The name Avi Rubin isn’t likely to ring any bells. That is unless you’re familiar with the specialized field of advanced computer systems and network security. Then, his name triggers alarm bells. Perhaps even a giant gong.
Rubin is a Professor of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He’s one of the world’s foremost authorities on what’s commonly known as “hacking.” Although most people don’t know his name — which is all perfectly fine with Rubin — he’s one of those rare individuals who really does “make a difference” in our society. He impacts each of our lives in many ways on a daily basis, even though very few among us could identify him in a crowd.
Rubin has influenced — some might say, guided — the intense public debate going on right now on matters relating to security (more specifically, the vulnerability) of the world’s most advanced computer technologies. This has been a hot topic recently, not just within the poker industry with online poker as a public issue, but in the much larger and far-more reaching arenas of electoral politics and national security.
“All your systems can be hacked,” Rubin told a TED conference recently, where his chilling words of warning made everyone stop and take notice. He’s appeared on 60 Minutes, featured as the expert spokesperson in a timely story about electronic voting and potential fraud in elections. He’s advised various branches of the national security and defense establishment. Within the last few weeks, he’s testified before the House Sub-Committee on Science and technology. A few months ago, Rubin was even called in to advise the White House by the Obama Administration on the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “ObamaCare”), following some very public and problematic high-tech glitches associated with the rollout.
So again, why am I writing about Avi Rubin?
Well, I got to meet him yesterday. And our discussion had absolutely nothing to do with any of the weighty topics above — certainly my loss for the omission and oversight. Instead, pretty much all we talked about was poker.
That’s because Rubin expressed an interest in appearing on the new television show which is currently in production, called Poker Night in America. A few weeks ago, we announced an “open casting call” for local players to come to play with the pros at the Maryland Live Casino, located in-between Baltimore, MD and Washington, DC. Rubin contacted us by e-mail and was picked from among many very talented candidates.
I knew Rubin would be an interesting choice for our show based on a cursory glance at his background. But until I actually met him face-to-face, I had no real idea how critically important and influential he is to the current debate currently taking place about one of the most serious issues of our time. And yet, as gracious as Rubin was throughout our exchanges which lasted nearly a day during filming, most of what he wanted to do and talk about had nothing at all to do with saving the free world, and everything to do with poker, and poker only.
Later on, Rubin revealed that sitting down in a televised poker game with Greg Merson, Jason Somerville, Gavin Smith, Tom Schneider, Matt Glantz, David “ODB” Baker, and others amounted to the experience of attending a poker fantasy camp. He was a like kid trapped inside a candy store. A boy sitting on Santa Claus’ knee.
Wait a minute. Shouldn’t these roles be reversed?
While this surreal discussion was taking place, I couldn’t dismiss the bitter irony that none of the poker pros sitting at the table understood the profound influence of the brainy-looking self-described “amateur poker player” sitting at the table. He might as well have been anonymous, and was, as far as poker was concerned. Even had he been known to the others for his profound impact (how often does a TED speaker sit in your game?), I’m still not sure his influence on public affairs would have been fully understood or appreciated by those in attendance.
Then again, this wasn’t just irony. Rather, it was an utter absurdity. But also real, with a lesson perhaps. Indeed, one never quite knows who they’re sitting with or talking to, not just at a poker table, but anywhere for that matter. For this reason, maybe the real lesson for us all is to try and listen and learn more. And to be nice to everybody. You never know who that person you’re having a casual conversation with might be. He or she may deserve a little more respect than we’re showing.
Rubin not only is one of the great minds on network security, but he also happens to be a talented writer. In his personal blog, he’s written about everything from testifying before Congress (the story of which is in his most recent blog entry) to trying to find an underground poker game a few years ago while on assignment in Tel Aviv, Israel. Plus a lot of other fun stuff.
In between his time spent protecting our national security, saving health care laws, testifying in Congress, and appearing on 60 Minutes, I’m really looking forward to seeing Rubin more at the poker tables. We’re lucky to have him among the growing community of supremely-talented academics who have gravitated to the game in recent years, including people like Nate Silver, another “amateur poker player” who has done a thing or two in his spare time.
One can only speculate as to how the immense talents of people like Rubin, Silver, et. al. would go over in poker had they spent more time in the game, crafting their skills. The obvious answer is — they’d be among the very best players in the world. Although it’s purely speculation, I’m not sure anyone could argue against that. Fortunately, for all of us, they allocate far more of their time and energies to other pursuits, leaving poker players more to feast on, while doing their part to make a better and safer world.
That’s what’s called a win-win for everyone.
Here’s a 16-minute video of Dr. Avi Rubin speaking at the TED Conference:
READ: Another Avi Rubin story