Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Human Interest

Just had a chance to read and enjoy Phil Galfond’s latest blog post, the first part of a kind of mini-memoir detailing his path to becoming a poker pro. He’s titled it “My Poker (+other) Story.”

If you’ve read Galfond’s blog before, you know he’s a thoughtful, smart guy and a good writer, too. Thus does it come as no surprise to see the discussion of his journey extend beyond the same-old-move-up-through-the-stakes tale so many other online grinders have told.

And really, it’s usually the “(+other)” stuff that makes any poker player’s story more interesting, isn’t it? More human.

I’ll just mention a few reflections I had as I read, then let you go check out the post yourself.

One was how easy it is for me to identify with Galfond, despite the fact that his achievements as a player obviously dwarf my own.

He talks about being obsessive, sort of an introvert (but still social), and intellectually curious. He mentions both friendships and family and makes it clear how important relationships with others are to him. And he also shows a well-founded appreciation of the need for balance between work (or pursuing one’s personal goals, such as in poker) and leisure.

All stuff I can understand and relate to, for sure. You, too, I’ll bet.

His post additionally covers his college career and how his pursuit of a philosophy degree was cut short by poker. He talks a lot about classes that interested him and other aspects of the academic life that did not.

Here is where Galfond and I went in somewhat different directions. I’m one who ended up going on with higher education as far as it would take me, getting graduate degrees and eventually teaching at the college level. And even though I got a ton of value out of taking that path and have no regrets about doing so, I share some of Galfond’s cynicism about the importance of degrees and grades and other ways we use higher education to measure ourselves against one another.

I like Galfond saying how he decided to be a philosophy major simply because the classes were interesting, and not worrying about where such a degree might take him, career-wise. “I didn’t know what it would lead to in life,” he says, “and I didn’t much care.”

I’ve had a lot of experience advising college students. While I always try to be practical with my recommendations to them, I also always attempt to make sure they understand that whatever major they choose, it had better be in something they find interesting. If they have some ability in that field and can do well in those classes, so much the better. But they gotta like it... at least something about it.

Thus when students ask me about being an English major, I ask them if they love to read literature and write about it. If the answer is yes to that, then we can talk about how you don’t have to be an low-earning English teacher after graduating with an English degree. In fact, you can do just about anything in which being able to read and write is needed.

I never tell students it doesn’t matter whatsoever what major they choose -- they don’t want to hear that -- but I have thought it numerous times. Because really it doesn’t. Not that much.

People joke about the relative value of humanities degrees a lot. Even Galfond parenthetically asks later on when talking about not graduating “what’s a Philosophy degree worth anyways?” But he’s not talking about translating the degree into any dollar amount or other measure of value, a mistake some students make that all but ensures they’ll get as little as possible out of their college years. Not entirely (I don’t think).

No, Galfond is talking about finding something interesting and worthwhile, and continuing with it until it stops being either. The classes were worth it for him, for a while, anyway. Finishing and meeting arbitrary requirements for a degree was not.

Phil Galfond winning a WSOP bracelet in 2008I had one other, more personal thought when reading Galfond’s post, namely the memory of having been there at the Rio back in 2008 when he won his WSOP bracelet in the $5,000 pot-limit Omaha event (with rebuys). That was my first WSOP with PokerNews, and it just so happened Galfond’s win came at one of the first final tables on which I had ever reported. Change100 and I were there for that one.

I’d have to go back through the blog to recall details of the tourney and final table, but I remember it being a fairly dominating performance by the guy we kinda vaguely knew at the time as that “OMGClayAiken” dude who crushed online.

So I’m looking forward to Galfond getting to that part of the story, too, so as to learn more about what the experience was like for him that night. And to learn more about both the “pro poker player” and the “person,” as Galfond describes himself atop his blog.

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