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My Friend Sancho

My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.

To buy it online from the US, click here.

I am currently on a book tour to promote the book. Please check out our schedule of city launches. India Uncut readers are invited to all of them, no pass required, so do drop in and say hello.

If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho

Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.

And ah, my posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.

Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Essays and Op-Eds

Adityanath’s rise marks the end of a 100-year-old battle

This is the second installment of The Rationalist, my column for the Times of India.

There comes a moment in some lives when a sudden, unexpected event makes you look at the world with greater clarity than before. It could be a happy moment: a childhood friend proposes to you, or you stumble into parenthood. It could be a sad one: you are diagnosed with cancer and told you have six months to live. It makes you look at the world differently, and some things seem so clear that you wonder why you did not notice them before.

In the life of our nation, the rise of Yogi Adityanath to the chief ministership of Uttar Pradesh might well be one such unexpected yet clarifying moment. I was stunned when it was announced; and yet, it makes so much sense that any counterfactual now seems absurd. It was, I have come to believe, a decisive and inevitable event in a conflict that has been simmering in India for at least a century.

The great battle that took place on our peninsula was not between the natives and our colonial overlords, but between a new way of thinking and an old way of existing. While the Enlightenment swept its way across Europe and the USA in the 18th century, its influence was felt in India only in the 19th. Liberalism, however one tries to spin it, was an import from the west, and it is ironic that many of our finest freedom fighters were influenced by British thinkers. The great early figures of our resistance – heroes of mine such as Naoroji, Ranade, Agarkar and Gokhale – were essentially British liberals.

Until Mahatma Gandhi, the freedom struggle was a battle between the British empire on one hand, and Indian elites inspired by Western ideas on the other. Gandhi did catalyse it into a mass movement, but his intellectual influences weren’t Indian either. He was more influenced by Ruskin and Tolstoy than any Indian thinker, and VS Naipaul once called him “the least Indian of Indian leaders.” By the time the British finally quit India, the liberalism of the Gokhale years had been replaced by the soft socialism that was then in vogue. Do note that both these strains, the early classical liberalism and the socialism that is so antithetical to it, were Western imports.

The constitution, intended as an operating manual for this new nation, reflected this. The commentator Nitin Pai, in an essay in Pragati, a magazine I edit, wrote: “On 26th January 1950, the Enlightenment […] was injected into the veins of Indian society in the form of a written statute. We are still dealing with the shock of that moment.”

‘Into the veins of Indian society.’ It is worth reflecting here that the state and society are two different beasts. This difference is a cornerstone of conservatism, which the Encyclopaedia Britannica defines as a “political doctrine that emphasizes the value of traditional institutions and practices.” Who were the Indian conservatives who would lead the fightback of society against the state?

The biggest manifestation of conservatism in India is what we call the Hindutva right. I used to be sceptical of it, as I consider ‘Hindutva’ to be an artificial construct, an insulting caricature of a great inclusive religion. But even if that is so, Hindutva is authentically conservative because it arises out of a nativism that is inherent in human nature – and consequently, rooted in our culture. (Culture can both mitigate and reinforce human nature, which is the whole struggle right there.)

Early Indian conservatives were more interested in social rather than political battles, which is why they didn’t play much of a role in the freedom movement. After Independence, the Nehruvian big state seemed to have subdued the Hindutva social project – but this was temporary. The journalist Rishi Majumder, who is writing a biography of the conservative leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee, describes in a forthcoming essay in Pragati how “the RSS, as well as other right-wing groups, organizations and movements, have thrived and grown through many years when the BJP was not in power.”

Much modern politics is the battle between these competing visions of the state. Should the state be a superstructure that imposes certain values, decided upon by elites, upon society? Or should it be a servant to society, protecting its traditions without judging them from the prism of other value systems?

Narendra Modi’s rise to power was fascinating because he embodied the hopes of people on both sides of that spectrum. Some classical liberals dismayed by Nehruvian socialism backed him because they saw the damage Nehru’s ideas had done to India, and wanted their values imposed from above. And the whole Hindutva movement, obviously, fell in behind Modi because his ascent was the culmination of their century-long struggle.

These two strands are incompatible. And now, with the rise of Yogi Adityanath, there is no more ambiguity.

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 March, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | News | Politics | The Rationalist

Embrace the Technology!

This is the 36th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

At the very moment you read this, there is a Test match going on and two batsmen consulting out in the middle about whether they should use the DRS.

“Was I really lbw? Should I refer? Do you think it was missing?”

“I don’t know. But whatever you do, don’t look at the pavilion. Control your neck. Control it. Hold it if you have to. Here, I’ll hold it for you. Control!”


The big cricket story of last week, somehow, was not India’s excellent comeback in the Test series against Australia, but the DRS controversy. Batsmen are not supposed to look at the pavilion for advice when deciding whether or not to go for a decision review. Those are the rules, Steve Smith broke the rule, and it was fair enough that he was asked to leave the field of play. But the rules themselves are ridiculous.

I’ve been ranting about this for years, and still these people don’t learn. You would think no one reads me. Gah. Anyway, because I care about you, here, once again, are my thoughts on technology in cricket. And in life, which, by the way, is futile. (I don’t shy away from the big questions.)

First up, a question: why do umpires exist in cricket? After all, cricket is about batsmen batting, bowlers bowling and fielders fielding. No one goes to a ground to watch an umpire umpire. Well, umpires exist purely as a means to an end. They have to take decisions about whether a batsman is out or not, and lubricate the action in the game by communicating to scorers exactly what is going on. A secondary function is to step in if there is physical conflict, and to maintain decorum. Their job is not to be the action, but to keep the action flowing smoothly.

In other words, umpires are a technology.

Think of anything that is a means to an end as a technology. Umpires are a conventional technology for arriving at the right decisions on a cricket field. Now, the last couple of decades have seen rapid upgradations to pretty much every other technology there is. And so it is in the case of cricket. The decision-making mechanisms in cricket have been enhanced with new technologies meant to supplement (and not replace) the umpires.

The most significant of these is Hawk-Eye. Umpires, being human (as of now), are prone to all kinds of optical illusions, such as the parallax error, which impede their decision-making ability. Hawk-Eye, in every respect, makes better decisions than an umpire can. (And it makes them in real time – the time-consuming replays you see you on TV are only for the benefit of viewers.) But for the longest time, luddites fought the use of Hawkeye in decision-making, which led to the ridiculous situation that everyone watching a game had accurate information about whether a batsman was out or not – except the bloody umpire. It was ridiculous.

Cricket authorities have since become more open to the use of technology, but not enough. They almost seem to use it grudgingly. Consider DRS, for example. If the idea of the technology called umpires is to make correct decisions, and there is more technology that will lead to even better decisions, then why don’t we use it as much as possible? Why should DRS appeals be limited for a batting side? Why should every dismissal not be reviewed as a matter of course? Reviewing a dismissal would not take more time than a batsman walking back to the pavilion, so this should be a no-brainer.

Steve Smith wouldn’t be so embarrassed then, eh?

But really, the larger issue here is that the world is changing rapidly, and our minds are not adjusting fast enough. It’s not just cricket. As a species, we don’t have enough clarity about means and ends. For example, just as umpires are a technology for making correct decisions on a cricket field, consider that animals are a technology for growing food. And now that scientists have figured out a way to grow meat in labs without sentient animals being involved, they may soon be an outdated technology, at least for this use case. That might lead to goats going extinct. (Not puppies, though, because puppies can be hugged.)

Equally, hugs are a technology for oxytocin generation. Romance is a technology for the way it makes us feel and the chemicals it releases. If we could pop a pill and feel the same way, would we bother to fall in love, or hug or cuddle or caress, or even woo? Are we so arrogant enough to believe that the love we feel for anyone is truly transcendent, and not mere technology? And also, is humanity any loftier than just a carrier for the trillions of bacteria that inhabit us? What suckers we are, that we behave as if we’re the rulers of the universe?

Okay, excuse the digression, your life has meaning. Happy now? Get back to watching the cricket, but do think about how it makes you feel, and the purpose of it all.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 March, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Science and Technology | Sport

It Is Anti-National To Be Against Free Speech

This piece was published (under a different headline) in the Sunday Times of India today. It marks the start of a column for them called The Rationalist.

The other day, an internet troll sent me a love letter. “Why have you blocked me on Twitter?” he demanded to know. “You claim to believe in the freedom of expression. You are a hypocrite.” After that he said a few colourful things about my family. I think he wanted me to copulate with them.

I am an absolutist when it comes to free speech, and this friendly troll was wrong. Indeed, I find that there is no concept as deeply misunderstood today as the right to free speech. These misunderstandings exist on all sides of the political spectrum. Thus, I find myself duty-bound to write this brief primer on the philosophical origins of free speech, to illustrate what I understand it to be.

The earliest conception of individual rights came from the 17th century Enlightenment philosopher, John Locke. Locke held that the most fundamental right of all, the one from which all others emerged, was the right to self-ownership. After all, it is practically self-evident and beyond argument that, right from birth, all of us own ourselves.

All individual rights arise out of this right to self-ownership. The right to life. The right to our thoughts, and thus to our speech. The right to our actions, which also results in the right to property. And so on. Freedom, another misunderstood term, means a condition in which these rights are not infringed.

All of our rights are contingent to our respecting the corresponding rights (and thus, freedom) of others. My fist stops where your nose begins, as that old saying goes. Libertarians also call this the non-aggression principle, where aggression is defined as infringing someone’s rights. You may do anything as long as there is no coercion involved.

By this reckoning, all voluntary interactions between consenting adults are kosher, as long as they do not infringe on anyone else’s rights. This holds true, as I often point out, whether those interactions happen in the marketplace or in the bedroom. Both the left and the right are thus incoherent when they support one kind of voluntary exchange but not the other.

In accordance with the non-aggression principle, the core question I ask myself in any situation is: Where is the coercion? Looked at this way, many of the questions that keep getting raised about free speech answer themselves. Am I infringing on the rights of the troll I block? No, because there is no coercion involved. He is still free to say whatever he wants, but he is not entitled to my time and attention. Is a college within its rights to withdraw an invitation to a speaker? Yes, it’s their property, and the speaker can still express himself elsewhere.

If people have a right to free speech, though, it doesn’t mean that all free speech is right. Virender Sehwag had a right to mock Gurmehar Kaur for her courageous video earlier this week, just as I have a right to find his mockery tasteless, and my friendly troll has a right to call me names for it. We all have a right to be wrong, including the trolls who try to have a chilling effect on free speech with their constant abuse. The truth is, only the government can shut down free speech, and even trolls have a right to abuse. (Do note that Twitter would also be within its rights to ban trolls, who are using their property after agreeing to certain terms of use.)

When it comes to our actions, there is much that we can do that can harm others. But it is very hard to breach the non-aggression principle with words alone. As that old adage goes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” Recognising this, the first amendment of the US constitution protects free speech in absolute terms. Obviously, words can be used to incite physical violence, and that is a reasonable limit of free speech. The US Supreme Court, in a famous case (Brandeburg vs Ohio, 1969) set the standard as “imminent lawless action.”

The Indian constitution, sadly, does not protect free speech. Article 19(2) lays out caveats such as “public order” and “decency and morality”, which are open to misinterpretation and, thus, misuse. This is a pity, but our democracy is a work in progress, and is made healthier by a free exchange of ideas.

For that reason, I was alarmed when I read Arun Jaitley’s quote last week about free speech being “subordinate to the needs of the sovereign state”. That is the wrong way around, and I would argue that a healthy nation needs an open exchange of ideas, for which free speech is indispensable. That is why, if I were asked to compare Arun Jaitley and Umar Khalid, I would say that it is Jaitley who is anti-national, and a threat to our great republic.

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 March, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | The Rationalist

The Baptist, the Bootlegger and the Dead Man Walking

This is the 35th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Appearances can be deceptive. I saw two Bollywood films recently that evoked different reactions in me. One was supposed to be gritty, realistic and well-researched, but actually showed completely ignorance of the world it was set in. Another had a small story at the start of it that seemed outlandish, the product of an imagination gone wild, but was spot on. Sometimes the most obvious truth can be a falsehood; and the most surreal story can be true.

Let’s start with the believable story. Shah Rukh Khan plays a bootlegging gangster in Raees, a film directed by Rahul Dholakia, who had made the acclaimed Parzania ten years ago. Raees looks real, and some reviews called it well-researched, but this is a façade. The writers seem to have no actual knowledge of the criminal underworld and the political economy in Gujarat. While the film is full of implausible events, one particular arc gives it away.

You would imagine that a man who sells alcohol would be the enemy of the man who wants alcohol to be banned. So when a sanctimonious politician plans to carry out a Darubandi Yatra (pro-prohibition march) through Gujarat, Raees Alam, our hero bootlegger, warns him not to bring it through his area. He fears it will affect his business. This seems intuitive and natural. These men are working at cross-purposes, right?

Well, in the real world, these men are allies. Prohibition is the greatest boon to a bootlegger. It is the main reason he exists. And a politician who supports prohibition should be his greatest ally. He should support him to the point of funding him, and even share his profits with him. This is best illustrated, in economics, by the concept of Bootleggers and Baptists.

The regulatory economist Bruce Yandle first coined the phrase ‘Bootleggers and Baptists’. It describes how regulations evolve, and how the different interest groups that benefit from them become unlikely allies. For example, take a Baptist who preaches that alcohol is evil, and makes sure it is banned. Where there is demand, supply will spring up, so enter the Bootlegger.

Bootleggers and Baptists share a symbiotic relationship. In Yandle’s words, “Baptists flourish when their moral message forms a visible foundation for political action. […] Bootleggers, who expect to profit from the very regulatory restrictions desired by Baptists, grease the political machinery with some of their expected proceeds.” In other words, not only are their incentives aligned, they might sometimes be overtly hand-in-glove as well, with the Bootlegger funding the Baptist.

Look at the regulation around you, and you will see Bootleggers and Baptists everywhere. Every government regulation on free markets benefits a specific interest group at the expense of the common people. These interest groups then funnel some of their gains back into politics, in the form of donations to the very politicians who create, perpetuate and expand these regulations. It is a vicious cycle in which the common man gets shafted.

Let’s move on, now, to a better movie. Akshay Kumar’s entertaining Jolly LLB 2 gets a few details wrong about the legal system, but the most outrageous story in the film is actually true. Jolly LLB, played with impeccable comic timing by Kumar, takes on a case at the start of the film on behalf of a man who’s been declared dead by his family so that they can take his property. All government papers say he’s dead, and the judge refuses to believe that he is alive. He needs proof that he exists, and he eventually gets it by throwing a shoe at the judge. (This scene was censored, so you won’t actually see it, just the commotion afterwards.) The cops have to record his name as they arrest him, and boom, that becomes the proof that he’s looking for.

Surreal, eh? You haven’t heard the half of it. This story is actually all a true story – and if anything, understates it. Its inspiration is surely a gentleman named Lal Bihari, a farmer from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. Lal Bihari was born in 1951 – and was told by a government officer in 1976 that he was dead, and that his land now belonged to his cousins. “But I am here before you,” he said, as reported in Open magazine. ““You know me. I have met you before.” But nothing doing, he had no proof that he was alive.

That’s only where the story begins. Lal Bihari renamed himself Lal Bihari Mritak (dead man), and went about proving himself alive. To do this, he organised his own funeral (Munnabhai style), applied for compensation for his ‘widow’, threw stones at a police station so that he would get arrested and his existence would be recorded, kidnapped his cousin, and finally, stood for election.

He took on VP Singh from Allahabad in 1988 and Rajiv Gandhi from Amethi in 1989, but dead men don’t win elections, and he didn’t either. By this time, he found that there were many others in the ranks of the walking dead, and founded the Uttar Pradesh Mritak Sangh, an association of legally dead people. At last count, they had 20,000 members, of whom four had managed to come back to life. One of them was Lal Bihari. From 1994 he was no longer Mritak, and when he really dies, I bet the authorities will be, like, been there done that.

You can’t make this shit up, right? Bollywood filmmakers should learn this lesson from Jolly LLB and Lal Bihari Mritak: real life has all the great stories you need. Just dig into that.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 February, 2017 in Arts and entertainment | Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics

Why Both Modi and Trump are Textbook Populists

This is a guest column published today in the Sunday Times of India edit page.

As Donald Trump raised his tiny paw and took the presidential oath this Friday, I had just finished reading an outstanding book that, I thought, explained Trump as well as many other leaders on the world stage today. In ‘What is Populism?’ Jan-Werner Müller, a Princeton professor, lays out all the ingredients from which you can cook up a populist movement. I was struck by how closely our own prime minister, Narendra Modi, matched Müller’s definition. Consider the following characteristics that characterise populists, as defined by Müller.

One, they claim that not only do they represent the people, but that whoever does not support them is, by definition, not part of ‘the people’. Müller says this is “the core claim of populism: only some of the people are really the people.” As Trump put it in May last year, “the only important thing is the unification of the people— because the other people don’t mean anything.” Think of how the BJP treats Muslims and Dalits as second-class citizens.

Two, populists are not just anti-pluralism, but they’re also anti-elite. Müller writes, “Populists pit the pure, innocent, always hardworking people against a corrupt elite who do not really work (…) and, in right-wing populism, also against the very bottom of society.” Think of Modi’s railings against the “Lutyens elite” as an example.

Three, they portray themselves as victims even when they are in power. As Müller puts it, “majorities act like mistreated minorities.” Modi still rants against the elite even though he is now their leader, and paid BPJ trolls still call journalists ‘presstitutes’ even though they control much of the media. Trump, who has been a crony capitalist insider all his life, is a classic example of a pig calling the pigsty dirty.

Four, populist parties tend to become monolithic, “with the rank-and-file clearly subordinated to a single leader.” Trump decimated the Republican Party on the way up, just as Modi is now the Supreme Leader within the BJP, which once had multiple leaders of stature.

Five, populists pride themselves on their “proximity to the people.” Modi being a ‘chaiwalla’ is a key part of his narrative, and as that famous photoshopped picture of him sweeping a floor shows, the common-man element is important to him. As it is, indeed, to other populists. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez both hosted shows similar to Modi’s Mann Ki Baat.

Six, populism is simplistic, so populists can only think in simplistic terms, which leads to “an oversimplification of policy challenges.” Modi’s Demonetisation is an example of this, as is Trump’s attribution of America’s job losses to immigration and outsourcing.

Seven, they populists tend to believe in conspiracy theories, which “are rooted in and emerge from the very logic of populism itself.” Indeed, the RSS’s view of history is itself a sort of giant conspiracy theory.

How do populists behave once in power? Müller outlines three things that they tend to do.

One, they “colonize or occupy the state”. They fill up all the institutions with their own people, co-opt those that are independent, and reshape the system to their will. Think of Modi’s appointment of incompetent cronies to the Censor Board and FTII, the replacement of the Planning Commission with Niti Aayog, and the recent virtual demotion of the RBI to an arm of the finance ministry.

Two, they “engage in mass clientelism: the exchange of material and immaterial favors by elites for mass political support.” Think of the sops Modi offered before the Bihar elections, or the ones expected in the next couple of budgets leading up to important elections.

Three, they shut down dissent in civil society, starting with NGOs. Müller writes, “rulers like Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and PiS in Poland have gone out of their way to try to discredit NGOs as being controlled by outside powers (and declare them ‘foreign agents’).” Sounds familiar?

Modi fits Müller’s populist template so precisely that he seems like a bot generated by a populism machine, and not an actual person. It made me wonder: if a near-identical form of populism persists through vast stretches of time and geography, does it then reflect something innate in human nature?

I’ll leave you with a pleasant thought, though. Here’s why I think both Modi’s and Trump’s populism will ultimately fail. The narratives of populism, based on some of the people being all of the people, only work in broadly homogenous societies. The USA will be a minority-majority country by the middle of the century (ie, whites will be less than 50% of the population), and a Trump won’t be possible then. As for India, our diversity is our greatest defence against creeping fascism. Populism might work at the state level, but nationally, we are too diverse. That puts a ceiling on how much support Modi can get, which I believe already peaked in 2014, when he could be all things to all people. I think he already senses this. How will he respond?

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 January, 2017 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics

Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the most macho of them all?

This is the 34th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

This is the script of a musical play starring Arnab Goswami and a few eminent world leaders. At the start of the play, Arnab is at the front of stage, while Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi stand behind. There’s also a chorus of 30 cows, spread out among the audience.

Arnab: Hello and welcome! I’m Arnab the magician. It’s time now for an awesome competition. The strong men of the world are here, all set to go. Who’s the most macho of them all, the nation wants to know.

30 cows: The nation wants to know! The nation wants to know!

Arnab: There will be all-out attack, and no surrender. Please welcome, from the US, our first contender.

Donald Trump strides out on the stage.

Trump: My name is Donald Trump, I name buildings for a living. If you troll me on Twitter, I’m most unforgiving. I love India, mitron, and cricket most of all – especially Rahul Dravid, because he’s such a wall. I eat Mexicans for breakfast, and Moslem Men for lunch. When it comes to immigrants, oh boy, I pack a punch. My ego is so yuge, the biggest in my class. Oh, before I forget, I’m gonna kick China’s ass.

Vladimir Putin now walks on.

Putin: My friend Donald, poor guy, he never understands that no macho man can ever have such tiny hands. While Donald’s been busy laying luxury resort foundations, I’ve been killing millions, and conquering nations. You must have seen that picture of me bareback on a horse. After the shoot was over, I ate it with no remorse. When my wife wanted a new purse, I wrestled a crocodile. In front of me, with good reason, Donald is servile. He’s a little man, with little hands, and a little something in his pants. I’ve been saying it all along, you can’t be macho with a little dong!

30 cows: A little dong! A little dong!

Trump: My hands are small, you see, only to compensate. It’s because the size of my dong is very very great. I have even appeared in a movie made by Playboy. I’ve always been the biggest bully with the biggest toy!

Arnab: Stop this nonsense, change the subject, I’m feeling nauseated. I’m a middle-aged Bong with a tiny dong, and my ego is deflated. That’s why I’m always so aggro, it’s a kind of compensation. But the TRPs are great, and hey, I do it for the nation. Anyway, Mr Putin, you cannot win this way. Is there perhaps something else that you would like to say?

Putin: I’m more macho than this fool Trump, that’s all I have to say. After all, for many years, the man’s been in my pay. I now rule two countries, I am such a stud. If you mess with me, my friend, I will drink your blood.

30 Cows: Drink your blood! Drink your blood!

Arnab: Mr Putin, I am impressed, you meet all the criteria. Now tell me something, did Netaji really die in Siberia? Or maybe, oh my goodness, could he still be alive? Anyway, you win the trophy, c’mon, gimme five.

Modi strides forward.

Modi: Wait a minute, Arnab, what’s the freakin’ hurry? I’ll give you a tight tamacha, your vision will be blurry. This Russian fool, he think he’s cool, well, here’s the truth that pinches: See my chest, it is the best, all of 56 inches!

30 cows: 56 inches! 56 inches!

Modi: Killing people, invading countries, all that’s so old school. (And oh, my friend, Donald, your hands are miniscule!) Massacres are child’s play, when you’re off your rocker. But can you reach into every pocket, and empty every locker? I’ve just pulled off a surgical strike against the poor of my nation. No more cash for them, unless they give the BJP a donation. We’re going cashless, I am matchless, Arnab, you silly clown: Give these men ghagra cholis, and give me the crown!

Arnab: Mr Modi, most impressive, but you’re still a pretender. Hold your horses, because you see, there is one more contender. Men, you see,  beneath their bluster, can be quite weak. But here comes a fine lady who never turns the other cheek.

Mamata Banerjee enters the stage, wearing a sash that says, ‘Most Macho Person.’

Mamata: Hello boys, I’m pleased to meet you, ridiculous wimps. You behave like such gorillas, but you’re really tiny chimps. You boast about how strong you are, and about your brains. You’d be bawling on the floor if you ever went through period pains. Mama’s here now, and she’s gonna whack your asses with her magic broom. So get up, get out, and when you get home, tidy up your room. Trump, Mr Macho, eat a nacho. Putin, so potent, you look like a rodent. Modi, have you realized that you will be demonetised. Mama’s here!

30 cows: Mama! Mama! Mama! Where is my Pajama? Mama Mama Mama!


Earlier: The Rise and Fall of Emperor Modi

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 December, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics

Three Reasons Why A Cashless Society Would Be A Disaster

This is a guest column published today in the Sunday Times of India edit page.

I am a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, but the man had some strange views. In Hind Swaraj, written shortly after he turned 40 in 1909, Gandhi tore into some of the symbols of the modern age. “Hospitals are institutions for propagating sin,” he wrote. “To study European medicine is to deepen our slavery.” He railed against the railways, saying “it is beyond dispute that they propagate evil.” He argued against lawyers, despite being one himself, saying they had “impoverished the country.” But here’s a thing to note: despite these personal views, he never once suggested that railways, hospitals and lawyers should be banned.

There is a notion being spread these days that is as absurd as the ideas above: it is the notion that there is something wrong with using cash, and that we should head towards being a cashless society.  This is nonsense. A cashless society would be a disaster for India. Here’s why.

One, a fully cashless society would mean the end of privacy. There would be a digital trail of every action you take through your purchases and transfers. If you buy AIDS medication or a porn magazine or book a hotel room for a romantic alliance, this information can be accessed by the government – or any hacker with the requisite skills – and used against you. India has no privacy laws, and data protection is also a big worry – every week we hear stories of some some big hacking or the other, from the Congress in India to the Democratic Party in the US.

Two, a fully cashless society could mean the end of dissent. The government can use any data it gathers against you. (Even if you commit no crime, there is much you may be embarrassed by.) What’s more, they could make any opponent a pauper with one keystroke, freezing your bank account while they investigate alleged misdeeds. Just the fact that they have this power could have a chilling effect on dissent. Those in government now may well salivate over this, but tables turn fast, and when they are in opposition, would they want their opponents to have such power over them?

Three, a fully cashless society endangers freedom. Cash is empowerment: ask the young wife who saves spare cash from her alcoholic husband; or the old mother who stuffs spare notes under her mattress for years because it gives her a sense of autonomy. Indeed, in a misogynist country like India, cashlessness would hit women the hardest.

It is a myth that an advanced society must necessarily be cashless. In Germany, a country which knows the perils of authoritarianism, more than 80% of transactions are in cash, as citizens safeguard their privacy and freedom. Even in the USA, 45% of transactions are in cash. Note that Germany and the USA actually have the banking and technological infrastructure to enable cashlessness. In India, 600 million people have no bank account, and less than 20% of all Indians have a smartphone. Internet penetration is iffy, as is power. (By ‘power’, I mean electricity, not the government’s control over you.) Trying to make India cashless is akin to putting a bullock cart in an F1 race, and whipping the driver because he’s too slow.

It is true that many technologies imperil our privacy, like any app we download on our phones, for example. But those actions are voluntary, and we can choose to avoid them. That is the crux of the matter. My objection here is not to cashlessness per se, but to the coercion implicit in the currency swap of November 8 and its aftermath. A cashless society would only be good if we evolve towards it, not if we are forced into it.

