Positive Sum Poker

Learning to transform scarcity into abundance

The game of poker — like much of the real world economy — is played as a zero-sum game. Meaning that for someone to win, someone else has to lose.

But in the real economy there are both zero-sum and positive-sum interactions. For instance, when you and I compete over a customer, it’s a zero-sum game between us. But whoever wins, then engages in a positive-sum interaction with the customer.

A positive-sum game is one in which both parties are better off for having played. For example, if I were to buy a banana from you, I win because my hunger is satisfied, and you win because you gain the money I paid you. Positive-sum is also therefore called win-win.

The poker table is an incredible training ground in zero-sum economics. Playing poker regularly will make you an expert in exploiting informational asymmetries (i.e. arbitrage), first mover advantage, last mover advantage, leverage, bluffing, strategic domination, and several dozen other practical business skills.

And by modifying the payout structure, poker can also teach players about creating win-win situations, which is equally (if not more) important in today’s interconnected economy.

Positive Sum Poker

In a typical single-table poker tournament with ten players, everyone buys in for the same amount (e.g. $100). As players go bust, they are eliminated, until a single player remains with all the chips. That winner gets the entire prize pool (10 x $100 = $1,000 in our example) and everyone else loses their $100 buy-in. In other words, one out of ten players is extremely happy, and the other nine feel like losers who should have taken a date to dinner instead.

What if we didn’t play with cash though, but rather a more abundant currency? We all have superpowers. These are our gifts and abilities that make us unique. For instance, you may be great at painting portraits, or you may be a lawyer (and thus you have a superpower in giving legal advice). Instead of paying $100 to enter the tournament, you donate your superpower to whoever wins it. For example you will paint a portrait for the winner, or you will give an hour of free legal advice.

Before the tournament starts, each player writes down their superpower on a piece of paper and contributes it into the prize pool. The poker tournament is played normally, except instead of there being a single winner, you record the order in which players get eliminated. Thus by the end of the tournament, all ten players are ranked from #1 (the “winner”) to #10 (the first player eliminated).

The player with #1 looks through the entire prize pool of superpowers and selects the one they want most. Then #2 selects a prize from the remaining superpowers. And so on down to #10.

Here’s what’s cool: everyone has won something of value, and everyone feels valued when they give (or teach) their superpower to someone else. New relationships get formed, and shared value gets created. Everyone wins. Here are some examples of superpowers inspired by games that I’ve played in:

  • “Free legal advice”
  • “I will paint a portrait of your loved one”
  • “I’m a handyman, ask me to fix anything around your house”
  • “An afternoon sail on my yacht for you and 8 friends”
  • “I will connect you with 3 people who will change your life”
  • “I will write a poem in your honor”
  • “A foot massage”
  • “poker lessons”
  • “A nice bottle of wine from my collection”
  • “I’ll teach you my favorite magic tricks”
  • “I will help you set up your website”
  • “A dinner date with me, my treat”

Now, if you want to give yourself the best chance at winning the superpower of your choice, you’ll have to learn how to compete.