The Poker Pro Who Wants to Save the World

11/21/2016 10:21 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2016

Liv Boeree’s life story reads less like a biography and more like the plot of a badly-written Mary Sue fanfiction. She began her adult life by getting a 1st class degree in astrophysics. At age 21, she learned to play poker. She fell in love with the game and proceeded to become one of the most well-known female poker players in the world. Not content to play for her own gain, she founded Raising for Effective Giving, an organization that encourages poker players to “give back” to the most cost-effective charities in the world. REG has raised $1.5 million since its founding in 2014 and is now widely known in the poker world. Oh, and on top of all that, Liv’s a former model and heavy metal musician.

Meeting Liv in person was understandably somewhat unnerving. She combines a palpable aura of charisma and self-assurance with a sense of genuine niceness.

In this extended interview, Liv and I discuss how to do good in the world, places where the analogy between poker and charitable donations break down, and the importance of self-reinvention.

photocredit: Pokerstars

Linch: Your story is absolutely fascinating to me. Let’s start at the beginning. I was surprised to learn that one of the best female poker players in the world didn’t learn to play poker until after she finished undergrad. How the heck did that happen?

Liv: The summer I graduated, I didn’t have any job prospects lined up, nor had I applied to any graduate programs. I was spending most of time playing guitar and going to rock clubs, and came across an advert for a game show advertised as “could you use your powers of skill and deception to win £100,000?”. As a debt-strapped graduate, this seemed like a fun opportunity to make some quick, life-changing cash, so I applied. It turned out to be a reality TV show looking for five complete poker beginners, teaching them how to play the game and compete for the winner-take-all prize.

In the end I didn’t win the show (and in fact made quite a fool of myself by playing terribly and bursting into tears in the final game!), but I fell utterly in love with poker. Back then it was very much a boy’s club - even more male-dominated then than it is now, and I loved how it gave me opportunity to beat the boys “at their own game.” I also loved how poker is a complicated blend of science and art, and how many different and varied skills the game draws upon.

Linch: What was the decision like, to pivot away from graduate school in a cerebral field like astrophysics and into the much more visceral and high-stakes world of poker?

Liv: *laughs* Looking back on it, I don’t think it was a specific decision that I actively made - it feels more like a random path that life took me on, you know? I had graduated and decided to take a gap year, then I just started playing poker and absolutely fell in love with the game - 2006-2007 was the Golden Age of poker and it was all really exciting. In the end of 2006, I made a goal of myself: to be the most famous female poker player in the world. At the time, poker was so exciting that I never considered going back to university… these days, I’m moving back towards science again. I just love it so much. I’ll never be a researcher, but I think I could add value to the community as some form of science communicator.

Linch: What was your proudest moment in poker? When did you know that you’d “made” it?

Liv: I suppose my defining moment was when I won the European Poker Tour in Italy in 2010 - at the time it was the largest ever poker tournament held on European soil, and it garnered a lot of attention! A few months later, I was invited to join Team PokerStars Pro (the world’s largest online poker company), which had been a huge goal ever since I started playing poker.

I definitely felt like my career was on track then!

“<em>I loved how [poker] gave me opportunity to beat the boys </em>‘<em>at their own game.</em>’”
photocredit: Pokerstars
I loved how [poker] gave me opportunity to beat the boys at their own game.’”

Linch: You also helped found Raising for Effective Giving (REG), an organization that encourages poker players to donate a portion of their winnings to the most effective charities. Tell me about REG.

Liv: Raising for Effective Giving (REG) is a charity fundraising organisation we started within the poker community that’s based upon a philosophy known as effective altruism.

Effective altruism is all about finding the best methods to do the most good. There are many major problems in the world that cause suffering, but unfortunately only finite resources (such as time and money) to try and solve them. Therefore it’s vitally important to figure out which interventions will have the biggest positive impact with our resources.

This means that we have to be very scientific, open and unbiased in our research to find out what those best interventions are.

There are a number of research organisations within the effective altruism community dedicated to figuring out which interventions/charities are the most effective. REG then does two things: it spreads the idea of effective giving to the public, and it fundraises specifically for those top recommended charities. REG started out purely as a organization within the poker industry, and now we’re looking to spread the message to the wider public too.

