Playing poker the IIM way

Posted On 12 Feb, 2017 0

The words Management and Poker don’t really feature together unless you talk about Bankroll Management. But the winds of change are sweeping the sport of poker across the country in all shapes and forms. And it is fitting that one of premier educational institutions in India is leading the way in this regard. Deepak Dhayanithy, is a 40-something professor at the Indian Institute of Management in the city of Kozhikode (formerly Calicut), located in the southern state of Kerala. And the good professor has a very unique connect to the country’s poker community. He is teaching the sport of poker to the students of IIM-K who can chose to study this as an elective subject. Nope we are not kidding! It even sounds like the kind of subject you’d hear about in the hallowed halls of an IIM – ‘Competitive Strategy: The Game of Poker’ or CSP as it is more commonly referred to in that campus.

It was in 2015, that Kevin Desmond, a pro level poker player and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate student released a free poker course as part of MIT’s Open Courseware program. When news of this course came about, it caused quite a (positive) stir in the United States and now it seems we have a desi player who is a professor to boot, conducting a formal course about the sport.

Growing up in 1970s Madras (now Chennai), Dhayanithy was an active child playing a number of sports including hockey, cricket and football. Playing games like A-spade, Bluff, 28, Rummy and others at that young age with friends and family initiated him into the world of cards. The elders in his family were also serious card players including his grand – uncle, A. S. Kameswara Rao (ASKR) who according to Dhayanithy was such a savvy rummy player that “no one who sat to his immediate left has ever won a session of Rummy.” Perhaps this particular uncle had some part to play in sowing the seeds of the future poker player in Dhayanithy. The reading skills displayed by this particular relative impressed the youngster to a great extent. “If a kid didn’t know how to handle cards well (shuffle, deal, etc.) he or she would be sent to buy ice-cream. It was a very sweet way in which he expressed his displeasure,” recalls the professor.

Finishing his degree from SAP Guindy Madras, Dhayanithy then went on to complete his Fellow Programme in Management (the equivalent to a PhD) from IIM Lucknow. Married to his landscape architect wife Anjana, also a PhD scholar by the way, the professor and his better half are proud parents of two young boys and stay at the IIM-K campus.

Here at Gutshot, we have had the opportunity to speak with numerous players, organisers and other people who are a part of the poker business in this country. However even we were very excited at the prospect of talking to someone like the professor because he is taking poker in a different direction via the medium of formal education. So let’s dive straight into this interview with Deepak Dhayanithy:-

How did you first start playing poker?
I started playing poker when I was studying. Back then internet poker hadn’t still fully exploded but it was big on TV overseas and would get a chance to watch while travelling overseas as part of work. Oh, that’s the other thing. My generation was sixteen to twenty when cable television came to India. I am a child of TV. When I travelled overseas there was a lot of poker on TV. That got me interested. Much earlier though, I had played ‘Teen-patti’ when no adult would approve of it (even in my family!). Especially watching the Stud games, it was clear that Poker was 5-card ‘Teen-patti’ or ‘Teen-patti’ was 3-card Stud poker. So, if you mean hold’em, when I started to work. If you mean poker, it was in high school.

Do you play poker regularly? If yes, tell us about what you usually play?
Was in Bangalore just a couple of days back, and really enjoyed getting some poker in one of the card rooms and we were playing NLHE, PLO cash games. I play very infrequently (maybe 10 hours a month)…but they are 10 awesome hours. Over the past 3-4 years, I also study poker for my academic teaching and research purposes. So, there is a nice bonus of learning the new games as well…like OFC. Also follow some of the good players like SumitSapra who has been doing well…we studied together in Lucknow. Back then Dhanteras linked poker and teen-patti was quite happening.

Where did you get the inspiration to teach poker to your students?
Oh…four things.First, after working in industry for a few years, significant encouragement to strike the academician/ teacher path came actually from the various people I’d introduced poker to…in various home games and stuff. They’d say, ‘Hey Deepak, you should consider being an academician’. They were probably trash talking me because they would be cleaning me out after an hour or two of learning the game. But, I took them seriously!

Second, in probability, psychology, technology and business, poker has a long and rich academic tradition…people have always seen the connections between being a good poker player and business/ strategy decision making. Various courses and modules are taught in the best universities in the world using poker (MIT, Harvard come to mind) and there are a good number of poker interest groups across the world. Poker pros like Annie Duke have discussed extensively about the linkages between poker and good decision making in general. Warren Buffet is known to be an ardent poker player and he organizes a tournament in Omaha that many top business leaders take part in. I’d attended a training program in Harvard and the best part of an excellent learning experience was playing poker with a Brazilian of Cantonese origin…I am super impressed by poker’s global cultural and social footprint.

Third, the course I offer at IIMK ‘Competitive Strategy: the Game of Poker (CSP)’ greatly benefited from the insightful comments and review process that my colleagues offered back when it was introduced (3 years back). I had already developed another elective on sports (‘Strategic Analytics: Insights from Sport’ SAIS). So, being in a place when people would carefully consider new ideas is a big bonus.

Fourth, felt that students (millenials and all that) would be interested in an elective course if it added value to them as individuals…and that somehow that seems to play out okay. In general, it appears that the younger generation is a few steps ahead of the rest of us when it comes to being open minded and not thinking within silos.

How did you begin with poker teaching in college?
So, we have a good process of developing and offering new electives at IIMK. In general, first year of MBA curriculum is all core courses (‘compulsory’) and second year is almost entirely electives. Back then more than 100 electives were offered out of which an individual student would have to study 21 or so to earn enough credits to graduate. So, students have a lot of choice.

