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Poker Players Use Science To Effectively Give To Charities


Here is the final moment from this year's World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And the king will finish it. Martin Jacobson is poker's 2014 world champion.

GREENE: That's a broadcast from ESPN and you can see the poker champ, Martin Jacobson, beard, thick-rimmed glasses, plain black shirt and one unusual detail - a patch on Jacobson 's left sleeve, with three big letters - R-E-G. That patch was Jacobson's promise to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars of his winnings to charity. But not just any charity. Jacob Goldstein from our Planet Money team explains.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: That story of that patch starts a long way from a Vegas poker table.

ADRIANO MANNINO: My name is Adriano Mannino. I'm a philosopher from Switzerland.

GOLDSTEIN: Mannino studies ethics. He's a proponent of what's called effective giving, the idea that people in the rich world should give away a chunk of their income to the charities that do the most to reduce suffering. When Mannino started pitching this idea to the public problem, he had a problem. When you say some charities are especially effective, you are also saying that other charities are less effective. Essentially, you're ranking charities. You're saying some are better, some are worse. And, for lots of people, that sounds coldhearted. Isn't any kind of charitable work good?

MANNINO: Some newspaper articles were critical of this idea of ranking and said, you know, no, we should sort of uniformly praise all altruist efforts.

GOLDSTEIN: Mannino disagreed. He wanted to find people in the real world who would actually give away money based on rankings. So he needed to find people who had money, who were a little bit coldhearted and who understood ranking, who understood that, say, three-of-a-kind always beats two-pair.

LIV BOEREE: I'm in Las Vegas, and I'm out here for a few poker tournaments.

GOLDSTEIN: This is Liv Boeree, a professional poker player whose winnings include a 1.6 million dollar prize a few years back. A while after she won that prize, Boeree and a few of her fellow poker pros started chatting at tournaments. It seemed like they were living the dream, and yet they kept asking themselves...

BOEREE: ...What are we really contributing to the world? We're just going to be known as, oh, that person that's really good at this game and made some money for themselves, and that's it?

GOLDSTEIN: Through mutual friends, she got hooked up Mannino - actually went to Switzerland, had dinner with him.

BOEREE: They completely sold me. I was like, of course, like, that's what we should be doing.

GOLDSTEIN: So, earlier this year, the poker player and the philosopher, along with a few other people, launched Raising for Effective Giving, and a bunch of poker players put that R-E-G patch on their sleeve. REG lists a handful of charities it deems especially effective. One key criterion - how much money it takes for a charity to save one life. The list includes charities that provide de-worming medicine and that give out bed nets to reduce the risk of malaria. The list does not include the biggest, most well-known charities, and Liv Boeree is fine with that.

BOEREE: When people go, oh, well, it's not fair to say - you know, we can't apply effectiveness to lives. We can't apply mathematics to lives. Well, yeah, actually, yes, you can. The whole world is governed by mathematics, and you can either use it to your advantage to help people or you can ignore it and stick your head in the sand and make bad decisions.

GOLDSTEIN: The poker players who wear the REG patch promised to donate at least two percent of their winnings. Boeree says, since founding REG earlier this year, she personally has not had poker winnings to give away. It's been a rough few months at the poker table. Jacob Goldstein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jacob Goldstein is an NPR correspondent and co-host of the Planet Money podcast. He is the author of the book Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing.
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