The most striking thing about sitting down to chat with Liv Boeree is that she exudes an obvious sincerity and genuine longing to do good. And she has cultivated this sense of altruistic duty even while spending much of her adult life living the baller lifestyle that most of us can only dream about. You can tell her thoughts are never far from those who are less fortunate than she is.
Liv — an astrophysicist by training — offers up a complex picture of what it means to be a poker pro. It’s one you will not find represented in an industry whose central pillar — for better or for worse — is to sell the advantages of “living the dream.”
And it is, somewhat ironically, that very dream that in fact reveals her deep-seated commitment to the welfare of others. Because behind that baller lifestyle trope are the real people used to sell it to us. People like Liv, who find themselves dealing with the tension created when a warm-hearted person who is smart enough to play poker for a living actually uses those talents to “just” play a card game for a living — instead of using them to make advancements in other, more traditional, fields that might help alleviate the suffering of others around the world.
I immensely enjoyed talking with Liv at the recent PokerStars Championship Barcelona, specifically her willingness to be so honest and open about how she balances her desire to have maximum altruistic impact with her desire to play and succeed at the game of poker that she clearly loves.
Below is part one of my interview with her. In it, she discusses her decision to leave academia and go into poker, how she feeds her altruistic side through poker, and a sneak-peak into her plans for the future.
What made you decide to leave “proper society” and go into poker?
Well, I should clarify that I was never a practicing astrophysicist, but my intention was to become one. I was going to do my Masters and then go into research. But I knew I wanted to take a gap year because I hadn’t done anything up to that point other than education, and I just wanted to see what the world was like outside of academia for a little bit.
So, I moved to London for a couple of months. At the time I was really into (heavy) metal and rebellious, and then poker came along. I thought it was amazing; I’m hyper-competitive and I love playing games, and I just really enjoyed this particular game. And so I started to learn more about it.
At this point I already wanted to become a rock star anyway. I wanted to travel to different places and meet lots of different people, and my goal was to become as good at guitar as possible. Then poker came along, and I thought I could probably make much more money at it anyway, and I loved the competition and how much it requires of your mind. So I decided to try it out for a little while, and I never looked back.
How do you reconcile being such an intelligent and altruistic person with your choice to play a game and indulge yourself in the things you enjoy doing, instead of using your intellect for the greater good?
This is how Raising For Effective Giving was founded. A few of us were thinking that the world seems to be going in a bad direction, and so maybe we should be doing something about it.
Prior to REG, I would give to charities but without having done much research first, and that made it feel like it was something loose and fluffy that I was only doing to make my emotions feel better without looking into it.
And then I met these effective altruists, who are all scientists, and they said if you want to do good in the world, you have to use science and numbers and look at the data. The world we live in, reality, is governed by mathematics – and the same applies to morality, really. Mathematics still applies to altruism and doing good.
When we try to do good, we do it with our resources, and mathematics lets us figure out where our resources go the furthest. And that’s what effective altruism is all about, how to do the most good in the world that you can do.
That made sense to me.
— Liv Boeree (@Liv_Boeree) July 10, 2017
What’s the criteria that REG uses? And what do you do if there is a tie between two of them?
First, is if an organization’s interventions are measurable, because if you can’t measure the impact then you have no idea if it’s actually impactful.
The next thing is that it helps the maximum number of people. So if you have two actions and one for $1 will help 10 people and the other will help 100 people with that dollar, then it goes without saying that you want to go with the one that helps the most people.
[Author’s Note: Liv wasn’t able to name the criteria off the top of her head, but it was important to her that they be included here. They are: Strength of Evidence, Cost-effectiveness, Room for more funding, and Transparency.]
Lets say those 10 people are dying of cancer, and those 100 are losing their eyesight, how are you making the determination that one is more effective than another?
If you really want to get down into the nitty-gritty philosophy of it, there is one metric used called quality adjusted life years. Basically, they describe how much it costs to give a group of people one extra year of good quality of life — with quality being defined as not suffering in any measurable horrible way, not being in extreme poverty, etc.
So, yes, that is a very difficult thing to completely qualify. As a rule of thumb, it tends to go with “let’s avoid death first.” To be honest, most truly effective charities are looking on a global scale at what the biggest causes of avoidable death and pain are. Because it’s not just the person going through the death process but also the family that is losing a loved one — there is an immense amount of suffering that can be avoided.