At the moment, the common Indian is wary, for good reason. Digital payments involve transaction costs, are unreliable because of infrastructure issues, and hey, who would trust an Indian bank after what the RBI just did? The beneficiaries of forced cashlessness are not consumers, but vested interests like banks and payment companies. Indeed, this might even be the largest redistribution of wealth from poor to rich in the history of humanity.

The BJP itself continues to take cash donations and shift goalposts. When the demonetisation was announced, they said it was meant to attack black money and counterfeit currency. Once it became apparent that those reasons were nonsense, the government tried to change the narrative into one about a cashless society. Within a fortnight of that, they are already backtracking and saying they meant ‘less cash’ when they said ‘cashless’. The truth is this: demonetisation was a humanitarian disaster that is crippling our economy, and no matter how many times Modi and gang try to rationalise it, it cannot be done. One day, these men will stop trying. When they cannot justify any more, they will distract.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 December, 2016 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics | Science and Technology

There Is Nothing As Unpatriotic In A Free Country As Coercion

This is a guest column published today in the Sunday Times of India edit page.

Last Tuesday, I went to watch ‘Dear Zindagi’ at a movie theatre near me. Before the film started, two old men came and sat in front of me. One was a short bald man with John Lennon glasses who looked like Ben Kingsley, and was wearing a hoodie over what appeared to be a dhoti. The other was a white-haired man with a flowing white beard and a flowing white robe. The bearded man nodded to me as he sat down, and then turned and said to his companion, “Mohan, I’m really looking forward to seeing Alia today. Such a good actress. Almost as if she was trained in Shantiniketan.”

“Yes, Robida,” said Mohan. “I can think of all kinds of non-violent acts she and I could do together.” Both men chuckled.

Just then, the national anthem started playing. I stood up, as did everyone else in the hall – except these two men.

It was the morning show and the hall was half empty, which I suppose was good, otherwise some macho self-righteous fool would have wanted to display his patriotism by asking these two men to stand up. But no one said anything. The anthem got over and the screen went blank. As I sat down, the bearded man turned around and caught my eye. I couldn’t help asking him, “Hey, I don’t mean to intrude, but why didn’t you guys stand for the anthem? Aren’t you proud of being Indian?”

Mohan turned around and gave me a kindly look through his Lennon glasses. “It was an act of civil disobedience,” he said. “And we were showing our love for this country, and our patriotism, by sitting.”

“I’m sorry?” I said. “The patriotic thing to do is to stand. We must honour our country.”

“And what does it mean to honour our country, young man? First of all, ask yourself, what is our country? Is India equal to the national anthem? Or the national flag? Or are there certain values that our country stands for that are more important than these symbols?”

I didn’t know what to say, so like any young person in these times, I said something random. “Freedom. We would never had the chance to stand for a national anthem before 1947. So I stand today to celebrate freedom.”

Mohan giggled, as if the gorgeous Alia had just landed up beside him in a slinky leotard and started tickling him. “Freedom! And how do you define freedom? We did not become a free country when the British left. Yes, we got political independence, but that isn’t freedom. Oh no, the freedom we fought for was the freedom of individuals to live their lives without oppression. Basically, to not be forced to do anything. The Supreme Court has made it compulsory to stand, which is why Robida and I kept sitting just now. There is nothing as unpatriotic in a free country as coercion.”

I gaped at him as he continued: “All we did in 1947 was replace a British empire with an Indian empire. We retained most of the laws in the archaic Indian Penal Code which the British had framed to subjugate us, including laws against free speech, homosexuality and even women’s rights. The state censors films, bans books, as if we are infants and not adults. I have a friend who started a university in British times without needing a license,” – he glanced at Robida – “and today, to start or run a business, we need to beg or bribe brown babus. Robida once told me that the British occupation of India was the ‘political symptom of our social disease’. That disease is now terminal.”

“What is that disease?” I asked.

Robida gave me a sad smile. “That disease is having the mentality of subjects. What does a democracy mean? It means that the people are the rulers, and the government is there to serve us. But our governments rule us instead of serving us, and we are happy to be ruled. If we are going to play ‘choose your ruler’, what is the point of being free?”

“Look around you,” said Mohan, “and think of all the different kinds of coercion in your life. These days, I am told, you even have to queue up to withdraw your own money. You are even being forced into a cashless society, which will be the end of freedom, for the government will control all your money and can shut you down anytime. That would have been such a wet dream for the British.”

“Ouch” said Robida, “here comes the part of the film I really hate.” The censor certificate flashed on the screen.

“Alia!” exclaimed Mohan, and turned around. The film began, and I lost myself in the anaesthetic comfort of everyday pleasures.


Also read these earlier pieces by me:

The Anthem and the Flag (April 26, 2007)
The Real Issue Regarding The National Anthem (November 30, 2015)
The Republic of Apathy (August 11, 2007)

Posted by Amit Varma on 04 December, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Politics

The Rise and Fall of Emperor Modi

This is the 33rd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

November 2017. This is an excerpt from a screenplay of a musical play performed recently at the Kala Natak Academy, inaugurated by the prime minister Shri LK Advani. It stars Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley and a chorus of 30 cows. While reading it, please sing it in your head with a grand dramatic voice.

[Silhouette of Narendra Modi sleeping on a bed. Loud snores emanate. At the foot of the bed, a minion sits. Loud footsteps are heard. Arun Jaitley enters the room.]

AJ: Modiji, Modiji!

Chorus of thirty cows: Modiji, Modiji!

Minion, thrusting his arms out towards Jaitley: Do not wake him, Do not shake him. He is sleeping, he spent all of last evening weeping, for this nation, the creation of a Hindu god in a Himalayan location. Do not wake him! Please forsake him!

AJ: He must be woken! My spirit is broken! Forget the nation, I’m out of ration. I have no cash. The supreme leader has obliterated my stash, it’s all trash. He could have let me know at least. Oh, the beast!

[There is a loud grunt, and Modi rises, and then gets out of bed. He is wearing only his Modi kurta.]

Modi:  Oh here you are, my little one. I am lohpurush, you’re a brittle one. As for your notes, why don’t you… write on them? As for your notes… a blight on them! You have been rather slow, lately. Don’t you see the plan, Jaitley? Like me, you must learn to see far. What happened to my churidar?

30 Cows: Churidar! Churidar!

[Minion scurries off to fetch churidar.]

AJ: You say you want to attack black money. Are you being funny? This won’t hurt black money, truth be told. Hoarders keep their wealth in real estate and gold. In benaami investments and banks that are offshore. Why did you let go of the panama chors? The IT department found only 6 percent of black money is held in cash. So stop talking trash.

30 cows: Talking trash! Talking trash!

[A minion brings a churidar. Two burly bearded bare-chested men wearing harem pants appear and lift Modi by the armpits as he tries to peel on his churidar. Jaitley continues:]

AJ: More than 90% of the cash out there is white! Those who have earned it feel it is their right. Their right to spend as they please, to save as they please. It’s their money, not yours to seize! 600 million people have no bank accounts! 300 million have no ID, and this is tantamount to theft from the poor, into the pockets of the rich. A reverse Robin Hood displaying a kleptomanic itch.

[Modi has put on his churidar, and the burly bearded bare-chested men in harem pants disappear under the bed. Modi is tying the naada of the churidar. Jaitley continues:]

AJ: Modiji, I have to tell you, this will cost you votes. As much as 86% of the money in use was 500 and 1000 notes. Cash was used in more than 90% of all transactions. This has set off a series of destructive chain reactions. Farmers are screwed, workers are screwed, small businesses are shutting down. A recession is a best-case outcome, the worst is a meltdown. And after all this, you accuse me of not looking far. Modiji, how long does it take you to wear your churidar?

30 Cows: Churidar! Churidar!

Modi: Jaitley, you must understand, my churidar is tight. And you’ve missed the point completely, clearly you’re not bright. The poor do not matter: Let their blood splatter, let the economy shatter, ignore the presstitute chatter. I am the ruler of this nation, this is my domain, with a treasury to fill, an army of bhakts to maintain. This move is genius, such a lovely redistribution. The people’s wealth is now the government’s, a perfect solution. I don’t really care about a little collateral damage. If there are riots, well I’m sure, the army will manage. Besides, my PR is quite superlative. I happen to have complete control of the narrative!

30 Cows: Narrative! Narrative!

AJ: Modiji, you must remember, India is democratic. Right now the BJP feels much like the Titanic. We’re sinking sinking sinking! What on earth were you thinking? Optics has its limits, and no matter what you call it, the narrative won’t work when you hit people on their wallet. It’s clear that all this power has gone to your head. If we don’t get rid of you, this party will be dead!

[Rajnath and Sushma walk in, holding a chair on which Advani is sitting.]

Modi: What do you mean? What is this crap? I am the Supreme Leader. I’ll declare an Emergency, and put you all in a feeder. Forget the aam junta, they are all kambakhts. I’ll drown out their voices through my sweatshop of trolling bhakts. The people are an instrument, a way to feed my pride. I don’t give a damn how many poor folks have died.

Sushma: And that is why, Modiji, you have got to leave. Politicians should serve the people, not rule them till they grieve. You made a big mistake demonetising those notes. Now we have to dethrone you to somehow save our votes.

[The burly bearded bare-chested men in harem pants emerge from under the bed, put a bag around Modi’s head that says ‘Garbage Disposal’ and carry him off. Rajnath and Sushma lower the chair, and Jaitley helps Advani on to the bed.]

Advani: I’m so glad to be on top, this is my rightful place. Because of that fool Modi, I am now a moderate face! I saved his ass once, and that led to my downfall. The moral of the story: The higher you rise, the harder you fall.

30 Cows: Moo! Moo!


My other pieces on this subject:

Narendra Modi takes a Great Leap Backwards

Modi Goes to Daulatabad

The Humanitarian Cost Trumps Any Economic Argument

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 November, 2016 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

Narendra Modi takes a Great Leap Backwards

This is a guest column published today in the Sunday Times of India edit page.

In 1958, Chairman Mao ordered that that all sparrows over China should be put to death. It was hailed as a necessary step by a strong leader. Farmers were suffering because sparrows tended to eat their grain seeds. For the good of the nation, they had to be protected. Thus began The Great Sparrow Campaign. A countless number of sparrows were indeed wiped out—but there were unintended consequences.

Sparrows ate locusts, and once the balance in the ecosystem changed, locusts proliferated and destroyed China’s crops. There was famine, hunger, starvation: no less than 45 million people died in the three years following Mao’s orders. At the start, Mao exhorted them to bear with the inconvenience. But then the pain piled up.

Mao’s infamous Great Leap Forward included plenty of edicts besides the death warrant to sparrows. They all stemmed from the delusion that the leader of a country, as if he was God, could redesign an entire society to conform to a master plan. The 20th century is full of cautionary tales that warn against such delusion, such as the communism of Mao and Stalin, and the fascism of Hitler. Yet, we do not learn.

Narendra Modi’s demonetisation of old 1000 and 500 rupee notes is one such monstrous folly. It is a blunder in every imaginable way. It doesn’t achieve its intended purpose. And its unintended consequences could devastate the lives of the poor, and cripple our economy.

Modi claims that this move is an attack against black money and corruption. This is not true, and here are four reasons why. One, as per a recent estimate, only 6% of black money is kept in the form of cash. Two, new 2000 and 500 rupee notes are on the way, and a black market for conversion from old to new is already thriving. Three, as various economists have pointed out, this attacks the stock and not the flow of black money. To strike at black money and corruption, you need to strike at their root causes.

Corruption and black money are a consequence of big government, of one set of individuals having discretionary powers over the actions of others. If Modi was serious about tackling black money, he’d bring about institutional changes that would take us towards the minimum government he had promised in his 2014 campaign. Instead, government keeps getting bigger, controlling more and more of our lives. More government = more corruption.

The fourth and most compelling reason is this: these aren’t really high-denomination notes. Modi has probably not bought anything from a store in 15 years, so he imagines that the poor do not use these notes. Well, consider that the last time a demonetisation took place in 1978, a 1000 rupee note, in terms of purchasing power, could buy goods worth Rs 12,000 today. Rich people did hoard their black money with it, but the poor did not use them. (The move failed nevertheless.)

A Rs 500 note today, by contrast, is the equivalent of a Rs 50 note in 1978. These notes constitute 85% of the money in circulation, as opposed to 0.6 in 1978. Over 90% of the transactions in India are cash transactions, and more than 90% of the cash in India is not black money. This is everyday currency.

This is why the consequences of Modi’s move are so severe. According to an RBI note from March this year—and contrary to the government’s PR—only 53% of Indians have bank accounts. How do you think the other 600 million store their savings? Over 300 million people have no government ID, and there are crores of people stuck without a way to convert their hard-earned cash. Even if they did have accounts, there are reports that the government will take six months to print enough replacement notes. Every day the death toll goes up, but rural suffering and anger cannot be captured by bare numbers.

Apart from all the individual suffering, our economy is being eviscerated. Cash is integral to most of the economy. Farmers are being unable to sell perishable produce, to buy grains for the new harvest or to pay labourers. Transporters are unable to transport goods across distances. Commerce has shut down in many places, with small businesses going bust. In some places, the barter system is back, as if we’ve gone centuries back in time.

This is not an issue of implementation. Even if implementation was perfect, this would be a historic blunder because social engineering never works, and carries moral costs because of its unintended consequences. When people have to queue up to withdraw their own money, on which limits are placed, it is an attack on property rights that is more out of the Communist handbook than any right-wing philosophy. Indeed, Burkean conservatives and Hayekian libertarians alike would be aghast at Modi’s actions, as he propels India towards the Soviet Union so admired by Nehru, with its state oppression, artificial shortages and infamous queues. But Chairman Mao would approve.


Also read:

1. My earlier piece on the subject, ‘Modi Goes to Daulatabad’.

2. Devangshu Datta’s piece in Scroll providing some useful facts and figures, ‘In one stroke, demonetisation has shaken the trust our monetary system is based on’.

3. Ajay Shah’s lucid analysis in Business Standard: ‘A monetary economics view of the de-monetisation’.

4. Swaminathan Aiyar in Times of India: ‘Why small finance faces a big wipeout’.

5. Salil Tripathi in Mint: ‘No, the poor aren’t sleeping peacefully’.

6. Ajaz Ashraf’s excellent piece in Scroll illustrating the impact of demonetisation on small businesses: ‘Informal credit systems: Modi has crippled a very Indian way of doing business’.

7. TN Ninan in Business Standard: ‘Our post-truths’.

8. Pratap Bhanu Mehta in Indian Express: ‘You have been warned’.

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 November, 2016 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | News | Politics

To Defeat Pakistan’s Generals, Let’s Embrace Their Artists

This is a guest column published today in the Sunday Times of India edit page.

I am a hawk when it comes to India-Pakistan relations. We have been suffering from cross-border terrorism for decades, and need to take a hard line towards our enemies. Every day our soldiers risk their lives for the country, and we must honour their service. For this reason, it infuriates me when people within India commit acts against the national interest. Expelling Pakistani artists from Bollywood is one such anti-national act.

To win a war, we must know our enemy. Here, it is both correct and incorrect to say that Pakistan is that enemy. Like India, Pakistan is many things, and contains multitudes. For the sake of analysis, let’s break it down and look at three different Pakistans, and consider, as economists would, their interests and incentives. (One can drill down deeper and say that there are as many Pakistans as there are Pakistanis, but let’s keep it simple.)

One, there is the Pakistan military establishment, which nurtures various militant groups. The military will always be hostile to us, because the conflict with India is the source of its power and influence. Two, there is Pakistan’s political establishment. The only thing politicians care about is getting to power and staying there. In a democracy, politicians depend on the people for their power, but Pakistan is no more a true democracy than General Raheel Sharif is my aunt. The political class in Pakistan has always been at the mercy of the military establishment.

Finally, there is Pakistan’s civil society. Their interests are the interests of people everywhere, including in India. They want to be prosperous and happy, and to enjoy the good life. Conflict is not in their interest: war of any kind is a negative-sum game, and everyone is a loser. But Pakistan’s civil society is weak compared to the military. Their interests are opposed to each other, and Pakistan’s economy is in such a dire state because their military and political establishments have always kept their own interests ahead of that of the people.

The power of the military and civil society are inversely proportional to each other, because influence within a country is a zero-sum game. The stronger the military, the weaker civil society—and vice versa. Since the military establishment drives the conflict with India, it is in our interests to weaken them. One path to this, it follows, is by strengthening Pakistan’s civil society. How do we go about it?

One way is trade. For civil society to be strong, it helps to be prosperous. (This is one reason why military dictatorships are more likely in poor countries.) Trade is a win-win game, so by keeping trade lines open with Pakistan, we benefit ourselves, and empower Pakistan’s people. The greater their dependencies on trade, the fewer their incentives for conflict.

Another way of changing these incentives is by cultural exchange. There is much rhetoric and brainwashing, on both sides of the border, that demonizes the other side. But the more cultural exposure Indians and Pakistanis have to each other, the more we realise how much we have in common, and the less we get taken in by the rhetoric. If you nurture the constituency for peace in Pakistan, you reduce the constituency of hate. And as the people shift, so do the incentives of the politicians. Banning Pakistani actors from working in Bollywood, for whatever tokenistic reasons, raises the temperature and helps their military establishment. Why would you help the enemy?

None of this is new thinking in foreign policy circles. In terms of trade, India unilaterally gave Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to Pakistan in 1996. And while I am usually critical of Narendra Modi, his handling of the post-Uri fallout has been pitch-perfect. In his speech at Kozhikode, he took a hard line when he spoke of avenging the deaths of our soldiers, but also chose to pointedly address the people of Pakistan directly. “Ask your leaders,” he said, “both our countries got freedom together, so why does India export software and your country export terrorists?” He added, “That day is not far off when the people of Pakistan will get in the fray to fight against their leaders.”

This is clever on Modi’s part, but chest-thumping pseudo-nationalists, including many in his own party, do not understand these nuances. This is something that happens often with Modi. He talks the high road, but his minions walk the low road. (He often talked the low road as well while campaigning, but let that be for now.) I’ve often wondered why he allows this. Is he trying to be all things to all people? Is it some good-cop-bad-cop strategy? Whatever be his strategy on Pakistan, this too is a matter he must resolve.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 October, 2016 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics

The Girl From Haryana

A slightly shorter version of this feature on Sakshi Malik was published in the October 2016 issue of Elle India.

‘One billion voices.’

It is August 17, 2016, and two women in wrestling costumes eye each other warily. In a few moments, they will grab each other and start grappling. Both women have waited for this all their lives. This is the Olympic games. Six minutes later, one of them will have a medal, and will be a hero to millions. The other will be disconsolate, the dreams of a lifetime crushed.

Wrestling seems simple, involving strength and power, body against body, but actually involves enormous finesse and intricacy. “It is a sport that requires brain, not brawn,” the woman who wins this fight later tells me. Sakshi Malik, 23 years old, from Rohtak, Haryana, needs more than brute force alone to win. She and her opponent, Aisuluu Tynybekova from Kyrgyzstan, are almost playing chess with their bodies, trying to induce small errors from their opponent: errors of balance, movement, emphasis. It is a game of small margins: if Sakshi steps a millimetre in the wrong direction, or shifts her weight a micro-second too early or late, she will lose.

I ask her later, “What is in your head at a time like this?” Elite sportspeople tell me how they try to make their mind as blank as possible, banishing all unrelated thoughts to achieve maximum focus. Is it like that for Sakshi?

Sakshi laughs. “That is impossible,” she says. “At least for me it is. See, I can sit here and talk to you, and my mind can be blank and I can focus. But not there. Not in the Olympics, fighting for a medal. My mind was the opposite of blank that day.

“I thought about how my life would change if I won. I thought about how I would cope with losing, what people would say, how they would criticize me. I thought about my parents, my coach, my friends. I thought, the Olympics comes once in four years, I can’t let this chance go by. I thought of all of India watching me on TV. I had one billion voices inside my head.

“And of course, I also thought strategy. I knew what I was planning against my opponent. I know her strengths. I know her weaknesses. I had a plan. And then I fought.”

As she had in previous matches, Sakshi fell behind. ‘I never give up.’ She kept going, and turned the match around in the last five seconds. Uptil that moment, I calculated, her life had consisted of approximately 75,59,13,600 seconds. All of it was backstory now. All of it led to these five seconds.

The oldest sport

The backstory to Sakshi Malik’s triumph at Rio is much older than Sakshi Malik herself. No one can say for sure what the oldest human sport is, but wrestling is a reasonable guess. It involves nothing more than the bodies of the contestants, and simply requires one wrestler to pin the other down. Even toddlers grapple, and it may not be farfetched to say that the sport of wrestling is an elaboration and formalisation of some of our most basic instincts.

In his magisterial book, Enter the Dangal, Rudraneil Sengupta traces the history of wrestling from ancient times until now. One of the oldest depictions of wrestling, he writes, comes from wall paintings in a group of tombs in Beni Hasan in Egypt, dated to 2100 BCE. “There are nearly 400 illustrations of wrestling pairs engaged in compeition, wearing only loincloths, each pair rendered in different colours. The moves depicted are still in use in modern wrestling. […] From an analysis of the figures, it seems the objective is to get the opponent on his back with his shoulders pinned.”

There are stray depictions which are even older, and it is mythology more than cave markings that bear testimony to the importance of wrestling in ancient culture. Herakles from Greek mythology was a formidable wrestler, as was our very own Krishna. The epic battle between Krishna and Kamsa “revolves around a wrestling match,” writes Sengupta. Krishna’s diet, with lots of butter and milk, is a “pahalwan’s diet.” Krishna is one in a line of many, of course: Bhima and Hanuman were also mighty wrestlers.

Wrestling flourished through pretty much all of Indian history. The Mughal courts encouraged it, and Hindu kings gave wrestlers important positions in their courts. It was a dominant sport, for it took no resources to learn, and was, rather remarkably, the one sure vehicle for social mobility. “From at least as far back as 1480,” Sengupta writes, “the many kings and emperors of Hindustan hired mercenary troops from a vast pool of rural agrarian communities stretching from the Punjab in the West to Bihar in the East.” This ‘military labour’ market was meritocratic, for the lives and kingdoms of kings often depended on their armies, and they could not afford to discriminate. Becoming a mercenary warrior required being extremely fit, and learning how to fight. Wrestling, or kushti, was a necessary start to this process. And a military life was an escape from the civilian burdens of caste.

Some rulers, such as Shahu Maharaj, a descendent of Shivaji, explicitly framed it in these terms. Even when the British took over India, ending the competition for military recruits, they continued this thinking. In his book Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy, Dirk Kolff quotes a British recruiting officer as saying, “It was an almost daily occurrence for – say – Ram Chand to enter our office and leave it as Ram Singh.”

But, it must be asked here, what if Sita Devi were to enter that office?

‘Who wants to be a wrestler?’

Wrestling may have done a lot for caste mobility, but not, until recently, for gender mobility. We know this has now changed: women wrestlers have done very well for themselves in the last few years, culminating in Sakshi’s performance in Rio. And here’s the bizarre thing: while wrestling has a serious tradition across India, in states like Maharashtra, Bihar, Bengal and all of Central and North India, it is the state of Haryana that dominates Indian women’s wrestling today. Now, Haryana is famously misogynistic, with a sex ratio of 879 women for every 1000 men (as per the 2011 census). So how did women’s wrestling take off here, of all places?

Students of history often argue over the Great Man Theory. In the 19th century, the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle argued that history is shaped by remarkable individuals, and “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” His theory had many opponents, including the philosopher Herbert Spencer, who wrote of these supposed Great Men:  “Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.” (This was the 19th century, so forgive these gents for talking of men and not persons.) There is much to be said for both views, which contain nuances beyond the scope of this piece, but when it comes to women’s wrestling in India, it seems that Carlyle was on to something. There is one man, and one man alone, who made this happen, and without him we wouldn’t be here. His name is Chandgi Ram.

Chandgi Ram came from a village called Sisai in Haryana, and is one of the great modern Indian wrestlers. He excelled in dangals, the traditional Indian wrestling competitions fought on mud, winning coveted titles such as Rustom-e-Hind and Hind Kesri. He also represented India on the mat, winning an Asian Games Gold medal in 1970, and taking part in the 1972 Munich Olympics. He won the Arjuna Award and the Padma Shri, retired as a legend, flirted with Bollywood, and eventually started his own coaching center, the Chandgi Ram Vyayamshala, as many retired wrestlers tend to do. For 22 years, he taught only boys.

In 1997, everything changed. The International Olympic Committee announced that from 2004, women’s wrestling would be an Olympic sport. In Enter the Dangal, Sengupta quotes Sonika Kaliraman, Chandgi Ram’s daughter and then 14 years old: “I remember I was playing with a tap in the courtyard, spraying water on the plants. And papa came back home looking all excited and the first thing he said was ‘They’ve put women’s wrestling in the Olympics! Who wants to be a wrestler?’ And he was looking straight at me.”

The gender may have been wrong, but the genes were right. Chandgi began training his daughters, Sonika and Deepika, but it was rough going. It took all of his goodwill to get the girls bouts in dangals, and the misogynists fought back. At one dangal, the girls had stones thrown at them, and men with sticks, abusing loudly, charged the playing area. On another occasion in 2000, some coaches and students at his own Vyayamshala attacked him, breaking one of his coaches’ legs and beating up Chandgi as the girls hid in a locked room.  But Chandgi Ram the wrestler had never backed away from a fight, and Chandgi Ram the father and teacher would not do so either.

Sonika and Deepika had moderately successful careers, but Chandgi Ram’s legacy went beyond his family. Some of his wards started coaching girls as well: one of them, Mahavir Singh Phogat, trained his daughters and nieces, and made the Phogats the most accomplished family in Indian wrestling. Women’s wrestling gradually gained acceptance in Haryana, especially as medals came in. One of the centers where girls was allowed to train alongside boys was the Chhotu Ram Stadium Wrestling Academy in Rohtak, Haryana.

‘My sport, my passion, the love of my life.’

Maybe great individuals make history. Or maybe it’s just luck. One day a young boy came to the Chhotu Ram Stadium Wrestling Academy in Rohtak and asked for the coach, Ishwar Singh Dahiya. He wanted Dahiya to coach him. Dahiya said ok; the kid looked enthusiastic. When the boy returned in the evening, though, Dahiya realised that this boy was actually a girl with short hair. Her name was Sunita. There were no girls at the center. What was Dahiya to do now?

“As I had already given permission,” Dahiya told the Indian Express, “there was no question of backtracking. That’s how the girl’s center started.”

Sunita brought with her another girl named Kavita, who won a medal in an Asian junior competition. And one day Kavita sat down to chat with a 12-year-old visiting the academy and told her about planes.

Mujhe plane ka bahut craze tha,” Sakshi Malik tells me. “Kavita didi told me about flying on a plane on her way to wrestling competitions, and I thought, ‘Even I want to sit on a plane.’ I would see them going overhead and wonder, when will I get to fly?”

