Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Big Blinds? Ditch the Sunglasses.

When the PGA was asked to accommodate golfer Casey Martin’s disability, they could have learned a thing or two from the World Poker Tour – it’s amazing how they’ve been able to make provisions for so many blind players. O.k., the guy sitting in the big blind isn’t really blind, but what’s up with all the sunglasses? If their “World Series of Poker” truly aspires to be Super Bowl of the card game, they need to eliminate the use of sunglasses, hoods, and any other means of obstructing a clear view of players’ faces.

The players use sunglasses to give them a competitive advantage. In my article discussing sportsmanship in the case of Garry Kasparov’s complaints against the programmers of Deep Blue, I argued that an advantage to a competitor is unfair if there is a benefit to the competitor that is not attributable to increased skill, improved strategy, or superior effort. A player should only advance his or her game if he or she is playing better, smarter, or harder. In baseball, for example, it is wrong to use a corked bat, that is, batters will drill out the center of the wood and insert a piece of cork in order to give the bat increased flexibility thereby making the ball jump off the bat and go significantly farther. In this case, the batter hits the ball farther even though he is no stronger, no better at making contact, and has the same stance and swing. The improved performance is not attributable to skill or effort.

In poker, there are three main skills. First, one has to be able to read the cards in able to determine a good betting strategy. Given what you are holding, what cards are showing on the table, and what game you are playing, how likely is it that you are holding the winning hand and given that likelihood how should one bet the hand?

Second, you need to be able to read the other players. To win, you not only need a good hand, you need a better hand than those you are betting against. The challenge of poker is in the asymmetric distribution of information – everyone knows different facts about who has what – and part of the game is to try to discern from how someone else is acting what they are probably holding. Really good poker players will be able to tell what you know from how you act. If someone, late in the game checks his down cards before betting large, he probably has a good hand and just wanted to make sure that the card he thought was down there really was still there. This is a classic tell that the player is not bluffing.

The third skill, is the converse of the second – not getting read. Great players have “poker faces,” stoic expressions that do not ever change, no matter the scenario. As such, you can never tell whether they are bluffing or holding a big hand. Others, knowing they don’t have a good poker face, go in the other direction and over-emote. They’ll talk and talk, feign surprise, joy, or wail at how bad their cards are so that any tell that might slip must be considered suspiciously – was that intentional?

This is where the sunglasses come in. The eyes are the key to reading a player and if you are wearing sunglasses, your eyes can’t be read. This means that the glasses convey an advantage that does not come from an improved game and should not be allowed.

Of course, the rules of all games are arbitrary. As long as everyone plays by the same rules, there things are fair. If anyone can use sunglasses, then it is not cheating. No one should have an unmatched technological advantage. This was what made the Casey Martin question interesting. Golf requires a lot of walking and this wears down the competitors over the course of the day, making the later holes more challenging. Using a golf cart would eliminate this part of the challenge and generally convey an unfair advantage to the rider over the walker. But Martin had a disability that made walking very painful. The question was whether his degree of challenge doing limited walking with an impaired leg was commensurate with significant walking with unimpaired legs. Was it a level playing field or one slanted in his favor?

The use of sunglasses in poker, however, is not there to level the playing field, but to allow everyone the same slant. If everyone was allowed to ride carts, scores would go down and more impressive shots would be hit. If corked bats were allowed, more and more impressive home runs would be hit. But part of being a championship level competition is to have the best players playing the most difficult incarnation of the game. Greens on pro courses are the trickiest to putt on. Major League hitters must use wood and not aluminum bats. This is part of what makes the big leagues the big leagues. But with poker, you are allowed to hide your face making the game easier in a way that does not require improved skill, strategy or effort. Pulling a sweatshirt hood over your face will keep your opponent from reading you in large part, but not because you have a better poker face, something that ought to be required from someone vying to be considered one of the world’s best players of the game. If the “World Series of Poker” wants to be seen more seriously than the Little League World Series, they need to ditch the sunglasses. Have the players’ face the music...with their real faces.