In the Summer, Andrew Barber won the $10,000 H.O.R.S.E Championship at the World Series of Poker (WSOP). It was an achievement that all poker players’ dream of – the chance to slip that piece of gold around their wrist. But for Barber, victory afforded him a more precious gift than that slither of gold.
It gave him a voice.
Let’s hear it.
Who is Andrew Barber, and not the usual ‘I am a poker player…blah…blah…blah answer’?
Oh, you’ll never hear me identify as a poker player first and foremost. To be honest, I don’t think anyone should; it’s too limiting.
You know, the Japanese (allegedly) say you have three faces. The first face, you show to the world. The second face, you show to your close friends, and your family. The third face, you never show anyone. It is the truest reflection of who you are. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and I’m wondering how similar the three faces should be. Let me try to describe the third face.
At the risk of sounding incredibly trite, I want to change the world. As poker players, we often fall into the trap of being solipsistic. For years, all I cared about was getting better at poker, finding games that were good, and grinding whenever possible. Not only was this not a fulfilling life, it didn’t make me all that happy. Living for other people is SO much better than living for yourself. Ultimately, it’s that realization that drove me back into school to pursue a PhD. It will either allow me to teach which is hugely beneficial to society or make lots of money in the private sector so I can give it away.
On a lighter note, I’m a huge nerd that likes games and puzzles, reading nonfiction, watching documentaries, and discussing various ideas with my friends on Facebook and Twitter. My girlfriend and I just moved to Santa Cruz, CA so that I could start a PhD at UCSC. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, which was a huge factor in choosing to come here.
How would your closest friends answer that question?
I would only hope that my friends would describe me as someone who cares about others, shows up for friends, thinks critically, is extremely passionate about justice and fairness, and is generally trying to leave this place better than he found it.
And those that think you are a bit of a jerk?
Haha. That seems to be a growing group! I think it’s an inevitable consequence of being passionate and taking strong positions on things. If you don’t want anyone to think you’re a jerk, it’s really simple: just never take a stance on any issue. You’ll never get anything done walking on eggshells and handling everyone with kid gloves.
Talk about your journey into Effective Altruism.
I was fortunate enough to stumble across Peter Singer’s excellent book “The Most Good You Can Do” right before the series. It was incredibly eye-opening, and it was like this this huge DUH moment like “Of course this is what we should be doing!” It seems that the biggest ideas are some of the most simple, and yet they often elude us. I was lucky enough to be sat with a REG (Raising for Effective Giving, the poker EA meta-charity) member in one of the early tournaments who answered all of my questions. The rest, as they say, is history.
I read that you said you won more than a WSOP bracelet, you won a voice. What does it want to say?
I’m an economist, and the study of economics is concerned with the allocation of scarce resources. We have scarce money, scarce time, and scarce attention span, so I want to start talking about how we can better allocate these scarce resources.
Humans are SO biased towards the present, and our culture only exacerbates this. Twitter/Instagram/Facebook/Snapchat monopolize our time now, not to mention the various apps competing for our attention with their Siren-esque badges just calling for us to click on them. I would posit that we don’t properly allocate our time properly (according to what our future selves would say) because we are quite literally not in control of our decision making. I think that the demands for our attention are too tempting and we are diverted from the things that matter not only objectively from a global standpoint, but the things that we already care about that we are ignoring, e.g. to-do lists, friends and family, experiences, improving a skill, enjoying pastimes, etc. These distractions are like drugs, and if you don’t believe me or you disagree and you are an active user, try removing yourself for 24 hours. Good luck.
I certainly don’t want to be called “preachy” or come off like an evangelist, but I just think it’s important for everyone at various points in their life to step back and take stock of what is important. Are you getting better? Are you making a difference? Would younger you be proud of what you’re doing? Would older you have issues with choices you’re making now? These are tough questions to ask and typically even tougher to answer. But Wayne Dyer said, “It’s never crowded along the extra mile.” That really stuck with me.
Is it true that you have been asked to speak at a MENSA event? If so, how did that happen, and what will you talk about?
Yeah, and I’m kinda nervous about it. My good friend and fellow poker player, Nick Long, told me his sister (who is affiliated with the SF chapter) wanted me to speak at their annual convention. Since one of my goals is informing as many people as possible about effective altruism, I jumped at the chance. It’ll be my first time making the argument for EA, but I can’t think of a better audience to receive my pitch. As I’ve said a few times now, EA doesn’t soundbite well, so it takes time. I’m really trying to crack the code for how to inspire people. The feeling of being inspired is what I live for, so to be able to help others to feel that would be huge.