Sakshi enjoyed playing sports, and had played basketball, table tennis and badminton in school. (I can imagine her telling her fellow Rio medalist, PV Sindhu, “I can play badminton. But can you wrestle? Eh?”) But wrestling attracted her more. She was partly inspired by her paternal grandfather, who had been a wrestler. “I was also attracted to the costumes,” she says. “And within a couple of days of wrestling, I just knew, this is it. This is what I want to do. This is my sport, my passion, the love of my life.”

‘My perfect day.’

Sport at its most beautiful feels like art but has the mechanics of science. Before Roger Federer hit his first beautiful forehand, he hit thousands of ugly forehands, embedding the movement, the timing, the mechanics into his brain till it was second nature to him. All great batsmen will tell you that they are great not because of what they do on the field, but because of what they do in the nets. The buzzword in sport these days is ‘deliberate practice’, but you don’t need a sports scientist to tell you that it takes years of repetitive hard work to get to the point where you make the sport looks easy. The excellent is always carved out of the mundane. And so it was for Sakshi.

“I would wake up at 4.30 in the morning,” she says, “and work hard for three hours. Then I would rest in the middle part of the day. Then three more hours in the evening, training, training, training.

“There are so many different aspects we have to focus on to be a wrestler. Stamina, power, endurance, flexibility, speed. There is so much work required for each of those. Our coaches plan our sessions so we can be all-round wrestlers. But there is so much to do that there is no time for anything else.

“And we can’t eat before training either. So we are fighting our hunger as well. We can’t do normal things that the other girls do. My brother would say, ‘Hey Sakshi, eat this’ and I would say ‘I can’t, I have to go for training now.’ My friends would go on weekends for outings, maybe to watch a movie, and I would be training. If I had a day off, I would just need to rest, so that I could be fresh for the training session the next day. Training, rest, training, so jao. Rinse and repeat. Every day.”

Sakshi doesn’t say this in a tone of complaint, though. And then she elaborates: “People used to tell me, what kind of girl are you, you don’t pray to God. And I would tell them, but I do puja every single day. Wrestling is puja for me. Three hours in the morning, three hours in the evening, I am praying to God.

“In fact, if you ask me what is the best day of my life, I will say that any day where I do do time ki training aur din mein rest. That will be my perfect day.”

I believe I can Fly

Sakshi sometimes jokes that she became a wrestler because she wanted to fly in an aeroplane. What might once have been a goal was actually the first significant milestone in her career.

“In 2008, I went to the Children’s Cup. That was the first time I flew in a plane. The whole plane was full of us Indian kids going to the event. And we were so well looked after. We got a full kit, coat, pant, trolley, it felt so amazing to represent India. And then I won the gold! I was on the podium receiving the medal, and I could see the Indian flag, and the national anthem was playing. I can’t describe that feeling. There is nothing like it.”

2008 was also an important year because Sushil Kumar got a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, and a whole generation of kids began to believe that they could do it too. Sakshi was inspired by ‘Sushil Pahalwan’, as she calls him, but she hungered for more than just achievement – she hungered for knowledge. Every local or international competition she went to, she would sit and watch, soak it up, learn.

“Especially the Japanese,” she says. “They were the best in the world, and I was very keen to watch them closely, to see what they did differently. I wanted to understand what made them special?”

“And did you?”

“See, when you see them sitting somewhere, they will be so calm and collected. We Indian girls, on the other hand, when we hang out together, we are boisterous, always laughing, HAHAHAHA! But the Japanese are always composed. Everything is systematic and in order: kit, khaana, diet, sab systematic.”

“And on the mat? Do they wrestle differently? Do they do something Indians can’t do?”


Sakshi also had homegrown heroes. One of them was Geeta Phogat, of the famous Phogat sisters, who had won Gold in the Commonwealth Games of 2010. “Geeta didi was an early inspiration,” says Sakshi. “Whenever we were practising together, I would always go up to her and ask if she already had a partner. [Wrestlers train in pairs.] I always wanted to be her partner. I would learn all that I could from her. She was so aggressive. She never gave up in a fight. She always fought to the end.”

She was close to all the Phogat sisters, having travelled a lot with them for tournaments. Her fondness for Geeta is evident. “She teases me a lot, though I never tease her back, I respect her a lot. We are like sisters – but only outside the mat. On the mat, we are competitors, trying to beat each other.”

There is both irony and tragedy here. Geeta fought in the same 58kg weight category in which Sakshi found herself. Geeta had gone to the London Olympics, but only one of them could go to Rio.

‘Sabse Achha Insaan.’

By the time the trials for Rio came around, Sakshi had established herself as a serious contender. She had won the silver medal in the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and the bronze in the 2015 Asian games. And in the trial for her weight category for Rio, she beat Geeta Phogat 8-1. But qualifying for Rio was another matter entirely.

There were three qualifying tournaments, and Sakshi lost in the first one. “I had a bad day. It happens. You can’t win every time.”

Then the Wrestling Federation of India decided to send Geeta for the second qualification event, in Mongolia. She was a senior wrestler, they felt, and deserved one shot at qualifying. As it happens, she failed—but had she qualified, Sakshi would have had to wait another four years. Now she had another chance, at the third qualifying event in Turkey. Her roommate for the trip was her close friend of many years, Vinesh Phogat, Geeta’s cousin.

“No matter what happens,” we told ourselves, “we must qualify. Otherwise four more years will go by.”

But there was the little matter of meeting their weight first. Wrestlers often have to lose a lot of weight before the weigh-in for the bout, in order to qualify for their chosen weight division. Sakshi and Vinesh were both struggling to do so.

“Maybe it was because of the temperature in Istanbul, but we just weren’t losing weight. We didn’t eat for two days, we didn’t even take a sip of water, and all this time we’re still training and sweating. It was pathetic, and I told Vinesh, ‘Kaise bhookhe hum pade hai. Isse achha tho apna normal life hai. Do time ka khaana jise mil jaaye, who sabse achha insaan hota hai.’

“Then the next day both of us qualified, and all the pain went away. We went out to celebrate.”

And how they celebrated tells you a little bit about the sacrifices they made, and the things we take for granted. They went to the mall and walked around.

‘One of us.’

August 17 was a bittersweet day. Both Sakshi and Vinesh had their bouts on that day, in the 58kg and 48kg category respectively. It was appropriate that the fate of the two friends should be so closely tied together. For years, since they were young girls with limber limbs and a hunger to learn, they had been close friends. They had fought, mostly on the mat, they had laughed and played and teased each other and carried each other, and they were together here as well. “We kept telling each other,” Sakshi says, “one of us will win a medal for India. “

Sakshi lost in her quarterfinal bout. Vinesh reached her quarterfinal, and was in ominous form, having won her pre-quarterfinal bout 4-0. She was confident, buoyant, the hard work of her whole life bringing her to this one inevitable conclusion, with her close friend nearby, willing her on. And then, in one heartbreaking moment, it was over.

Spectators mostly see the glory of the Olympics. The sportspeople on the podium receiving their medals, their eyes moist as the anthem plays. But sport is a zero-sum game: for one person to win, everyone else must lose. For every gram of glory at the Olympics, there is a kilogram of tragedy. The Olympics are where dreams come to die.

“One of us will win a medal for India.” Vinesh was carried off in a stretcher. But Sakshi was still standing.

Wrestling has a unique procedure called the repechage that Indians especially must appreciate. Basically, once the two finalists are decided, all the wrestlers beaten by them re-enter the competition and fight it out for the bronze medals. This is how Sushil Kumar in 2008 and Yogeshwar Dutt in 2012, both beaten in earlier rounds, had gotten back into the contest.  And this is what kept Sakshi hopeful. Valeria Koblova, who beat her in the quarter-final, was “a very strong fighter”, she said. “I kept myself mentally prepared. I knew I would get another chance to go for a medal. And now, with Vinesh injured, it was up to me.”

After Vinesh was carried off in a stretcher, her coach had gone to Sakshi with tears in his eyes. “My eyes were also wet. Vinesh was such a big support for me. We’d discuss strategy before each bout, give each other confidence.” Now she was alone – with a billion voices inside her head.

‘Do you have any tips?’

Everything has changed. When Sakshi took up wrestling, the handful of other girls who also wrestled came from wrestling families. But now, starting with the success of Geeta Phogat in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the appeal of the game has widened. “There are so many girls at our academy,” says Sakshi, “that there’s not enough place on the mats for all of us. We have to train in shifts.”

And mind you, this is Haryana.

“People would taunt me earlier, say that wrestling was only for boys, who would marry us after this, what kind of girls were we? Family friends would come home and ignore me, treat me disdainfully. Now they come home to ask for selfies. They tell me, Beta, we are sending our daughter also for wrestling classes, do you have any tips?”

What is Sakshi like when she is not in training mode? “Ekdum shaant,” she says. “I am not a party girl at all. I like to stay home and chill, just relax.”

And what would she be if she wasn’t a wrestler?

“I would study hard, get a job, then get married, I suppose. I had no special ambitions at all.”

“What are your class friends doing now?”

“They are married. Most of them. Many of them have children also.”

A reminder: Sakshi is 23.


We are a story-telling species. We make sense of the world through narratives. We’re bound to fit Sakshi into some narrative or the other. She is a woman from Haryana beating a patriarchal system. She is an Indian sportsperson rising to the top despite the system. She is beti bachao. She is achhe din. She is falaana, she is dhimkaana. At some level, all these narratives are both lazy and condescending.

Sakshi Malik is a 23-year-old girl who found, early in life, something that she loved doing more than anything else in the world. It was like puja for her. The best day in her life was when she did nothing but that. It gave her entry into a world where she made close friends, experienced heartbreak, felt the ecstacy of standing on a podium with her anthem playing. It made her fly, literally. It gave her joy – and sport is so wonderful, so transcendent, that for a few moments it gave millions of us some joy as well. That is the medal.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 October, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport

Facts Don’t Matter. Stories do

This is the 31st installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

At one point in the presidential debate earlier this week, Hillary Clinton said, “Mental health is one of the biggest concerns.” She was not referring to her opponent, but those words would have been apt in that context. Mental health is indeed a huge concern when it comes to Donald Trump. No candidate in US history has been so unhinged. Not only is Trump incapable of deep thought, he appears incapable of rational thought. His rare coherent sentences seem accidental, like the broken clock that is right twice a day. Even his hairstyle seems to reflect that the neurons below are firing in unusual ways. Indeed, his speech patterns are what you would expect from a malfunctioning AI bot. I’m not sure Trump would pass the Turing test.

Why, then, are so many Americans supporting him?

One possible reason proposed by the columnist Glenn Reynolds, which I have touched upon in an earlier edition of Lighthouse, is that a large number of Americans are closet racists, bigots, misogynists and nativists, but kept their preferences hidden because they seemed unacceptable in polite society. (Preference Falsification.) Social media allowed them to discover others like themselves, find enormous amounts of data that would feed their confirmation biases, and build progressively larger echo chambers. At the appropriate tipping point, along came Trump, articulating these basic instincts and bringing them into the mainstream. And boom, you have the Trump wave, in what social scientists would call a Preference Cascade.

I think there is much truth to this. I would also like to propose another reason: we are a species that relies on stories for explanations of the world around us, and Trump tells simple stories.

The world is complex and mysterious, and we make sense of it through stories. All our myths and religions evolved out of the need to find stories that would a) explain the world; and b) comfort ourselves. We have modified these stories as new evidence has popped up (eg, science), but have also stuck to older stories (eg, religion) for all kinds of reasons, from custom to the force of inertia to their beguiling simplicity. This last point is important. The world is so complex that simple stories appeal to us precisely because they stop us from feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Where did that tree come from? God put it there. Why was there an earthquake? God was punishing us for our sins. And so on.

Trump sells simple stories. Imagine a middle-aged white man in small-town America who has seen jobs disappear and incomes stagnate for years. If Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush or Paul Ryan explain to him why he is in this state, their complex explanation of a complex phenomenon will typically contain a mix of jargon, empty phrases and tired bromides, and might even be incomprehensible. Trump, on the other hand, will keep it simple. “You are losing your jobs because our government ships them overseas” is his anti-trade spiel. “You are losing your jobs because immigrants are coming in here and taking them away” is his anti-immigration spiel. Both of these explanations are wrong, but whether they are true or not doesn’t matter. What matters is that they are simple.

Once people buy into these stories, they are so invested in them that they are not going to accept deeper explanations. And they don’t trust politicians anyway, regarding them, with some justification, as smooth-talking, power-hungry, sociopathic slaves to special interests. Trump made a fool of himself in this recent debate, but he did worse in many of his earlier debates during the Republican primaries, and that didn’t hurt him. His followers judge him on different parameters than pundits and conventional politicians do. Substance is irrelevent, and facts don’t matter. Stories matter.

I don’t believe Trump tells these simple stories because he is a master politician. I think he tells them because he is a simpleton. His ideas are mostly dangerous and wrong, and if there is any first principle he believes in, it is an infallible belief in his own excellence. He has already destroyed his party, and he will damage his country if he comes to power. Will he be president?

I have a pessimistic view and an optimistic view. My pessimistic view is that polls are underestimating his support, just as polls underestimated the Brexit vote, because of preference falsification. So he will do better than his polls indicate. My optimistic view is that demographics are against him, and he has antagonised many black, hispanic and female voters, whose numbers are too large for him to win. He won in the multiway Republican primaries because the floor of his support was high; he will lose in the November election because its ceiling is too low. That’s the story I’m telling myself, because much as I find Hillary Clinton deplorable, I’d prefer a bad president to a mad president.

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 September, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Politics

Why Modi Must Learn to Play the Game of Chicken With Pakistan

This is a guest column published today in the Sunday Times of India edit page.

There are few things as satisfying as being macho on social media, and this is quite the season for it. After the terrorist attack in Uri, every Righteous Internet Patriot (RIP) wants our government to teach Pakistan a lesson by going to war. I have two things to say about this: One, it is the worst of all available solutions; Two, it is the best possible stance to take. Let us unravel that.

War is a solution that would be worse than the problem. Let’s look at this conflict using the metric of human lives. A rational aim of any solution would be to minimise the loss of Indian lives. What is the cost we currently bear through Pakistan-sponsored terrorism?

In a reply to an RTI petition this July, the government of India stated that 707 Indian lives have been lost to terrorism since 2005. Over 11 years, that comes to 64 deaths a year. If the status quo is maintained, with the usual empty diplomatic posturings, this figure should not rise too drastically. But what if, in an exasperated search for closure, we go to war?

A modern war with modern weaponry could cost us tens of thousands of lives, and maybe millions if it turns nuclear. (This does not take into account downstream effects on survivors, the economy, the environment and so on, all of which would blight the future.) Whatever the precise number, the cost of war would be orders of magnitude worse than even the long-term cost of the status quo. For any rational person, therefore, war is off the table.

This creates an obvious problem. If the rational course for India is to avoid war no matter what happens, then Pakistan can keep escalating with impunity. They could kill hundreds of Indians a year, or even thousands, confident in the belief that because we are rational, because we can do the math, we will be restrained. So what are we to do?

The field of game theory contains an insight to this dynamic. The game most relevant to two nuclear powers is called Chicken. Here’s an illustration: two cars are racing towards each other, and a crash is imminent. (Mutually Assured Destruction.) The driver who loses his nerve and swerves first loses the game. Now, every rational driver will swerve before he crashes into the other guy. So a surefire way to win the game is to convince the other guy that you are irrational, prepared to die, and will not concede. (One way of doing this is by breaking the steering wheel and throwing it away.) Your opponent, if he is rational, must swerve.

Pakistan has played this game brilliantly with a so-far rational India. Their venal generals and mad mullahs, the world believes, are capable of going nuclear at any provocation. India’s rationality and restraint is applauded in diplomatic circles—but we’re being pwned in the geopolitical sphere by Pakistan.

One way out is for India to portray itself as equally irrational, and show a willingness to go nuclear—even if we actually remain rational and intend to avoid war. Richard Nixon did this during the Cold War in 1969, when he ordered the US army to full war-readiness, and sent 18 B-52s loaded with thermonuclear weapons towards the Soviet border, where they flew around in pretty oval patterns for three days. The Soviets, who weren’t exactly ballerinas themselves, were spooked. Nixon called this ‘the Madman Theory’.

Recent Indian prime ministers would have had a tough time portraying themselves as mad men. (Imagine Manmohan Singh letting off an evil laugh.) But Narendra Modi seemed to be suited for the role – until he became PM. Ironically, the rhetorical belligerance that Modi articulated towards Pakistan while on the campaign trail has been replaced by a subdued, reasonable demeanour on the world stage.

Modi cares deeply about how the world views him, and wants to be seen as a mature statesman. Sadly, he has succeeded. This is reassuring to those of us who fear excessive military adventurism—I live in Mumbai and would be bummed if Pakistan nuked my beloved city—but is counter-productive when it comes to dealing with Pakistan. If Pakistan’s generals saw Modi and his minions as unhinged reactionaries driven by bigotry, Islamophobia and a virulent nationalism, they might back off. But regardless of how he is regarded in JNU, his image on the global stage is exemplary. On all his foreign visits, he comes across as an avuncular dove, a personable connoisseur of the photo-op.

Our conflict with Pakistan will not be ended by diplomacy. China supports Pakistan, America needs Pakistan for Afghanistan reasons, and all diplomatic manouvering on this subject is just theatre. To get Pakistan to stop poking us, we have to play the game. Modi has so far been a master of optics – and playing Chicken with Pakistan is his greatest challenge yet.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 September, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | News | Politics

The God Delusion of Arvind Kejriwal

A slightly shorter version of this was published as the 30th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

In theory, a devout politician is a good thing. A politician who believes in God seems to accept the existence of an entity more powerful than himself, and that should be a reassuring thought to Indian voters. We have plenty of devout politicians here, and while the ones in the ruling party are most vocal about it, opposition politicians aren’t far behind. Take Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, for example.

When he was sworn in as chief minister at the Ramlila Maidan, Kejriwal repeatedly thanked God for his newfound status. “I thank the Supreme Father, Ishwar, Allah, Waheguru,” he breathlessly proclaimed, trying to cover all bases. And in case the concerned gods missed it, he later said, “This victory is not because of us. It is a miracle, and I thank Bhagwan, Ishwar and Allah.” (At this point, I can imagine Bhagwan turning to Allah and saying, “Dude, any idea what he’s talking about? I thought I was Ishwar!” And Allah replies, “Dunno, man. I’m just a party worker.”)

Kejriwal’s stated piety isn’t restricted to the major religions. He recently came out in support of the Jain monk Tarun Sagar after the musician Vishal Dadlani made fun of him. Kejriwal tweeted: “Tarun Sagar ji Maharaj is a very revered saint, not just for Jains but everyone. Those showing disrespect is unfortunate and should stop.” (The last sentence is stunningly convoluted, and we all know what Orwell said about clarity in speech correlating with clarity in thinking.)

Now, Kejriwal was reportedly an atheist before he came to politics, and it is natural to suspect that this new-found piety is part of the populism he’s embraced. But let that pass. In this column I will argue that there is one religion that he truly, deeply, madly does believe in, and it is the most dangerous religion of all. It is the religion of government.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority religion in India is not Hinduism but the religion of government. We have been brought up believing that if there is any problem in this world, government can solve it. If there is a social ill, ban it. If prices are too high, pass a law demanding that they be kept low. If there aren’t enough jobs out there, create jobs by legislation so that people can earn an honest living. And so on.

I call this, with apologies to Richard Dawkins, the God Delusion of Government. Devotees of this particular religion believe, like devotees of any other, that reality is subject to the whims and fancies of their God. To change the state of the world, God needs to merely decree it, or government needs to pass a law, and boom, reality changes. Water turns to amrut, copper to gold.

This kind of God delusion isn’t restricted to India. A recent example of a country ruined by it is Venezuela, which has been ravaged by the socialist policies of Hugo Chavez. Venezuela was lucky to be oil-rich, but unlucky to have Chavez as a leader, who tried social engineering on a vast scale. One of his pet schemes: price controls on all essential commodities. (If something should be cheaper, let’s make a law mandating it.) This led, as econ 101 would predict, to shortages, so much so that Venezuela’s queues became legendary. The current government, perturbed that these queues were embarrassing the country, hit upon an innovative solution. It banned queues.

I’m not kidding. They really banned queues, and when I read that news, I thought of Kejriwal, because that’s exactly what he would do.
Kejriwal thrives on finding the simplest possible solution to every problem through the Godlike intervention of government. He has no grasp on reality, though, and no understanding of how such interventions typically play out. Most tellingly, like Chavez and other socialists, he simply doesn’t understand how the price system works.

Left to themselves, prices are determined by supply and demand. If the demand for a product or service outstrips supply, the price goes up. This rising price acts as a signal to potential suppliers, and they are incentivised to fill the gap. Similarly, if demand goes down, the price goes down, and suppliers start moving their efforts to where they would be more valued. We can only make a living by fulfilling the needs of others, and the price system gives us the information and the incentives to do this most efficiently. But for this, it has to be left to itself. If these signals are distorted, the system falls apart.

Now, Uber’s surge pricing is a fantastic mechanism to speed up the process of price discovery. But Kejriwal decided that people were being fleeced by high prices, and decided to ban surge pricing. The ban didn’t last long, because there was an immediate shortage of cabs, just as econ 101 would predict.

What happens when you put a price cap on something is that it becomes first-come-first-serve, and after the first lucky bunch get it, it doesn’t matter how urgent your need is, it’s not available at all. More crucially, the rising price that would act as both information and incentive now no longer does so, and other suppliers don’t rush to fit the shortfall.

While that experiment didn’t last long, Kejriwal moved from price ceiling to price floor. He announced an increase in the minimum wage in Delhi, to Rs 14k a month. Now, this sounds most compassionate, but is a government diktat enough? If it was, why not, say, make the minimum wage in Delhi Rs 10 lakhs a month? Wouldn’t Delhi instantly become the richest city in the world?

The answer is obvious. Such a law would merely put everyone whose work was worth less than 10 lakhs out of a job, and most businesses would shut down. Similarly, if the minimum wage set is Rs 14k, it effectively renders everyone whose labour is worth less than that unemployable by decree. Businesses are forced to discriminate against anyone they’d pay 13k a month or less, and it is the poorest of the poor who would bear the brunt of this. The law would hurt those it purported to help. (Being the country of jugaad, all workers below the minimum wage level will simply be shifted to the informal sector, and government inspectors will get a higher hafta than before. But it is no defence of a bad law to say that peeps will find a way to work around it.)

For anyone who isn’t economically illiterate, these effects are predictable. A price cap (or ceiling) inflates demand relative to supply, and a shortage in supply is inevitable. A price floor inevitably decreases demand and leads to excess supply—or, in this case, more unemployment.

The laws of economics, such as that of prices, and supply and demand, are as immutable as those of physics. So why are such interventions so popular then? A key reason is that the laws of physics can be tested and proved in controlled environments, but you can’t do that with the laws of economics. Data is noisy, other variables abound, and all sides can point to ‘evidence’ with spurious correlations. So those who believe in such simplistic interventions continue with them, because it makes them feel (and seem) compassionate.

Kejriwal has a record of taking the high moral ground with self-righteous positions, and strikes a chord with common people by identifying many problems correctly. But his suggested solutions usually make the problems worse, as in the case of his anti-corruption crusade, or the different price controls he has championed. A good question to ask here is, Does he actually believe that such interventions work, or does he not give a damn about that, only wanting to take a position that gets him most votes from the economically illiterate masses? In other words, is he a devout fool or a devout scoundrel? Hanlon’s Razor states, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” In Kejriwal’s case, I’m not so sure. But he’s devout all right, so God help us.

*  *  *

For more on minimum wages in general, I find this explanation by Milton Friedman to be particularly lucid. Linda Gorman’s piece on it at Econlib is also a decent short primer on the subject.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 September, 2016 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

Two Essays

It’s been a long time since I wrote something substantive on sport, so here are two recent essays I’ve written that scratched my itch. The first, published in The Cricket Monthly, is a 4000-word longread titled ‘What Cricket Can Learn From Poker’. It basically talks about the importance of probabilistic thinking, not just in poker and cricket but also in life in general. In what is a cricket magazine, I get in thoughts on poker, probability, football, the free-will-vs-determinism debate and even the Bhagawad Gita. An excerpt:

One way to think about probability is to imagine parallel universes. You flip an evenly weighted coin, and instantly the world splits into 1000 parallel worlds, and the coin falls heads in 500 of them and tails in the other 500. You flip again and these universes are split into units of 250, each showing sequences of HH, HT, TH and TT. You keep flipping.

This is true for everything that happens. Every single thing that happens in this world (or may happen) has a probability attached to it. These probabilities change at every instant, affected by all other events to some degree or the other. So imagine, in every single moment, for every single event, the parallel universes multiplying. You can increase or decrease the number of hypothetical parallel universes depending on how granular you wish to make the thought experiment, but there are basically infinite parallel universes, each of them containing unique outcomes. And the world that you are in right now is just one of trillions of trillions of freakin’ gazillions. Imagine the level of randomness, then, of this world being what it is.


My other essay, ‘The Tamilian Gentleman Who Took On The World’, was part of’s series of The Top 20 Moments in Indian Sport. Vishy Anand winning the undisputed chess world championship in 2007 was ranked No. 4 by ESPN, though I would place it at the top. Being a chess lover, I’m obviously biased, but I’d hope that after reading my piece, which is about the context of Anand’s remarkable achievement, you will agree with me!

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 August, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Sport

Black Man Rising

This is the 28th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

How do we choose our sporting heroes? I believe they are born in three ways. One, at a primal level, we pick them on the basis of tribalism. We support someone because they are doing well for the club or country we support, and that is reason enough. Two, we like them for their specific skills in a game that we love. The elegance of a Federer, the technical finesse of a Dravid, and so on. Three, we like them for reasons that go beyond the sport. Maybe their story evokes something personal in us. Maybe we are drawn to them because we are a species that understands the world through stories, and there is something universal about their journey that goes beyond the sport.

Muhammad Ali, who died a few days ago, transcended boxing. His life was so deeply intertwined with American history in the 1960s and ‘70s that to immerse yourself in the story of the man would be to understand the history of the nation. His journey encapsulated the essential conflicts of his times to such a degree that his sporting achievements almost didn’t matter.

Ali was born Cassius Clay, named after a 19th century abolitionist who defied the dominant narratives of his times. So did Ali. He did this, first, with regard to the way he boxed. Heavyweight boxers were supposed to be men of heft and power, but Ali subverted expectations by being a big man who danced around the ring with balletic grace, who could turn a brawl into an artistic display. His model was the welterweight (and later middleweight) Sugar Ray Robinson, a much smaller man. Boxing pundits didn’t take the young Clay seriously. The iconic sports writer AJ Liebling described him after his Olympic Gold win in Rome 1960 as ‘attractive but not probative’, and later dissed him as ‘Mr Swellhead Bigmouth Poet’. He was such an underdog in his first World Championship match against Sonny Liston in 1964 that his team found out which hospital had the best emergency room and mapped out the quickest route there from the venue. They thought Liston might kill him.

