Fletcher Features

Behind the Poker Face

Fletcher student Cliff Goldkind (F14) knows when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em

A pair of sixes is a fairly mediocre hand to be dealt in a game of Texas hold ’em poker, yet it was exactly what Cliff Goldkind needed to win the $1500 No Limit Texas Hold ’em at the World Series of Poker last year. After 35 hours of play over three days in a field of 2,302 players, it came down to that one hand, and he brought home a pot worth . . . well, let’s just say he had something substantial to report on line 21 of his tax return.

Goldkind, 25, has helped support himself for several years by playing poker, in between (and sometimes while) earning a degree in managerial economics and strategy at the University of Washington at St. Louis, serving in the Israeli army and now studying development economics and international environment and resource policy at the Fletcher School.

And that, it seems, is one of the secrets of weathering the psychological highs and lows of the game: always having something else going on in your life.

“It is different when your sole job—the only thing you are doing all day—is playing poker, and so much of your identity and your self-worth rests on monetary wins and losses,” he says, explaining that he tries to take pleasure in whether he makes the right choices based on the probabilities, regardless of whether the cards actually fall in his favor.

Goldkind, who grew up in Maryland, learned to play poker with his friends in high school. Everyone put in $20, and maybe someone went home with some spending money. None of them was particularly good at it, says Goldkind, who notes his innate ability was probably above average, but he wasn’t a natural.

It wasn’t until he went to college that he met a friend who showed him some books on poker strategy. “We started studying [poker] together,” Goldkind says. “There were several layers to the game that I had never really considered.” (See “How to Think like a Poker Player” below.)

At the same time, his economics classes were introducing him to game theory—in other words, how people interact with one another to achieve a goal, be it a business acquisition or a stack of chips. In economist-speak, poker is a zero-sum game (the more you win, the more someone else loses) with uncertain information (you don’t know what the other player holds, and you also don’t know what cards are going to come out later on in the hand).

“You should be thinking in a game-theoretic way for every decision you make in poker,” Goldkind advises.

(Reprinted from TuftsNow)

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