Knew about the baseball and politics. Didn’t know he was a poker player, too. I’m sold.
Of course, for a gay, half-Jewish geek from Michigan like Silver, the establishment, like the high school clique, is anathema—one you are wise to keep at arm’s distance. He’s more at home on the outside rattling the cage than on the inside playing with the monkeys. It’s why he admires Gawker founder Nick Denton, who threw a party for him in his SoHo apartment after the election. “He’s willing to be kind of destructive and path-breaking, and to challenge the status quo; in some ways, it’s kind of more my style,” he says. (Of Silver, Denton says, “He’s not necessarily the best statistician, but he might be the best stats geek who can also write—and perform on television. His steadiness under pundit fire before the election was something to witness.”) Although he wasn’t excessively bullied, Silver spent most of high school immersed either in fantasy baseball leagues or the debate program. “High school debate is a strange thing,” he concedes. “It’s very technical—you’re not up there giving some type of Abe Lincoln speech, you’re reading different types of evidence really fast.” He compares his delivery to the old Micro Machines ads, which may explain why he still talks in such a torrent, as well as his enviable ability to apply himself to the task at hand.
“I’m very conservative in some sense because I do believe that hard work is a huge part of the equation,” he says. “It’s often not sufficient to bring about success, but it’s very often necessary if you want to be really good at something. My team won the state title in my junior year, and we were first runners-up in my senior year—had one of the best records in the history of the state of Michigan.” He pauses to let this remarkable record sink in before adding, “I probably dedicated 60 hours a week to debate during debate season.” This staggering commitment brings to mind Gladwell’s thesis in Outliers: that genius is composed in large part of perspiration, or what he calls the “10,000 hour rule,” the amount of time, roughly, that you need to practice a specific task to become an expert.
When Silver was not debating, he was playing Scoresheet Baseball with his friend Ray. They applied a kind of Moneyball methodology based on player statistics, and very quickly amassed one of the best teams in the league. Many years later, Silver would channel this passion for baseball into Pecota, a website that specialized in calculating the prospects of Major League Baseball players and which subsequently inspired his move into politics. And then there was his brief-but-glorious career as an online poker shark, largely as a way to temper the boredom of a consultancy gig with accountancy firm KPMG.
“One of the KPMG buzz words at the time was boundarylessness—it was such a good distillation of a totally meaningless corporate-speak cliché,” Silver recalls. “When people ask for career advice, I try not to be specific. I just say, ‘Don’t let yourself get bored; if you’re getting bored, you’re probably doing something wrong.’ ”
Silver eventually quit his day job to focus on cards, making $400,000 in just over two years, before realizing that bad players were a nonrenewable resource. “If you’re a bad player, you either become a good player or you go broke, and either way you are no longer available for others to beat,” he says. “Once the pond dries up, even the sharks begin to starve.” So out of the pond he flopped, and into the sea of analysis he swam.
If these pastimes—poker, baseball, debating Chinese–U.S. relations—seem atypical of the average twentysomething gay guy, perhaps it’s because gay nerds have a low profile in our culture. “To my friends, I’m kind of sexually gay but ethnically straight,” explains Silver, who came out to his parents after spending a year in London studying economics—“I don’t know how I got any work done”—and considers gay conformity as perfidious as straight conformity. He supports marriage equality, but worries that growing acceptance of gays will dent our capacity to question broader injustice.
Click here to read the full article, from OUT Magazine.