For instance with malaria, it’s a terrible disease that is actually very easy to prevent and it averages out to about $3,300 to save a life from malaria. But in the Western world, we’ll spend a million or more to save a life from an inherited or exotic disease. Even the cost of cancer per life to save is usually a couple hundred thousand. And so when you have these orders of magnitude and difference in the cost to save a life, I think that’s what matters.
I love an analogy someone once gave, “I want to help with breast cancer because my mother died of breast cancer.” It’s awful and of course it’s good that you want to help and donate money to that, but instead of narrowing it to only mothers with breast cancer why not do the thing that helps the most mothers, full stop. That stops mothers from dying.
And it’s getting people to realize that shift, that it doesn’t have to be. You know we have an emotional attachment to a terrible thing, but you need to zoom out of it and say really you don’t just want to save mothers from breast cancer, you want to save mothers. How do I save the most mothers?
So you’re maximizing the EV (expected value) of the money?
Switching gears, I know that the environment is something you are extremely passionate about. I’m curious about what you think the future of energy is?
We’re seeing that solar cells are becoming more and more efficient and we are getting better at capturing clean and renewable energy more efficiently. But that being said, it’s still not going to fulfill the world’s energy demands.
We need to get better and attack it from multiple sides. We need to get the generation more efficient, we need to then get the storage more efficient. We also need to upgrade the efficiency of the systems we use energy for because those are also very inefficient. Things like refrigeration methods for example — that’s a huge energy burner and right now creating a perfect refrigerator is not possible. And it may never be, but we can still improve the efficiency. What it all comes down to is scientific funding. It feels like we’re in this huge battle between the light and dark forces when it comes to that.
And that ties nicely back into the question you were asking about how do you live this hedonistic lifestyle. And I’ll be honest with you that in the last year I’ve been really struggling with it.
I didn’t use the word hedonistic…
No, but it is. It is to a degree. I had a good summer, went out to Vegas and won some money and a chunk of that is going to these charities and so going to do good.
And so, that makes me feel good to an extent. I can justify and say, “OK, well that’s money I would not have earned and that would not be going to the charity.” Arguably that’s the most impactful thing I could be doing. But, at the same time, you could maybe make the argument that I have some unique talents in some way that I should be using to do more, other than just playing poker.
And that is definitely something that has caused me inner….
I mean I feel that way about writing about poker, so it’s not a judgment…
No, I know. No, of course not. No, I don’t think you’re judging. It’s just a really interesting question and it’s definitely something that I’m feeling an internal pressure on more and more, to re-examine.
And that’s one reason why I’m now trying to push much harder into becoming a science communicator and get back into TV presenting. PokerStars has been helping me a lot actually; we’ve been working on a pilot for a “the physics of” type thing that I’ve been filming. So fingers crossed that’s going to go somewhere.
Ed. Note: The embedded Tweet below links out to a cool video of Liv doing exactly what she said, above. Definitely worth watching!
I got to visit one of the world’s fastest supercomputers in Barcelona. Check it out: https://t.co/2igp6vBCgq
— Liv Boeree (@Liv_Boeree) August 25, 2017
I don’t know, to be honest, whether I’m mentally sharp enough to be someone who could have come up with some more fundamental physics or something like that. I don’t think so. I was decent, but I was nowhere near… you need to be like super talented to be doing that kind of thing and there’s just far more talented people working on those problems.
But I probably do have other unique talents that are better served than me just playing poker and/or raising money through poker.
I remember speaking to some effective altruists, and what I love about them is that they are so brutally honest. And one of them took me aside and said, “you need to stop. You should not be doing this.” And I feel immediate guilt. And he said “to be honest, you should be going around the world just meeting with high net worth individuals and convincing them to donate their money more effectively.”
Can’t poker help you with that? It makes you unique…
It does, but the thing is I’m going to always have that. If you Google me it will say I’m a professional poker player, so I can use that as long as I want.
Poker is going well right now and it’s not like it’s taking up my time or anything. There is a lot of downtime between events. And there’s some really exciting stuff coming up right now with PokerStars and REG. I’m actually quite excited about the direction poker is going to be heading into in general.
For example, during SCOOP PokerStars donated $109,000 to REG, which is amazing.
So I’m definitely not going anywhere in poker in the next couple of years.
— Liv Boeree (@Liv_Boeree) June 3, 2017
Author’s note: Be sure to check out part two of my interview with Liv Boeree, where she talks about the “women in poker” issue.