But the narratives that really mattered had nothing to do with boxing style, and he subverted them too. Boxing was a gladiatorial sport in America in the 50s and 60s, run by the mob, and many top boxers, usually black, like Liston, were virtually owned by the mob. Audiences needed palatable, simple narratives as packaging for the sport: Liston vs Patterson, for example, was sold as a fight between ‘Bad Negro’ and ‘Good Negro’, with one man (Liston) an uncivilised brute, feeding into racist fears of the archetypal black savage, and the other (Patterson) a sophisticated ‘liberal’s liberal’, as the novelist James Baldwin called him. (Both portraits were unfair.) But Ali would not allow others to shape his story.

Soon after his shock win over Liston in 1964, Ali further shocked America by announcing that he had joined the Nation of Islam, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Many resisted this, and as if to remind him of who he really was, kept calling him by his ‘slave name’ of Cassius Clay. But Ali fought back. In 1967, he got into the ring against Ernie Terrell, a black heavyweight who refused to address him by his chosen name, and kept taunting him as he jabbed him repeatedly, ‘What’s my name, Uncle Tom? What’s my name?’

His bravest act, with which he lifted himself above his sport, was refusing to be drafted. Conscription is a form of slavery, and Ali refused to be a slave again. He was stripped of his title, and lost almost four years and tens of millions of notional dollars for his act, but he would not waver or compromise. In the magisterial biography ‘King of the World’, David Remnick quotes Gerald Early, a literature professor, describing what Ali’s action meant to him as a teenager: ‘When he refused, I felt something greater than pride: I felt as though my honour as a black boy had been defended, my honour as a human being.’

Ali came back into the sport and won the heavyweight title again, and achieved much glory in boxing. Not all of his story is uplifting. He often went overboard with hate-filled rhetoric, especially in his early days with the Nation of Islam, and his disrespect of his opponents, and his trash talk, often crossed the line. This is particularly so with Joe Frazier, who had helped Ali get his boxing license back after his suspension was over, but then became roadkill on Ali’s journey. In the words of the writer William Nack, Ali ‘humiliated and enraged and ultimately isolated Frazier, casting him as a shuffling and mumbling Uncle Tom, an ugly and ignorant errand boy for white America.’ He called him ‘an ugly gorilla’ among other things, building a mythology around himself that was as false as the racist narratives he had earlier rebelled against. (He justified it as good marketing for the fight, but Frazier carried the scars forever. Nack memorably wrote later that Ali had been ‘living rent-free for Frazier’s head for more than 25 years.’)

As much as Ali transcended the sport, he was also a creature of the sport, and the sport is essentially barbaric: one man beating another man, ideally causing brain damage (for the knockout is the ideal end to all fights), a negative-sum game where in the end both men lose. The accumulated blows that Ali took were a likely cause of his Parkinson’s, and as his legend grew over the decades, the man himself faded.

But the ways in which boxing diminished him—and before that he diminished himself—should not affect his legacy. All human beings are frail and weak and flawed in countless public and private ways—but very few people rise above themselves, and their sport, and their times, to the extent that Ali did. He meant so much to so many. As Kareem Abdul Jabbar wrote in a recent tribute: ‘I may be 7’2”, but I never felt taller than when standing in his shadow.’

More than the shadow, though, it was the light.

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 June, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Sport

What We Talk About When We Talk About Politics

This is the 27th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

One of the great things about social media is that we talk to each other much more. I am not being ironic: because of Facebook alone, I know much more about my friends than I would otherwise. I am also in touch with many more people than I would otherwise be, especially old friends. This is useful as one gets middle-aged. At some point around 40, the world starts to narrow and goes on narrowing. Social media keeps it broad, and even recluses stay up-to-date and tip-top, as they’d say back in my day. One could argue that this sense of connection is synthetic, even pathetic, and has no connection with the real world out there. One could also argue that there is only one world, and it is in our heads; and anything in our heads, it follows, is in the real world.

This column is not about the personal, though, but the political. There is far more political awareness among young people today than there was when I was growing up in the 1980s. When I was a teenager, I did not know the difference between left-wing and right-wing, and my informed opinion of Rajiv Gandhi was that he was handsome. Today, 12-year-olds have vociferous opinions and are signing online petitions when they are not on hunger strikes in between meals. Political discourse has increased exponentially in volume; but how much is noise and how much is signal?

There were hopes that social media would lead to a virtual global town square where informed citizens could debate with one another. Instead, it has led to a conglomeration of echo chambers, some of them truly bizarre. No matter what you believe in, you can now find hordes of like-minded people online, and be reassured by the validation they provide. This has lead to a phenomenon that social scientists call ‘group polarisation’. The economist Cass Sunstein defines it thus: “When like-minded people deliberate, they typically end up adopting a more extreme position in line with their pre-deliberation inclinations.”

Thus, we find that most political discussion online consists of people talking past each other. And when they do talk to each other, it isn’t pretty. Anonymity (or even physical distance) turns mice into tigers, and most political discussions online turn personal really fast. If you want to dominate a discussion, you ignore the issues involved and attack the person instead. There are three key ways in which this happens.

One, you accuse your opponent of hypocrisy. (This is also known as Whatboutery.) So if someone talks about the 2002 Gujarat riots, you go, ‘But what about the 1984 Delhi riots? I didn’t see you condemn that?’ If someone points to a Muslim lynched by a Hindu mob, you say, ‘What about that Hindu social worker killed by Bangladeshi migrants in Assam?’ If they defend the free speech of a member of phallana community, you say, what about dhimkana community, where were you when they were censored? Not just trolls, all politicians do exactly this.

When Arvind Kejriwal was questioned about the hundreds of crores of taxpayers’ money he spent on running ads for the Delhi government, he replied, ‘But the BJP also does this. Why don’t you question them?’ There is no end to such Whataboutery—and you will note that on every such instance, the original issue is soon forgotten, and the fight centers on the hypocrisy of the complainant.

Two, you question the intent of your opponent. She could be a CIA agent, a pinko stooge of the Chinese, a lackey for the corporates, a ‘paid audience’ or a ‘presstitute’, in that colourful coinage of a retired army general with that typical Indian penchant for tasteless puns. Ah yes, she could also be anti-national, trying to break up the country. Any issue they raise, they can be told, ‘Ah, but you have an agenda for kicking up a storm. We’re on to you!’

This can be combined most effectively with Whataboutery. For example, if the Congress raises the issue of a corruption scandal in the BJP government, the BJP can say that their intent in raising this matter is to divert attention from their own scam from a week ago. What about that? This can even get recursive. (To visualise this process, imagine fractals.)

Three, you categorise your opponents by applying a pejorative label on them, and then dismiss that entire category as being beneath contempt, thus removing the need to engage with it. This happens across the spectrum. Just go on Twitter, and you’ll find it packed with ‘bhakts’ and ‘aaptards’ and ‘adarsh liberals’ and ‘sickulars’ and so on. Once you apply such a label to someone, you do not need to engage with them in reasoned debate.

Attacking the person instead of the argument is an ancient tradition—some intrepid historian might even find that it is of Indian origin. I have just enumerated the three most common ways of doing this. There are many other ways of appearing to win an argument within even engaging with it to begin with. Check out ‘38 Ways to Win an Argument’, by Arthur Schopenhauer and you will see some examples. They include noble techniques such as shifting goalposts, attacking straw men and appeals to authority. The 38th of them is masterful, and one that many Twitteratti are adept at: ‘Become personal, insulting and rude as soon as you perceive that your opponent has the upper hand.’

Most delighfully, you can not only resort to this, but you can immediately turn the tables with some canny projection when your opponent reacts in anger. He’ll be like, ‘What the fuck did you just call me?’ And you go, ‘Don’t use bad language, did you just say “fuck”? You are clearly not capable of reasoned discourse.’

In a sense, this gets to the heart of the matter. The whole point of political discourse seems not to be political but personal. When we take a point of view, we make an assertion not about the state of the world but about ourselves. Our ideologies become a proxy for personal statements: ‘I am compassionate.’ ‘I am righteous.’ ‘I am clever enough to engineer society.’ Many of our actions in the political sphere are not meant to actually affect change, but to show our nobility. And because our positions are so tied to our identity, any attack on them is an attack on us. We react viscerally. It feels personal; so we get personal.

*  *  *

Also read: My old column written just when the Twitter started getting crazy in India, Internet Hindus and Madrasa Muslims.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 May, 2016 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Media | Politics

Tolstoy’s Chicken and the Expanding Circle

This is the 24th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

I’m a devout carnivore, but a decade-and-a-half ago, I turned vegetarian for a year. My reasons were moral, and best illustrated by a story about the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. In his later years Tolstoy was a vegetarian, and one day he invited his aunt home for dinner. She said she’d come but insisted, ‘I must have chicken!’ Tolstoy paused at this condition, but then agreed to provide the bird. The lady duly came home, gup-shup happened, and then when they moved to the dining table, she found a live chicken on her chair, and a carving knife alongside.

‘We knew you wanted chicken,’ Tolstoy said, ‘but none of us would kill it.’

The story, as I know it, ends there—but I can’t imagine Tolstoy’s aunt ate Tolstoy’s chicken. She must have been rather exasperated, and Tolstoy was indeed a bit of a spiritual crackpot towards the end of his life. But the story of the chicken resonates with me. It demonstrates our denial when it comes to food. In our mind, there is a screen between the meat that we eat and the animals that are killed for that meat. We taste the flavour and enjoy the texture, but we behave as if the butchery never happened. We pretend that the chicken on the plate and the chicken on the chair are different creatures. But of course they are not. Tolstoy’s flapping, squawking chicken is Varma’s Chicken a la Kiev—and so, many years ago, I gave up meat.

Even if I later explained my subsequent regression by talking about recurring headaches and how my body was too used to meat to give it up, deep down I know that’s just a rationalisation. I didn’t have the strength of character to carry through on my resolve. I dreamed of luscious, succulent kababs, and ignored the screaming of the lambs.

The guilt and dissonance I still occasionally feel may soon be moot, though. Some fine scientists, much to be praised for their noble endeavours to better humankind, have recently found a way to grow meat in the labaratory, without a sentient creature being involved. Within a couple of decades, I predict, you will be able to eat a medium-rare steak that is, in every way, the same as any you would get today, except for the fact that no animal will be harmed in its making. The organ it will come from would have been manufactured a la carte, and would never have been part of a living creature. Tolstoy’s aunt’s grilled chicken leg would have nothing to do with Tolstoy’s actual chicken.

On that note, at the turn of this new year, let me tell you about a concept propounded by a gentleman named WEH Lecky way back in the 19th century: The Expanding Circle. Lecky posited that there is a circle of beings who qualify for our moral consideration as equals, and that this circle has tended to expand through human history. In prehistoric times, we might have regarded just our family or our tribe as being part of that circle, and everyone else would have been ‘the other’. Other tribes, then other nations, other races, and so on. But through time, that circle expanded. It began to include other communities and races, and eventually included all of humanity itself. It is this expanding circle that led to the end of slavery, to women being allowed to vote, to the great immigrant nations across the world, like the US of A. And this circle is still expanding.

The philosopher Peter Singer, in fact, argues that one day animals will be within this circle. He believes that one day we will be as aghast at meat-eating as we are today when we look back at slavery or women not being allowed to vote and so on. For a person in the 23rd century, looking back at the 21st, it will seem as astonishing that we once killed animals for food as it does to us that the great apostle of liberty, Thomas Jefferson, once kept slaves.

At this point, it is worth considering why the expanding circle expands. To my mind, and I say this with sadness, the reasons are instrumental. The circle expands because incentives change. The two main factors driving this are Trade and Technology.

Economics teaches us that every human being can provide value to this world (comparative advantage) and that voluntary trade always leaves both parties better off, leading to a positive-sum game. If ‘The Other’ is working hard to improve our lives, and it is in our interest to improve theirs, for that is how we profit, then the circle is bound to expand to include them. Immigration is great not just because of moral reasons, but because it helps societies and economies flourish. The larger our circles are, in whatever sense, the better we do.

Technology also plays its part. Until recently, half of humanity – the female half – was deeply constrained because that’s just how the comparative advantage game played itself out. Housework and raising large families took so much time that it made economic sense for family units to specialise, and for women to stay at home and for men to go out and be bread-earners. This got codified in social norms, and thus women got forced into subsidiary roles. That changed in the 20th century. Firstly, household technology freed up huge chunks of women’s time. Secondly, birth control gave them, well, more control over their bodies. There is much to be said for good intentions, but women’s empowerment really happened because of technology, and so hurray for technology.

And hurray for technology one more time, because if our circle expands to include animals, it will do so not because of the benevolence of meat eaters around the world, but because growing meat may no longer require the killing of animals. And here, consider the consequences of all animal products being manufactured without animals being involved. The incentives around rearing farm animals will change entirely. And so one day, cows and pigs and chickens and goats may go extinct not because we ate them, but because we stopped. The irony is delicious.

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 January, 2016 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Personal

The Fatal Conceit of the Indian Politician

A shorter version of this was published as the 22nd installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

‘I’m not conceited. Conceit is a fault and I have no faults.’ Imagine this quote on an internet meme, alongside a picture of Narendra Modi, looking dapper in that famous pinstripe suit, or maybe a trademark Modi kurta. It would surely get thousands of shares on social media, many from bhakts impressed by the prime minister’s modesty. Don’t rush to share it, though: as one tends to do on the internet, I just misattributed. Those words were not uttered by Modi, or even Oscar Wilde or GB Shaw. The man who said them is former Van Halen singer Dave Lee Roth, with his back against a record machine. But Modi could have said them, could he not?

Please don’t think I am picking on Narendrabhai alone. All politicians are vain. Indeed, one could argue that in politics, vanity is a feature and not a bug. Politicians come to power by selling specific narratives about their excellence; and they can sell it most effectively if they believe it themselves. Success in many fields often begins, comically and ironically, with self-delusion. But politicians have consequences, and there’s nothing comic about that.

One reason that India is still a poor country is the ‘fatal conceit’ of our founding fathers. Jawaharlal Nehru, and his minions and successors, believed that economies were best planned from the top down. An economy is a complex thing, the poor and ignorant masses of India surely could not be trusted to perform this task by themselves, and needed to be directed by wise and benevolent planners. Those who have studied economics or paid attention to history know that this was foolish and wrong.

Economies, like languages, are products of “human action but not human design,” in the words of Adam Ferguson. They function brilliantly on their own, with millions of individuals pursuing their self-interest, and thus increasing the value in the lives of others, for that is the only path to profit. Planning is not only not required, it is an impediment. A central planner can never get a grasp on the huge amount of dispersed knowledge in an economy, and any intervention is bound to lead to a loss in efficiency. This hurts the poor the most: as I illustrated in a previous column, every intervention in a free market amounts to a distribution of wealth from the poor to the rich.

Nehru suffered from a disease that Friedrich Hayek called the Fatal Conceit. His coining of that term was inspired by the following passage in Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “The man of system […] is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.”

People are not chess pieces, of course, and Nehru and his successors ravaged the economy with their well-intentioned interventions. I won’t recite the litany, but here’s the thing: 68 years after we became independent, 24 after the Soviet Union collapsed, we are still enslaved by a failed philosophy. And we’re still suffering because of the fatal conceit of flawed individuals.

It amuses me sometimes that Modi is considered a right-wing politician. He actually embodies the worst of both left and right. Like his party, and the ecosystem of religious nutjobs that sustains it, he is right-wing on social issues; and left on economic ones. Basically, he is against individual freedom in every domain possible, and thus the exact opposite of me. If you put Modi and me in a test tube, the resultant explosion could blow the earth off its orbit, or at least result in a good rap album. But that is a digression, and it is possible that you have your mouth open because I called him an economic leftist. Well, if a man is to be known by his actions and not his public image, what else can we call him?

I know many economic liberals, bald because of six decades of tearing their hair out, who thought Modi would be a free-market messiah. My ass. Tell me this: exactly what reforms has he carried out that increase our economic freedom? When Modi took over, India was ranked 140 out of 189 countries in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index: it has since slipped to 142. He has not reformed the labour laws that, for decades, have prevented us from being a manufacturing superpower. The license and inspector raj remains what it was under his predecessors. A litany of what he has not changed would be the same as a litany of what was wrong with our country before he took over.

I have friends in high places who tell me that the system doesn’t allow him to act. But the truth is that Modi suffers from the same fatal conceit that Nehru displayed. He believes the economy needs a top-down manager. He would rather reform a public sector unit than sell it off. When he talks of ‘minimum government and maximum governance,’ as that catchy slogan went, he is speaking of making government more efficient and not at eliminating it entirely from areas where it has no business existing.

His conceit isn’t limited to his economic thinking, though. Look at how the man struts! He may not walk the walk in the sense of governance, but he certainly does in a catwalk sense. Once he was denied a US Visa; now he travels the world meeting the high and mighty. I wonder if he realises, though, that these global leaders give him importance because of the position he occupies, and not the man he is. I suspect he has actually drunk his Kool Aid, and believes the Modi Wave narrative of the last elections. He may be headed for a fall if so.

Look at the numbers from the 2014 general elections again. Our first-past-the-post system made it seem like a wipeout, as the BJP got 6.4 times the seats that Congress did. But they got just 1.6 the vote share of the Congress. It was 31% to 19%, and a 4% swing away from them next time could easily result in a hung parliament. They delivered outlier performances in states like UP, MP and Gujarat, which seem statistically impossible to repeat. And the following things are certain: Since the election, they have not won more supporters than they have lost; the turnout of their supporters is bound to be less the next time around; other parties, clear about what they are up against, will make smarter coalitions to consolidate the non-BJP vote; anti-incumbency will be a factor now that some of the Modi sheen is gone.

Modi behaves like the prime ministership was his destiny and he will win again easily in 2019. But if he doesn’t get his act together, reforming the economy and constraining the lunatic fringe in his party, he could be in for a surprise. India could choose another delusional politician over him, and 2014-2019 could be remembered as The Selfie Years.


Also read: ‘Lessons From 1975.’

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 October, 2015 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

Lessons From 1975

A shorter version of this was published as the 21st installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

In 1975, a Tamilian dressed as a sardar landed up in Ahmedabad Railway Station, in disguise to escape the might of the central government, for whom he was a wanted man. He was met there, and escorted to a safe house, by a 25-year-old who had once sold tea on the platform of that station. Freeze that moment in history – Narendra Modi escorting Subramanian Swamy to his safe house – and contrast it to today. What a long way we have come.

Or have we?

I got the above trivia from Coomi Kapoor’s excellent book, The Emergency: A Personal History. Kapoor was a journalist living in Delhi in those days, and though her book was timed to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Emergency, it is anyway a timely reminder of the damage that people drunk on power can do, and the threat that such untrammelled power can pose to a nation.

The Emergency began with the filling up of jails. “The number of those in Indira Gandhi’s prisons during the Emergency,” writes Kapoor, “far exceeded the total number jailed during the 1942 Quit India Movement.” This included not just opponents in the opposition parties but also potential ones within her own party plus whoever they damn well felt like. (“The entire Sanskrit department of Delhi University was sent to prison.”) Personal vendettas were quickly settled, and torture was common in the jails. Those close to power were more like despotic rulers than public servants. For example, Kapoor writes, “When an old and respected lawyer of Panipat denounced [Bansi] Lal’s corrupt rule, he was arrested and stripped naked, his face was tarred, and he was dragged all through the streets of the town.” Such behaviour was more rule than exception.

The exploits of Sanjay Gandhi and his coterie were particularly shameful. He wrongly believed that India’s population was a problem rather than a resource, and even more wrongly set about solving it through forced sterilisations. Millions of those took place, and the story of the village of Pipli is particularly illustrative of how they functioned. Hawa Singh, a widower, died there after a botched forced sterilisation, and the villagers refused to have anything more to do with family planning. On hearing that, the government sent “several hundred policemen” who “took up positions around the village.” Shots were fired, and “two women making cowdung cakes outside their huts were mowed down by the bullets.” The men surrendered, and hundreds of them were sterilized.

The press was silenced. Loren Jenkins of Newsweek wrote, “In 10 years of covering the world from Franco’s Spain to Mao’s China, I have never encountered such stringent and all encompassing censorship.” One of the leaders of the opposition, LK Advani, later said that the press “was asked to bend and it chose to crawl.” A permanent (and brutal) dictatorship seemed likely, and we owe much gratitude to the fact that power had made Indira delusional, for she actually called for elections only because she thought she would win. Had she not thought so, she would not have called for them. (Indeed, Sanjay was opposed to the decision.)

To be honest, a political leader does not need to suspend democracy to devastate a country. Even without the Emergency, the vile Indira Gandhi would count as one of the worst leaders in our history. Through a series of disastrous economic policies, many of which her deluded partymen still support, she kept tens of millions of people in poverty, and adversely affected all our lives. There are no counterfactuals, of course, and abstract economic arguments do not have the visceral impact of the kind of stories that Coomi Kapoor’s excellent book is filled with.

Let’s get back to the present. To many, the general elections of last year felt like a landmark event because Modi’s win seemed to mark a final, clean break from everything that post-Independence Congress stood for. However, Modi was not brought to power by a monolithic votebank, but by a collection of disparate groups, all of whom were desperate for change for different reasons. Modi was like a Rorschach test – he stood for whatever you wanted him to stand for, and what you saw in him revealed more about you than about him. Hindutva bhakts saw him as the former RSS pracharak who would finally make India a great Hindu nation; economic liberals saw him as the leader who would finally liberate India from the Leftist policies that had kept us backward all these years; and so on. Some of the expectations from him were contradictory; most were impractical, given the constraints of the way our political economy is structured. But Modi encouraged all of them by discouraging none of them. He didn’t say much on policy issues, stuck to safe bromides, and you never really knew to what extent he supported Hindutva or free markets or yada yada yada. He was strong and silent, and he remained strong partly because he remained silent. You could believe whatever you wanted about him – and because the existing government was so incompetent, you wanted to believe.

If campaigning was like courtship, governance is like marriage. You can’t be delusional about the object of your affection any more: you’re living with the fellow. And while it’s okay if he burps and farts in your presence, it is simply not okay if he beats you up just like the previous guy used to. So a year down the line, how is the Modi government doing?

If you’re an economic liberal like me, Modi has been a disappointment. It is with good reason that people are beginning to refer to this government as UPA 3. Modi has not instituted any far reaching reforms, and the rhetoric of ‘incremental reforms’ does not cut it for me. If a man has gangrene in his legs or cancer in his liver, you do not give him an aspirin and call it incremental reform. ‘Gangrene’ and ‘cancer’ do not need to be managed efficiently, but eliminated brutally. Anyway, this is a subject I’ll elaborate on a future column. For now, I will concede this: Modi’s government is no worse than UPA 2 was. And it’s fair enough to wait out the five years they have been given before passing judgement.

It is in the domain of personal freedoms, though, that Modi has let the country down. Much of this is due to petty vindinctiveness, straight out of the Indira Gandhi playbook. Consider how Teesta Setalvad has been harassed after Modi came to power, with the latest salvo being the cancellation of the license of her NGO. (Why should any organisation need a license from the government anyway? Wasn’t Modi the Messiah supposed to do away with this kind of nonsense?)  Consider the government’s harassment of NGOs like Greenpeace, and the offloading of Greenpeace campaigner Priya Pillai when she was on her way to England because officials felt she would give India a “negative image” there. Go online, search for videos of the recent Patel uprising in Ahmedabad, and see the brutality with which the police crack down on common citizens. (The Gujarat government also banned the mobile internet during this time, as well as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.) Consider all the nonsense the fringe elements on the Hindu right are getting up to, and the silence of the government on these issues – the same silence you would get from Indira very time she was confronted about the antics of her psychopathic son Sanjay.

Modi has not declared Emergency or jailed his opponents, but this approach to power does remind me of 1975, and make me wonder. Many of the prominent political actors of today played small roles in that particular production. Arun Jaitley spent the years of the Emergency in jail. In the hundreds of hours of solitary contemplation that he no doubt had, what did he think about? When the young party worker Narendra Modi guided Subramanian Swamy to his safe house, what did they talk about? Was it about how power always corrupts, the necessity to impose limits on it and the tragedy that politicians in India sought to rule rather than serve? Or did they simply say to each other, “Just wait. Just wait till we are on the other side, and we are the ones in charge.”

I suspect it was the latter. And what a loss that is.

Posted by Amit Varma on 18 September, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

The Great Redistribution

This is the 19th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

India is a poor country. We were poor when we became Independent in 1947, and while other countries have lifted themselves to wealth in that much time, we’re still poor. And government policies are the reason for our continuing poverty. For the last 68 years, since a group of white-skinned rulers handed over power to a bunch of brown-skinned rulers, all the governments that have run India have done one thing incredibly effectively: they have redistributed wealth from the poor to the rich.

Yes, you read that right: I’m not talking about redistribution from the rich to the poor, which itself would be an ineffective way of fighting poverty, but from the poor to the rich. They have taken money from the poor in our country and given it to the rich, and, as if to troll us, they have done this in the name of fighting poverty. For that reason, while there are some very rich people in our country, on average, as our GDP-per-capita indicates, we’re still a third-world country.

Let me take a recent event to illustrate what I mean. A few weeks ago, the central government announced that it would not allow foreign direct investment in retail e-commerce. Business Standard reported: ‘Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Nirmala Sitharaman last month met executives of Flipkart and Snapdeal and representatives from the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) to assess the impact of FDI on Indian e-commerce companies.’ The government then decided that it needed to protect the local players, and therefore did not allow FDI.

Do you see what happened here? Who benefits from competition? The consumers do. The greater the competition, the more value for money the common consumer gets. This is axiomatic. Our local retailers—all the people consulted by the ministers—were scared that their bottomline would be affected by this competition, so they successfully petitioned the government to block it. The result: the consumers will get less value than they otherwise would; the local retailers will make more money than if competition was allowed. In effect, it is a transfer of wealth from a large, dispersed group of consumers to a small, relatively wealthy interest group.

All tariffs have exactly this effect. Let’s say I like to buy widgets. Local manufacturers sell me widgets for Rs 100 each. Foreign manufacturers, for a variety of reasons from technology to labour, can sell me widgets for Rs 80. But the local manufacturers petition the government to put a tariff on imports, and the government puts a Rs. 30-per-widget tariff on the foreigners, so they don’t bother coming over. The net result: each of us loses a notional Rs 20. Who gets that money? The local manufacturers. What just happened? The government redistributed wealth from the relatively poor masses to a specific relatively rich interest group.

Governments that impose or continue tariffs will do so in the name of protecting the domestic industry. But at whose cost? The French economist Frédéric Bastiat once wrote a great essay called ‘What is Seen and What is Not Seen’, which speaks of the hidden effects of such actions. What is seen here is the good done to one specific group of people (with money usurped from a poorer group, which by itself is surely morally wrong). What is not seen is what the consumers would have done with that money. They would have spent it or invested it, and it would have gone back into the economy, creating growth and employment. But the potential beneficiaries of that are not even aware of what didn’t happen.

