Friday, August 19, 2011

On the Global Poker Index (and Other Ways of Keeping Score)

On the Global Poker Index (and Other Ways of Keeping Score)In Big Deal: A Year as a Professional Poker Player (1990), Anthony Holden memorably noted how “poker may be a branch of psychological warfare, an art form or indeed a way of life -- but it is also merely a game, in which money is simply the means of keeping score.” Kind of a curious statement, really, at once assigning a high level of seriousness to poker while pointing out that it is also just an amusing diversion, a way to pass the time, a game.

Of course, it’s the latter part of the quote -- about the money -- that helps bridge the gap. Sure, poker is just a game. But it’s a game played for money. And the introduction of money explains how something that is “merely” play can also be “a way of life.”

Most would agree that money is indeed a “means of keeping score” in poker. During a given session, only those with more money than what they started with are called “winners,” and those with less are the “losers.” Simple, really.

However, when it comes to tracking winners and losers over periods lasting longer than a single session, it becomes difficult to use money as “the” means of keeping score. Since everyone’s results are only imperfectly known (at best) to others, there’s no way, really, to know who is winning the most or losing the most or to produce any other objective measurement by which to compare players.

Even if we’re restricting ourselves, say, to tournament poker and a comprehensive database like Hendon Mob, that, too, is obviously an imperfect way to keep score. Only winnings are listed there, not buy-ins, so there’s no way to know how much a given player laid out in order to accumulate whatever winnings he or she has listed as part of her entry. Thus do lists like the “All-Time Money List” on Hendon Mob more often start debates rather than settle them (as discussed here back in January).

Global Poker IndexAll of which brings up other means of keeping score, such as the interesting new “Global Poker Index” one finds over on the Epic Poker site. Based on a complicated formula (explained in full here), the GPI purports to rank the top 300 live tourney players in the world over the most recent 36-month period.

Using the Hendon Mob’s results as a resource, the GPI sorts through all players’ results over the last three years, picking out the top three finishes (in qualifying events) from each of the six distinct six-month periods (i.e., at most only 18 results are considered). Each of those results is weighed according to various factors, including buy-in, number of entrants, place finished, and recency or the “aging factor” (i.e., more recent results are given more weight than ones from the first part of the 36-month period). I’m summarizing here -- again, check the full explanation if you’re curious -- but basically what results is a fairly detailed bit of number-crunching of live tourney results to produce a necessarily provocative list of players.

Incidentally, while the GPI is provided by Federated Sports+Gaming and is highlighted on the Epic Poker site, qualification for the Epic Poker League is not connected to the GPI rankings. That is to say, a high GPI ranking is not part of the qualifying criteria for the EPL, although I believe the rankings will be used for seeding purposes for that heads-up tournament the EPL has planned for its third Season One event (in December).

This week's top 10 tourney players according to the GPI are as follows:

1. Jason Mercier
2. Erik Seidel
3. Bertrand Grospellier
4. Eugene Katchalov
5. Fabrice Soulier
6. Samuel Stein
7. Sorel Mizzi
8. Thomas Marchese
9. David "Bakes" Baker
10. John Juanda

While following different criteria -- and only looking at 2011 -- the BLUFF Magazine power rankings also currently have Jason Mercier sitting in the top spot. And in ESPN Poker’s latest installment of “The Nuts,” that monthly poll of 10 poker scribes who vote on poker’s best, Mercier was likewise named the #1 player as of late July. Meanwhile, Card Player’s latest list rates Mercier as fifth in its POY system, with Sam Stein currently out in front.

As someone who enjoys such number-crunching perhaps a little more than your average geek, I find all of these lists intriguing, particularly the new Global Poker Index and the way its formula might be applied to earlier eras. (For instance, see this recent column by Michael Craig discussing how Phil Hellmuth’s GPI ranking has gone up and down and back up again from 1989 to today.) Kind of makes me think of Bill James’ Baseball Abstract and “sabermetrics” and all of the fun stuff he’s done with baseball’s numerous numbers. (Talked some about James some time ago in a post titled -- fittingly -- “Keeping Score.”)

Hard not to be a tad skeptical about any means of keeping score in poker that isn’t unambiguously tied to players’ bottom lines. But as already noted, players’ bottom lines aren’t generally available for the public to peruse. And so such lists do provide us with an amusing diversion, a way to pass the time, a (different sort of) game.

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