Martin Jacobson, a member of REG

+EV Giving

What is REG and why is it
catching on with poker pros?
BY JONATHAN GROTENSTEIN | PHOTO BY FELIX STONE

It’s Thanksgiving week, which means that everybody in America is already thinking about Christmas. Every year the holiday season gets a little longer and a little more commercial—this year, Black Friday deals started popping up before Halloween. But not even the steady encroachment of consumerism can completely Grinchify what, for many people, is still a season of giving.

Poker and charity have never had an obvious relationship—“donor” is a pejorative term for an opponent who’s willing to spew his chips. But where there’s money, there’s an opportunity to do good, and occasionally that opportunity gets exercised. During the boom in the ’00s we had Ante Up For Africa. Guy Laliberte’s One Drop Foundation has raised millions while becoming synonymous with a couple of the biggest tournaments in history. The World Poker Tour has its own foundation dedicated to partnering with charities to raise money for a variety of worthwhile causes.

But the game’s never seen anything exactly like Raising for Effective Giving (REG), an organization that is striving to align a charitable ethos with a poker mindset.

But the game’s never seen anything exactly like Raising for Effective Giving (REG), an organization that is striving to align a charitable ethos with a poker mindset.

Most people start playing poker because it’s fun. It feels good to play, and even better to win. This often leads to a desire to improve. You start to realize that some hands do better than others, that position is important, that bets can be thought of in terms of expected value. The emotions that may have driven you to the game become the enemy—winning poker players consistently make rational and dispassionate decisions that maximize their chances for a return on their investment.

REG is rooted in the belief that humanity as a whole is capable of growing in a similar way, especially where doing good is concerned. The principles that guide the organization have mainly been borrowed from GBS Schweiz, a Swiss think tank that spends a lot of time considering how evolution can be guided by rational thought. “We are not the crown of creation,” it’s stated on their website, “but the Neanderthals of tomorrow—and the cyborgs from yesterday.”

There are a lot of reasons why helping other people makes sense to us. A rising tide floats all boats. Charity makes us feel good. But we’re not always charitable in a way that is strictly logical. We donate to organizations with a lot of overhead, leaking a substantial percentage of our altruism to corporate salaries or flashy media materials. The initiatives themselves can be overwhelming: Feed the world. Cure cancer. Save the kids. The decisions about who and what to give to are guided (and occasionally misguided) by emotion. Or as Liv Boeree, the 30-year-old poker pro (and one of REG’s board members) recently told Bluff Europe, “Usually the charities advertising with the saddest-looking child on the screen will get the most donations—they’re most emotionally appealing.”

These inconsistencies between our good intentions and actual results led GBS Schweiz to develop “effective altruism,” the idea that charitable giving should be a value proposition—we should spend our money in the way that does the most good or, more specifically, direct our resources toward the situations that promise the biggest return on investment.

The idea appealed to a group of young poker stars, including Boeree, Philipp Gruissem, and Igor Kurganov, who, having collectively won tens of millions of dollars, were looking for a way to give something back. But they wanted to do it in a way that made sense not only to their hearts but their poker-trained brains. They took a field trip to Switzerland, where they met with Adriano Mannino, an academic philosopher who is the co-President of GBS Schweiz. They returned with a new mindset as well as with Mannino himself, who in July gave a presentation to a group of interested poker players at a dinner in Las Vegas during this year’s World Series. REG was born.

Its members agree to tithe 2 percent of their tournament winnings (or 3 percent of their cash game winnings) to REG, which in turn directs those funds to charities that have been considered with the same mathematical precision used to consider a decision at the table: What play will provide the best return on investment? The answers aren’t always obvious—much of REG’s focus so far has been on worms, specifically a parasitic worm that affects children in developing countries, resulting in anemia and malnourishment. The fifty cents a year it takes to keep a kid worm-free has proven to reduce school absenteeism by 25 percent, which in turn increases his or her adult wages by 23 percent.

The act of giving, especially when it’s done in such a rational manner, can also improve the lives of the givers. Poker players spend a lot of time convincing themselves that money has no real meaning, that it’s just a way of keeping score. The downside of this mental calculus is that the grind becomes a sort of endless videogame, detached from any moral satisfaction. REG helps change that dynamic: Success at the table becomes more than a boost for the ego or one’s bottom line—it’s a way to improve the lives of the people with whom we share this planet.

Success at the table becomes more than a boost for the ego or one’s bottom line—it’s a way to improve the lives of the people with whom we share this planet.

Just a few months into its existence, REG has already attracted more than 70 poker players. And while it’s early, there’s evidence to suggest that its members are receiving benefits that go beyond the warm fuzzies that come from doing good. Just ask REG members Martin Jacobson and Jorryt Von Hoof, the first- and third-place finishers at this year’s WSOP Main Event.