Subsidies are also redistribution of the reverse-Robin Hood kind, if in a more obvious way. The wealth taken from the poor is not in terms of marketplace prices or value for money, but is taken directly from your taxes. And while the poor may not file income tax returns, they pay taxes too. Every time your maidservant buys a bag of salt or the beggar at the nearby traffic signal buys soap, they are contributing to the Rich Interest Group Benefit Fund. This is not just poor economics –  it is morally wrong.

Here’s the upshot: All interventions in free markets amount to a redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich. Anything that reduces competition or artificially raises costs for the consumers amounts to just this. Restrictions on FDI, tariffs, licensing processes or regulations that make it harder to open a business or to run it, subsidies; and so on. The interest groups to benefit may differ in each case, and will often include rent-seeking forces within the government, but always, without exception, the wealth will flow, in relative terms, from the poor to the rich.

So why don’t we protest, you ask, given that we are a democracy? Well, think about the winners and the losers here. The costs of such redistribution are dispersed among more than a billion of us, and the benefits are concentrated to a few. If Rs 2 from the taxes you paid last year went as a subsidy to the widget industry, you won’t even know or care. The widget industry, making millions from the accumulated Rs 2s, will care, and will lobby aggressively, contribute to party coffers, buy off politicians and bureaucrats – whatever it takes. That is why government policy is not dictated by the people at large, but by the aggressive lobbying of hundreds of interest groups, out to make a killing at the expense of the poor. That is why government grows and grows, and so many constraints are placed on the only force that can make us wealthy: economic freedom.

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 July, 2015 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Politics

The Price is Right

This is the 18th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

A few days ago, I got ready for a meeting, switched on my Uber app, saw that there were no taxis available in my area, and remembered an earthquake.

More than two decades ago, when I was in college in Pune, an earthquake ravaged the region of Latur. I got together with some friends to collect money for relief efforts. We decided that we would go to the affected areas ourselves to figure out the most efficient way of using the money. We hitched a ride on an ambulance of paramedics headed there with medical supplies. While in the affected district, we stopped at a village where around half the houses had been destroyed, and only one grocery store was still standing. “They are the only place one can buy groceries from,” a resident complained to us bitterly, “and they have tripled their prices.” That made me very angry. “Exploitative bastards,” I thought to myself, “feeding off the misery of others.”

Today, I know that my reaction was misplaced – just like the complaints of everyone who’s taken issue with Uber’s dynamic pricing. In case you missed the controversy, cabs and autos in Mumbai recently went on strike to protest against the competition they got from the likes of Uber and Ola. Since people had to get to work, the ironic short-term beneficiaries of this were the very parties they were protesting against. So when demand for a particular product or service goes up and supply can’t keep pace, what happens? That’s right, the prices go up, and Uber uses a mechanism called dynamic pricing which is an incredibly efficient way of arriving at an appropriate price for their service based on demand and supply. So commuters who switched on their Uber apps in the morning were informed that the base price had gone up by as much as 5x. Naturally there was much outrage and shouts of ‘exploitation’ and ‘predatory pricing’, and Uber, rattled by the bad press, announced that they would suspend dynamic pricing for the duration of the strike, and operate at their usual base fare. They put this into effect, and I woke up the next day, switched on my app, and found that no Uber cab was available.

Do you see what happened here? When demand goes up relative to supply, two things can happen. The price can go up to reflect the growth in demand; or, if the price is fixed, there is inevitably a shortage of the product or service in question. In Uber’s case, with their dynamic pricing disabled, all their cars quickly got booked, and whichever customers switched on their apps after that found that there were no cars available. Their need could have been urgent: they may have needed to rush to the airport to catch a flight they couldn’t afford to miss; or take an aging relative to hospital; or head to town for a make-or-break meeting. But even if they were willing to pay more, too bad.

The most efficient way of allocating resources is to let things find their own equilibrium, their own prices. Price controls are foolish and never work. And the demand for them is based on a sort of a fantasy. Fixing the price of a product at a base price below what the market would pay does not mean that everyone gets it at this price—it just means that a lucky few get it and the others don’t. The fundamental truth about the universe is this: everything is scarce. You can’t wish this scarcity away by agitating or legislating against it.

*  *  *

Speaking of prices, another company that disrupted an industry, Amazon, has announced that it will pay authors on its Kindle direct publishing program according to pages read, not units moved. This is an opt-in program, applying only to self-published authors on their DP platform, but authors on my Facebook timeline have already reacted with horror. Their instinctive aversion to the idea is understandable: commoditization of art and all that. As in the movies, they can imagine a publishing executive in a suit telling them to clip their novel by 30% and have only one 8-letter-word-per-100,000 because more than that diminishes page-turning rate. The horror! But those fears are overblown. I think this development, like almost everything Amazon has done with regard to books, is visionary and good for authors.

Look, there isn’t, and shouldn’t be, a central politburo that decides how much authors get paid according to some high-falutin notions of literary merit. Authors get paid, quite simply, based on copies sold, and how many people want to read them. Literary authors accept that they will not make remotely as much as those who write airport potboilers. That’s just fine, because if they’re good at what they do, they’ll find an audience that appreciates their work anyway.

Amazon’s new system achieves the same end—paying writers according to the demand for their writing—with greater granularity. Good literary writers will still make money – I devour every word Alice Munro or Anne Tyler write—because their work is compelling. But if I get bored with a writer after reading ten pages of his work, I don’t see why he deserves any more of my money than those ten pages represent.

It’s somewhat silly for an author to have a sense of entitlement, and believe that other people should pay him money even if he can’t produce work they want to read. As silly, indeed, as for an Uber user to feel entitled to the service at a lower price than others are willing to pay, at the expense, therefore, of the service provider. Such arrogance is priceless.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 July, 2015 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse

Letter From a Cow

This is the 17th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

Dear Amit

Thank you for the recent love song, She Mooooves Me, which you wrote and dedicated to ‘all the cows on Planet Earth’. Me and my friends here in England have it on loop on CowTube. There are few humans we like—you lot enslave us, molest us for milk every morning, and kill us and sell our meat after that. So we’re not very fond of your species. But you, Amit, we have always liked you, because you understand us, you’re a good listener, and you’re so so cute! But this is not mere fanmail. I am unwell right now, hugely under the weather, and I need to rant. And like I said, you’re a good listener. So here goes.

I won’t go into the details of my illness with you, except to say it’s not just a mere cold. Serious shit is going down, and I’m in a lot of pain everyday. And how am I being treated? With sugar pills. Sugar fuckin’ pills. Oh yes, you may pick your jaw up from the floor now, you don’t want a snail entering while you’re all astonished. (Happened to Lucy once.) This is for real, so let me quote from a report last month in the London Telegraph.

The report says: “British organic farmers are being forced to treat their livestock with homeopathic remedies under European Commission rules branded ‘scientifically illiterate’ by vets. Although homeopathy has been branded as ‘rubbish’ by the government’s Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies, organic farmers have been told they must try it first under an EU directive which came into force last year.”

Yes, that’s right. There are serious issues with my liver, I need antibiotics badly, the pain is excruciating, and my owners are being forced to treat me with bloody sugar pills! You’re a rationalist, Amit, I know you feel my pain right now. (Well, not literally, for that you’d need my liver, but you know what I mean.) That some humans believe in this nonsense is understandable, you’re a nonsense species, and by all means do whatever you want to yourselves. But why force it on us cows?

I first got to know homeopathy was bunkum thanks to your writings. First, there’s the science behind it. The idea of homeopathy is that the substance that is to be used to treat the patient is so diluted that it is unlikely that there is a single molecule of the substance in the pills the patient ends up consuming. As Martin Gardner once said, it is “equivalent to taking one grain of rice, crushing it to a powder, dissolving it in a sphere of water the size of the solar system, with the sun at the centre and the orbit of Pluto at the outside, and then repeating that process 2 million times.” My mind boggles at imagining the scale of this: not the solar system, but the idiocy.

Naturally, homeopathy doesn’t work. The standard scientific way of testing medicines is via double-blind placebo-controlled tests, and homeopathy has repeatedly failed those. I have read accounts of this in two great books you recommended, Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst. I no longer have copies of those books – let’s just say that they’ve been chewed and digested – but I recommend them to all those who wish to argue with me on the subject.

My friend Lucy is not into books, though – that’s why her brain is full of grass. And she said to me the other day, “Well, I had indigestion from accidentally swallowing a snail, and I was given homeopathy, and now I’m fine. So surely it works.” I get this all the time, which proves that some cows can be as thick as some humans. So I explained to Lucy the fallacies in such thinking.

First, I told her about the placebo effect. Sometimes, even if you’ve been given a pill containing no medicine at all, if you think you’ve been given proper medicine, you start responding to it. In Bad Science Goldacre wrote about an American anaesthetist during World War 2, Henry Beecher, who had to perform an operation on a soldier with “horrific injuries”. Morphine wasn’t available so he used salt water. And it worked! The placebo effect is an incredibly powerful and well documented effect, which is why when new medicines are tested, they are tested against placebos. Only if they do better than placebos are they considered effective. Homeopathic medicines always fail these tests, because hey, they’re just sugar pills as well.

Another phenomenon I explained to Lucy is regression to the mean. Many ailments work in a natural cycle, where you get worse and then get better, quite on your own. This is true for colds, backaches, migraines, and also Lucy’s indigestion. But if you are inclined to believe that a particular treatment works, you will take the medicine, get better on your own, and ascribe it to the medicine. This is the Confirmation Bias at work, and also that other one, I forget the name, you write about it often, which mistakes correlation for causation.

Anyway, so I patiently explained all this to Lucy, and you know what she did? She said ‘Whatever.’ Then she swished her tail, turned around and stepped into a pile of her own dung. I’d do a facepalm if I could.

Anyway, enough ranting. I just want to thank you again for your song. If you’ve visiting England sometime, please come over to the farm and meet the girls, we’d be sooooo happy. We can’t offer much in terms of hospitality, but I’ll gladly share my sugar pills with you.

Yours forever

Dorothy (but you can call me Dotty, tee hee).

*  *  *

And from XKCD:


(Previous posts on cows: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31 , 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69, 70, 71, 72, 73, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81, 82, 83, 84, 85, 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108, 109, 110, 111, 112, 113, 114, 115, 116.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 May, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Old memes | Cows | Science and Technology

Why I Loved and Left Poker

This is the 42nd and last installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

This is the 42nd and final installment of Range Rover, and I end this column at an appropriate time: after around five years of being a professional poker player, I have stopped playing fulltime, and am getting back to writing books. I am the first winning player i know to walk away from this game – but more than the money, I cherish the life lessons that poker has given me. As I sign off, let me share two of them: the first accounts, to some extent, for my love of the game; the second is the reason I am leaving it.

Poker is a game centred around the long term. The public image of poker is based around hands we see in movies or YouTube videos, and the beginner fantasizes about specific events, spectacular hands in which he pulls off a big bluff or deceives someone into stacking off to him. But once you go deeper into the game, you learn that short-term outcomes are largely determined by luck, and your skill only manifests itself in the long run. You learn to not be results-oriented but process-oriented, to just make the optimal move at every opportunity and ignore immediate outcomes. You learn, viscerally, for much money and pride is involved, the same lesson that the Bhagavad Gita teaches: Don’t worry about the fruits of your action, just do the right thing.

Needless to say, this applies to life as well. Luck plays a far bigger part in our lives than we realise: the very fact that you are literate enough to read this, presumably on a device you own, means you have already won the lottery of life. Much of what happens to us and around us is outside our control, and we would be foolish to ascribe meaning to these, or to let them affect us. Too many players I know let short-term wins and losses affect them, and become either arrogant or angry. This is folly. Equanimity is the key to being profitable in poker – and happy in life.

Why am I leaving a game that has given me so much? There are many reasons: Poker is all-consuming, and impacts one’s health and lifestyle; my real calling is to write, and I am pregnant with books that demand labour; but one key reason is that poker is a zero-sum game.

In life, you benefit when others do too. When two people transact a business deal, they do so because both gain value from it. When lovers kiss, the net happiness of both goes up. Life is a positive-sum game. But poker is not. You can only win if someone else loses, and the main skill in poker is exploiting the mistakes of others.

Now, all sport is zero-sum and consenting adults play this game, so this should not be a problem—except for the fact that poker lies on the intersection of sport and gambling. Gambling addiction destroys lives and families just as drug or alcohol addiction do, and i have seen this happen to people around me. I can sit at a poker table and calculate equities and figure out game-theoretically optimal ways of playing—but where is the nobility in this when my opponent is not doing likewise, but is a mindless slave to the dopamine rushes in his head? In the live games I played, I sometimes felt that there was no difference between me and a drug dealer: we were both exploiting someone else’s addiction.

When I write books, i have a shot at enriching myself by enriching others. This can never happen in poker. And so, my friends, goodbye.

*  *  *

Addendum: You can read all the archives of my column on the Range Rover homepage. Here, briefly, are some I enjoyed writing.

My first column, The Bookshop Romeo, talks about the importance of thinking in terms of ranges, and its applicability to life. The Numbers Game and The Answer is 42 are about the importance of mathematics in poker. Make no Mistake, Finding Your Edge, The Colors of Money, The Cigarette Case and The Importance of Profiling deal with some basics of exploitive poker, while The Balancing Act, Miller’s Pyramid and Imagine You’re a Computer  talk about game-theory optimal (GTO) poker. Om Namah Volume is about the importance of putting volume.

I had great fun writing this series of pieces of probability, randomness and the nature of luck in poker and in life: Unlikely is Inevitable; Black Cats at the Poker Table; Running Good. I fed into my interest in cognitive psychology and behavioural economics for those pieces, as I did for these: The Interpreter; Poker at Lake Wobegon; Keep Calm and Carry On; The Endowment Effect; Steve Jobs and his Black Turtleneck.

Beast vs Human and The Zen Master Speaks deal with temperamental aspects of poker. The Game Outside the Game is about the politics of access, and Raking Bad about the ill effects of excessive rake. Sweet Dopamine talks about poker as an addiction, and The Dark Game and The Second Game of Dice expand upon this subject using personal experience.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 May, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Personal | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

Steve Jobs and his Black Turtleneck

This is the 41st installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

The next time you are sitting at a poker table, faced with a big decision for a lot of money, take a few seconds off and think of Steve Jobs, naked after his morning shower, walking to his closet to pick out the clothes he will wear for the day. Does he tank over what to wear? No, he doesn’t. He just takes out a black turtleneck, a pair of jeans, and that’s his outfit for the day. Through the last years of his life, in fact, that was his outfit for every day.

Jobs wasn’t lazy or devoid of imagination. He had just cottoned on to a phenomenon called Decision Fatigue. Basically, neurologists have found that every decision you take tires you out a little bit, and robs you of energy. Through the day, Decision Fatigue accumulates, as you get more and more pooped. So if you want to use your energy optimally, the smart thing to do is to automate all trivial decisions, or get them over with quickly, so you can bring all your powers to bear on the big decisions that really matter. Basically, don’t sweat the small stuff.

Jobs did this by wearing the same outfit every day, as does Mark Zuckerberg, thus eliminating one early decision at the start of the day. You could do this by having the same breakfast every day (or letting someone else decide for you), parking in the first available spot instead of searching for the perfect one, and so on. One way to deal with Decision Fatigue is by Satisficing. When I shop, for example, I don’t look for the perfect item to buy, but pick the first adequate one. This is Satisficing: making quick and easy decisions instead of perfect ones. If I’m buying a TV or a T-shirt or a portable hard drive, I won’t agonise for hours over all the different models available, but just pick the first one that seems satisfactory. I’ll devote more scrutiny to big ticket items that really matter—like buying a house, for example.

Consider the implications of this for poker. Poker players typically play sessions that last for many hours, sometimes upwards of 15, which is tiring in itself. They have to stay focussed, observe the action even when they’re not in the hand, and in live games, where such things matter, interact with others for the sake of conviviality. Add to this Decision Fatigue. In any session, you will face dozens of decisions, some of them big ones, increasing the likelihood of your getting exhausted as the session goes on, and thus more prone to errors. So what is one to do?

The obvious answer is to automate. At a beginner level, if you have a starting hand chart for every position, at least those preflop decisions won’t consume energy. As you grow into the game, you can have default decisions for more and more situations. But there is one huge problem with playing like this: you run the risk of becoming predictable, and therefore, exploitable. As you rise up the stakes in poker, you need to start balancing your ranges. This involves a huge amount of work off the table, so that decisions are easy while actually playing. I think of it as akin to a batsman spending thousands of hours in the nets till it becomes reflexive for him, in a match, to lean into an elegant cover-drive against a half volley outside off. Test cricketers don’t actually make a decision on every ball when they are batting; they just follow their reflexes. They have to hone their second nature.

This is why online grinders, whether they are playing cash games or tourneys, multi-table with such ease. Most decisions are automated. Of course, since most of us are playing exploitive poker instead of GTO, we also have to be observant for mistakes to exploit—but even this becomes second nature with practice and hard work off the tables. So here’s my takeaway from this: to reduce decision fatigue at the tables, and to become a better player overall, you need to put in lots of work off the tables. If you do that, there’ll be many black turtlenecks and jeans ahead of you, and Steve Jobs won’t be naked no more.

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 May, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Lamborghini

This is the 16th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

I saw the strangest thing the other day. Out on the road, there was a sleek Lamborghini with a man in a dhoti-kurta at the driver’s seat. His hands weren’t on the wheel. Instead, he held a whip in his right hand, which extended out of his window, and he was whipping a couple of bullocks tied to the front of the car. The engine was off; the bullocks were pulling the car.

Now, okay, this is perhaps a bit too weird even for India, and I confess that I didn’t see exactly this. But I did witness something very close. I was watching the IPL.

Twenty20 cricket is a relatively new form of the game which makes new demands on the teams that play it. Like a bullock cart driver who has just been given a Lamborghini, the men who run the teams and play for them haven’t quite come to terms with this. So they continue to whip the bullocks. When one-day cricket was born, teams played it much like they would a Test match—consider Sunil Gavaskar’s 36 not out in 1975 through 60 overs, and while that is an extreme example, consider the low par scores of those times. Eventually, players adapted. Even Gavaskar made a thrilling World Cup century before retiring, and par scores crept up until, as I wrote in my last installment of Lighthouse, they crossed 300 in the subcontinent, which was once an outlier score and not the norm.

Similarly, in T20 cricket, teams have basically adapted their ODI approach to this shorter format. So maybe they tonk in the powerplay at the start, then they consolidate and set a platform, then they tonk again towards the end. They often have freeflowing openers, but leave their hard-hitting maniacs, like Kieron Pollard of Mumbai Indians, to bat at the end. This is a flawed approach, because T20 is not just a modified version of ODIs, it’s a whole new format with its own imperatives.

First of all, consider that T20 cricket is played with the same number of players in each side as ODI cricket is: Eleven. This is not a banal point, but crucial to understanding how to approach the game. If T20 games were played 8-a-side, you would be justified in structuring your innings as you structure an ODI innings. But with 11 players, you have extra resources for the time given to you. Your task is to make sure these resources are not wasted, and are optimally used. If the hardest-hitting strokeplayer in the team routinely gets only four or five overs to bat, you are screwing up somewhere. So what should you do?

I’d written a piece after last year’s IPL for Cricinfo where I’d laid out what I felt was the biggest tactical advance of last year’s IPL: Frontloading. Basically, King’s XI Punjab decided to snort at the concept of building a platform, and just sent their hardest hitters upfront and treated every over as sides would usually treat overs 16-20. They attacked from the outset, with Glenn Maxwell, David Miller and George Bailey coming in at Nos. 3, 4 and 5, and sometimes if an early wicket fell, Wriddhiman Saha coming at 3, but also to tonk. Their frontloading ensured that batting resources were not wasted, and this approach got them off to an excellent start in the tournament. In contrast, Mumbai Indians consistently sent out their best hitter, Kieron Pollard, with just a handful of overs to go, and he had nowhere near the impact he could have had. Kolkata Knight Riders started poorly, but then adapted, dropped Jacques Kallis the accumulator, frontloaded the hitting, and things worked out. They also had a better bowling attack than Kings XI, and deservedly won the IPL.

This year has been bizarre. King’s XI, far from continuing to frontload, has reverted to traditional structures of building an innings, sending in Maxwell later than they did last year and even, at the time of writing this piece, dropping him from the side. Mumbai Indians haven’t learnt from their past mistakes, and continue to save Pollard for a dash at the end. They would be better served if Pollard and Corey Anderson batted 3 and 4, in whatever order, with Rohit Sharma opening. But no, they don’t use their elite V12 engine. The other day Mumbai Indians, with Pollard and Anderson mostly at the crease, added 81 runs between overs 16 to 20, but lost because the team scored too slowly in the first 15. What a waste. Imagine if they had scored those 81 runs between overs 6 to 10 instead. How nicely that would have set up the innings. Their chances of doing so between overs 6 to 10 were the same as between 16-20, but the upside of going for it early was far more and the downside the same. Keep the bullocks for later, if the engine fails.

The idea is not just to frontload resources but also to frontload intent. Every side doesn’t have a Maxwell or a Pollard. But whoever goes out there should attack, attack, attack. Sure, if a Starc or Malinga is on fire, play that one guy out. But otherwise go for it. Not only does it ensure you don’t waste batting resources, it also ensures that soft overs in between by lesser bowlers are not wasted. Batting strategies are so predictable that fielding captains can plan how to use their resources well, keeping their best restrictive bowlers, like Malinga, for the end of the innings. But what can they do if you’re going at them all the time?

The one team that has gotten frontloading right in this IPL so far is the Chennai Super Kings. Brendan McCullum and Dwayne Smith play every over like it’s the 18th of the innings, and Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni, two outstanding strokeplayers, follow at Nos. 3 and 4. This is exactly right, and good captaincy. Of course, Chennai also have an excellent bowling attack, which is why they’re among the favourites in the IPL year after year. All things being equal between teams, though, frontloading makes the difference. So when you have a Lamborghini, drive the damn thing.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 May, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Sport

The Zen Master Speaks

This is the 40th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Once upon a time, a poker player went to a Zen master in the hills, Quiet River, and prostrated himself at his feet. ‘Sensei Quiet River,’ he said, ‘I have something I need to ask you. I am a poker player. But I am not as good as I can be, despite studying both the mathematical intricacies of the game and the psychological tendencies of others. Something is missing. I need you tell me what it is?’

Sensei Quiet River just looked into his eyes.

‘Here,’ said the poker player, whipping out his smartphone. ‘I have all my hand histories here. Let me play them for you. Please tell me my leaks.’ He switched on the hand replayer on his phone and held it up in front of the Sensei. But the Sensei ignored it and kept staring into the player’s eyes. Many seconds passed. Finally, the player understood.

‘I get it now,’ he says. ‘The problem is not in the math or the psychology. The problem is me.’

Sensei Quiet River smiled.

In the last installment of Range Rover I wrote, ‘We lose money in poker not because we think too little but because we feel too much.’ I promised to elaborate on it this week, so here goes.

Poker is a challenging game not because of mathematical complexity but because of human frailty. You can master it in a technical sense: you can understand equities, put people on ranges accurately, balance your own ranges, and so on. You will never be perfect at this, but you can easily be adequate for the games you play. But technique is half the story; temperament is the other half.

Even if you know all the right moves to make, you still need to have the discipline to detach yourself from the short-term outcomes of hands or sessions and play correctly. It’s hard to do this: we are all emotional creatures, casting a veneer of rationality on our reptile brains. We get tired, upset, elated, impatient; we give in to greed, sloth, arrogance, and, most of all, anger. Every poker player is familiar with a phenomenon called ‘Tilt’? What is tilt? The sports psychologist Jared Tendler, writer of a brilliant book called The Mental Game of Poker, describes it as “anger+bad play.” We get angry, so we play bad. And why do we get angry?

In his book, Tendler identifies different kinds of tilt. There’s Injustice Tilt, where you feel you are getting unluckier than others, and it’s just not fair. There’s Revenge Tilt, where you take things personally against certain other players at the table (maybe they gave you a bad beat, or they 3b you frequently). There’s Entitlement Tilt, where you feel you deserve to win more than you are, because you’re better dammit. And so on.

Our emotional condition at any point in time can cause us to play sub-optimally, even when we know what the optimal play is. This is most likely to happen at times of stress, and poker is an incredibly stressful activity, because there is always lots of money involved – not to mention ego. We often equate our sense of self and our well-being with the money we have – though we shouldn’t – and having it taken from us can destroy our emotional equalibrium. It isn’t easy, as that saying goes, to keep calm and carry on.

Let me now end this column with a tip. The next time you are at a poker table, facing a difficult decision, buffeted by emotions, here’s what I want you to do: Imagine that Sensei Quiet River is standing by your side. What would he do in your place? Do exactly that, and see him smile.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 April, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

Imagine You Are A Computer

This is the 39th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Being human sucks in many ways, but one of its great advantages is that little thing called the imagination. We can imagine away our frailties and pretend to rise above our cognitive limitations. We are all Walter Mitty and Mungerilal, so this following thought experiment should appeal to you. Imagine that you are not a human being, but a computer designed to play poker perfectly and take the money of puny humans. Now tell me: what would change in the way you play the game? (Pause and think about this before you go to the next para, please.)

If you were God, you would know what cards your opponents held and the rundowns of all future boards. But as a computer, you wouldn’t need that information. You would play game-theory optimal (GTO) poker, with a strategy guaranteed not to lose in the long run regardless of the hands others might have or what they might do with them. Most of us humans, on the other hand, play exploitive poker, for which the hands and tendencies of others do matter. Let me illustrate the difference.

You are heads up in a hand, and on the river make a pot-size bet. Your opponent is getting 2 to 1 to call, and needs to be right one in three times to break even. Now, the aim of GTO poker is to make your opponent indifferent to calling or folding. You will do this by having what is known as a ‘balanced’ range jn this spot. Because you are offering him 2 to 1, a balanced range here would have 1/3 bluffs and 2/3 value hands. (Note that the composition of a balanced range depends on bet sizing, or the odds you give the opponent. If you bet half-pot, giving him 3 to 1, a balanced range would have 75% value hands.) Being balanced in any spot means that your opponent has to play perfectly to break even—and if he calls too much or folds too much, you make money. Basically, you cannot lose, and are thus likely to win.

Unless you’re playing high stakes online cash games, you’re unlikely to ever actually need to play GTO. The cash-game poker I play is exploitive poker. I try to identify mistakes my opponents tend to make and exploit them. In the above example, if my opponent tends to give up too often on the river, I will increase the number of bluffs in my range. If he is a calling machine and never folds, I will have 100% value bets in my range. While this is exploitive, this is also exploitable. By deviating from GTO to exploit his mistakes, I offer him (or someone else) a chance to exploit me. If i start bluffing more because he folds too much, he, or another player, could increase their calling frequency against me.

