Fair game

19th January, 2008

Dear Economist,
I frequently extract large sums of money from Bozzer, my flatmate, in our regular poker game. He’s convinced variance is to blame for his losses; in truth, however, he’s simply terrible – and I’m simply delighted with my new watch. Am I right to exploit him in this way?
R. Casablanca

Dear Mr Casablanca,

Unless you are holding poor Bozzer’s family hostage in the basement, this is a voluntary transaction between consenting adults. Presumably, he knows that he is losing money, even if he is not smart enough to work out why. And poker is lots of fun: even if he recognises that he is outclassed and the game is costing him, it may still be worth his while. After all, no customer makes a profit from going to the cinema either, but we rarely worry about that.

On that basis you have no case to answer.

However, I cannot wholeheartedly give you the absolution you seem to be seeking. You must first establish whether Bozzer is a poker addict. I’ll spare you the technical details – let’s just say that they probably involve hyperbolic discounting – but I can recommend an approach for dealing with a rational addict. If, away from the card table, Bozzer says that he wishes he could quit the poker habit, you must help to discourage him. Perhaps you could enlist a third party to hold on to cheques from the pair of you. She would post the money to a charity if you are ever caught gambling together.

I must also warn you that things may not be as they seem. Is Bozzer, perhaps, playing the long game?

If one evening he suggests raising the stakes, beware.

You think he’s the “fish” – but he may be reeling you in.

Also published on ft.com.

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