Wednesday, December 27, 2006

David Sklansky --- Poker's Idiot Savant?

It seems there's more than just flouride in the water supply these days. What else is one to make of the increasingly crazed Sklanskyisms appearing over at the special 2+2 forums dedicated to David Sklansky's personal ravings on (mostly) non-poker topics? Gary Carson called Sklansky to task over some strange spewings a week or so past, but the problem is that the bizarre outpourings seem to be consistent... if nonsensical.

Two days ago, Sklansky served up a gem, titled "Two More Things People Think But Won't Say." The first point was a badly paraphrased mathematical question in the form of a treatise on the politics of the U.S.'s role in Iraq, and that was the sane part. Here's question #2:

"2. As long as even a small fraction of woman suffer PMS to the point where it occasionaly affects their decisions, that one fact is highly relevant as far as voting for a woman president is concerned. At least until she is of the age that doctors agree the syndrome no longer occurs. If after taking the risk into account, someone wants to vote for her anyway, because she is otherwise so good, or the opponent is so bad, fine. But if the decison is close, no one can be faulted for voting against the woman even if the great majority are not affected by PMS. That might not be fair to woman in general but as a voter with kids who doesn't want an increased risk of war,it is perfectly fine for me to change my vote if a statistical, "unfair" fact is good reason to do so.

Again, how come nobody says this stuff?"

My knee-jerk reaction was that nobody else says this stuff because the rest of us aren't as brain-damaged, or we at least disguise it better if we are. Even after careful consideration, I have no problem calling Sklansky a sexist idiot on this matter, since he's seemingly impervious to the reality that male brains are every bit as awash in behavior-changing hormones as are female brains. Just to illustrate, it's not at all a stretch to envision the hundreds of millions of lives needlessly wasted through the millenia of mankind's existence as warlords with too high a mix of testosterone and adrenaline couldn't find their right-minded way to back themselves out of a sticky situation. Wars can be just; wars can also be stupid. And humans are imperfect creatures, be they male or female.

As a personal aside, Sklansky can PMS that all day long.

But it's about Sklansky himself that one has to wonder, given his podium and his willingness to use it for poker's version of the late L. Ron Hubbard once trying to sell us on Dianetics and Pyramid Power. Carson called Sklansky to task for a post reportedly about Sklansky's soliciting a 16-year-old to move into his place, a post which has since been deleted. Then there's Sklansky's issuing an open math challenge to theists as a measure of a person's IQ, which "Jeopardy" mega-champ Ken Jennings accepted, before Sklansky appeared to back out of this one as well.

Jennings is a Mormon, in case you didn't know, one of the beliefs attacked by Sklansky's challenge. I'm one degree of separation from both these guys --- Sklansky and I have numerous poker acquaintances in common, and Jennings made a point of visiting several of the largest trivia teams at the World's Largest Trivia Contest a couple of years back; he was supposed to stop by our place but we didn't meet him until that year's awards ceremony. (We're a good team.) Jennings was in town to research the annual Stevens Point, WI event for his trivia book, hanging out with some of the largest teams and Oz and Eck, the event's coordinators. These are guys I know and you don't, but take this as a solid tip: Were Sklansky and Jennings ever to hook up in a general IQ duel, bet the Mormon.

And it brings us back to Sklansky, and my admittedly misleading title. Sklansky served up one of poker's seminal strategy treatises when he authored The Theory of Poker, and he's won three WSOP bracelets. He's certainly no dummy, other-directed or not. And he's built himself up quite a little empire, all derived, incidentally, from that first book's success.

It's part of the greater problem, the mismatch between Sklansky's IQ and his real-life beliefs.

To explain this problem, I need to call up memories of someone a Sklansky type should hold dear --- an old baseball/SABRmetrics writer, named Bill James. Bill James was undoubtedly a forefather of the wave of fantasy baseball leagues that populate the world today, and through the late '70s and most of the '80s James published an annual book called the Bill James Baseball Abstract, a once-a-year mathematical examination of who the good players and teams were, and why. James, however, his mathematical expertise aside, was and is a good writer, able to intertwine entertaining baseball yarns and personal asides in a way that took a ghastly dry subject and made it into what was often an entertaining read.

A tale I remember in general terms from one of James' later books recounts his story about a very odd student at the college James attended. This other student was like one of those ridiculous nerdy SF-geek stereotypes: bizarre behaviors, no personal hygiene, intentinally distant from other students, and James wrote that that everyone just assumed that this was some sort of supergenius whose eccentric behaviors should be tolerated, if not exactly embraced.

A few months later, they discovered that the bizarre student wasn't much of a genius at all; he'd achieved failing grades in nearly every class he attended, and was soon out of school.

The point of the story is that because a person is (or appears to be a genius) in one pursuit, it is not necessarily correct to grant that person genius status in other realms of thought. And we can look back at David Sklansky, and understand that despite his poker brilliance, he's a bit deficient when it comes to right-minded thinking on social and sociological concerns. Sklansky's so far down the road of trying to boil everything down to its core mathematical concepts that he's long since lost sight of the human condition. He can find a mathematical rationalization for any of his bizarre behaviors or beliefs, but rationalizations they are, just the same.

So enjoy Sklansky's poker thoughts --- they are generally worthwhile. But should he ever publish The Theory of Life, run as fast and as hard in the other direction as you can.

1 comment:

Bobba said...

This is actually very good writing.

"because a person is a genius in one pursuit, it is not correct to grant that person genius status in other realms of thought."

I'm all with you on this one. Sklansky's reasoning about PMS is so incredibly naive, if not outright stupid. This kind of deficiency is a common phenomenon among very intelligent people, as weird as it may sound.

But I love his seminal ToP :-)