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The Mass Media

Harvard Professor Educates Through Poker

Born on the riverboats of the Mississippi, taken to the Western frontiers by settlers and recently brought back into pop-culture prominence, poker is a game common to statesmen and knaves alike. For most, it is a way to spend an evening with friends or a night out at the casino, having fun and experiencing the thrill of competition and of putting it all on the line. For Harvard Law School professor Charles Nesson, it is so much more.

When professor Nesson looks at poker, he sees a valuable teaching tool and a connection to a type of conceptual thinking that he believes is not being taught. He believes that the level of strategy inherent in poker forces students to think in ways that they are not usually asked to, and that, because it is a game and fun, it is extremely accessible and relatable.

As opposed to other games that employ strategy, like chess for instance, poker does not have as strict a framework and has much more to do with your opponent’s actions than your own. There are also a set number of moves and a defined board in chess, allowing for a much more concrete structure, as opposed to poker’s more conceptual framework. For example, while a computer could be programmed with every possible move and every game ever played, a computer could not similarly be taught to gauge opponents and see the framework of the play as it unfolds in a game of no-limit Hold ‘Em because bluffing creates a completely random and uncontrolled factor. Bluffing is not necessarily an objectively logical decision, and instead is completely dependent on what you believe your opponents are going to do.

Currently, Nesson uses the game as a vital part of his teaching at the Law School. “I teach a population of kids, some of whom think they’re good at math and some of whom actually think they’re not,” professor Nesson explained. “Now it’s not quite clear what the ‘not’ means, but the ‘not’ often means ‘I don’t think I’m good at rigorous, conceptual thinking,’ which is too bad, because that’s a real failing. My mission with those students is to revitalize their sense of themselves as rigorous, conceptual thinkers.”

Professor Nesson believes that this kind of thinking is completely essential to a good legal education and it can be almost directly applied in the courtroom. “That’s extremely important for purposes of proceeding with the way proof is done in court, because it has to do with elements of an offense, each one of which has to be proved to a particular level, so that the unfolding structure of it is rigorously conceptual. I want my students to feel comfortable with that.”

While poker is exclusively used as a tool by Nesson in his classes, he envisions a much more universal adoption of poker throughout the educational system in order to remedy what he sees as an error in the way younger children learn.

“From my investigations over my lifetime, I have come to believe that the progression in which math is taught has devastating consequences, in particular the introduction of algebra when it comes. Algebra is an immensely abstract subject which is more or less dictated by a society that wants to develop engineers to build bridges and do physical things like that. I don’t think that’s any longer where we are and it seems to me so much more sensible to take the interest that kids have in games, which is huge, and simply extend it into strategic games which have a rigorous mathematics and a beautiful, graphical conceptualization to it, and I think we have a much better chance of retaining kids’ interests and keeping their curiosity up”.

Nesson has already developed an experimental version of a “poker curriculum” and has plans to test it with grade school students in Jamaica over the next couple years. Will future back-to-school shopping include a deck of cards? Only time will tell.

About the Contributor
Ben Whelan served for the following positions at The Mass Media for the following years: Editor-in-Chief: Spring 2009; 2009-2010. News Editor: Spring 2008; Fall 2008 Sports Editor: 2006-2007