If you’re from a “good” Indian family, especially one South of the Vindhyas, chances are that playing cards were taboo in your childhood. Cards were the gateway drug which would entice you away from your shiny engineer-doctor destiny to spiral down into the depths of gambling, drinking and gutter-dying. This means you never played poker. Emerging from the unreal cocoon of university into your first job, you wandered into the stock market with the naive innocence of a farm-bred bakra. And watched your money burn to a crisp.
Well, it’s about time you remedied this major gap in your education. A few hours of poker will teach you a lot about practical game theory, emergent “social” values and a cartload of cognitive biases. More importantly, it will give you extremely valuable insights into yourself, widely applicable to your life in general.
I’m slowly becoming a big believer in Taleb’s Golden Rule: “We favor the visible, the embedded, the personal, the narrated, and the tangible; we scorn the abstract.” One of my interpretations of this rule is – no amount of reading will make you understand as quickly and as deeply as raw experience.
Anyway. If you’ve promised your dead grandmother never to play cards, or, like me, can’t be bothered to learn card scoring combinations, there’s an easy, fun and free alternative: Word Ace, an online multi-player game available on iOS, Palm Pre and Facebook.
Word Ace uses word-tiles with variable scores, just like Scrabble, instead of cards. The setting is Texas Hold ‘em style poker. At the beginning of a hand, each player gets two private letters. There is a common pool of 5 letters, one of which is revealed every round. As usual with poker, players can bet money (fake money – don’t worry!) at each round, or give up and leave whatever they’ve bet so far. You must put into the pot at least what others have bet, or more, to stay in the running. The final showdown involves everyone remaining making words out of the 5 common and 2 private letters, with the highest score collecting everything in the pot.
I could wax eloquent about how hard it is to avoid throwing good money after bad, how hard it is to convince your limbic system that it’s ‘just a game’ and it’s ‘just fake money’ (and consequent musings on the artificial value systems in human organizations), how a good reputation is necessary to sustain an occasional outrageous bluff, the frustration of spending so long coming up with an optimal word that you run out of time, only to discover that ‘CAT’ walked away with the pot, how the quality of your play veers from the optimum either by overconfidence after a string of victories or vindictive rage after a loss…
… but my whole point is that you need to find out for yourself. And once you’ve discovered some of your problems, you can work on them, practice folding when every instinct is urging you to bare your teeth and throw all your chips in…
I wonder if there are other simple-and-fun games, perhaps based on Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, which give insights into other aspects of the social ape – selfishness and altruism, co-operation and betrayal.
Word Ace is the best dollar I’ve spent in the App Store (there used to be a pro version, but it’s all free now). Thanks to Self Aware Games for a beautiful idea, nicely executed.