A computer would aim to play GTO poker, and it would do this by building balanced ranges for every spot, starting from preflop, across streets and board textures. This is incredibly complicated, and humans can just come to an approximation of this. This is useful, for understanding balanced ranges help us understand our own mistakes, and those of others, even if we don’t actually intend to play GTO poker. But my question at the start of this piece was not supposed to turn into a lecture on game theory. Indeed, my own answer to that question has nothing to do with game theory or exploiting others.

In any game I play, I tend to assume, correctly so far, that I can acquire the technical knowledge to beat the game. My big leaks are temperamental ones. If i was a computer, I would not feel any emotion, and would thus avoid all the pitfalls of being human at a poker table. We lose money in poker not because we think too little but because we feel too much. I shall elaborate on this in my next column.


Also read:

The Balancing Act
Miller’s Pyramid

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 April, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

The New Face of Cricket

This is the 15th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

One trend that never goes out of fashion is lamenting the present, claiming that things were better in the past. Logically, one would not expect this to be the case in sport. After all, most sports seem close to their zenith at any given point in time. Usain Bolt is way faster than Carl Lewis, Federer and Nadal would whoop McEnroe or Becker’s ass, Magnus Carlsen would probably beat Bobby Fischer. Better technology (including in training) and more accumulated knowledge about the past make this inevitable. The one sport that seems to defy this sort of analysis, though, is cricket.

We cricket romantics still speak of Don Bradman as the greatest batsman ever, of the West Indies pace quartet of the 70s and 80s as the best fast bowling attack, and we still sigh when we remember India’s famous spin quartet. Recently, a poll named Viv Richards, from the neolithic age of one-day cricket, as the greatest ODI player ever. And while batting records have been taken apart recently, including in this World Cup, cricket tragics ascribe this to a shift in the contest between bat and ball, the heavier bats which enable top edges to go for six, batsman-skewed field restrictions, and so on. This is a valid point, but it’s not the whole truth. My contention is that the game has evolved significantly in the last few years, and—please don’t burn me at the stake for saying this—Twenty20 cricket has been a hugely positive influence on the way cricket is played.

T20 cricket gets a lot of flak, and while much of the criticism about its commercial structure is justified, I don’t agree with any of the criticism about its cricketing value. Test cricket snobs complain that T20s are just a slogfest, but this is far from true. Bowlers have been hugely influential in the IPL, and every side that has won has done so because its bowlers stepped up and influences the game. Think Narine, Malinga, Ashwin, Warne. Just because bowlers go at 7 an over instead of 5, as in ODIs, doesn’t mean the fundamental nature of the game has changed. The goalposts have shifted, the parameters have changed, but the game is still a contest between bat and ball. If it wasn’t, the sides would just go out and have a slog-off against bowling machines, and teams would pick 11 specialist batsmen.

What has changed, though, is that batting has evolved to adapt to the challenges and constraints of a 20-over-a-side game. (And bowling has changed as a response to this.) When one-day cricket began in the 1970s, for example, games were 60-overs-a-side and batsmen approached their innings must as they approached Test matches. The traditional virtues of the game were still applicable, and a run-rate of 4 through an innings was acceptable. If a side scored 250, you’d say their batsmen did well, and not that the opposition’s side’s bowlers did a great job, as would be the case today.

One-day cricket underwent a change through the 90s, as sides began to exploit the field restrictions at the start of the innings. Opening batsmen before Sanath Jayasuriya had gone berserk, like Mark Greatbatch in the 1992 World Cup, but the Sri Lankans of 1996 were the first to treat it as a philosophy, not a tactic. The change in approach saw generally higher scores in ODIs, and a knock-off effect in Tests.

The T20 revolution, and specifically the IPL, turbo-charged the game.  Twenty20 did not deserve any of the disdain it was greeted with: if we don’t diss football games for lasting 90 minutes or tennis matches for getting over in an afternoon, then why mock a three-hour game of cricket? Cricket is a beautiful sport, and the T20 format offers all the drama and nuance that any other sport in the world possesses. And because of the constraints of time, the format demands more out of both batsmen and bowlers than cricket did earlier. In T20 cricket, you have to optimise. To understand the creature that emerges from this, consider the insanely talented Glenn Maxwell.

The most remarkable graphic I saw during this World Cup was one the broadcasters showed after a cameo by Maxwell in this World Cup. It showed where bowlers bowled to him and where he hit them. Most of the balls pitched on off or outside disappeared on the leg side; most of the balls pitched straight or on leg were whacked on the off side. This is not because he got randomly funky. There was a method to his madness.

In the past, batsmen would carry a mental map of where the field was, and adjust to the ball according to that. Now they adjust to the field before the ball is bowled, and dance around the crease and set themselves up accordingly. If point and third man are up and a spinner is bowling, Maxwell is very likely to set up a reverse sweep, which in his hands is an orthodox stroke, like a cover drive or pull, with a similar risk-reward ratio. It doesn’t matter if the ball pitches two inches outside leg; he’s already decided where it’s going to go. And he plays like this from ball one. In that graphic in question, the bowlers actually bowled to their field; and he batted to that field too.

Players like Maxwell and AB deVilliers, who is known as a ‘360°-batsman’ because he can hit the ball to any part of the ground and plays as if the stumps aren’t there, have transformed the game with their inventiveness (and enormous talent), playing strokes that Richards, or even the recent Tendulkar for that matter, couldn’t have conceived. And they are not alone. Every team is optimising, and we have seen the knock-on effect this has had on ODIs in this World Cup, where, I submit, batsmen not only scored more runs than before, but also batted better. You will see Test matches transformed by this as well. I predict more successful fourth-innings chases of 300-plus in the next ten years than in the last 30. Hold me to this.

Having said this, I would not argue with measures by administrators to tilt the balance more towards bowlers. One could mess around with field restrictions, and I certainly think the 10-over limit on how much a bowler can bowl should go: there aren’t corresponding limits on batsmen. But please, do not say that there is no longer a contest between bat and ball. The two main contenders for the man-of-the-series award in this World Cup were bowlers (Starc and Boult), and a bowling performance got MOTM in the finals (Faulkner). When Mitchell Starc spears in that yorker at 150kmph to Brendan McCullum, after setting him up with two fierce dot balls, you know the game is doing just fine.

Posted by Amit Varma on 03 April, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse | Sport

Free Speech Does Not Mean Disruptive Heckling

This comment of mine was published a couple of days ago on Scroll.

Imagine Jerry Seinfeld is performing in India. A packed house is in attendance, getting rapturous as Seinfeld gets into his flow. And then, a bunch of hecklers from the Bajrang Dal disrupt the show. Seinfeld takes the interruption gracefully, but the hecklers won’t let him finish, and he eventually makes one last joke and then leaves the stage. What would your reaction be to this incident?

I would be aghast, and very clear on who was in the wrong: the hecklers. If the Bajrang Dal chaps protested that Seinfeld’s content was offensive to them, I’d say, “Ok, leave the premises then. And protest elsewhere by all means.” If they argued that they were expressing their right to free speech, and that protesting at their heckling was akin to censorship, it would be mildly ridiculous. To me, there would only be one guilty party here, the Bajrang Dal, and three wronged parties: the organisers, whose property rights were infringed upon by the hecklers; Seinfeld, who was not allowed to finish; and the audience, which did not get their money’s worth.

If you agree with my argument above, you would also agree, I suppose, that the principles involved hold regardless of the parties involved. So if I was at a Baba Ramdev show, and he expressed views repugnant to me, such as an attack on homosexuality, I would be disgusted, and the appropriate response to that would be to walk out and express my disgust elsewhere. But I would not have the right to disrupt his speech, and the organisers of that show would not have an obligation to offer me their platform for my views. In terms of principles, my heckling Ramdev off the stage would be exactly as wrong as the Bajrang Dal forcing Seinfeld to stop performing.

I write this, as you’d have guessed, in the context of the comedian Abish Mathew being booed off stage while performing at a Delhi college, and the subsequent defence of the hecklers in some quarters. Mathew is not Seinfeld or Ramdev, but the same principles that applied to their hypothetical hecklers apply to his. The hecklers in question were not expressing their right to free speech by disrupting the show. Free speech applies to one’s own space and to public spaces: I cannot enter someone’s house, abuse him, and protest when I am being thrown out that he is infringing upon my right to free speech. He is not; on the contrary, I am infringing upon his property. (In fact, as I argue here, the right to free speech is a property right.)

The hecklers should have protested outside the venue, or after the performance. To disturb the performance was graceless. To use another example, if I am at a Kishori Amonkar concert and am getting bored, I will quietly walk out. It would be incredibly boorish if I heckled her and made her stop. To argue that Mathew is not Kishori Amonkar, or that Seinfeld is classy and Ramdev is a bigot, is missing the point. The same principles apply.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 March, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | News

The Answer is 42

This is the 38th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

The answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything, according to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is 42. The computer that came up with this took 7.5 million years to calculate it, though the question for this answer wasn’t known. Well, I have a guess as to what it was.

My guess is that Douglas Adams was a keen connoisseur of Pot Limit Omaha, and he got into the following hand with his friend Richard Dawkins. Adams had T985ds, spades and diamonds, and the flop came K67, one spade and two diamonds, giving him a humongous wrap, a flush draw and a backdoor flush draw. Dawkins potted, Adams repotted, Dawkins jammed, Adams called. Dawkins had AAKKds, clubs and hearts, for top set. ‘Ha,’ he exclaimed, ‘I have the nuts. Take a hitchhike, my friend!’

‘Now, now, calm down,’ said Adams. ‘It is in your genes to be excitable, I know, but I must inform you that your top set is not the best hand here. Indeed, I am actually the favourite to win here.’

‘You’re kidding me,’ said Dawkins, as he looked at Adams’s cards in growing horror. ‘So what percent of the time do I win this hand?’

And that’s the question, dear reader, to which the answer is 42.

As it happens, the turn gave Adams a straight flush, at which point Dawkins became a militant atheist, as indeed am I, but that is not a matter on which I shall dwell today. Instead, I wish to bring up the role of numbers in poker. I have written before on how poker is a numbers game, and to master the game, you must master the math. In my last column, I wrote about the hard work involved in teaching yourself the game, much of which involved number-crunching. In response, my friend Rajat, a keen player with a recent live tournament win under his belt, tweeted: ‘I’m an old-school player, terrified of numbers. What advice for me?’ This is a reaction many people would have, so here’s what I have to say.

The mathematical laws that govern poker, and indeed, the universe, are not ‘new-school’ inventions. Just as an old-school physicist before the time of Newton was subject to the laws of gravity, so is poker subject to mathematical laws, rewarding those who master them. Indeed, ‘old-school’ players knew their math, as you will note from the vintage of David Sklansky’s The Theory of Poker (1983), and the musings of Doyle Brunson, a man who knew his fold equity, in Super System (1979). Since the internet boom in poker, the math behind the game has been far better understood, to the extent that a talented player who ignores the numbers is like a prodigious swimmer trying to cross an ocean but just refusing to get on a bloody boat.

All decisions in poker come down to the math of estimating pot equity and fold equity and making the best decision possible. You may use your ‘reads’ and psychological insights to get a better sense of your opponent’s range, and how likely he might be to act in a particular way, but all these merely help you come up with the right inputs. The answer, in the end, lies in the math. And here’s the thing: if you ignore the math, that doesn’t mean the math goes away. No, it’s working away in the background, like the laws of nature, ensuring the survival of the fittest – or those who adapt the best, as Dawkins would say.

If you have been winning at poker without caring too much about the math, it is either because you’re playing really soft games, or you’ve been lucky. The way the game is growing in India, both of these are bound to change. So here’s a thought for you: It is a truism in poker we must not be results-oriented, and should just focus on making the right decisions so that we show a profit in the long run. But how do we know what the right decisions are? The answer lies in asking the right questions – as Dawkins did to Adams.

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 March, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

Marching For Salt

March 12 is a special day in India’s history. On this day 85 years ago Mohandas Gandhi set off on a walk from Sabarmati Ashram near Ahmedabad. His destination was 390km away: Dandi,  a coastal village near Navsari in Gujarat, where he intended to produce salt from the sea, in defiance of the salt tax levied by the British empire in India. Both the man and the cause were extraordinary.

I am writing a book that examines, in part, India’s intellectual history from 1857 to today. And Gandhi causes severe cognitive dissonance. The prominent 19th century figures in India’s freedom movement were all influenced by British liberalism, their ideas were shaped by Mill, Bentham, Morley, even Adam Smith. One can draw a straight line from Dadabhai Naoroji through Mahadev Govind Ranade and Gopal Ganesh Agarkar to the great Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who called himself “an intellectual grandson of Dadabhai Naoroji.”  These were the famed Moderates of the Congress party, aiming at incrementalism when it came to policy, seeking not to fight the empire but to be equal subjects within it. The Moderates dominated the Congress until the mid-1910s, despite skirmishes with the Extremists within the party, men like Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Bipin Chandra Pal, whose preferred methods may have been different but whose aims weren’t all that different from that of the moderates. The Scottish statesman James Keir Hardie once described the Moderates as ‘extreme in moderation’ and the Extremists as ‘moderate in extremism’, and indeed, they weren’t really all that far apart.

Uptil this point, the narrative is coherent. Then comes Gandhi. It seems to me that Gandhi was a black swan event in the Indian independence movement: nothing that came before could explain his arrival; nothing that then existed seemed to demand his ascendance. Gandhi called Gokhale his political mentor, but ideologically the two men were poles apart.

Gandhi was not influenced by the British liberals who shaped Gokhale’s thinking, nor did his thinking have Indian antecedents. He arrived at non-violent non-cooperation through Tolstoy’s writings, later finding backup in Thoreau and the sermon on the mount. His luddite distrust of machinery and the idealisation of village life came from John Ruskin. He claimed the Bhagavad Gita as an influence, but some of this comes from finding post-facto validation of his prior beliefs in Indian texts. VS Naipaul once called him ‘the least Indian of Indian leaders’ – but his ideas weren’t part of the Western mainstream either. When a critic complained, in his South African years, that he was poorly read in modern philosophy, Gandhi responded, in the historian Ramachandra Guha’s words, that he “saw no reason to read more glosses of modern civilisation when he saw the thing itself unfold before his eyes.”

Shortly after Gandhi came back to India, his political patron Gokhale died, to be followed a few months later by another Moderate stalwart Pherozeshah Mehta. There was a tussle in the Congress between the Extremists, led by Tilak and Annie Besant, and the remaining moderates, men such as Motilal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Gandhi was a peripheral figure, considered somewhat eccentric by other Congress leaders, still on the margins and not yet a Mahatma. Indeed, in 1918 he spent some time trying to recruit soldiers to fight for the British in WW1, writing to the viceroy, Lord Chemsford, “I love the English nation, and I wish to evoke in every Indian the loyalty of the Englishman.” In this sentiment, he echoed the Moderates, and hardly presaged the uncompromising freedom fighter he would go on to become. A year later, as that decade came to an end, he shifted from the margins of the freedom struggle to its centre.

Gandhi’s first tactical masterstroke in domestic Indian politics was making common cause with the Khilafat movement. Muslim thinkers in India were often torn between loyalty to the qaum, the larger Muslim nation, and Indian nationalism. The Khilafat movement was an expression of the former, and was aimed at maintaining the supremacy of the caliph in Turkey in the aftermath of WW1, where Turkey was on the losing side and the British were the victors. Your enemy’s enemy must be your friend, and for Gandhi, this was as an opportunity in two ways: to reconcile the sometimes conflicting loyalties of the Muslims; and to widen the base of the somewhat elitist Congress.

Gandhi threw himself into the thick of things, turning the nominally transnational Khilafat movement into a nationalistic enterprise. “It is the duty of every non-Moslem Indian in every legitimate manner to assist his Mussulman brother, in his attempt to remove the religious calamity that has overtaken him,” he wrote in a resolution adapted by the Congress in a special session in Calcutta in 1920. His program of noncooperation was adopted by the Congress session later that year in Nagpur, from which Jinnah stormed out, never to return to the party he had expected to lead. “I part company with the Congress and Gandhi,” he said in an interview that year. “I do not believe in working up mass hysteria. Politics is a gentleman’s game.”

The coupling of Khilafat and Swaraj made no ideological sense – severe dissonance, again – but it was tactical genius. At a personal level, this support from a new constituency made Gandhi the undisputed leader of the Congress, and thus the Independence movement. At a national level, it helped make the Independence struggle a true mass movement. With the Congress under his sway, Gandhi launched a movement of noncooperation that animated the entire country. Satyagraha – the force of truth – was underway. The British had never seen anything like this in India – though Gandhi called it off in 1922 when protesters turned violent in the town of Chauri Chaura and killed 23 policemen, reportedly while shouting “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!” He even went on a fast, as penance for the crimes committed in his name. 30,000 people had already been imprisoned in the course of the movement, and the Khilafat leaders as well as his Congress colleagues did not take kindly to Gandhi’s unilateral decision to call off the Satyagraha. Soon, Gandhi was also arrested and sentenced to six years of prison – though he served only two, and the Khilafat movement wound up because, well, the Caliphate did. Swaraj was on hold.

Gandhi was on a hiatus for the middle years of that decade. “I am biding my time,” he wrote in a letter in 1928, “and you will find me leading the country in the field of politics when the country is ready. […] I have a plan for the country’s freedom.” When the Congress was next convened, it gave a deadline of a year to the British to grant India dominion status – failing which it would declare Independence. The year ended, the British ignored the demands of the natives, and on January 26, 1930, the Congress declared India’s Independence. But this alone was not enough. Another noncooperation movement, another satyagraha was required. What would be the focal point of this one?


In Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky relates a French folktale in which a princess tells her father “I love you like salt,” and is promptly banished by her father for insufficient adoration. But later, when he is denied salt, he realises “the depth of his daughter’s love” and repents. Salt is essential to humanity. Our bodies contain about 250gms of salt, but too many essential bodily functions rely on salt. “From the beginning of civilisation until about 100 years ago,” Kurlansky writes, “salt was one of the most sought-after commodities in human history.”

The first war over salt was fought by Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor of China, around 2600 BC. Salt had geopolitical significance, and even gave impetus to empire building. The first of the great roads built by the Romans, the Via Salaria, was constructed for the express purpose of transporting salt. Mediaval trade routes were shaped by salt. Salt was even currency; Roman soldiers were sometimes paid in salt, and the worlds ‘salary’ and ‘soldier’ both evolved from sal, the Latin word for salt. Indeed, consider the origin of the phrase you must have heard in countless Hindi films, “Maine aapka namak khaaya hai.”

The first mention of a tax on salt dates back to the 20th century BC, in China. “During the Tang Dynasty, which lasted from 618 to 907,” Kurlansky tells us, “half the revenue of the Chinese state was derived from salt.” Salt taxes were a certain way for any state to raise revenue, for even the poorest could not do without it. Salt was taxed in India from as far back as the reign of Chandragupta Maurya (340-298 BC), and the Mughals even charged differential salt taxes depending on religion. (Muslims paid 2.5%, Hindus paid 5%.) The British, starting with Robert Clive, the governor-general in 1765, raised it to unprecedented levels. To further compound matters, they killed off the domestic industry, and built a monopoly to the benefit of British salt manufacturers in Cheshire. By the early 1800s, only the British government could legally manufacture salt in India. A rebellion around salt in 1817 was quickly crushed, and by 1858, 10% of the British government’s revenues came from salt.

Gandhi wasn’t the first nationalist leader to protest about the tax on salt. SA Swaminath Iyer protested against it in the inaugural session of the Congress in 1885, as did Gopal Krishna Gokhale in 1890, and Dadabhai Naoroji called it “the most cruel Revenue imposed in any civilised country” in the House of Commons in 1894. The issue festered; the British ignored Indian fulminations; the salt tax was, in fact, doubled in 1923.

And so, Mohandas Gandhi’s Satyagraha hammer found a suitable nail in the salt tax.


Before the Satyagraha, Gandhi wrote in a letter to the Indian viceroy, Lord Irwin: “I regard this tax [on salt] to be the most iniquitous of all from the poor man’s standpoint. As the Independence movement is essentially for the poorest in the land, the beginning will be made with this evil. The wonder is that we have submitted to the cruel monopoly for so long.”

What happened in the Salt Satyagraha is common knowledge. Gandhi marched for 24 days and reached the coast of Dandi on April 6. C Rajagopalachari went on a similar march in Tamil Nadu. Vallabhbhai Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru had been arrested by the British, as was Gandhi shortly after the satyagraha. The British government made some minor concessions, but the salt tax remained in place until 1946. Gandhi had said that he would not return to Sabarmati Ashram until the tax was repealed. After March 12, when he set off on his walk, he never saw the Ashram again.

But here’s a thought, 85 years after that famous march to Dandi. There is a point of view that in 1947, all we did was replace a set of colonial rulers with a set of local rulers. We continued to be ruled; and we continued to be exploited. We gained political independence and the right to vote, but other freedoms, both in the economic and personal spheres, continue to be denied to us, just as the British denied them. Many of the laws that the British framed to suppress us, in the form of the Indian Penal Code, remain in place. If our freedom fighters, men like Naoroji and Gokhale and Rajaji and Patel were alive today, would they feel fulfilled at the India they saw around them? Would Gandhi?

When he reached Dandi, Gandhi picked up a fistful of salt in his hand as Sarojini Naidu, carried away by the moment, shouted “Hail deliverer!” She was right – and she was wrong: India still awaits deliverance.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 March, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India

We Are All Sharks

This is the 36th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

A few days ago, I was shooting the breeze with a friend of mine when he told me about a couple of business ventures he was planning, and the investors he’d lined up for them. ‘You won’t believe how gullible they are,’ he said. ‘If there’s one thing I’ve learned from poker, it’s how to find fish and exploit them. And there are so many fish in the business world.’

It’s a good thing I was sipping lemonade at the time and not my usual hot Americano, or I’d have singed myself. Having recovered from the shock of his statement, I shook my head sadly. Poker is a beautiful game, and it can teach you a lot about life. But the lesson my friend had learned was entirely the wrong one.

Poker is a zero-sum game. (A negative-sum game, in fact, if you’re playing a raked game.) The only way you can win money is if someone else loses it. So it’s natural that the key skill in poker lies in exploiting the mistakes of others, sometimes after inducing those mistakes in the first place. It is a mathematical exercise that plays on the frailties of human nature. The game is played by consenting adults, and as your opponents are also trying to exploit you and take your money, they’re fair game. But the real world works differently.

Life is a positive-sum game. This is most eloquently illustrated by what the libertarian writer John Stossel once described, in an old column, as the Double Thank You Moment. When you buy a cup of coffee at a café, you say ‘thank you’ when you are handed the coffee, and the person behind the counter says ‘thank you’ on receiving your money. Both of you are better off. Indeed, the vast majority of human transaction, including all business transactions, are like this. Both people benefit – or they wouldn’t be transacting in the first place.

This amazing phenomenon, which we take for granted, is responsible for the remarkable economic and technological progress of the last three centuries. The economies of nations across the world have grown in consonance with the rise of free markets within them. Think about it: if every transaction leads to both parties benefiting, and a consequent increase of value in the world, then the more people are free to transact, in whatever form, the more we progress as an economy and a society. This is why libertarians such as myself consider it a crime to clamp down on any kind of freedom, be it economic or social.

The positive-sumness of things is unintuitive, and many people reflexively speak of the world in zero-sum terms. For example, socialists, with all their talk of ‘exploitation’, the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor and the need for redistribution. But that is not how the world works; it is not a game of poker. Just as in poker there is no possibility of a Double Thank You Moment, in life, we can all be sharks.

So much for learning the wrong lesson from poker. What does poker teach us about life that is useful to us? Well, the most important lesson I have learnt from poker is not to be results-oriented. Luck plays a huge role in the short term, you only get what you deserve in the long run, so just focus on doing the right thing and don’t worry about the fruits of your actions. The Bhagawad Gita teaches the exact same lesson. Lord Krishna would have crushed the games.

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 February, 2015 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

An Economic Message from God

The editors of Okonomos, the economics journal of the Hansraj College in Delhi, asked me to write a guest article for the current issue of their magazine. Here it is.

Imagine one day God comes down to Earth. He’s an old man with a beard, hanging out in the clouds, and he latches onto the wing of a plane and sits there, cross-legged, until the flight lands. A communist man who took a reclining-emergency-row window seat for the legroom has to be taken off the plane on a stretcher, for he faints after seeing 1), a gentleman who is obviously God on the wing of the plane, and 2), the T-shirt God is wearing, which says, in fluorescent pink letters, ‘Free Markets Rule.’

God is instantly met by waiting paparazzi, and an impromptu press conference is convened. ‘Oh God,’ says an overwhelmed young lady, who appears to be on the brink of orgasm, or something equally divine, ‘Oh God, please tell us: why that T-shirt?’

‘I was hoping someone would ask me that,’ says God. ‘Or rather, I made you ask me that. This is why I have come down here. You should know that I’m a bit of an efficiency buff.  I made the universe, and then the earth, and then amoeba and fish and monkeys and all you folk, but the thing is, I was not much into micro-management. The universe is full of tons of shit, and fine-tuning every small aspect of each creation would take eternity. And while I do have that much time, why sweat the small stuff, so I decided to just put systems in place and take a nap.

‘When I went to sleep, there was primordial ooze. I put natural selection in place, and as I slept, evolution happened. I knew that something like you humans would eventually evolve, though I must confess I couldn’t have anticipated Honey Singh or Kim Kardashian. Wtf , really? Anyway, I put systems in place for you folk too, so you could reach reach your optimum levels as a species, in the pursuit of happiness. But when I wake up I find, hey, what’s going on here, the most beautiful, elegant aspect of my creation, which was meant to help you reach fulfilment, is being maligned. I’m talkin’ about free markets. So here I am, to put the record straight, and to set you on the right track as a species. So listen up carefully, because I won’t be back to repeat this: I have to rush after this to North-West Andromeda, and I could take quite a while there, a black hole has been acting up, keeps spitting galaxies out, wtf?’

‘Oh God,’ says the young lady we have already met, on the verge of rapture. ‘Tell us everything. Oh God!’

‘Right,’ says God. ‘Listen up, here come some basic truths about economics that are really just common sense, but you may consider them divine revelation if you wish.

One: Life is a Positive Sum game. Every time two people make a trade, they do so because both of them benefit. One of my blessed children, John Stossel, illustrated this by coining a phrase, ‘Double Thank You Moment.’ You buy a cup of coffee, and as you pay for it and take the cup, you say to the guy behind the counter, ‘Thank you,’ and he says the same thing to you. Two Thank Yous! And indeed, in every single transaction that takes place across the world, both people benefit, or they wouldn’t have entered into that transaction. This is how productivity goes up, how the amount of value in the world rises, how societies grow prosperous. For my sake, think about how drastic progress has been since the 18th century, when free markets started becoming common. Look at the two Koreas, identical once upon a time, and now so different because of the different paths they chose. And listen up, listen up, to what I say next:

‘Since every trade leads to both parties benefiting and value being created in the world, anyone who comes in the way of free trade anywhere is sinning. Yes, you heard me, it is a sin to get in the way of free enterprise. Tariffs and duties are evil, and regulations and license rajs are man’s way of trying to play God. Don’t you dare!