Linch: From what I understand, you are now spending more time on fundraising through REG and less on playing full-time poker. What was that decision like? And in more abstract terms, why are you devoting your life to ethics now?

Liv: Yes that’s true to some degree - while I still love travelling and playing poker from time to time, after 7+ years on the road it’s no longer as satisfying as it once was by itself. I’m just really happy to have found a way to combine the game I love with actually doing something really helpful for the wider world.

While I’ll still play from time to time to supplement my income and therefore my ability to donate, my time is probably more valuable spent networking and fundraising than playing.

I can’t put my finger on the exact time that the personal shift towards ethics and altruism happened in me - I guess it was when I met the effective altruists that helped set up and now run REG. There’s one guy, a philosopher called Adriano Mannino, who just really made a mark on me. The arguments he gave for EA were just so strong, and his utter dedication to a cause bigger than himself was very inspirational.

Linch: Do you consider REG to be a successful organization?

Liv: Yes, I’m so happy with how well it’s gone in such a short time - since we founded it 2 years ago we’ve raised more than $1.5 million for the charities. What’s also important to consider when evaluating fundraising organisations like REG is the ratio of startup and running costs to the funds raised. We’ve achieved a consistent ratio of at least 1:8, double the average ratio of 1:4 that other fundraising organisations achieve.

In terms of spreading the EA message, the support we’ve received from within the poker industry, especially the poker media, has been very encouraging - they’ve been very keen to help spread our message. We’ve had a number of very high profile players give interviews about why they donate and why the cause resonates with them, and we’ve had support from a number of businesses within the industry. There’s still plenty of room to improve on that though - poker is a billion dollar industry and there’s a lot of fundraising opportunities out there.

Linch: What are the main charities that REG fundraises for?

Liv: We fundraise for the very best charities in the areas of poverty alleviation, animal welfare and future suffering prevention, for example The Against Malaria Foundation for poverty, Sentience Politics for animals and Foundational Research Institute (FRI) for the far future.

We use recommendations from charity evaluators such as Givewell and Animal Charity Evaluators and the main factors we look for when evaluating charities are scale/size of the problem, tractability and measurability, and level of neglect.

Linch: Foundational Research Institute? What does FRI do?

Liv: The Foundational Research Institute (FRI) is a think-tank that conducts research on how to best reduce the suffering of all sentient beings in the near and far future. They do this by exploring the most effective and robust strategies to avoid risks of dystopian futures, and publish academic articles to give advice to individuals and policymakers. The topics they cover range from foundational questions about ethics, consciousness and game theory to policy implications for global cooperation and safety from global catastrophic risks.

Linch: So that’s really interesting that an organization very strongly aligned with Effective Altruism principles is fundraising for charities that have relatively little evidential-backing. When I talked with Sean Conley from GiveWell, he said that GiveWell’s top recommendations are “the best giving opportunities we’re aware of.” This isn’t to say that those are literally the best charities, of course. But those seem to be the most likely to be the best charities in expectation, given the information that GiveWell-- one of the best charity evaluators in the world -- is aware of. What do you think is the case for giving to FRI instead of (or in addition to) a top GiveWell recommendation?

Original comic by Randall Monroe: https://xkcd.com/774/

Liv: So the main thing to remember is that GiveWell focuses on interventions in "global health and development". But there are many more causes than this one - this is why GiveWell’s co-founders have later also founded the Open Philanthropy Project, where they look at other interventions in other cause areas too. They themselves think that it is very well possible that other things are more impactful. So Conley's statement should probably be seen as a statement about interventions within global health and development.

It’s important to remember that evidence in GiveWell's sense is just one consideration, but not everything. Just because some things might be intrinsically hard to measure doesn't mean they're not more effective - and I think that’s something that all effective altruists would agree with.

"Evidence" is more than just RCT [Randomized Controlled Trials] s and hard data; for example there's "bayesian evidence", where, there are very good theoretical arguments about the effectiveness and the high expected value of an intervention.

FRI specifically focuses their work on risks of upcoming new technologies. You could compare it to the historical situation where people first realized the devastating potential of atomic bombs and started thinking about the political ramifications this could have. FRI tries to avert scenarios where novel technologies could lead to a lot of suffering.

