Bubbles with Haseeb Qureshi

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Haseeb Qureshi is an entrepreneur and investor. As a teenager, Haseeb played poker professionally through the online poker bubble. His path from poker to software entrepreneurship has been explored in previous episodes.

In 2007, Haseeb and I met at an online poker table. As we battled each other for thousands of dollars, Haseeb and I realized we shared an affinity for obnoxious screen names, obnoxious online avatars, and the city of Austin, Texas. We were both living in the city, and met each other in the real world.

In our earliest days, Haseeb and I were not friends. It was a strange time–we were disembodied minds, drifting on the Internet, attached mostly to the fluctuating balances of our Full Tilt Poker and Pokerstars accounts. This was not a time for friendship–it was a time for ruthless, modern competition.

Throughout the history of poker, alliances have always been fickle. And online, backstabbing and deception was an art that had been barely explored. Any true friendship was a missed opportunity to exploit a competitor.

The duplicity of the online poker world knew no limits, and our sheltered, posh existence of teenagers with great parents, food on the table every evening, and no reason to worry became shattered by the daily tumult of complete financial instability.

Online poker was in a bubble. In the early days of a bubble, success comes easy. You have to be a fool to fail. When a bubble pops, the ocean washes back to the sea, and we see who is left without any clothing.

The poker bust wiped me out. Not just financially, but emotionally. In a month, I lost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and I lost my identity. After doing nothing but playing poker for years, what was I left with? What durable skills had I developed? What friends did I have to turn to? What was my ideology? What was my vision for my own future?

As I plummeted into despair, Haseeb rose like a meteor through the world of heads up poker, thriving on the rise in popularity of pot limit Omaha, a game whose theoretical complexity suited Haseeb better than the rudimentary game of no limit hold’em. The bigger the stacks, the bigger the decision trees, and the bigger the decision trees, the more edge Haseeb had over his opponents.

As a professional poker player, regardless of whether you succeed or fail, the banality of what you are actually doing eventually catches up to you. The best players are able to put an athletic framing to the game. Yes, you are competing on a zero sum basis, with a 52 card deck that was invented last century. Yes, your innovation is measured in the smallest increment of invention. But in some ways, that is the beauty of the game. We don’t need a revolution in the game of basketball, because to appreciate the dynamic of basketball is to appreciate the dynamic of humans. And the same can be said of poker.

Unfortunately, the successful online poker player must eventually have their own reality shattered. Because to be a successful poker player, you must be rigorous and critical. You will eventually be forced to step back and say: “what is this thing I’m doing every day? How have I become hooked to a screen? I don’t know how that screen works. What are these numbers? Are they fabricated? How do they control my emotions so thoroughly? Who is running this thing?”

Haseeb grew tired of poker. He wrote a book about the game to memorialize his thoughts, then abandoned it. He studied philosophy and literature, searching for something new in the historical musings of humanity. He traveled Europe, working as a farmer to reconnect with the physical world. He discovered the Effective Altruism movement.

Finding no solace in his poker spoils, Haseeb gave away most of his money and started from scratch. As he rebuilt himself, he found software engineering and charted a path to San Francisco, where we reconnected.

In this episode, Haseeb joins me for a discussion of software, philosophy, poker, and the nature of bubbles. Indeed, Haseeb and I have now lived through four major bubbles: dot coms, poker, the 2008 financial crisis, and the crypto bubble. Throughout these bubbles, the mediums change but never does the message: human beings are deeply irrational, tribalistic, and emotional.

Transcript

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