Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner: Side Jobs and the Internet Economy

Such a muddy line between
The things you want
And the things you have to do
Sheryl Crow, “Leaving Las Vegas”

Over eighty thousand pounds! I knew, didn’t I know I knew? Malabar came in all right. If I ride my horse till I’m sure, then I tell you, Bassett, you can go as high as you like. Did you go for all you were worth, Bassett?
D. H. Lawrence, “The Rocking Horse Winner”

Some of you might have wondered why my participation in the blogosphere fell off so quickly and dramatically. The answer is that I was teaching myself to play poker.

You cannot survive, at least in Orange County, California, just on the salary a teaching assistant in the humanities receives for half-time work. This is a shame, because when you’re not doing your teaching, you’re supposed to be researching and writing your seminar papers, and then reading for your exams, and then writing your dissertation.

When I made the decision to enter graduate school in 2003, the situation was a little less bleak. For one thing, the average price of gasoline in the OC was $1.80 per gallon. It is now at $4.60 and climbing. The public transportation system in Orange County and Los Angeles is exceptionally poor. There is a metro, but it takes extraordinary luck to find that both starting point and destination are anywhere near to it. This is partly because it was run mostly through the poorest parts of Los Angeles, I imagine to save on building costs and hassles from neighborhood groups. There is a bus system, but it requires a very time-consuming series of changes and runs infrequently. This part of the country is dominated by highways: over-crowded, slow-moving highways. My fianceé’s job currently has her staying in a hotel in Riverside, some 45 minutes away, and living in Long Beach, 35 minutes away. When we move in together next fall, the likelihood is that I’ll have a commute of my own, along with a host of new fees for parking.

In 2003, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had not yet had the opportunity to demonstrate his deep commitment to higher education — each passing year has seen a new budget impasse and new cuts affecting the University of California. The university has responded as it had to: raising rents and fees, cutting disbursements. When I completed my exams, I was awarded a standard fellowship covering all fees (additional to tuition, which is paid by the teaching assistantship). That summer, the fellowship was canceled, and the quarterly fee almost doubled. The fees are slated to increase again this year.

Finally, the university is no longer in a position to guarantee teaching assistantships for all of normative time to degree. There are certainly ways around this — the faculty has been incredibly good at getting funding for teaching programs that can support graduate students in their seventh year and after — but the bottom line is that for most of the people I know who are writing their dissertations, there is no way to avoid significant financial risk if you are entirely dependent on the university. This has not become a union issue because it’s not malfeasance on the part of the administration; it’s the result of politicians reducing funding for higher education, without the private contributions that help compensate other disciplines.

All of this might still be survivable if your car didn’t break down, requiring expensive repairs, but it does. Or if you never traveled, but you do when your friends are getting married. So what fills the gaps?

The Optimizer Economy

Yes, the optimizer economy. This is the entire economy that has grown up during the Information Age (with its boons for self-promotion: cheap desktop publishing, the Internet, etc), targeted at parents who want to give their children an edge. The test prep companies that have been around forever, such as Kaplan or The Princeton Review, now compete with all kinds of small brick-and-mortar startups, some managed out of a home, usually offering comprehensive tutoring in all subjects in addition to test prep. Beyond this there are any number of private tutoring relationships begun through referrals and emails forwarded to graduate student listservs.

The parents have sympathetic motives, the kids often appreciate the attention, and the tutors get to teach. It can work out wonderfully. During the summers I teach test prep and ESL at a boarding school, and that’s a terrific opportunity, because the kids have a rigorous schedule and learn a great deal over five weeks. Teachers have the support and structure they need to get through a real curriculum, and they have creative control over their curricula.

Unfortunately, the day-to-day reality of these part-time tutoring jobs is very different. If you teach for one of the big test prep companies, you are teaching from a book, which is a minor bummer. The major problem is that most of the companies are incredibly exploitative of their workforce, charging twice (or more) per hour what the tutor or teacher receives. In addition, many of them are oriented towards parents, because the parents pay, rather than considering what would be optimal for students. As an example, quantifiable lessons like vocabulary words are emphasized over the much slower and wayward progress of a standard liberal arts education. Yesterday Johnny learned fifty vocabulary words, today he passed a test on them, boom! Learning! This type of lesson also gets around the problem that students aren’t in these enrichment programs very long on any given week, since they supplement regular school, sports, and the rest of the child’s responsibilities. This can also be a problem with individual tutoring: if a student doesn’t see the tutor very often, then progress is slow (e.g. one novel for a whole summer), the curriculum becomes erratic (affected too much by the academic concerns of that week), and the lessons don’t stick.

