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Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Jeff Ma's talk at the Singapore Expo

Buddhists abhor gambling, as for one to win, many have to lose. All other religions I know of forbid gambling. Personally, I don't gamble, as they cause unnecessary anxiety and awakes the greed in me.

It is therefore surprising that in a seminar that I attended recently stretching two days with about six prominent speakers, I ended up learning most from the gambler among them, Mr Jeff Ma. Jeff is a well-known card counter and it is said that many casinos ban him from playing blackjack in their premises.

He said that people are generally averse to losses, they are not averse too winnings, which leads them to 'bias omission' or 'inactivity', ie. the decision not to make a decision. This must never be an option. That he learned when his mother had a stroke and the doctor that normally wouldn't do a brain surgery to old people. At that point, he knew that an 'inactive' decision (not to do anything) would normally mean that his mother will not live pass another sixty days. Against normal practice, they decided to get her to the operating table and the result is that his mum is still living and well today.

His method is data-driven and not based on gut-feeling.

He related to us how he lost $50,000 in one round of black-jack, even though his decision was data-driven. Then he went on to lose another $50,000, in yet another round of black-jack, in yet another data-driven decision. Dejected, he went to his room, slumbered on the floor, stared at the ceiling and contemplated quitting. Then curiously, after long thoughts, he decided not to quit and go back to the tables and subsequently won $100,000, and then later, another $70,000. 

He said that he won his rounds based on data-driven decisions and lost also based on data-driven decisions. In other words, the right decision made based on data, need not always end up with the desired outcomes. That said, we have to continue to make the right decisions although sometimes they don't come up with the desired outcomes. In other words, we must be able to separate right decisions from outcomes, and not be discouraged by the latter if they don't turn out desirable. So we must learn to embrace 'failures' and not be disheartened by them.

I think one of the reasons that I learn more from Jeff than the others is that he was purely sharing his experience and was not trying to sell me anything. In an act as if sarcastic of the other speakers, he did playfully asked the audience to take out their smart phone to go to Amazon to buy his book, "Bringing the House Down".

In group work, he said that there must be trust, transparency and communications. Of which he told us that they use code words to get around other people knowing what they are communicating to each other. For instance, the word 'paycheck' means something. So one of their team members would said out loud to the dealer, "Hey! You are taking away my paycheck!"

Yet another code word is "sweet" for "sixteen". And one of his team member is so happy whenever he utter the word "sweet", that in one time at the end of the game, he was paid some winnings, even though he had lost.

Finally, he related how he was sharing his experience in Silicon Valley among venture capitalists and other financiers, when suddenly, a billionaire VC who didn't seem to be listening and was busy with his Blackberry most of the time, said, "I don't believe you...". 
"What do you not believe?" Jeff asked.
"I don't believe you wanted to quit," he quipped.

Recounting the time he was lying down on his hotel room floor, despondent and starring at the ceiling, he said that, that billionaire was right, he never wanted to quit. And so he didn't quit. Had he quit, he wouldn't have gone back and won some money, had the book written, a movie made and his talking to us at the seminar.

Here are some clips:

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