Two: Business is better than charity. Given what I told you above, how does a human being make money? Only by increasing the value in the lives of other people. Put another way, you can only enrich yourself by enriching others. That is exactly what business is. You make money by giving people what they want. The more value you create for others, the more value you create for yourself. Thus, it’s nonsensical to speak of a system where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In a free market, that’s not possible. The rich can only get richer if the poor also get richer.

‘And this is why I consider businesses better than charities. Both aim to help others, but the survival of businesses depends on their ability to do so, and I like those incentives better.

Three: Money Trickles Up, Not Down. No respectable economist has ever spoken of trickle-down economics. There is no such thing. It is a straw man. (You are all like straw to me, but never mind that.) In a free market, money trickles up, not down. In a business, it is the suppliers and the workers who get paid first, and the consumers who get served, and only then, right at the end, do the owners make any money. They are at the end of the chain. Ask anyone you know who runs a business how it works.

Four: Capitalists are among the biggest enemies of capitalism. Raghuram Rajan, a man I created in my own image (aren’t I handsome?), once co-wrote a book titled ‘Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists.’ Note that sentiment. People often think that defenders of free markets are defending the actions of evil capitalists and big businesses gaming the system. Wrong. Established capitalists are the ones who have the most to fear from competition, and they are the ones who lobby governments to manipulate markets in their favour. To take an example, look at India. When India gained Independence, a group of its top businessmen came up with something called the Bombay Plan, which was their vision of what the economy should be like. They wanted an interventionist state, with plenty of regulation and many curbs placed on free enterprise. Historians have presented this in support of the argument that hey, even capitalists wanted unfree markets, so free markets can’t be all that great, right? But think about it: of course the entrenched businesses would want government to keep out competition. Like, duh!

‘So beware of crony capitalists and the governments they partner with. And every time a new regulation or tax or tariff is introduced, consider who it is likely to benefit.

Five: Government is a false God. If offends me when people have blind faith in entities other than me. Like government. Governments came into being to serve the people and protect their rights, but instead, have ended up ruling the people and infringing their rights. Think about it, if any individual or group of people forced you to pay a third of your income every year to them, which effectively meant you were enslaved to them till April every year, you’d be pissed, and would correctly call them thieves. If they regulated all your activities, curtailed your freedom even when you were causing no harm to others, and took a cut of all your purchases, you’d feel that a mafia was running your life. But when an entity called government does all this, and sanctimoniously tells you that this is for your own good, and it’s your duty to obey it, you somehow accept it. And furthermore, you expect it to be the solution to all your problems, even when the biggest problems around you are caused by government itself. What a con job!

‘The biggest force in human progress over the last few centuries has been free enterprise. And the biggest enemy of free enterprise – indeed, a sinner in my books – is government. And yet, you worship this false God, while forgetting all about me and the beautiful, natural system I put in place for you, tailored perfectly to human nature. So here’s a commandment for you: Embrace freedom – and question everything that your governments do.’

God stops here, and the young lady we mentioned earlier takes advantage of the lull to shoot a quick selfie with Him. As soon as she clicks the button on her cellphone, God, having delivered His message, disappears. The communist man of the reclining-emergency-row disappears with him. And far away, in North-West Andromeda, an alumnus of JNU is hurled into a black hole and is promptly hurled back out, for it is a universal truth that all transactions should be voluntary.

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 February, 2015 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Politics

It’s All a Gamble

This is the 35th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Some people, when I tell them I play poker, look at me kind of strange. They may not say it, but inside their heads they’re saying, ‘OMG, he’s a gambler!’ And because I am skilled at getting inside people’s heads and listening to them think, inside my head I’m sayin’, ‘Yeah, and guess what, OMG OMG, you’re a gambler too!’

What is it that gamblers do? They weigh up the odds of a particular situation or event, the risk-to-reward ratio, and make a bet. This is not something that just happens inside casinos; this is the stuff of life.

You walk up to someone you fancy and ask them out for a date: you are gambling. You buy a stock: you’re betting on it to go up. You sell a stock: you’re betting on it to go down. You buy real estate: gamble. You buy a book because you like the blurb and the cover is amazing: ditto.

Little in life is certain, and everything is scarce, because time itself is scarce. You have one life, and the smallest decision you take today could change the course of your life. Maybe you have to choose between the PHD abroad or the comfortable job at home. Maybe you have to decide whether to say ‘yes’ to your boyfriend’s proposal when you know he’s not the dream guy, and you’re settling, and he hit you once when he was angry, but who knows if you’ll ever do better because you’re chubby, and you do love him sometimes. Maybe you get a puppy, betting that the love you get for a decade or so will be worth the pain you feel when it dies, as is inevitable. Everything you do, big or trivial, may be worth it, or it may be a mistake. And the thing with real life is, you’ll never know where the road not taken would have led. But you have to gamble; you have to choose.

Poker is slightly different. Poker is also gambling but it involves repeated small decisions with relatively little on the line on any particular occasion. And importantly, you get to put in volume. Even though luck plays a greater role in poker than in other sports or mindgames, it is not gambling gambling: if you’re skillful, you will eventually make a profit. Good poker players keep making, on average, profitable decisions, and though luck (or variance, as we grizzled vets call it) may hit them hard in the short run, in the long run they will end up winners. In life, on the other hand, as Keynes said, in the long run we’re dead.

A poker player can play a million hands or 20,000 tournaments, and those sample sizes are pretty good. You don’t get those in real life. How many times will you enter a romantic relationship? How often can you switch jobs? You get the drift.

There are different types of gambling. There are casino games like roulette, baccarat and craps in which, in the long run, you’re guaranteed to lose. I disapprove of playing those; it’s just giving money away. Then there’s life itself. You’re forced to gamble by circumstance, but it’s okay, life’s a positive-sum game; though one could argue that since we all die in the end, the final sum is zero. At least until then the odds aren’t weighed against you. And then there’s poker, in which, unlike in life, we can put in volume and bring the long run close. So, you, who do not play poker, don’t make fun of us and call us gamblers. All of us are born in a casino, and will die in one.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 February, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

The Kim Kardashian Liberals

This is the 13th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

You can hold a currency note up against the light, if you have been trained well, and detect whether it is real or fake. Is there a similar test that can help catch and expose a counterfeit liberal? Yes,  there is. It is the ‘but’ test. A counterfeit liberal is one who will espouse a liberal principle but then, immediately, before putting a full stop on the sentence, add the word ‘but’. And there’s always a universe after that ‘but’.

For example, a faux-liberal will say, “I believe in free speech, but…” Or “I believe in free markets, but…” That ‘but’ invalidates all that comes before it. Anyone who says he believes in free speech “but…” is not a liberal but a hypocrite. (And he doesn’t believe in free speech, obviously.) I have a term for these kinds of people, who abound in the Indian intellectual space. I call them Kim Kardashian Liberals. Too much But.

What is a true liberal then? I consider myself a classical liberal, and it disturbs me that the term is used so loosely these days. Our discourse has become muddy, and words like ‘rights’ and ‘freedom’ are used in such nebulous ways that conversations around these concepts often involve people talking past each other, with plenty of Buts swinging here and there. So, in a further effort to help you identify counterfeit liberals, beyond the simple but useful heuristic of keeping an eye out for Buts, let me elaborate upon what classical liberalism precisely means. Specifically: the first principles from which we arise at our support for freedom.

Many classical liberals arrive at their liberalism through natural rights. Are there any rights that we are born with? According to the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, the most basic right of all is the right to self-ownership. “Every man has a property in his own person,” Locke wrote. “This no Body has any right to but himself.” This is, to borrow a term Thomas Jefferson used in the Declaration of Independence, self-evident. When we are born, we own ourselves – it doesn’t make any sense that anyone else does, or that everyone communally does. Our right to self-ownership, of course, is contingent upon our respecting the corresponding rights of others.

All other rights emerge from the right to self-ownership. Our right to life, to start with, is a direct corollary of the right to self-ownership. The right to free speech, for we own our thoughts and their expression. The right to the fruits of our labours – or, essentially, the right to property. The right to freely associate with anyone we wish to, whether that interaction is social or economic. And what does freedom mean? It means freedom from an infringement of these rights.

Talk of rights often gets muddy because a new class of counterfeit rights has come up in the last few decades (created by counterfeit liberals, as you’d expect.) These are not really rights, but entitlements. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin helpfully coined the terms negative and positive rights to demarcate the difference. Negative rights are all rights that emerge from the right to self-ownership – like the right to life, to property, to free speech, to free trade and suchlike. To respect these rights of yours, people simply have to not infringe them. So someone not killing you is respecting your right to life, a government not censoring you is respecting your rights to free speech, and so on. This why they’re called negative rights. Positive rights, on the other hand, are not rights at all, but entitlements disguised as rights. The right to food, the right to education, the right to broadband etc are all positive rights. To honor these rights, someone has to actively give something to you. And as money doesn’t fall from the sky – if it did, there would be inflation, and God would effectively be taxing you – the only way to honor a positive right is to infringe a negative right. You have to tax Peter to give Paul his free broadband.

To a classical liberal, negative rights, which arise from the right to self-ownership, are the only kind of legitimate rights. All these rights, in a manner of speaking, are property rights, as they arise from the fact that you own yourself to begin with. Thinking in this manner, from these first principles, can bring clarity on a host of issues. People who want to suppress free speech for the cliched reason that “you can’t shout fire in a crowded theatre” are using a flawed example: a person shouting fire in a crowded theatre, whether he be the owner defrauding his patrons or a patron creating a disturbance on someone else’s property, is infringing on the rights of someone or the other in any case. All our rights are contingent upon respecting the corresponding rights of others, which this particular miscreant is not doing. You do not need to limit free speech to punish this particular troublemaker. (As you’d have guessed by now, I’m a free speech absolutist. No Buts.)

Seen through a prism of first principles, most public intellectuals in India do not have a coherent worldview. For example, a few years ago, a prominent columnist wrote about how he supported free speech when it came to MF Husain, because he was an artist, but not when it came to the Danish cartoonists, because, according to him, they were out to provoke. (So what if they were?) This position makes no sense. What are the first principles of this person here? Don’t ask him – he might put those Buts to good use and twerk you.

The hypocrisy that really staggers me regards free speech and free markets. A classical liberal supports both. Those on the left support only the former. Those on the right do it the other way around. This is bewildering. Once you have decided that two consenting adults should be able to do whatever they want with each other as long as they are not infringing on anyone else’s rights, what does it matter whether they are fucking or trading? But no, our Kim Kardashian Liberals will find something to object to, and there will be no coherence to their arguments.

Many classical liberals arrive at their support for freedom from a utilitarian standpoint. Free markets lead to economic prosperity; freedom of expression results in cultural growth; so they support both, without reference to natural rights. This is also a coherent way of arriving at liberalism. Kim Kardashian Liberals don’t show this coherence, and are soon unclothed.

*  *  *

Recently I came across Jim’s Rule of Buts, a creation of the blogger Jim Henley. The rule goes: “In any charged conversation, find any statements containing the conjunction ‘but’ and reverse the clauses.” This usually changes the meaning of the sentence completely. One example Henley gives is “the classic apology:” ‘I’m sorry I yelled at you, but what you said made me really angry’ means a completely different thing from ‘What you said made me really angry, but I’m sorry I yelled at you.’ If our Kim Kardashian Liberals had to follow this rule, a statement like ‘I believe in free speech, but you should not offend anyone’ would transform itself to ‘You should not offend anyone, but I believe in free speech.’ Now that second But is most pleasing, and one I would gladly caress.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 February, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | Media | Politics

Deep Thought

This is the 34th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

I discovered poker as a grown adult approaching middle age, but I was a hustler in college as well. I was a decent chess player, and used to offer a prop bet to people with the following terms: ‘I will play 10 games with you, and will win all ten. If you even draw one, you win the bet.’ I never made this bet with anyone I’d seen on the circuit, thus guaranteeing that all my customers were patzers, and unlike in poker, the quantum of luck in chess is low enough that I won this bet every time I made it. One of my early victims, dazzled by my magisterial play, asked me what the difference between me and him was. ‘How many moves ahead do you think?’ he asked. ‘The same as you,’ I replied.

A famous study by Adriaan de Groot published in 1946 showed that, contrary to what you might expect, novices and expert players think more or less the same number of moves ahead. The difference in quality arises because the experts think the right moves ahead. Their candidate moves for analysis, in other words, are better moves to begin with. Their skill lies not in depth of analysis, but in understanding the nature of a position, which, in turn, comes from better pattern recognition. A grandmaster will look at a position not as a conglomeration of individual pieces, but in chunks of pieces that form recognisable patterns. He will understand the positional vulnerabilities of different kinds of patterns, and the tactical motifs that recur in these spots. In a spot where a novice thinks ‘If I threaten this piece, he’ll move it here to counter me,’ the grandmaster may think, ‘His pawn structure has weakened his dark squares, let me exploit that weakness and exchange off my weak white-squared bishop for his strong knight on c6.’ Guess who is more likely to win.

Why do I write about chess in a poker column? Well, there is exactly the same difference between beginning poker players and experienced ones. Beginners think in terms of what hand they have and how it connects with the board, and graduate to this from thinking about their opponent’s hand, and from there to considering what hand the opponent puts them on. But good players think not in terms of hands but ranges. They never ask, in any spot, ‘Am I ahead here?’ but ‘What is my equity here?’ and ‘How can I maximise my EV?’ They have a better sense of how specific ranges interact with different board textures, and can plan for future streets.

For example, let’s say you call with KJ on the button after a nit raises UTG, and the flop comes 876 two-tone. A beginner may give up when the nit c-bets, but a pro will usually continue in the hand and take down the pot with either immediate or future aggression, because the flop texture is terrible for the UTG’s range of big pairs and high cards, and most turns and rivers are bad for him. Indeed, this will be practically a reflexive decision for the pro, requiring no thinking at all. He would play this hand better than the novice not because his reads are better or he has a better poker face or suchlike, but because he understands the underlying math better.

Here’s one thing common to both chess and poker: the bad player does not know what he does not know. So here’s a tip on how to get better at both games: play a hell of a lot, and stay humble. The day you stop learning, you will be the fish at the table.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 January, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

Poker at Lake Wobegon

This is the 33rd installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

One of the ironies of poker is that at a nine-handed poker table, all nine players believe that they are profitable, if not the best player at the table. This obviously cannot be the case. Poker is a negative-sum game: the rake takes a percentage of each pot or tournament, and winners win less than what losers lose. Also, easily more than 90% of players are long-term losers, and most of the winners are just marginal winners. So what’s going on here?

I have two answers for you: 1. The nature of poker as a game. 2. Human nature itself. Let’s get the easy one out of the way.

Every game contains differing elements of luck, and although poker is unquestionably a game of skill, the quantum of luck in it is far higher than in other games. A winning player’s edge translates into a profit only in the long-term. Over a short span of time, it is difficult to tell from results who is the fish and who the shark. Losers win their fair share of pots and tournaments, which fosters the belief that they are better than they really are. But their flawed self-assessment is a consequence not just of the nature of poker, but of human nature itself.

A few decades ago, the writer Garrison Keillor created a fictional town named Lake Wobegon, where, he wrote, “all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” This gave its name to the Lake Wobegon Effect, also known as Illusory Superiority, a tendency humans have of overestimating their abilities. This tendency crops ups across contexts: in studies, people have been known to overestimate their driving skills (everyone can’t be above average) and terminally ill cancer patients have also, poignantly, overestimated their chances of survival.

You will see the Lake Wobegon Effect in poker, as also its sister, the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Wikipedia defines the Dunning-Kruger Effect as ‘a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.’

In the context of poker, a player may think he is better than he is because he lacks understanding of the game, or the intellectual tools to perceive his own weaknesses. I see this around me in many players. They don’t understand the long-term nature of the game, focus only on their own hand and don’t think in terms of ranges or equities, are results-oriented rather than process-oriented, and consider pots they win to be a validation of their skill while attributing their losses to bad luck. Some of these guys avoid putting in the hard work to get better, and rationalise this sloth; some of them are simply not capable of improving. This is not a defect in character any more than being human is.

How can you guard against the Lake Wobegon Effect and the Dunning-Kruger Effect in yourself? Here are two things you can do. One, always ask yourself what your edge is in any game you go to. If you can’t define this precisely in terms of how you are exploiting the specific weaknesses of others, you don’t have an edge. Two, keep track of all your scores, and see how much money you make over a decent sample size of sessions. Your brain might deceive you—but the numbers won’t lie.

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 January, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Science and Technology | Sport

Some Achhe Din Resolutions

This is the 12th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

I am fascinated by New Year’s resolutions. Everybody makes them, no one keeps them, but they’re still great fun because they give you a chance to laugh at others. So every New Year I call up everyone on my phone’s speed-dial to find out what their resolutions are. (They never ask about mine, because everyone just loves talking about themselves.) This year, I started with our venerable PM, Narendra Modi.

‘Modiji,’ I said, in that deep baritone that women find irresistable, ‘Happy New Year. I’m calling to ask about your New Year resolution. Is saal kya plan hai?

‘Amitbhai,’ he said, ‘this year it’s proving to be a bit of a problem coming up with resolutions. See, last year my resolution was to become PM. Been there, done that, got the kurta. Now, after that happens, what else is there? Maybe I could try a medium-rare steak, as you keep urging me to do, but beyond that it’s getting hard to think of something.’

‘What about fulfilling some of your promises to the people of India? Like, all that achhe din aayenge stuff and all that.’

‘Sigh. Amitbhai, aap tho poker khelte ho, you know what a bluff is. See, when I said achhe din aayenge, I didn’t specify for whom. Everybody can’t have achhe din, that’s just not possible. I have lived up to my promise in the sense that these are achhe din for me. I became PM, I have travelled across the world, and I’m having an incredible amount of fun trolling the people. Like, I trolled the nation by making a dropout education minister. Hahaha. You are like my bahu, I told Smriti, lol. I let the RSS and those other Hindutva nutjobs make whatever noises they want, which people actually think could become government policy. You see how worried the lefties are becoming, I’ve seen cctv footage of Prakash Karat praying at a temple, finally made a believer out of him, haha. But I have the most fun trolling my chaiboy at the office.’

‘Why, what do you do?’

‘Oh, I force him to make tea 40 times a day, and keep pouring it down the sink and telling him, “There, this tea is over. Now make another cup. And don’t look so sad, you could be prime minister one day. Look at me!” Hahahahaha!’

‘Erm, interesting. Modiji, I gotta hang up, there’s a herd of wild cows trying to break down my door. See you later.’

‘Bye, Amitbhai. Do come home one of these evenings, achha dine karenge.’

I hung up, went outside, chased the cows away by throwing Amul cheeseballs at them, and then came back indoors. Who should I call next? Who else but Rahul Gandhi.

‘Hey Rahul, this is Amit,’ I said, in that deep baritone he loves so much. (So much, in fact, that some times he calls me in the middle of the night and begs, ‘Say something, Amit. Anything. Just talk. Sigh.’)

‘Hi Amit, bro, what’s up?’ he said. ‘You called at a great time, I’m practising for an interview. Ask me something, anything. Go ahead?’

‘Ok. What day of the week is it?’

‘Well, um, it’s, ah, it’s the day to empower women. That day has come. We must empower the women. And also the youth, so that they get the escape velocity of Jupiter.’

‘Rahul wtf man,’ I said. ‘Did I not tell you specifically last year: No. More. Interviews. I even used my baritone, ffs, I would have squeaked if I’d known you’d ignore me.’

‘No, no, you misunderstand,’ he said. ‘This is not a media interview I’m preparing for. No more media interviews for me. Media interviews are like poverty, anyway, they’re a state of mind. No, what I’m preparing for is an entrance exam interview. I’m planning to do a correspondence diploma course on how to run a family business.’

‘Hmm, interesting. Best of luck. Anyway, why I called was to ask you, what’s your New Year resolution this year?’

‘What new year? Oh. Um, I don’t know, I’ll have to ask Mummy. But there’s a slight problem with that.’


‘I’ve forgotten her phone number,’ he admitted sheepishly.

The next person I called was Arvind Kejriwal. He has become a good friend over the years, and helps me file my income tax returns. He refuses to take any compensation for it, though I do fly him down to Mumbai in business class.

‘Hi Amit, such a pleasure to hear from you,’ he said. ‘I heard the phone ring and thought, dee yamm, it’s Anna again. He keeps calling me and asking, “Which train are you on, Arvind, which train are you on? I’m on a fast!” WTF man, WTF, he’s trolling me.’

‘Er, are you sure it’s him?’ I asked. ‘Anyway, the reason I called was, I’m writing a column on the New Year’s resolutions of my friends. What’s yours?’

‘You’ll have to file an RTI application to find out. Haha, just kidding. My resolution this year is to look inwards, not outwards. The nation, I have realised, doesn’t give a damn about me, despite all my efforts to convince them that I speak for the common man. They’d rather listen to that bloody chaiwallah. So anyway, I am moving from the political to the spiritual, in an effort to cleanse myself.’

‘That’s wonderful!’ I said. ‘I’m so happy for you. So how are you starting?’

‘Well, first up, I will examine all the negative emotions inside me. Greed, jealousy,  bitterness, a sense of entitlement and superiority, all of those. Sab mile hue hai. They are corrupting my personality, and you know how I am against corruption. So one by one, I will take a stand against them and eliminate them.’

‘Fantastic. I’m so happy to hear that.’

‘In fact, I want to throw a party to celebrate this new awakening of mine. I’m going to call it the Aam Aadmi Party. You’re invited! It’s today evening, please do come, you know how the girls love your baritone.’

‘I’ll try and drop in,’ I said, and made a resolution to go for his party. But then I didn’t.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 January, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Lighthouse | Politics

The Myth of the Made Hand

This is the 32nd installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

There is no term in poker that is as dangerous for the novice player as ‘made hand.’ Newcomers to poker divide all hands into two categories: made hands and drawing hands. If they have hit a pair or better, they say they have a made hand. If they are drawing to a flush or a straight, they call it a drawing hand. This is a terrible way to think about poker, especially when it informs your decision-making. For example, some players I know find it hard to fold a made hand, and never raise with a drawing hand because they ‘haven’t gotten there yet.’ This is fundamentally flawed thinking.

To explain myself, let me present a couple of axioms to you.

One: Every Drawing Hand is a Made Hand: There is one term that should dominate your thinking all through the course of a hand: equity. On any street except the river, equity refers to your share of the pot if every possible combination of outcomes was accounted for. Beginners think of a made hand as one that is 100% there, and a drawing hand as one that isn’t there yet. But if you look at equities, most of the time a made hand just has a big share of the pot, and is sometimes even behind the drawing hand. Consider, for example, that on a board of A67 with the 67 being spades, 89ss will win a pot against AK 52.6% of the time. Which is the made hand, then? What does the term, ‘made hand’ even mean? How much equity does a hand need to qualify as a made hand?

If 89ss has more equity there than AK, is 89ss a made hand? If not, why is AK, which has less equity? Where do you draw the line? At AsTs, pair and flush draw (46% against AK)?  QJss, the bare flush draw (32%)? The gutty T8 (22%)? What about AQ (16%), an otherwise fine ‘made hand’ that is a ‘drawing hand’ against AK because there’s a better ‘made hand’ around. Consider, in fact, that AQ, which is 16% against AK, is 83% against AJ and 55% against a range of all sets, Ax hands, and plausible flush and straight draws. So how would you classify it?

Two: Every Made Hand is a Drawing Hand: Unless your opponent is drawing dead after you flop a royal flush or quads, every made hand is a drawing hand in the sense that it is drawing to bricks. Not just that, on the flop, against a drawing hand, it is drawing to runner-runner bricks. This is why AK is behind 89ss on that Ax6s7s flop. This is why, in PLO, a hand like AK45r is so shitty on a 367 two-tone board. You have flopped the nuts – the ultimate made hand, one would think –  but if you’re up against two guys, and one has a higher wrap-FD (T985ds) and the other has top set with backdoor FD, your equity in the hand is, sit down before you read this, 7.5%. That’s right, you flop the nuts, go all in joyfully, and win just 1 in 13 times because your runner-runner brick draw is just so unlikely. Your best made hand is actually the worst drawing hand here.

Made hands, drawing hands, these terms melt into one another and mean nothing anyway. When you play poker, you should think of nothing but equity. Whether you have 80% equity on the flop, or 49% or 23%, your aim is to have 100% by the time the hand ends. Sometimes you do this at showdown – but a lot of the time, you do this by making the other guy fold, so that his share of the pot becomes yours. To do this, you need to understand his range, your equity against his range, and your fold equity against him (ie, how likely he is to fold to your aggression). As James Hetfield famously said after a 22-hour cash-game session, nothing else matters.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 January, 2015 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

Turn it into a Bluff

This is the 31st installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

I played an interesting hand the other day that I would have played differently three years ago. The game was nine-handed, stacks were deep, and I had KTdd on the button. A loose player raised UTG +1, MP2 called, cutoff called, I called on the button and the blinds called. The flop came K72 with two spades and a club. (The king was a spade.) Original raiser checked, MP2 bet, cutoff folded, I called, small blind overcalled, the others folded. Both MP2 and SB are straightforward players, and MP2 check-calls flush draws in this spot, so he certainly had at least a King. Given position and his bet in a multiway pot, he probably a stronger king than mine. SB’s overcall disappointed me, because he is not the kind to mess around here with A7 or 99, and had either a king here or a flush draw. And if he had a king, it had to be stronger than mine.

The turn was the ace of spades. The flush got there, as did an overcard to the king. Both of them checked. At this point, the novice in me from three years ago would have checked back, thinking I had showdown value. But my read here was that my hand simply could not be good against both these guys, and I needed to turn it into a bluff to win the pot. I bet big, and they both folded, saying that they had KQ, and MP2 whined about how I always get lucky on the turn. So of course I showed him my hand, putting him on tilt, and he later stacked off to me. Yum yum.

Well, here’s one of the most useful lessons I learnt through my journey in poker: showdown value is overrated. Too often, we take a passive line with medium-strength hands thinking we have showdown value, so why inflate the pot? But there are two circumstances where it might be profitable to take a different approach. One, when we can bet those hands for thin value and get called by worse often enough for it to be profitable. Two, when we can turn it into a bluff and profitably make better hands fold, like in the above instance.

Often, on an early street, we adopt a particular mindset for a hand and don’t modify it as the hand progresses. For example, we get into pot-control or bluff-catcher mode on the flop, where that might indeed be justified, but fail to shift gears on a later street when it becomes profitable to do so. There are all kinds of situations where it makes sense to turn our made hand into a bluff. Maybe we 3b in position with JTs, the flop comes QJ3r, we call a donk bet, turn K, call again, river T and villain checks. Our two pair is often beat here, and better hands can fold given we are plausibly repping the ace, and depending on the opponent it is sometimes correct to check back and often correct to bomb river. Similarly, in PLO, we could bang the river when a flush completes to get a straight to fold, even though we have showdown value with a set that didn’t fill up.

