Thoughts on poker, cooperation, and strategic thinking

Yesterday evening I had the wonderful experience of studying strategic thinking  through the medium of poker from Harvard Law School’s Prof. Charles Nesson. Poker is a fantastic tool for learning how to think about risk and leverage, but what does it teach us about the strategic value of  collaboration and trust? Many (most?) real world situations involve people working toward a common purpose. How does poker help us learn to more skillfully negotiate in these situations?

I asked Prof. Nesson about this, and he immediately pointed out that while poker is a “zero-sum game,” it is also inherently collaborative insofar as players agree to a set of rules that govern play. My initial reaction to this was a vague sense of dissatisfaction – after all, what was I then to make of the behavior of my colleagues at the next table who could not seem to resist the urge to voluntarily redistribute their collective wealth when one of their partners went all in and lost? 

But that’s just it, right? What are the rules we have agreed to? There is a time and a place for a competitive, zero-sum games, but there is also a role for strategies that emphasize building trusting relationships and learning how to collaborate.

I’m going to play more poker to learn more about managing risk. But I’m also going to remember that we can also always agree to change the rules by which we play. Sometimes we are truly in it together and can only succeed through cooperation and trust.