell,” I reply.

“Malcolm, who?

“A famous author, have you read the book, Blink?”

“No.”

“The Tipping Point?”

“Nah.”

“Outliers?”

She shakes her head.

“Well, he has a new podcast.”

“What’s it about?”

“History.”

“You like history do ya?”

“Not really.”

When Malcolm Gladwell announced he was starting a podcast called Revisionist History, it quickly became one of the top-ranked podcasts on iTunes before he had released a single episode.

He is a popular man.

“See ya later?” I say before plugging my earpiece back into my lughole and heading into the baking sun.

The Lady Vanishes

The intelligent voice of Malcolm Gladwell flies into my brain as I pass a piece of dog poo encircled by chalk, stating, “Please Clean Your Dog Poop.”

The episode I am listening to is called The Lady Vanishes, and as I pound the pavement in the 30-degree heat I learn about an 1874 painting called Roll Call, an Australian Prime Minister called Julia Gillard, and a phenomenon called Moral Licensing.

What Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History Taught me About PokerThe Roll Call once toured the UK until Queen Victoria bought it and gave it pride and place in the Royal Academy. The artist was a young woman called Elizabeth Thompson, and not long after a group of men nailed the painting into the wall she failed to become the first woman enshrined into the Academy failing by a few votes.

Gladwell argues that because Thompson got so close infiltrating a man’s world, the men patted themselves on the back for nearly allowing it to happen, and then closed the door in the face of Thompson and all other female artists who dared follow. It wasn’t until 1936, 62-years after The Roll Call, that a woman was allowed into the Royal Academy.

I dodge another piece of poo, turn the corner and nearly run into a car trying to avoid standing on a lizard.

Meanwhile, Gladwell has now turned his attention to the first female  Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard. Once again, Gladwell talks about moral licensing, and how the males of Australia strengthened their positive self-image after she was voted in, before once again slamming the door on any females who wanted to follow in Gillard’s footsteps.

She was called a witch, the media focused on the size of her cleavage, and one restaurant sold Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail: Small Breasts, Huge Thighs and a Big Red Box.

Moral licensing?

It reminded me of poker, and how men will always struggle to understand how women like Cate Hall, Jamie Kerstetter, and Liv Boeree feel about being part of the poker industry’s minority.

I can hear you?

“They love it.”

“It’s easier to get sponsorship deals.”

“They can sleep with the best players.”

The poker community suffers from moral licensing in a big way. We allow a few women into our male dominated clique, and then we close the door on anyone else who dares to walk through by creating an intimidating environment and surrounding it with verbal and physical acts of lust, lunacy and lies.

Cate Hall speaks out about the importance of recognising the skills that female poker players possess, and encouraging more women to play the game, and quietly all the men are watching her social media accounts like hawks waiting for the moment she slips up so we can obliterate her with her own hypocrisy.

I run past the empty school. California has no water, but there is plenty chugging out of the ground feeding the grass where the kids play baseball. Some of it hits me. It feels lush, although I now look like I have pissed myself.

The Big Man Can’t Shoot

Next, I listen to Gladwell talking about an NBA great called Wilt Chamberlain. He is the only player to score 100 points in an NBA game. It was in 1962 when the Philadelphia Warriors beat the New York Knicks by 169 points to 147. Chamberlain also set another record in that game when he scored 28 of his 32 free throws, all underarm.

What’s the first thought that comes to mind when you think of someone making a free throw underarm?

I figured it was stupid.

They call it a Granny Shot.

Who wants to make a play with that name on the tin?

Not Wilt Chamberlain.

“It made me look like a sissy,” he would later tell reporters.

At the end of the season, Chamberlain had a 61% free throw percentage throwing underarm. The next year he changed to the standard free throw technique and over the years it dropped as low as 38%.

Chamberlain knew that the decision was affecting his game, but he wouldn’t adjust because he cared more about what people thought about him.

I pass the Korean lady and keep on running. She doesn’t care what people think about her. She is walking this time. She does that. She runs downhill and walks back uphill. I salute her as I run past; she salutes right back. A stream of sweat flies from her fingers and lands in my mouth.

As I gag, I start thinking about how many Wilt Chamberlain’s we have in poker. The first thing I think about is limping and how back in the day people were too scared to limp into a pot because they were worried that people might believe that they were rubbish.

