Liv Boeree on Effective Altruism

We rejoin the PokerStars Pro and EPT Champion to discuss her work with REG Charity.

Liv Boeree of PokerStars
Liv Boeree

Prior to reading this you may want to check out the discussion we had with Liv on Artificial Intelligence, which is directly related to her work with REG Charity, which we discuss today.

Do you think charity work like the stuff you do with REG Charity can give poker player's a sense of purpose?

Liv Boeree: Well I don't know if it would help for everyone, but I know it helped me. Sounds cliched, but I've simply found life more interesting since I started learning about this stuff, and more satisfying since I made the decision to use my brain for something I know helps others. Of course, it can also be very depressing and frustrating, especially when you come up against the classic anti-charity statements like “oh all charities suck” (they don't, some are >100x better than others) or “poker money shouldn't be used to do good” (ask the mother watching her child dying from Malaria if she cares).

Do you think it is a much better use of your time to play poker to raise money for charity, than it would be to do traditional volunteer work?

Liv Boeree: It entirely depends on your win-rate and your effectiveness as a volunteer. As a poker player, your time equates to money. So if you've made the decision to support a cause (hopefully a highly effective one), then you have to calculate whether your volunteered hours saves the charity more money than the money you could earn and donate to them during that same time period. You also have to consider your replaceability – if what you are doing can be done as well (or better) by someone else, then your added value is probably still better from the donating-poker-earnings route.

"Charity is not zero sum"

Liv Boeree of PokerStars
"You can do a good deed and feel good too"

Some people think we should be modest about what we do for charity, but I think encouraging others to do donate because it makes them feel good encourages more donations, do you agree?

Liv Boeree: Yes – it's many people make the wrong assumption that doing charity/a good deed should be a zero-sum thing – that you have to suffer in some way in order for others to benefit. If you can do a good deed that helps others, why shouldn't you feel good about it in some way too? Is there some written law of the universe that says you can only be doing good if you also don't get something out of it? Of course not.

As you said, the main reason however to be open about charity work is because it's one of the best ways to encourage others to do the same. Right now you can literally save someone's for every ~$3300 if you donate to the most cost-effective charity (Against Malaria Foundation). So if I donate $3300 to them, but then never tell a soul about it, I've saved one life and that's great. But if I donate and I also inspire five other people to do the same thing as me because I've told them about it, I've indirectly saved an additional five lives.

Modesty is a good rule of thumb to live by in many parts of life, especially when related to personal achievements and money... but charity is a rare occasion where too much of it is often counter-productive.

My only real concern with effective altruism is it puts one charity ahead of another. Do you think its right to put charities in a hierarchy like this?

Liv Boeree: Ideally, we would have unlimited resources (time and money), and we could throw everything we need to fix all the world's problems. But because time and money are scarce, and the problems the world is facing are so diverse in both severity and magnitude, it's absolutely essential we order problems in order of importance, and work on them in that order.

Think of a triage nurse in a hospital. Because the hospital only has a limited number of doctors and facilities available, the nurse has to constantly make the very difficult decision of who gets treated first. How stupid would it be if the nurse was to say “sorry but it's not fair to say that any patient's problem is more urgent or worse than another's – all problems are the same!”?

If you followed that logic, someone who has a mild wound should get treated in exactly the same amount of time as someone who is imminently about to die from a gunshot. That would unfair and insane.

The same thing applies to the wider world – if we randomly insist that all problems are equally bad, or refuse to acknowledge the fact that many charities achieve measurably less good results than others, we'd be misusing our resources. And that's what effective altruism is about – it's triaging the world's problems so that the biggest and worst ones get the most attention as a priority. This thinking should apply to governments, societies and for individuals, and yet in so many cases it really doesn't, and that's a shame.

When deciding where to do donate, we have to remember that whenever we choose to give to one charity, we are also choosing NOT to give to another one, so it's crucial to give to where we expect money will have the biggest positive impact for as many people as possible.

"Charities should be as scientific as possible"

Liv Boeree playing poker
"Think rationally, not emotionally, about charity"

Do you think it is wrong to give to less effective charities that we personally care more about (For example, I give to dog shelters)?

No it does not make you a bad person, but it probably means you are being a suboptimal with your decision making. How much one weighs an animal's suffering vs a human's is a very subjective question, and there's no hard answer for it. However if you decide you would rather help animals, then the duty to maximising your donation's impact still applies.

Like everything else, animal charities can vary hugely in effectiveness – a local dog shelter might be able to save one or two animal lives for $1000. The best anti-factory farming charities will save many thousands of animals from a life of misery for the same $1000. Don't make the mistake of valuing one species over another just because they're cuter – pigs, for example, who have it pretty much the worst on the whole planet right now, are more intelligent than again, if you want to help animal suffering, make sure you help the MOST animals with your donation.

How do we make the less effective charities more effective?

Liv Boeree: Hmm, well if I was to advise a charity on how to improve itself, I'd recommend it approaches things as scientifically as possible– it should test out different methods to see which produce the best results for whatever it's trying to achieve. It should quantify everything it does as much as possible, it should be transparent with how its resources are allocated, and the results it produces. Most importantly, a charity should be prepared to update and change its methodology if it turns out there's a better way to achieve its goal.

What have been your biggest wins so far for REG charity?

Liv Boeree: I guess the best thing has simply been the donation amounts themselves – so many people have been so generous and supportive of what we're trying to do. I can't name them all, but the biggest were Martin Jacobson, when he donated 5% of his WSOP main event winnings, and the DFS playing Crowley brothers who are big supporters of effective altruism and donate a lot via REG each year.

The biggest “win” aside from the whole raising money thing is the fact that more people are now starting to get what effective altruism is all about. It's making people think more rationally and less emotionally about the topic of charity, which is essential if we actually want to make the world the best place it can be.

Have you ever combined your love of poker with charity? Let us know in the comments:

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Comments (3)

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  • MyFloXyBabY


    Effective altruism... if it's about wasting money on false problems like the raising of an evil IA I'm sorry but I'm not convinced xD
  • adelaar


    I agree with Liv that it is effective to spend a donation for a better life for the animals that suffer in animal-factories.
    As she says, pigs are intelligent animals and they are treated very cruelly. This must stop.
  • arthurbentley


    There should be no need for charity.

    Liv, despite her Cambridge education, seems clueless on the cause of poverty. I suggest instead of advocating a sticking plaster strategy which is what charity effectively is, and learn about the Fractional Reserve System, and why all nations, in order to trade with other nations, must first allow central banks to control their money supply.