And so we begin.
This week, I’d like to focus on how Ronnie thought being a professional poker player would give him an advantage in Survivor. He thought this because poker had taught him how to read other people’s facial expressions and gestures in order to determine their intentions. This is an important skill in both poker and Survivor, so Ronnie wasn’t completely wrong.
However, the environment in which a skill is learned is also important. A massage therapist is good at twisting limbs. So is a black belt in jiu-jitsu. Even the names of their maneuvers can sound similar. (Which one uses a “back press” vs. a “bridge and roll”?) Yet there hasn’t been a massage therapist winner at the Ultimate Fighting Championship since Tommy “Magic Toes” Wilson in 2005.
This is one of the problems with abstractions. Although it’s useful to winnow out differences so that a prototype can be discussed, there are times when those differences become critically important. One area of philosophy (out of many many areas) might be examining the process of creating abstractions. So part of the philosophy of science might be figuring out the dividing lines between fields like chemistry and biology. A philosopher of art might be interested in determining whether someone is a painter or a sculptor.
In a way, Ronnie was trying to be a philosopher of games. He had noticed that the ability to determine intentions through behavioral quirks was important for both poker and Survivor. Based on this, he had theorized that the abstraction of a good poker player was also the abstraction of a good Survivor player. Unfortunately for him, his skill at one feature of Survivor made him overconfident and unable to notice that poker had also left him under-developed in other important areas of Survivor gameplay.
For example, during poker games, it’s often not very important if the other players like or trust you. Of course, being liked or trusted can be useful for manipulating and fooling people, but raw intimidation or coldness might achieve this just as well or even better. You usually won’t get voted out of a poker game. In Survivor, though, if the other players don’t like or trust you, they can send you home. They don’t have to keep trying to guess what your next move will be. In fact, whereas being difficult to figure out is almost always an advantage in poker, in Survivor it might be the primary reason for other players to vote you out.
In addition, every poker game gives its players multiple opportunities to test their strategies. You can get hundreds of hands in a single game of poker, and you’ll lose most of them on even the best nights. This encourages players to test a variety of hypotheses about the other players, failing over and over until finally figuring out how to read someone. In Survivor, though, you only get a few visits to tribal council, and if you predict the vote badly, there’s a strong chance that you’ll be voted out either that night or pretty soon.
Plato addressed this issue as well, noting that successful businessmen and craftsmen tended to think competence in their jobs qualified them to make good judgements in other areas of knowledge. Plato thought this was often a recipe for failure because of the same problems that Ronnie found. Someone might become successful at business by being a tough and cold negotiator, but if he becomes a politician, his ability to be charming or articulate might be too weak to gain the allies necessary to pass laws. A movie director might be very good at organizing people to create films, but then unable to grasp the need to organize a tight budget when running a company.
This isn’t to say that professional poker players can’t win Survivor. It just means they need to think about how their poker skills might hurt their Survivor gameplay too.
As a final note, after seeing Jeff Probst stand on the outside of a helicopter as it turned and dropped, I take back what I said last season about him not being a god. You win, Jeff. You win.