In poker, it makes sense for your opponents to think you are rubbish, as it gives you an edge. And yet there are so many poker players who would rather give up that edge than let you think they were stupid. If Wilt Chamberlain played poker, he would never have limped into a pot.

Gladwell believes that people like Chamberlain and those in poker who do not limp have what he calls a high threshold personality – they are more likely to allow the crowd to affect their decision. I believe innovative players like Vanessa Selbst have a low threshold personality because they ignore the social cost because of a win at all costs mentality.

It’s not just limping where I see this phenomenon. I also see it with the length of time it takes people to make a decision in poker. Taking a long time is the ‘in thing’ to do. It’s become uncool to make your decisions quickly.

Generous Orthodoxy

My armpits smell of weed. I keep sniffing them as I run, secretly, in case someone sees me. I guess I have a high threshold when it comes to armpit sniffing and running. The mountains look magnificent in the background. I don’t notice them generally, but I am more aware of my surroundings today. Gladwell has perked me up.

I am listening to a tale about a 98-year old Mennonite pastor, and it piques my interest because my wife’s family are all deeply religious, and it’s something I have been trying to understand since my time in LA. I have a closed mind on religion and a cynical view. I am trying to open it and am enjoying the process.

The pastor, Chester Wenger, had given his life to the church. Then, one day, his son told him he was gay.

“Maybe you can outgrow this?” Said Wenger.

He didn’t.

Many years later, Wenger’s son fell in love with another man and prepared to wed. His father asked if he could officiate at the wedding. His son agreed. The pastor took on the role most of us can only dream of, and his church stripped him of all his credentials.

Wenger wrote an op-ed about the experience called “An Open Letter to my Beloved Church.”

261,379 people have read it.

It reminded me of the lunacy of the world. I think about the poker community and start counting the number of openly gay poker players and I only needed one hand. That can’t be, right? Why aren’t there more? And then I remember that our live poker circuits visit countries where being gay could lead to incarceration. I guess I would keep my mouth shut if I lived in a world like that.

My daughter will be born in September.

I wonder how I would feel if my daughter told me that she was gay?

I know it would be easier to accept than learning that my son was gay.

Why?

Is it because I am a man? Is it because of my upbringing? Is it because of stories like this? Is it because of my father? Is it a biological thing?

Why?

As I pass the school once more, I look at the empty playground and picture the other children picking on my gay daughter. For a moment I have hope that the path of least resistance finds her, and then I remember how much I hate that route. It’s a road of ignorance and a GPS system programmed by the blind.

I feel angry.

My pace quickens.

Sweat pours out of my body, stinging my eyes. My hair hangs over my face like a dirty mop.

Gladwell turns his attention to Princeton University and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. My heart is beating. My head is hurting. And I can’t help wondering why Americans name everything after the most preposterous long-winded names like the Captain James Tiberius Kirk XII Interplanetary Highway?

Woodrow Wilson was racist.

I never knew that.

Gladwell talks about a time when Princeton students staged a 32-hour sit-in protesting over the fact that a known racist’s name was on the title of their school. The protests led to a Town Hall meeting on campus where a lot of white people decided that the name of the school would remain as it was.

What was Gladwell’s point?

These angry demonstrators chose to go to this school. The school doesn’t hide its history. There are placards of rich white people all over the place. The name of a known racist is in the title. People still chose to attend and once they were accepted said they felt uncomfortable and wanted change.

It’s not that easy.

You don’t stage a sit-in if you want an institution like Princeton to take you seriously.

“Instead of talking about what they were owed,” said Gladwell, “they should have shown them what they were willing to give up.”

That’s right; there is real power in the ‘best and the brightest’ showing the world that they were ready to give up their place in one of the greatest universities in the world ‘to save it from itself.’ They should never have returned to school and urged everyone else to do the same.

“It would have been a costly strategy,” said Gladwell. “It would have taken real sacrifice. And that’s why Generous Orthodoxy is really hard.”

And as I sprint the last 100m of my run I think about PokerStars and the unrest amongst the grinders. The sit-outs, the protests, the verbal abuse from forums. The excuses that there is nowhere else to play, and that they are slaves to the monopoly that PokerStars has built.

I collapse on the floor.

I can’t breathe.

I feel like there is a bullet in my head.

“Hey.”

I look up and see the Korean woman blotting out the sun and handing me her water bottle.

“How’s your history?” she asks.

“History?”

I take a gulp of her water and tip the rest over my head.

“It wasn’t about history,” I reply. “It was about poker.”



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