That said, you should be clear about your reasons in turning a made hand into a bluff, and not do so just because raising makes you feel macho. In the live games I play, I often see players make testosterone-laden raises in spots where no better hand folds and no worse hand calls. Do not burn money in this manner. Remember, it is better to be rich than manly.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 December, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

The Evil of Family Planning

This is the 11th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

It’s wonderful to live in the 21st century. I bought a new Android Phone the other day, and was fiddling with its apps, marvelling at how the world has advanced so much and we can hold in the palm of our hand wonders that would have been inconcievable just a decade ago, when I came across a news item on the internet which reminded me that, despite all you can pack into a mobile phone, the real world outside is a lumbering beast that’s hard to change. And much of India still lives in an earlier century.

The news item in question was about a group of women who died after a sterilization camp in Chhattisgarh. According to a Guardian report, “more than 80 women underwent surgery for laparoscopic tubectomies at a free government-run camp,” after which around 60 of them fell ill and at least 11 died. The doctors were suspended, a criminal complaint made, and compensation packages announced. (Consider the obscenity of that term. ‘Compensation package.’ Really?) But what came as a shock to me was not that the government botched something up, but that in 2014, there was something such as a ‘sterilisation camp’ in existence. I had assumed sterilisations as a government-organised activity ceased after the Emergency of the 1970s, in which the evil Indira and Sanjay Gandhi had made it state policy to forcibly sterilize their ‘subjects’, as it were. Three-and-a-half decades after that, why on earth is the government conducting tubectomies?

“Such camps,” the Guardian report informed us, “are held regularly across India as part of a long-running effort to control the emerging economic power’s booming population.” Indeed, the government sets sterilisation targets for their health departments, and offers financial incentives to both doctors and the women who come forward. (Anywhere from Rs 1400 to “cars and electrical goods” for the women.) In 2013-14 alone, 4 million such operations were conducted. The report says, “Authorities in eastern India came under fire last year after a news channel unearthed footage showing scores of women dumped unconscious in a field following a mass sterilisation.”

There are three things terribly wrong with this: One, the government has no business interfering with the private choices of its citizens. Whether a particular individual wishes to have no children or ten is no business of the government. And to spend taxpayers money to manipulate these choices is absurd.

Two, It is women who are victims here. Poor women. Manipulated women. Always women. It is never the man who hops over and says, ‘Chal bhai, nasbandi karva le.’ It is always the woman, because women in this country have a status somewhere between object and person, possession and loved one. This makes me ashamed. It is not something that fills me with patriotism and nationalistic gusto.

Three, all of this is based on a flawed premise. Right from school, Indians are taught that people are a problem. Or, to put it the conventional way, that ‘overpopulation’ is a great danger to our nation, and that family planning is its essential antidote, and individuals must sacrifice their desires for the nation. ‘Hum do, humaare do,’ and so on. But this is flat out wrong, and terribly outdated thinking. India’s growing population is not a problem, but a blessing. And the term ‘overpopulation’ makes no sense. Every human being is precious and wonderful, and there can never be too many of us.

Worrying about the population started becoming fashionable in the late 18th century, with the publication of Robert Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus made the seemingly sensible observation that population tended to grow exponentially while resources, in particular food supply, grew arithmetically. Thus, to prevent a catastrophe, population control was essential. A latter-day Malthusian, Harrison Brown, worried about the population growing unchecked “until the earth is covered completely and to a considerable depth with a writhing mass of human beings, much as a dead cow is covered with a pulsating mass of maggots.”

Well, we’re not maggots, and that hasn’t happened. Human beings are resourceful and ingenious, and the more of them you have, the more resourcefulness there is floating around. The economist Julian Simon, in his book The Ultimate Resource, pointed out that through history, spurts in population and productivity coincided with each other. (The ultimate resource the book’s title refers to is people, of course.) Had Malthus been correct, you’d expect to see that the places with greatest population would density would have the highest resource crunches. But the opposite is true. As Nicholas Eberstadt pointed out a few years ago in a study titled Too Many People?, there is no link between population density and poverty. Monaco has a population density 40 times that of Bangladesh. It’s doing fine. Ditto Bermuda and Bahrain, which are more packed than India.

Indeed, the story of humanity is a story of urbanisation. Why is land in a city sometimes 100 times more expensive than in a rural area? Because of demand, because everyone wants to be in cities, because that is where the opportunities are. People migrate to cities because of the economic and social networks they contain – and the more people there are, the more desirable it is to be part of these networks. Cities would not be such desirable destinations if Malthus was right.

Malthusian thinking is completely discredited today, and the last couple of centuries have been testimony to the folly of his thinking. (Indeed, ‘Malthusian’ is a pejorative today.) And yet India, the first country to take up ‘family planning’ in 1952, is one of the last to continue to use government machinery to promote something that is wrong on so many levels. (Coercion, pseudoscience etc etc.) Given the top-down, central-planning-kind-of thinking of Nehru and his socialist minions, it must have seemed that people were a problem, for the more of them there were, the harder it became to control them and to feed them. This attitude is condescending, and the consequences can be criminal, as we saw in Chhattisgarh. For 67 years, we have been tied down, mentally, to the concept of a mai-baap sarkar, at whose mercy we exist. It is about time we re-orient our thinking. Our government’s sole purpose should be to serve us, not to rule us; to empower us, not to enslave us; to protect our rights, not to strip them away. Abolishing this family planning nonsense would be an essential step in that direction.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 December, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | India | Lighthouse | News | Politics

The Bird and the Elephant

This is the 30th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

One of the most important skills for a professional poker player, it is often said, is knowing when to get up. When exactly should we quit a session? Should we have a stop loss? Should we get up as soon as we reach a pre-decided profit? Should we play X number of hours, no more, no less? What are the factors that determine how long we sit at a particular table?

The rational answer to this is clear. We should continue in a game as long as it is +ev to do so, and get up as soon as we feel we’re no longer profitable on the table. How much we are up and down should not matter. We need to think of all poker games we play as being essentially one lifelong session, and the score on any one day should not affect our decision. At any given point, all we need to ask ourselves is: Is my staying on this table a +ev decision? Whether you are stuck 3 buyins or up 4 should not be a factor in that decision.

In practice, this advice is not that easy to carry out. For example, I have a tilt problem, and shift from my A-game to my C-game if I’m losing a lot and fatigued, playing recklessly and trying to recover. Tilt has perfect timing and usually comes towards the end of sessions, when stacks are deep and mistakes are costly. I am obviously not +ev when I tilt – but tilt not only shatters my emotional equilbrium, it also affects my judgement. I rationalise continuing in the game, though I really should be getting up.

To prevent this, I have set a stop-loss for myself. When I hit that stop-loss, I quit the game, regardless of how calm I feel, because tilt could be just around the corner. This is not something I recommend to you if tilt is not a factor in your play, and you make decisions with as much clarity 15 hours into a game and 10 buyins down as you do at the start of the session. But how many of us can manage that? If you do have a tilt issue, and tend to magnify your losses by chasing them, a stop-loss might be a handy tool.

When I am winning, on the other hand, I usually sit till the end of the session. There was a time when, at a particular game, I would play for six hours every day and then leave, because I’d begin to get tired. As I’d mostly win, I got a bit of a reputation for hitting and running, though this was not my intent. So, as a point of principle, I started sitting till the end of every session, and realised that this made a lot of sense because stacks are deepest at the tail end of sessions, many other players are tired and tilted and more prone to errors, and that is when my edge can really turn a hefty profit. If fatigue affects your play, of course, you should factor that in and leave before your edge dissipates and you’re the fish on the table. But tilt and fatigue aside, there are no good reasons to quit a juicy game.

One big mistake I see some players make is win small and lose big. They become taala-chaabi and book their profit as soon as they’re one or two buyins up, but continue buying in when they’re down, trying desperately to recover, and lose far more than they win in a winning session. In his book, Elements of Poker, Tommy Angelo quoted a friend of his named Cowboy Bill as describing one such player, ‘He eats like a bird and shits like an elephant.’ Make sure you do it the other way around.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 November, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

The Cigarette Case

This is the 29th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

One of my favourite stories about chess has a lesson in it for poker players. A few decades ago, the great Aron Nimzowitsch was playing in a chess tournament when his opponent took out a cigarette case and placed it on the table in front of him. Nimzowitsch, who couldn’t stand cigarette smoke, called the tournament director to complain.

‘He has not lit a cigarette and there is no smoke,’ said the TD. ‘So your complaint is noted, but it is not valid.’

‘I know,’ replied Nimzowitsch, ‘but he threatens to smoke, and you know as well as I do that in chess the threat is often stronger than the execution.’

In poker, too, the threat is stronger than the execution. The most obvious example of this this is the concept of Leverage. Let’s say you open from late position with KJs to 4bb. The button calls, with effective stacks of 150bb. The flop is a dry K74r. You bet 5.5bb into 9.5, your opponent raises to 16. You call. The turn is a Q. You check. Your opponent bets 30 into 41.5. What do you do here?

Unless your opponent is super-spazzy, it’s hard to continue. If this bet closed the action, you might consider calling this 30bb bet – but it doesn’t. This bet carries the threat of a further bet that involves the rest of your stack: 100bb more into a pot of 101.5. So you don’t just have to decide whether to commit 30bb more, but 130bb more. You are unlikely to want to play for stacks with just a single pair.

This is leverage: the threat of future bets in a pot that is growing exponentially bigger. In the above example, your opponent bet 30bb to put you at a decision for 130bb. Maybe had you called 30bb on the turn, he would have checked back the river, giving up on some random bluff he was trying. But maybe he wouldn’t have. It doesn’t matter whether or not he would have lit that cigarette – the cigarette case was on the table.

Leverage can apply at any street except the river, of course. A 3b from a good aggressive player in position who is likely to keep barrelling postflop. A check-raise on the flop. Most of the time, though, you really feel leverage on the turn, when pots are getting big, stack-to-pot ratios are dwindling, and you have to decide how far you want to go in a hand. In the deep-stacked games that I play, I have found that it is on the turn that players make the biggest mistakes: whether that involves calling, folding or just going nuts and spazzing.

The threat you represent does not even have to be a result of your betting in a particular hand; it can arise out of your reputation. If you have a reputation for check-raising rivers a lot, your opponents might give you easy showdowns in position. If the turn check-raise is known to be a part of your arsenal, your opponents, in position, might not bet for thin value or charge you to draw on the turn like they otherwise would. Of course, your threats have to be credible, and against thinking players, your ranges should be somewhat balanced. If every check-raise of yours on the river is with the nuts, then your opponent will know that he is not making a mistake by bet-folding there for thin value. You need to mix it up to induce errors. You want your opponent to throw his hands up and say, ‘Yeh kya khelta hai? Main tho baukhla gaya hoon?’

The bottomline: to constantly pose a threat to your opponents, and to thus unsettle them and induce mistakes, you have to be aggressive. A study a few years ago looked into 103 million hands on Pokerstars and found that more than 75% of them never reached showdown. Think about what this means – and put that cigarette case to use.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 November, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

It’s Only Words

This is the 10th installment of Lighthouse, my monthly column for BLink, a supplement of the Hindu Business Line.

A friend of mine posted an interesting cartoon on Facebook the other day. A man stood in front of a gigantic empty bookshelf at his friend’s house, peering at three small items on one corner and saying to his friend, ‘Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader… I say, Hardwick, this sure is an impressive library.’ His friend, presumably Hardwick, sat impassively on the sofa, smoking a pipe.

Many of my friends would relate to that. ‘I can never read a book on a screen,’ says one. ‘I need to hold the book in my hand.’ Another says: ‘I love the smell of paper. E-books can never replace the real thing.’ And so on. But these sentiments, noble as they seem, expressed with an air of superiority, as if one is taking a principled stand, are somewhat misplaced. The chief reason for this is a popular misundertanding of what a book really is.

A book is the words a writer writes. Nothing less; nothing more. Everything else is packaging. Whether it’s printed on paper or written on rice, whether its paperback or hardback or a spectral presence in the Kindle app for Android, is irrelevant to the book itself. For centuries now, the dominant form of packaging has involved paper – but books existed before paper did. Media as diverse as clay, stone, bamboo, metal sheets and wood were used to carry the written word, as also was papyrus. Paper was the bold new technology that made all of them redundant; and now we have a newer technology that threatens to replace paper.

So all my friends who prefer printed books to ebooks are not showing a love for books per se, but just a nostalgia for a particular form of packaging. There’s nothing wrong with that – as long as you don’t imagine that feeling that way makes you some kind of connoisseur, like the wine snob who prefers Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Grand Cru to a mere Sula.

Indeed, imagine a novelist pausing in the middle of a paragraph and saying to himself, ‘Let me tweak this sentence structure a bit so that the paper smells better.’ That would be absurd – as absurd as pretending that you are somehow more refined than a guy who reads books on a Kindle because you can smell the paper. Are you a paper-fetishist or a book lover?


I am writing this column from Turkey, where I’ve been spending much time in museums, forts, palaces, mosques, underground caves, hot-air balloons and Facebook. In a place called the Museum of Mosaics in Istanbul, I was amused to see people furiously clicking cellphone pictures of what I thought were pretty mediocre mosaics. (The ones in the Chora Church are better, partly because of their proximity to a marvellous restaurant called Asitane, which I highly recommend if you visit Istanbul, but I digress.) So here’s a thought experiment: if you had a time machine at your disposal, went back to the age when mosaics were being made, cornered a mosaic maker and showed him a 20-second cellphone video shot in these modern times, how do you think he’d react? My hypothesis is that he’d instantly go insane, right there. He would not be able to fathom what just happened. And even if he got over it somehow, he would never make a mosaic again in his life. He would not see in it the charm that we do now. All he would want, more than love, sex, happiness or lamb on a bed of aubergines, would be a cellphone. That’s all he’d want.

Well, we have that.


Mosaics are an old technology that is now redundant; will printed books go the same way? I own thousands of printed books myself, though I am also a Kindle power-user, and my prognosis is that within 30 years, printed books will be like LPs are today: mere artefacts. We love printed books because we love reading, have always read printed books, and associate the joy of reading with the habit of reading printed books. My generation, and the one after, will keep buying them. But the kids growing up in the post-App era, who slide their finger to turn a page, won’t have that same habit or association. For them, it’s a no-brainer: e-books will be both cheaper and more convenient. (Besides, reading devices will also evolve. Although I love my Kindle, the model I use will be fit for a museum in 2040.)

The publishing industry will also be transformed by then. Much of what traditional publishers do now – printing and packaging the book, and distributing it – will be redundant, and the nature of book marketing will also change. The curatorial and editing functions will remain important, but publishers, in whatever form they exist, will get a smaller cut of the price of a book. (Authors will get more.) Books will also be cheaper, though the processes of discovering them, and shaping our tastes, will change in ways we probably can’t imagine now. There’s a brave new world coming up, and there are a lot of trees in it that should dance a dance of woody celebration, for if it were not for technology, we’d be cutting them down for paper. Start the music.

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 November, 2014 in Arts and entertainment | Essays and Op-Eds | Lighthouse

The Importance of Profiling

This is the 28th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

Poker at its heart is mathematical, I often argue, and everything else is secondary. You put your opponent on a range, calculate your pot equity against that range, estimate fold equity and then make the most profitable decision. But the math will get you nowhere if you input the wrong values. You first have to put your opponent on the correct range. And you have to accurately estimate your fold equity against him. To do this, you need to get inside his head, you need psychology. Although psychology without math is directionless, math without psychology is pointless, as you’ll end up with the wrong numbers.

This doesn’t apply if you’re playing Game Theory Optimal (GTO), of course, where your opponent’s tendencies are irrelevant as long as you’re playing balanced ranges, and the math is all that matters. But you’ll only ever need to play GTO at the highest levels of online cash games. In your everyday poker life, you’re best served playing exploitable poker, looking to make money from your opponents’ mistakes and avoiding making too many yourself. Player profiling is hugely important in this context. The better your powers of observation, recall and inference, the more money you will make in the game.

I’ve been running very good recently at a local online game, where PLO is all the rage. The key to my winnings is taking copious notes on every opponent I play. I note down practically every significant thing I see any opponent do. Every time I identify a tendency – any tendency – in an opponent’s play, I’ve caught a weakness I can exploit.

For example, Player A always bets pot on the river when he’s bluffing and 2/3 pot when he’s betting for value.  Player B almost always calls one barrel and almost never the second. Player C loves to float out of position with air and will donk-pot the turn if any scare card hits or any draw completes, and will barrel ¾ on the river if called. Player D goes pot-pot-pot when you check to him because he thinks you must be weak and who cares what he’s repping, maybe he’s not even looking at the board. Player E pot controls too much and never bets for thin value, even checks K-high backdoor flush on an unpaired board on the river, which polarises his range when he does make a river bet, and makes your decisions that much easier.

Once you start identifying these tendencies, they become easy to exploit. Against Player A, I once called a pot-sized river bet with 8766ss on a board of T94TA (two-tone on flop but flush not completing) and my sixes were good. I usually double-barrel against Player B, which is an insanely profitable play because of his warped frequencies.  Players C and D increase the variance of the game, but give you tons of value as long as you don’t get tempted to call them down too thin, which can be a leak in itself. And I make thinner river calls against Player E than against others, because while he may be polarised, he definitely isn’t balanced.

The last month has been unusual for me: my bread-and-butter game is live NLHE, where, again, profiling is everything, and most players don’t do it assiduously enough. The biggest mistake a live player can make is to switch off after he has folded a hand, and not keep observing the action and making mental notes. In poker, every nugget of information counts, so I’d advise you to always stay tuned in during a game. Remember, the most profitable seat at a poker table is inside your opponents’ heads.

Posted by Amit Varma on 29 October, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

The Endowment Effect

This is the 27th installment of my fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

There’s something strange that happens to me quite frequently. A friend will ask me for advice on a hand, and I’ll dispassionately tell him what I think is the correct course of action, and the reasons why. For example, while playing PLO he calls a raise in a 3-way pot from the big blind with 9876ds, with spades and hearts, and the flop comes JT2 with two spades and a heart, for a wrap and flush draw. My friend, huffing and puffing with excitement, bets, the next guy repots, the third guy further repots all in. What is my friend to do? It’s an easy fold, I say, because while he has a universe of outs, none of them make him the nuts. With so much action, the likely range of hands he’s up against include higher wraps and flush draws (like AKQ9ds), as well as sets, and against this range he’s crushed like Yokozuna sat on him. ‘Easy fold, you shouldn’t shame yourself by even thinking about it,’ I say, all clear and rational. And yet, I have found that while I give sound advice as an uninvolved observer, I do some incredibly stupid things when I myself am in a hand, especially when it comes to not folding. It’s like Amit the Player and Amit the Poker Thinker are two separate people. Why is this so?

Part of the reason, of course, is that we’re human, and humans crave action and dopamine, and that makes us rationalise doing silly things. Also, our brains are wired in a way that makes us reluctant to fold a hand – any hand. To be specific, we suffer from what behavioural economists term ‘The Endowment Effect.’

The term, first coined by the economist Richard Thaler in 1980, refers to the phenomenon where we value something we own more than we would if we did not own it. For example, in a 1984 study by Jack Knetsch and JA Sinden, participants were randomly given either a lottery ticket or US$ 2. After a while, they were given the option to trade their ticket for the money or the other way around. Most of them refused the switch, having come to value their randomly allotted gift more than the alternative. A famous 1990 study by Daniel Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler offered a similar demonstration. In Kahneman’s words: “Mugs were distributed randomly to half the participants. The Sellers had their mug in front of them, and the Buyers were invited to look at their neighbour’s mug: all indicated the price at which they would trade. […] The results were dramatic: the average selling price was about double the average buying price.”

You can see illustrations of this all around you. Ask anyone which car to buy and they’ll recommend the model they own. I suspect that many Apple fans who rave about iPhones and diss Android are displaying the Endowment Effect – besides rationalising and validating their own purchasing decisions, of course. (Vice versa also, though I use Android and it really is better.) I have seen it at the poker table when, after the cards are dealt, a player absent-mindedly reaches out for his neighbour’s cards. Nonononono, goes the neighbour, those are mine, thereby displaying an irrational attachment to them even though the distribution is random and he doesn’t even know what they are yet.

More commonly, you see the Endowment Effect in action when a player, to use an old cliché, ‘gets married to his hand’. The most common leak in the world of poker, by far, is that people don’t fold enough. This is understandable; we’re programmed not to let go. That is our endowment –  and we must fight it.

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 October, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

The Tournament Lottery

This is the 26th installment of my now fortnightly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

I write these words at the end of a three-week period in which 100,000 dreams have been crushed. The World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP), a three-week festival of poker on Pokerstars, has drawn to a close. It featured 66 tournaments, with a total prize pool of almost US$62 million. The Main Event, which just got over, had a buyin of US$5200, with the winner getting US$1.3 million. That’s a cool Rs 8 crore. It’s the stuff of dreams – but most of the over 120,000 people who played the WCOOP were net losers. Just a handful of people won big.

The poker boom was kickstarted 11 years ago when Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event in Las Vegas for US$2.5 million. He’d won his way into the tournament via an online US$39 satellite, and this fairy-tale story riveted the world. Combined with a glut of televised poker tournaments, like the World Poker Tour, featuring hole cards and taking viewers straight into the heart of the action, it led to poker becoming one of the most popular games on the planet. Online poker exploded, home games sprouted up in every city in the world, and millions of people play the game today. The common dream: to finish first in one of the marquee events, like the WSOP or WCOOP main events, and make lifechanging money. (The WSOP main event winner this year gets a cool US$10 million.)

Beginning players tend to be more drawn to tournaments than cash games, despite the success of the cash game show High Stakes Poker. I usually advise recreational players to play mainly tournaments, because this restricts their possible losses while allowing them to indulge in the game they love. And I advise serious students of the game to study cash games, which require greater skill because of deeper stacks, and also feature less variance. Indeed, variance is the key reason why playing professional tournament poker is a hazardous line of work. Tourney variance is off the charts.

To begin with, the rake in a tourney is between 7% to 10%, which accumulates over time and bleeds you dry. Around 15% of the players make it to the money (and top players cash around 15% of the time), but the big money only starts at the final table, and especially the top 3. Winning a tourney has even been described as the biggest bad beat in poker, because you outlast every other player who played but just get between 15% to 25% of the money. And no matter how skillful you are, to go deep in a field of 1000 people requires a lot of luck: winning more flips than is your due, evading coolers, hitting cards at the right time, again and again and again. If you have an edge that’s big enough to beat the rake, it only manifests itself in the long term. Indeed, a sample size required to accurately judge a player’s skill could run into the tens of thousands of tournaments.
The modus operandi of the online tourney pro is to put in volume to counter the variance and bring the long run closer. (Note that live players simply cannot put in meaningful volume.) The typical rhythm of a tourney player’s life is to lose a lot, get a big score, rinse and repeat. And when those scores don’t come, they go broke. This is also why most pros are part of large staking stables. Collectively, the greater the volume, the more likely those big scores become.

Many of my friends are tourney grinders, and it’s a frustrating life. Unlike for cash game pros, most sessions are losing sessions. With relatively shallow stacks, everything is standard, and most pros play the same way. Once you reach a certain level of competence, you just sit and wait to get lucky. Every tournament, seen on its own, is a lottery. And the wheel, it spins round and round.

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For more of my poker columns, do check out the Range Rover archives.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 October, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

The Second Game of Dice

This is the 25th installment of my weekly poker column in the Economic Times, Range Rover.

The Mahabharata is an amazing piece of storytelling. It was written at least 2400 years ago and it still resonates today in India. One story that speaks to me strongly is of the time when Duryodhana and Shakuni invited Yudhishthira to a game of dice.

Accepting an invitation to play dice with an opponent, using his dice, surely has negative expected value. (One version has it that the dice were made out of the bones of Shakuni’s father, whose spirit resided in the dice and did as he wished. That’s a marked deck if there ever was one.) Yudhishthira gave some spiel about how it was the dharma of a Kshatriya to accept all challenges, but this sounds like rationalisation to me. I think he had a gambling problem. He craved dopamine.

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that the brain releases every time an addict gets a dose of anything he’s addicted to: a hit of cocaine, a peg of alcohol, a throw of the dice. This makes gambling addiction similar to drug addiction or alcohol addiction. Basically, you become a slave to brain chemistry. You might know, at a rational level, that you should get up and leave, but you can’t stop yourself. And so it was for Yudhishthira. He lost his kingdom, his brothers, his own self, and finally he lost Draupadi. (The misogyny in the Mahabharata is staggering, but leave that aside for now.) He must have been devastated at this point, and you’d expect him to lose all respect for himself.

Somehow, in a turn of events that involved a never-ending saree, a blind king and no dice, Yudhishthira got lucky, and everything he lost was returned to him. At this point you’d imagine that this man, held up as a paragon of wisdom and virtue, would realise that he had a weakness for the game, which was his strategic vulnerability, and resolve never to play again. But no. Duryodhana, upset by the reprieve his father Dhritarashtra had given the Pandavas, invited Yudhishthira for another game. Yudhishithira accepted the invitation. The stakes were that the losers would go into exile, and so off went the Pandavas.

It is that second game of dice that astonishes me. Yudhishthira’s behaviour during the first game was appalling, but understandable: he was a slave to dopamine, and too weak to stop the unravelling. But when that session was over, you’d expect him to introspect and never play again. However, rationalising furiously, he went for that second game. The force of his addiction took his family down with him and, eventually, in the events that unfolded,  all the characters of the Mahabharata. (The bloodshed in that book makes Game of Thrones seem like a Rajshri production.)

I see Yudhishthira every day at the poker table. On one hand, poker is a complex game that requires analytical rigour and psychological acuity; on the other, it is a game of dice that can destroy lives. Most players I meet lose money over the long run; but most of them are recreational players who can take the hit, and can control their losses. Many, however, are addicts. I’ve seen fortunes wiped out, marriages destroyed, once-proud men become shadows of themselves, helpless, needy, pathetic. Even as you sit across the table trying to take their money, you sometimes grow to like them. I have, at different times, counselled a couple of them over breakfast and coffee to give up the game, stop throwing good money after bad, to put their lives together. ‘You are addicted,’ I say. ‘Go cold turkey. Give your wife all control of finances, your ATM cards, your cheque books, so even if you want to play, you can’t.’

Both of them agreed with me and nodded their heads. They knew they were addicts. But they could not fight it, and they have both gone back to gambling, for that second game of dice. I feel helpless writing this, but there’s only one way this story can end: as it did with Yudhishthira, in epic sadness.

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Also read:

The Dark Game
The Game Outside the Game
Sweet Dopamine

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 September, 2014 in Essays and Op-Eds | Poker | Range Rover | Sport

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