What would you change about the educational system if you had the chance?
How many words am I allotted? The more systemic and multifaceted a problem is, the more difficult the solutions will be. A great way to tackle an issue like education is to look at the failure points. The achievement gap is priority number one. Student debt, teacher pay, and the school funding mechanism are next on the list in no particular order. I’ll give you my thoughts on these.
First, for those who don’t know, the achievement gap is the term for the performance difference between black and white kids. There are many theories about the drivers of this, but my personal opinion is that no amount of money or teachers will fix this problem based on the fact that the gap shrinks during the school year and grows during the summer. That leaves two options: year-round schooling or removing kids from troubled homes as much as possible with after-school and between-year programs to keep kids busy.
Second, schools in the U.S. have been funded with property taxes for as long as I can remember, and this is responsible for the rise of the suburbs and the death of the cities since the schools in higher property value districts have more money. It’s literally the rich getting richer by way of their children being even better off than they were. Every student should get the same amount spent on them, regardless of where they live.
Third, we should pay teachers more. In most western countries, teachers and doctors are paid similarly. In addition, it’s a respected profession that attracts the best and brightest. When I suggest that we should pay teachers more, a typical rejoinder is something like “Why would we pay them more if they aren’t doing a good job?” That’s a great point, and we wouldn’t be doing that. We’d be paying an ENTIRELY new group of teachers that would enter the profession because of the higher pay. That’s the beauty of economics in action.
Fourth, student debt overhang is a real problem in that is handcuffs people who are constrained by it. Because of the enormity of the problem, this requires a really crazy solution. Okay, so there are numerous community projects in need of volunteers all the time. If you aren’t aware, you should become aware because you’ll quickly realize how well-off you are. So anyway, there is unmet demand for volunteers. I propose that the federal government give people the option to work off their debt with one of these programs or possibly AmeriCorps or the Peace Corps. It’d be expensive, but I think it’d be great for the country.
What changes would you make to tackle gun crime in American?
You’re certainly not throwing me any softballs today! This is an important one, though. It’s such a polarizing issue, so almost nothing is gained from saying “2nd amendment rights!” or “We gotta get rid of ’em!” I think you have to go back to the beginning and ask why we thought guns were important during the revolution and what does the wording of the amendment reveal? Secondly, you have to weigh the costs and benefits of owning a gun. I look at the math on accidental deaths and suicides vs home defense and I don’t see the justification. If it were up to me, I think you just start making the case for rolling gun ownership back through buy-backs or requiring extensive background checks and licensing to own and operate. In addition, liability insurance for gun owners provides incentives to keep guns locked up since you’d be financially liable for any crimes committed if your gun was used by someone else.
Should we be scared of capitalism or robots?
Both. Automation and AI are going to change our economy, that is if they don’t destroy it. Fewer people will be working, and we might be seeing the results of that already with people leaving the labor force. With regard to capitalism, it is the greatest economic system in the world, but it has its flaws like any other system. An unregulated free-market, along with some corruption, leads to things like low wages, unsafe working conditions, environmental disasters, discrimination, etc.
Like so many things, it’s important to avoid black and white distinctions. With economics, we tend to gravitate towards words like “communism”, “socialism”, and “free-market capitalism”, but in actuality there are good elements of every system, political party, religion, etc. No one has a monopoly on good ideas. No one. Everyone would be better served if we avoided labels as much as possible, but humans love to put people into boxes.
What are your views on spirituality and religion?
For some time now, I’ve said that I was an atheist. I think it’s important to make other atheists feel comfortable identifying as such. It’s been much too stigmatized to call yourself an atheist, and few do despite the prevalence. In fact, if I had to bet, I’d take the over on 70% of pro players being atheists. That’s pretty incredible given that the general population is 3-5% atheist.
That being said, I recently heard Bernie Sanders answer this question and I said I would copy his answer if I were ever asked if I believed in God, so here it is:
“Well, you know, I am who I am,” he replied. “And what I believe in and what my spirituality is about is that we’re all in this together. That I think it is not a good thing to believe that, as human beings, we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people,” he continued, as the crowd applauded and cheered so loudly he had to pause.
