Not so long ago, poker was just a game. A few years back it emerged as a fad. Then, largely because of television, it morphed into a national phenomenon, if not an industry.
Is it any wonder, then, that some are aiming to turn it into a higher cause?
A Harvard Law School professor and a group of his students formed an organization this fall — the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society — dedicated to demonstrating that poker has educational benefits. They argue that the game, which is probability-based and requires risk assessment, situational analysis and a gift for reading people, can be an effective teaching tool, whether for middle school math or in business and law classes.
“I see great advantage in hitting kids as early as sixth grade, when they’re dropping out of math,” said Charles R. Nesson, the Harvard Law School professor who began the society with a group of his students. “I’m thinking of kids who are into their video games but instead of Halo-3 and World of Warcraft, we lead them into a game environment that has real intellectual depth to it, and feeds their curiosity rather than snuffs it out.”
The society has been working to establish chapters at campuses nationwide. This semester, it has sponsored seminars at Harvard featuring academics and authors to evangelize the wonders of poker. In the spring it plans to hold a workshop on using poker to teach math to children, to be held at the Smith Leadership Academy, a Boston charter school for at-risk kids in the sixth through eighth grades. “We see great potential for reaching our students in an innovative way,” said Karmala Sherwood, the school’s headmaster.
Others see great potential for creating gambling addiction. Chad Hills, a gambling analyst for Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian group, described as “moronic” any policy that encourages more school-age children to gamble.
“Kids are extremely vulnerable to gambling addiction,” said Mr. Hills, who likened poker to a “gateway drug” that leads to the harder stuff like craps and slot machines.
Professor Nesson, who also helped to found the law school’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, said that even before creating the society he consulted with Howard Shaffer, director of the division on addictions at the Harvard Medical School, to better understand the downside of the game. “I don’t intend to push these problems away,” he said.
Yet for now he is more focused on using poker to produce sharper lawyers and more skilled negotiators than on its potentially harmful effects.
“I tell my students all the time that if you want to do something useful with your spare time, you can do a whole lot worse than play poker,” said Professor Nesson, who has adopted many causes in his 40 years at Harvard, including advocating looser attitudes toward marijuana, which he openly admits to smoking.
Andrew M. Woods, 24, the third-year law student who is the group’s executive director, may be even more of a true believer in poker than the professor.
“I see poker as one tool to develop the kind of cognitive abilities that a lot of people don’t seem to be developing on their own, whether because those skills aren’t taught effectively in school or because they’re not learning it from their parents,” Mr. Woods said. So many of his Harvard Law classmates were or had been serious poker players, he said, “that I had to wonder what role poker played in all of us getting here.”
Professor Nesson said he was compelled to form the group last spring, when Harvard administrators said local laws prohibited the law school from running a charity poker tournament to raise money for a pro bono program.
“That got me out of my chair to demonstrate to the powers-that-be that poker is a positive thing,” Professor Nesson said.
He invited several law students to his house for dinner and the society was born.
“We concluded that we’d be doing a disservice to the next generation of students if we didn’t help promote this idea of poker as an educational tool,” Mr. Woods said.
Mr. Woods said the society has seven chapters at colleges across the country, including U.C.L.A. and Stanford Law School, with efforts under way at another 10, including George Washington, U.S.C. and Tufts. He added that the group hoped to establish at least two dozen chapters by June. The only perquisite is that organizers embrace what Mr. Woods described as the “higher-minded element” of its mission. This does not preclude their doubling as poker clubs, which the Harvard group does, where hobbyists can improve their poker-playing skills so long as they do not wager money during play.
Arnold I. Barnett, who teaches mathematical modeling at the M.I.T. Sloan Management School, attended a November symposium sponsored by the society. He is not much of a poker player, Professor Barnett said, but he walked away intrigued.
“I’m not saying poker should replace algebra,” he said. “But you have problems to solve in poker, and for students to see how mathematics can help them in real-life situations seems a whole lot smarter than having them determine the volume of some strangely shaped object.”
He added that he could see the educational value on the graduate level, too, because the game involves not only figuring out your own hand but also deducing your opponents’ cards — skills, he said, of use in law, business or real estate.
Professor Nesson, along with Mr. Woods, spoke about the poker group recently to Google employees, an event captured on YouTube. After decades of classroom lectures, he is a persuasive speaker. But he also spoke with a bluntness sure to provide fuel to his adversaries. “I’m a child of the ’60s who smoked too much grass back then — and never really stopped,” he said.
For some, encouraging poker playing is neither a cause worth embracing nor an example of an egghead policy gone awry. With the Harvard football team in New Haven to play the Yale squad last month, the Harvard Law society challenged — and beat — students at Yale Law in a poker showdown.
But the Yale team has no affiliation with Professor Nesson’s club, said Jeremiah Torres, who helped muster the Yale team. He described his group as “just a bunch of law students that like to play poker from time to time.”