To sum up: the intensive institutional programs are good, and some individual tutoring relationships work out very well (at least, they’re no worse than harmless), but still the majority of side jobs mean working as basically a knowledge temp, with all the frustrations and disadvantages of any temping job. I chose something else.

No Limit

On a broad scale, what is interesting about poker is not the $5 million dollar televised games between the same 25 celebrities. Nor is it the World Series of Poker Main Event, where people invest a huge amount of money to play against thousands of other people, getting relatively bad odds unless they manage to sneak in via Internet poker promotions. The only real significance of the televised poker craze, as dozens of writers have pointed out, is that it helped to make the game well-respected and popular.

Playing regular cash poker in a casino is feasible, particularly in Las Vegas, but you need a lot of cash if you want to play for more than entertainment. That is, you need many thousands of dollars, because even though good players generally win money, on a given night it is quite possible to lose big instead. In California, you need even more, because the house’s percentage of every hand is vastly higher. That’s necessary because California casinos can’t use poker as a loss leader to attract gamblers who then try their hand at craps, baccarat, roulette, blackjack, sports betting, or the slots.

Economically, the interesting thing about poker is that it has become Internet wage labor, played for small stakes by vast numbers of people sitting at their computers, a lot of whom are now poker professionals in a meager sense.

The most profitable game is “no limit” Texas Hold ‘Em, for the intuitive reason that since there are no limits on betting, you can bet more when the odds are in your favor, and less when they are not. The game has a canon of about twelve books written by Dan Harrington (5), David Sklansky (3), Phil Gordon (2), Doyle Brunson (the infamous Super/System), and Barry Greenstein (Ace on the River). The canon takes a month of study, maybe two. I should note that as of last September I had never played Texas Hold ‘Em once in my entire life.

If you* sit down at a no-limit game and play only the very best possible hands, folding (refusing to bet) the rest, you will be dealt about five playable hands per hour in a live game. Online at one table, you will get about ten playable hands. However, once you get comfortable, you can usually play at least four tables simultaneously online, because you’re folding 83% of what you get and then waiting for the other players to finish the hand. That means you will get a hand favored to win more than once every two minutes. You will get aces or kings, the two best hands, about once every half hour. If you can just manage to win 60% of these hands, or if you win only half but bet more when you win then when you lose, your principal increases by 9% an hour, compounded every time you double your principal and can rise to higher stakes (so about once every twelve hours). Furthermore, by playing four tables, you do what you can’t do live, which is quarter your liability if an unlucky, unlikely card beats you. You get reduced to only 75% of your principal, rather than zero, and can if necessary immediately drop down to lower stakes.

If you had to cash out all of your winnings minus your principal investment, you’d be making better than minimum wage at $100, better than almost all tutoring wages at $800. If you can manage to invest or reach $1600, you stand to make better money than practically any professional-in-training who isn’t at the top of the capitalist food chain. (At a brick-and-mortar casino, this would almost certainly not be enough to make a living. Plus, rather than winning ten dollars at a time off loan adjusters playing before bed in Hamburg, you’d be playing broke retirees from the neighborhood who are spending more than they have in order to be out somewhere.) The Internet sites run every single day, 24 hours a day. It is a skill game, and of course it’s a skill learning to detect bluffs, learning when to stop betting a hand, and learning how to make your good hands seem weak to your opponents. But you only need to be about as good at poker as your local Little League coach is at baseball.

That is the new story: for some people it will be easier, more comfortable, and more sustainable than the other treading-water jobs, like restaurant jobs. This is perhaps what Hardt and Negri meant by the rise of “immaterial labor.” You’ll know one such person, then two, then five, who are sitting at home in the early afternoons, playing poker for money while listening to their record collection. They’ll take the time they have left for their passions — waiting, still waiting, for the miracle to come.


* Note: This “you” is a hypothetical you. Your mileage may vary. It usually does.