“And you know, this is not Judaism. This is what Pope Francis is talking about, that we cannot worship just billionaires and the making of more and more money. Life is more than that.”
What are the greatest books you have read and why?
Anything by Nassim Taleb. He understands risk and variance better than just about anyone on the planet. Nate Silver’s “The Signal and the Noise”. Everyone should understand Bayes’ Theorem, and it does the best job of explaining it. The “Freakonomics” series because it makes economics fun and useful. Tim Harford does the same with his books. I think there is a lot of value in reading philosophy since it’s the field most concerned with thinking, logic, and reason. Daniel Dennett has a book called “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking” that is just thought experiments that are meant to help people understand complex concepts more easily. ‘Letters From a Stoic’ by Seneca also deserves a mention. There are more, but I have to stop somewhere.
Lastly, I’d also recommend “Doing Good Better” by William MacAskill. It’s the best treatment of effective altruism out there. In fact, if you purchase the book and feel like it was a waste of money, let me know and I’ll buy it back from you.
If you could add an extra hour onto your day, every day, what would you do in that one hour?
Great question. Well, my reading list is growing faster than I can check books off on it, so I think I’d read. It’s honestly depressing to realize how little I’m going to get to read over my lifetime. I’ve been trying to find hacks to read more. I’ve been experimenting with some speed-reading apps. It stresses me out how much I want to do and how little time I have to do it, but I’m coping.
If you could change places with any celebrity in the world, who would it be, and how would you use their influence to better the world or yourself?
A boring answer would be Warren Buffett, so I could give away billions of dollars. Perhaps a more interesting answer would be Daniel Negreanu. I’ve always appreciated his candor, but I worry that he’s not using his celebrity optimally, or worse, he’s setting us back with some of the recent views he shared about race. He’s since backpedaled, but I wish he consulted with people before sharing crazy stuff that hurts important causes. I will commend him on his vegetarianism, however, because that’s hugely important. Becoming a vegetarian is a goal of mine. It’s very difficult to make the leap, despite the fact that I know that it’s a slam dunk case. Eating meat is pretty indefensible.
What is the most painful thing you have ever had to tell a great friend?
I had to tell a friend that she was an alcoholic. I think poker is such a rough grind that people develop destructive habits to cope with the game (or the game attracts those with problems in the first place), and I think many are hesitant to reach out because it’s risky. We fear confrontation way too much and collectively suffer as a result. I think it’s important that we hold our friends accountable to themselves and others. Have high expectations for yourself and those around you and good things will happen.
What values do you search for in a friend and why?
Someone who challenges me, gets me to think about things differently, values knowledge and wisdom, and takes me outside my comfort zone from time to time. A good rule of thumb for what to look for in a friend? Find people you want to be like because we tend to be the average of our closest friends.
What problem do you think is the most common amongst people your age?
Can I give a few? Indifference, narcissism, and a general discounting of the future.
Describe true generosity by citing a real life example you were involved with or witnessed?
I should clarify that I don’t think giving money to charity is generous; I think it’s a moral imperative. So while myself and others have given large amounts, I wouldn’t say that is particularly generous.
The example that comes to mind is an individual who invested in my tournament action for years despite not getting any returns. He invested in me because he knew how hard I worked at this game. He could have bailed many times, but he didn’t. His name is Erle Mankin, and he has been incredibly generous with me and many others, and I will always appreciate it.
If you could spend 10,000 working on anything what would it be and why?
I mean, in theory it should match the answer to my extra hour question, right? Maybe having 10,000 to set aside to one thing would be nice, though. I’ve always wanted to write a book. I actually thought about booking a prop bet to motivate me! (Would love to discuss prop bets at great length) I think there are some potential breakthroughs involving behavioral economics, personal finance, and the future of human interaction. Change is happening so rapidly these days, and it’s only accelerating, so I think that thinking about the future, and moreover, thinking ABOUT we think (meta-cognition), is paramount. Summarizing my thoughts is often difficult, but getting people to think, just think, is priority number one.
Give my teenage son some advice.
This is easy. Do what you love. Buck any and all trends. Try new things. Attempt difficult things. Be a great friend. Find a way to enjoy school and do well in it because it opens doors. Learn to love reading because it makes you a better person.