One example that might intuitively feel far-fetched, but that’s generating a lot of concern among researchers in the field is risk from a future Artificial SuperIntelligence . There are huge developments being made in AI, and there seem no signs of this slowing down. While the upsides from a perfectly-designed general AI could be huge for the planet, a poorly designed one, or one that simply falls into the wrong hands is like opening a pandora’s box of potential catastrophes. And the area of safety-research is very neglected - orders of magnitude more money is currently being spent on developing the technology than is being spent on safety.

While this is starting to be addressed - for example OpenPhilanthropy and Elon Musk both recently made significant donations to AI-safety research, this topic, and the larger issue of future x-risks are still very underfunded, and that’s why it’s so important to fundraise for FRI.

<em>“Most people significantly over-estimate their decision-making skills and the reliability of their gut instincts (and I u
“Most people significantly over-estimate their decision-making skills and the reliability of their gut instincts (and I used to be one of them)”

Linch: Forgive me if I’m butchering the analogy completely (I’m a pretty serious gamer but not a poker player at all), but an important part of professional poker is “bankroll management.” In short, you don’t want to risk too high a % of your assets in a single hand. Do you think this is true for donations as well, such that people should think twice before donating all their money to a highly speculative cause? Why or why not?

Liv: Haha, The analogy is okay-ish! So Bankroll management is needed because there's a lot of variance in poker, and you're screwed if you go bankrupt. Thus it can make sense to be risk averse when it comes to instrumental goods such as money because otherwise you go bankrupt and won’t be able to play any more.

But this is not the same with donations - here one can make a good case to just go for pure expected value maximisation. That is, you want to be concerned with the total foreseeable effects of your actions, multiplied by the probability that your actions will cause those effects to happen. This is true even though there might be some possibility that your donations will have no effect at all.

Let’s assume our goal with donating is to help as many people, as much as possible. Given this goal, there is an argument to only pick one charity, the one we consider to have the highest impact in expectation. The “in expectation” part is important: It might be, although unlikely, that our chosen charity ends up being ineffective, or perhaps even harmful in some unanticipated way. Now this would be very unlucky, but assuming that we made the best out of all the information available to us and selected a charity for good reasons, then such an outcome would simply be bad luck – there is nothing we could’ve done better! Just like in poker, you can play perfectly but sometimes the cards turn against us anyway.

By choosing to reduce the luck factor by splitting donations across several charities, including some with less than maximal expected impact, we decrease the risk of a worst-case scenario where our entire donation ends up ineffective or harmful. However, at the same time, splitting also usually decreases the likelihood of the best-case scenario and, more importantly, it decreases the overall expected impact of our donation: If we are interested in maximizing our expected positive impact, then splitting is irrationally risk-averse.

There is an important difference between diversification in finance and splitting donations to charities: When the goal is to help others, helping twice as many people is twice as important, and this relationship continues linearly until the funding limit for the cause area is reached, and there’s no more people to help (which rarely happens).

In finance on the other hand, the goal-unit of the game is money. People usually don’t value money in itself; rather, they value it instrumentally: they value what money can buy them, or the comfort and status that comes with having a lot of it. So this means there is a further step to getting to your actual goal. The amount of useful things you can do with more money doesn’t increase linearly: there are threshold effects and generally there is diminishing marginal utility. For someone with a net worth of one million, doubling this amount is not twice as good as losing everything would be bad. For these reasons, it can be perfectly rational for investors to sacrifice some monetary expected value in order to diversify their risks. It is not the expected value of money they are interested in, but rather the expected utility of the things they can do with the money.

To summarize, “risk aversion” can be rational when instrumental goods such as money are concerned, but being risk averse directly in regard to the unit you care about, e.g. helping other people, usually cannot. Thus, when it comes to selecting charities with the intention of helping others effectively, I think splitting is, all else being equal, a bad idea.

Liv, speaking about REG at Google
Liv, speaking about REG at Google

Linch: Is REG funding constrained? How would you advise donors who are trying to decide between donating to the charities that REG fundraises for, versus giving to REG itself?

