Friday, October 01, 2010

The curious mathematics of professional poker and its application to poetry competitions

The poker boom of the last couple of decades has led to the re-emergence of the stock Western character of the professional poker player, but this time relying on skill and mathematics rather than cheating.  Thousands of pounds is won by the stars of the circuit.  What is odd is that these players, who, by definition, are statistically expert, have not noticed the key point: that poker is a zero sum game.   On balance, those involved in the circuit will break even, less their expenses - there is no extra money coming in.  At best, then, this can only work as a system if money flows from the mediocre players (paying into the pot but not winning) to the better players.  They may as well run it as a raffle.  Still, it keeps them happy.

The business model has another application: that of the modern poetry competition, following the model of the Arvon competition.  Typically, entrants are charged a modest fee (£5 or £10) with the prospect of a large prize, and perhaps more importantly fame, for the winner.  Again, if those involved are happy this seems a reasonable scheme.  However, this has become in many cases a money-making scheme (as with Arvon), where thousands of hopefuls submit their work.  And like the poker games, this means that mediocre poets are effectively subsidising the good poets* and the host organisations.  I believe it would be much healthier if competitions intended to broaden participation and raise awareness were run for free (or at least at cost), and those who wish to support poets and organisations should be encouraged to buy and subscribe to poetry publications.

That's just me, of course.  But would-be competitors should ask themselves seriously whether they have heard of any past winners, if they are likely to come anywhere near winning, and whether there are better ways of spending their money.   Good poems are published by publishers who pay their poets.

 *Poets who write the sort of poems judges like, that is. See an interesting discussion of this here.

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