The process starts with faculty members conceptualizing their proposed elective…complete with learning objectives, course novelty, pedagogy, evaluation criteria, utility to students and the like (us academicians’ core concerns). This is then discussed at the Area level. I belong to the Strategy Area of IIMK. In the meetings with six or seven other colleagues, the proposed elective got sharpened, including even changes to its very name (emphasis on ‘competitive strategy’ came from a senior colleague, not me!).

The next step is that this proposed elective offering gets discussed at the entire faculty level (60 – 70 strong back then). In a sense, if you get here it means that your Area (Strategy in my case) already backs the proposed elective. The best critical input into developing the elective came at this level. A colleague who was serving as Dean back then asked, ‘Oh, would you teaching them gambling?!’ He had called out the elephant in the room. Everyone, including myself, were worried about this but we never called it out or had an adult debate about it. This question, and the way it was framed, allowed a serious debate of whether poker is a game of chance or skill. Now, we know were any poker lover stands. But this question allowed the debate to be framed in an academically acceptable manner. We spoke about skill elements (probability, psychology, strategy, etc.) and the different poker games’ inherent variance levels (PLO > NLHE for example). Overall the faculty input in the process of elective vetting improved the course significantly. I can’t thank them enough for their questions and critical lens.

Finally, once the course was ready it was offered to our PGP-17th batch. As expected, it was received quite well. Guess, the timing mattered too. PGP-17 is unique in IIMK’s history…they were into dramatics, sports and music. They had a 1:1 sex ratio. Poker, let’s not forget, is a game which has a rich tradition of great women players. In the first edition of the elective, women took two of the top 3 positions in the tournament that was played. We held the game-play sessions in a different (larger, flatter) classroom which has great views to the Western Ghats. Students liked that too, I guess. Well, that’s how it started. It has gone from an elective of about 60 students to one offered to about 180.

Describe how you teach poker to your students.
CSP is a 30-hour 3-credit elective. In a typical class, only about 10% has played 28, ‘Teen-patti’, Bridge. So, we start from the very basics. We start with a dive into how the poker is a family of games and first get a strong sense of how NLHE, PLO, Low-ball, HOSE, POFC are played and what are the decision challenges involved. We understand basics such as pot odds and card odds. We discuss deception and how bluffing, semi-bluffing and defending against bluffs are some of the challenges posed. We employ the rich poker material available these days that includes hand footages, interviews and professionals reflecting on some of their hands and decisions. This introduction gives students the platform from which to understand the various competitive, psychological and resources challenges inherent in the game – be it its cash/ tournament variants, be it its various games, be it the various betting formats or be it in online/ casino games.

We have two workshops where students play in cash and tournament formats. I assure the students that in a few sessions, even those absolutely new to the game would, with some effort, start performing very well in the tournaments and sit-n-go tourneys. So far, there have always been a few students who get up to speed pretty quickly and it makes the instructor’s job that much easier and enjoyable.

The inherent simplicity and disarming charm of the game allows students to engage with it for relatively longer periods of time. This is important for the course as it runs in the sixth trimester of our MBA when the soon to graduate students have multiple pressures on their time here on campus.

They form their ‘game-play diary’ teams and reflect back on some of the interesting/ memorable hands that they have played in. This workshop and game play diary gives students are hands-on experience where they can appreciate the game better.

The later sessions of the course are dedicated to discussing some of the larger societal, business, legal and health concerns surrounding poker – and how policy making has taken different approaches in countries across the world. We cover a profile of some of the poker greats whose role in shaping poker into what it is today simply has to be acknowledged and understood. Baxter, Ungar, Brunson, Sklansky, Greenstein, Sexton, Ivey, Hellmuth, Chan the Man, Harman, Annie Duke, Liv Boeree come to mind straight off the bat. We discuss in a fair amount of detail the skill versus luck debate, the role of poker in the casino business and the various challenges of running and regulating the online game.

Over the course, students develop an intuitive feel for how poker thinking equips them to think of strategic business situations incorporating information asymmetry and other real life challenges that they would face – be it on the poker felt or in their work environments.

What are your future plans? Both from a player and teacher perspective with regards to poker.
It is of utmost importance, even given the various time pressures of full time academics, for me to stay in touch as a player. Following the game on the internet is a top priority. I want to travel to tournaments in Goa and in South-east Asia. While on conference visits, the experience of playing in Sydney, Foxwoods, Atlantic City, etc. has been really uplifting. My poker goals are fairly modest. Would be happy to develop a simple TAG game and execute it with discipline. I plan to play tournaments only and the first point of arrival is to be able to make it final tables in a somewhat regular manner…know it is a long journey but it has to start somewhere. 
As a teacher, want to get as many of my students to love this disarmingly simple yet challenging game. I am happy to see it when rank beginners start doing well in the tournaments they play and report it back to me with great enthusiasm. This is one of the true perks of being an academician.

I would continue to work with my colleagues – a sociologist and a psychologist – on research in the broad domain of how poker thinking helps business students with different thinking styles, career objectives and levels of familiarity with the game when the course started. Our broad objective is to shed further light on poker as a pedagogical context for business school students. Who knows, maybe one of the students will take down a big tournament or some of them may also get interested in poker’s pedagogical opportunities.

As we bid goodbye and wish Professor Deepak Dhayanithy good luck, one can’t help but wonder if his teaching this poker course may be the start of a new chapter in the annals of Indian poker.

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