Liv: Our current procedure is that 100% of donations go to the specified charity of the donor, and therefore REG’s running and development costs are only covered by donors who specifically want to donate to the organisation itself. At present REG is looking to hire one or two more staff as there is clear room for expansion so donations for that would be very much welcomed!

Linch: What are REG’s plans for the next year? Do you think there’s much more you can do in the poker space? Why or why not?

Liv: An exciting thing that’s happening right now is a matching challenge that’s just launched - two players have kindly agreed to match up to $35k of any donations made between now and the end of November. Another exciting thing is the Poker Charity Marathon that just started - a player called Roman Romanovsky is trying to turn his bankroll of $66k into $600k and has pledged to give $400k of that to our recommended charities. It’s progressing well, last I heard.

Charity poker tournaments are high on the agenda - these raise multiple millions for various charities across the USA each year and often attract significant media attention. There’s a very successful tournament that runs at the World series of Poker each year called the One Drop which raised over $4.5m for that charity, so there’s huge potential there.

We’d also love to partner with a major poker company- these often raise lots of money for charity through their corporate social responsibility programs so if we can get a partnership it’d be huge.

Longer term, REG could run into a fundraising ceiling if it focuses solely on poker. We’re looking to replicate the model in other industries that have high effective altruism potential - ones that have higher than average rationality and/or resources, like the financial sector. It’s a long-shot, but the payoff could be enormous.

Linch: REG appears to clearly be a good fundraising organization historically. But will this continue? In particular, do you think more donations to support REG’s financial costs to be as useful as previous donations?

Liv: Our fundraising ratio is good, and are cautiously optimistic that it will increase over time. Of course it’s difficult to predict future room-for-more-funding, but a lot of the costs we had were start-up costs. One thing we’ll focus on is Charity Tournaments.

<em>Two REG members, </em><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Jacobson" target="_blank">Martin Jacobson</a> and Jor
Two REG members, Martin Jacobson and Jorryt van Hoof, were among the November Nine that played at the World Series of Poker Main Event final table. Jacobson placed first and donated $250,000 through REG.

Linch: What about non-monetary costs that are not captured in the fundraising ratio? For example, perhaps REG employees and volunteers will be doing other valuable work with their time if they aren’t at REG?

Liv: I can’t speak on behalf of REG’s staff, but I would expect that as EAs (effective altruists), this question is something they consider often. They’d have to weigh up if their time spent on REG could be better served in something else, for example working in high-paying finance job to maximise their personal donation ability. Right now, with our fundraising ratio being so good we’re confident the project is worthwhile, but if evidence suggests we’re reaching a fundraising ceiling then we’d re-evaluate.

Personally, I think I should be focusing more of my time on REG. I still like to play poker, which of course gives me donation power, but it seems likely most of my value comes from spreading the message and networking. I’ll still pursue earning-to-give through poker and other means, but I suspect my time is best spent doing this kind of thing!

Linch: Do you have any other advice for aspiring effective altruists?

Liv: Absolutely - there’s a really great resource called 80,000 hours that specifically advise potential EAs on how to best maximise their impact over the course of their career, depending on the skill-set and experience you have. I’d highly recommend talking to them as a starting point.

Otherwise, I’d recommend reading and learning as much as possible about it - EA is a very complicated topic with a lot of depth and breadth of information. Some specific blogs and sites I’d particularly recommend are www.reducing-suffering.org and https://sentience-politics.org/philosophy/. If books are more your thing check out Doing Good Better by Will MacAskill, and there are some great TED talks by him and Peter Singer out there too.

Will MacAskill gives a case for thinking seriously about career choice. For more, go to 80000hours.org and check out their career guide!

Linch: From reading the news and briefly talking to you, you seem very much an independent and self-made woman. But I’m sure you aren’t doing things completely alone. Who are the most important people in your life?

Liv: My #1 is easy: my partner Igor Kurganov. We’ve been together for two and a half years and good friends for some years before. Igor’s also a poker player (and a great one at that), and he’s one of the other people who founded REG. I’m really lucky to have someone with me who have so many similar interests. He’s more naturally rational than I am, so he’s been a big inspiration in that way.

Linch: A major narrative arc of your life seems to be self-reinvention(from musician to astrophysicist-in-training to poker player to model, etc.). Do you think effective altruism is just another exciting (and important) interest to you, or is it something that you’re potentially willing to devote the rest of your life to?

Liv: I’d like to think so - it’s one of those things that once you’ve become aware of the situation, that by not donating when you easily can you’re effectively choosing not to save someone’s life, it’s hard to go back from. I’ve noticed a shift in myself in the things I think about now - I’m more aware of suffering and therefore more emotionally affected by it, and it reminds me just how lucky I am, which acts as a great motivator. It’s unlikely to be the only thing I do though - my personal balance point for optimal results perhaps needs more variety than others, so I’ll try to manage that to maximise my impact.

Linch: On the subject of self-reinvention, you do this a lot, and very successfully. Other than things people can’t really change (like being brilliant and lucky), do you have any specific, nontrivial advice for our readers who are interested in going to a new field?

Liv: It’s hard not to be too fuzzy and self-help manual-ey here, but if you’re feeling those itchy feet then my initial advice would be to really take time to explore the interest - life’s too short. Like most decisions, there’s an optimal way of approaching the problem - a method I like to take is to take piece of paper, draw line down middle and write a list of all the pros and cons of both. I then try to assign values to each pro/con, and if there’s one that seems a bit fuzzy, then break it down further.

For example, one con you may have is “what my friends would say”? Is it because they are genuinely wiser than me, or because I over-value their opinions?

“<em>It’s hard not to be too fuzzy and self-help manual-ey here, but if you’re feeling [itchy] then my initial advice would b
It’s hard not to be too fuzzy and self-help manual-ey here, but if you’re feeling [itchy] then my initial advice would be to really take time to explore the interest - life’s too short.

Linch: There’s something vastly unfair about the universe, that you and I live on the same planet. Like, you were a star honors student in astrophysics, professional poker player, pro model, heavy metal musician, and now effective altruist, popular blogger, and leader of a very effective organization. And to top it off, you are really nice too! Which is just unfair. Could you tell me something horrible about yourself, so I could sleep better at night? :P

Liv: Haha, thank you. I appreciate you highlighting some of my achievements - but like everyone else I certainly have my insecurities and bad moments too, just ask my partner Igor! And remember when we compare ourselves to others, it’s rarely a fair comparison - we get to see all of our own personal insecurities but rarely get to see and feel others, and remember, behind every person’s lists of achievements are a ton of invisible un-achievements that they’re probably mulling over just like you.

For example, there’s numerous times where I’ve screwed up in a poker, costing myself a chance at a major tournament and I’ll lament over it for days, months (and sometimes years!), questioning my ability, life choices etc. Just because I may publicly appear confident, doesn’t mean I haven’t had many moments of self-doubt.

Linch: Do you have any closing thoughts for our readers?

Liv: The world is in dire need of becoming more rational. So many of the colossal mistakes we see political leaders making - from counter-factual policies to conflict escalations and war, are borne out of the fact that human beings are not naturally born as good decision makers. All the time we’re seeing crucial decisions being made that are based upon ideologies and emotions as opposed to stringent evidence gathering and impartiality.

To compound the problem, the vast majority of people don’t even realise there’s a problem! Most people significantly over-estimate their decision-making skills and the reliability of their gut instincts (and I used to be one of them). One of the most useful phrases I ever heard was “The more you think you’re a great decision maker, the less likely you actually are one”. Adopting that philosophy has taught me to check in with myself more often and question my belief systems in a critical but constructive way.

Fortunately, evidence suggests that rationality is a learnable skill (and there are resources out there to teach it). While we’re unlikely to ever be perfectly rational, it’s crucial that we try our best at becoming it.

_____________________

Liv Boeree is a poker player, TV presenter, science communicator and effective altruist. To learn more about Raising for Effective Giving, you can check out their website! You can also see and research the charities they recommend.

To learn more about the effective altruism movement, check out effective-altruism.org.

To learn more about how you personally can have a positive impact, see either one of the links above, or 80000hours.org, a premier career advice site for quantitatively-minded do-gooders.

Finally, if you are interested in learning how to think more clearly, good resources include ClearerThinking (website), Thinking, Fast and Slow (book), and Center For Applied Rationality (workshop, $$$).

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